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Career Spotlight: Instructional Designer

"Why do you do what you do?" is a question I have often asked over my recruiting and coaching career, to allow me to better understand the person more from a big picture perspective. One can never assume why someone likes it or how they got to that point in their career, and because of that, I love sharing stories of people in my network that inspire and show folks that there are many ways to reach the same goal - not all of them how you might assume! For my blog in 2021, I'm focusing on highlighting a variety of professions to share with folks out there who are either still figuring out their next step, or know what they're interested in, but could use a little external motivation!

Holly Justice, my first subject for 2021, is a longtime Instructional Designer who's been kind enough to showcase not only what her work encompasses, but also how she got there and some great tips for job seekers. Here's what Holly had to share about her professional journey...

So, what does an Instructional Designer actually do?

Basically, an Instructional Designer (ID) creates training materials! We focus on both asynchronous learning (i.e., self-paced e-learning, videos, quick reference guides, quizzes, games, labs, simulations, etc.) and synchronous learning, with online or in-person delivery, often working with a team of trainers to deliver the content.

IDs often specialize in their path to create content for either children or adults (my work focuses on adults). Job titles for us can differ, including Training Specialist, Content Developer or Technical Writer. Sometimes IDs have help from graphic designers, webinar trainers, technical writers, or training managers. Other times we do the whole thing ourselves!

At my large company, I work with Agile development teams, writers, and webinar trainers. My job often ties together marketing materials, communications, documentation, and departmental processes into an implementation package for clients who are buying our products and services. 

What do you enjoy most about being an Instructional Designer?

The work is fun, interesting and rewarding! My personal interests for many years are in my current work. I analyze new tools, work with a large variety of teams, play with music, create graphics for learners, write stories, record my voice and edit sound, and create effective e-learning and webinars that help hundreds of people learn skills to do their jobs. 

Describe your career path to get here - did you have a longtime interest in instructional design, or what inspired you?

I have always enjoyed connecting other people to knowledge. So, I fell in love with the idea of learning software and helping others learn it the first time I took a class in it. I kept thinking “what a neat job!” However, the career seemed out of reach at the time, so I didn’t do anything about it until years later. I took risks along the way, and at times had to work for long periods voluntarily to prove my skills.

How did you gain the skills (technical &/or soft) to do the work? What (or who, or both) helped you advance?

After a skilled software trainer came to my workplace to teach a class, I approached her with my interest and asked if she would be willing to chat over lunch so I could learn more. She obliged, and during that meeting, I learned a great deal about how to begin creating and delivering content. Shortly afterwards, a coworker in IT approached me one day with a big technology change, asking if I could I help the division. This was my chance! I started helping with software support, content creation, and delivering training, and one thing led to another. I volunteered at work as a “systems helper” doing support, technical writing, instructional design, and training tasks. Over several years, I applied for full time positions in ID, and finally landed one thanks to encouragement from my co-workers.

From that point on, I took bigger leaps, doing training and content creation full-time, becoming a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer , developing blended learning and working for a start-up to create their classroom, eLearning, and webinar training. Later, I found myself unemployed and found that the time between jobs can be a blessing, in that it allows us to reflect on our path and change direction. I made the decision to reskill and create better self-paced learning, contracting for a number of companies and thereby learning new tools. During this time I also:

* Reached out across the US to observe and learn from the best.

* Hosted local Meetups for ID's where people could meet and discuss techniques.

* Created a blog, portfolio samples, and projects to benefit others.

All of that extra work ultimately paid off, which led me to the job doing what I love best: creating short, effective eLearning.

What advice would you offer to someone wanting to get into this line of work?

* Be Flexible. Many come into this in a competitive manner with a lot of ego. These folks find it a struggle, because one is always compromising, bending to the immediate needs of learners, working with tight time constraints, and collaborating with others to incorporate all of the leaders’ ideas. As Instructional Designers, we do not “own” the final output in our work. It is all about the learners. Working as a team to create content is more important than stamping something with your own personal signature. Also, don’t worry if your job title isn’t “instructional designer”. So long as you are doing the work, it counts.

* Don’t rest on your laurels. As Stephen Covey says “sharpen your saw”. You might know the coolest tool today, or produced something amazing in college or your current work...but technology and times change fast. Be prepared to study and produce your portfolio the entire time you are in this line of work! For example, today I’m exploring MadCap Flare to one-source training and documentation content plus learning more advanced techniques in Adobe Audition for voice recording.

* Pay it forward. The first time I heard that phrase, I was unemployed, looking for my path, and seeking new connections. A kind career coach took me to lunch in to discuss my career ideas, paying for my meal. I was so grateful – what can I do? She simply said “pay it forward”. I’ve been doing that ever since. I’ve gained more insights by giving my time to others and listening than I would have ever gained on my own. Give locally, nationally, and internationally to your peers. When I am unemployed and job hunting, I look for opportunities to build a portfolio project that benefits a small business or nonprofit. Like the wings of a butterfly rippling through the cosmos, our actions ripple back in beautiful, unexpected ways.

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