Three Ways To “Change Majors” After College

When I sat down with Tom Censani—director of product design at Eventbrite, the events ticketing platform he joined nearly six years ago—for the inaugural episode of my new creative careers podcast, Making Ways, we talked all about his challenge to find an academic lane in college and his transition from a developer trajectory to diving into all things design. The conversation spanned Tom’s career, and he shared so many insights that I thought I would collect some highlights for you here. I encourage you to take a listen. I hope you’ll find Tom’s story of exploring a real-world career path that veered away from his college studies inspiring. Perhaps it may even serve as a blueprint as you build the path to your creative dream job.

So without further ado, here are three ways to “change majors” once you land in the real world.

Follow your passion, with a career in mind.

Figuring out what you want to do with the rest of your life at age 16 or 17 is crazy hard, so when you are deciding on a school or a major, focus on selecting an area of study that is in the ballpark of your interests. And remember that even in the process of investigating a possible career path in college and later eliminating it, you are stepping closer to the right path. So keep clearing the brush until your trail comes into sight. Tom’s starting point was his love of video games. He explained,

I’ve always been a video game nerd, ever since I was a tiny kid. One of my fondest memories is of my NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) that my parents bought me when I was four or five and playing with Rob the Robot. There was this NES cartridge that you could put in, and it had this little cable that allowed you to program this robot to move discs around. And so growing up, I wanted to make video games. I didn’t really know what that meant, but I knew I wanted to do it.

Tom “did a little bit of research in high school and found that becoming a computer scientist was one of the paths to be a programmer and a developer.” This led him to apply to (and attend) Manhattan College, one of the top schools for computer science.

Listen to your gut, and teachers who yell at you.

There’s a thin line between never taking no for an answer, and just accepting your strengths and weaknesses. When in doubt, keep going, keep pushing, and do what you love. But when you are having a really difficult time tackling the task at hand, are no longer enjoying it, and are perhaps hearing voices around you encouraging you to try something a little different, do yourself a favor and listen.

Tom shared a story about the moment he realized he might not be cut out for the technical aspects of computer science.

I think it was freshman year [of college], my first semester. . . .My Computer Science 101 teacher at Manhattan College. . .was a very wonderful, understanding teacher in terms of explaining how programming worked. . . .I remember going to her once and maybe she was having a frustrating day, or I was being frustrating, but I was trying to understand how Z indexes work and arrays, and she just turned to me, completely flustered, and was like, “It’s not that fucking hard.” And I just looked at her, and she caught herself and apologized, but I left and thought “maybe I am just not excellent at this.”

Later Tom began to put the pieces together and started to work on the parts of development that were actually calling out to him the most: UI design and web design.

So never take no for an answer, but when push comes to shove, if your gut and the world around you is desperately trying to shout you into going a different, albeit right(er) direction, it’s most likely time to start spreading your wings.

Experience first, what’s printed on your diploma last.

Sure, your first job may be contingent on what you studied in school— but that has more to do with experience than knowledge of specific subject matter. If you think you might be getting off track, away from the right career, set out to create your own curriculum in the real world. I speak from experience—when I was studying illustration and design at Syracuse University, I got a “real world” minor in marketing and worked for Sony Music and interned for magazines, concert promoters, record labels, and TV networks, creating a path that spanned both the creative and marketing professions (that I continue to walk today).

Tom sought opportunities in his postgraduate life that would get him experience and network connections to swiftly shift his vocation from coder to designer—ultimately getting him on the road to the design director position he so enjoys today. Tom said,

Around junior or senior year. . .I started to intern at a Flash design agency. And that was when I got to apply my design skills and learn the HTML and Flash development side of things. It was my first foray into web design.

Tom then spent years designing ad and media campaign creative at the Food Network, experience that gave him the platform and portfolio to catch the attention of Eventbrite.

My role [at Food Network] was visual type designer, more of a visual UI person initially. I started off making ad banners, eventually began doing more of the page designs, and then was put in charge of their much larger microsites. Then a couple of years into the iPhone and iPad [era], we decided that we needed to create a mobile app, and my boss at the time gave me the project. It was my first foray into mobile design. Later when I interviewed at Eventbrite, they mentioned how they wanted to expand their mobile applications and how my work at Food Network and the recent project caught their attention.

The rest of Tom’s story is the history of a career in progress, one that is tracking toward creative fulfillment, learning, and growth. That’s the hat trick of a successful creative career. For more, listen out the full interview with Tom on our episode page.

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