Demystifying Digital Development Careers: A Panel Discussion for Early Career Professionals

Samim Ahzar

Global development and technology have become increasingly intertwined in recent times, forming the field of digital development, a dynamic sector that is rapidly evolving due to constant technological innovations. For young professionals aspiring to build a career in this field, it offers both excitement and challenges. Mastering its principles, selecting the right career path, staying updated on developments, and seeking mentorship opportunities are essential.

In the panel discussion, "Demystifying Digital Development Careers: A Panel Discussion for Early Career Professionals," jointly hosted by Digital Development Workgroup and the Young Professionals in Development Network on September 12, 2023, and moderated by Nick Martin, Founder and CEO of TechChange, we welcomed four accomplished digital development professionals. Here are their key insights:

Beginning of the Journey and its Pitfalls

For the panelists, their foray into the realm of digital development was an unforeseen adventure. Their passion was kindled by transformative encounters in their jobs and with technology. Dela Darji, Digital Health Specialist with JSI, recalled her time as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English to kindergarten children in the Dominican Republic. Capturing moments with her mobile phone and witnessing the sheer delight on the children's faces when they revisited those images marked a pivotal juncture that steered her towards a career in digital development.

Moderator Nick Martin asked the panelists about their experience with pitfalls and moments in their digital development career journeys. Leo Senai, Digital Development Consultant, highlighted the importance of proactivity and the potential drawbacks of waiting for opportunities to come to you. His advice was clear; don’t wait around, instead take initiative, and seek out opportunities actively.

Darji emphasized that one shouldn’t waste time searching for the perfect job, while Gratiana Fu, Data Scientist, expressed her experience of stressing about the unknown and the pressure of having long-term career goals. Fu acknowledged that digital development is a rapidly changing field, making it challenging to predict where one will be in five or ten years. The consensus among the panelists was that it's okay not to have a rigid career plan and that adaptability and flexibility are valuable qualities in this sector.

Building Skills and Knowledge in Digital Development

One of the core topics discussed was the development of skills and knowledge in digital development, a sector known for its technical specialization. The panelists explored various avenues for building the necessary skills and discussed the perennial question of whether pursuing a graduate degree is worth the investment.

Senai, who transitioned from a non-technical role to a technical one, shared his experience of going back to graduate school to study computer science. He emphasized that the decision to pursue a graduate degree depends on one's career goals and the specific role they aspire to in the digital development sector.

On the other hand, Fu highlighted the cost-effective nature of online courses for gaining practical skills in digital development. In today's digital age, various online platforms offer tailored resources, making it accessible to many. Andrew Merluzzi, Emerging Technology Advisor, agreed but stressed the importance of considering graduate degrees due to employer requirements. He also suggested using graduate school as a networking opportunity.

The discussion underscored the importance of identifying one's career goals and evaluating the best path to achieve them, whether through formal education, online resources, or a combination of both.

Career Pathways and Mentorship

The conversation then shifted towards career pathways within digital development and the role of mentorship in professional growth. The panelists discussed their diverse journeys into the field, emphasizing the importance of seizing opportunities and being open to unexpected paths.

Merluzzi highlighted the opportunities available through programs like the Presidential Management Fellowship and fellowships like AAAS, which provide entry points into digital development roles within organizations like USAID.

All the panelists emphasized the value of mentorship. Fu stressed that mentorship relationships often develop organically through working with experts in the field. She encouraged individuals to seek mentors who are experts in their areas of interest and to offer valuable connections in return for mentorship.

Staying Informed in the Tech Sector

In a rapidly evolving field like digital development, staying informed is crucial. The panelists provided valuable recommendations for credible sources of information. For instance, platforms like Rest of World for insights into technology's impact in developing countries, Import AI for technical insights into machine learning, and Devex for industry-related content. Of course, textbooks and specific journals that can provide in-depth technical knowledge tailored to one's interests were also recommended.

The panel discussion offered valuable insights into the world of digital development. As technology continues to shape our world, professionals in this field must remain adaptable, open to unexpected opportunities, and committed to a lifelong learning journey. Whether you choose to pursue formal education, leverage online resources, or seek mentorship, the key is to align your career goals with your chosen path and always prioritize making a positive impact on the people you serve.

The panelists left the audience with a powerful message: Digital development is not just about technology; it's about using technology to make a meaningful difference in the world. In this ever-evolving sector, professionals are united in their mission to create a better future through responsible and ethical tech practices.


About the Author

Samim Ahzar is the Digital Development Workgroup Associate. A dynamic project/program manager and Fulbright Scholar, Samim brings 7+ years of leadership across diverse sectors in Afghanistan and the US. Fluent in multiple languages, Samim bridges cultures effortlessly. From empowering Afghan girls through workshops to pioneering inclusive projects, Samim's commitment to international development is underscored by a Master's degree in International Development & Social Change from Clark University and a Bachelor's in Law and Political Science from the University of Kabul.