Tech has a well-known, oft-mentioned problem: the barrier to entry is an enormous, looming, and often confusing challenge. This problem has only expanded in our current economic climate. The internet is riddled with how-to courses from self-appointed LinkedIn influencers— promising to show you all the tips and tricks for only $250, with titles like “How to break into tech: a guide for career changers”*. Twitter (or are we calling it X now?) is full of opinions on what job seekers “should” be doing, with a particular focus on entry-level, career-changing engineers.
*I made this title up
If someone read all of these opinions, they would likely be overwhelmed. These so-called experts can serve as gatekeepers into the industry. If someone hasn’t entered tech the traditional way (as a CS graduate, for example), these gatekeepers want to make it seem like you might as well not even bother. Their suggestions on “the only way” of getting a job as an entry-level engineer are laughable, such as ensuring you fill out your GitHub activity squares daily.
Changing careers is difficult no matter which field you’re moving to. Tech can be a challenging transition due to this barrier to entry and the learning curve on how to code, the lingo, and understanding all that writing software entails.
Do not despair, dear career-changing reader. Here’s why changing careers into tech can be used as a superpower, and here are some ways to harness that power in your newly-found career.
Surprise! Not only am I a recruiter, but I switched careers into recruitment from my prior career as a front-end developer (you can read more on that here). This was my second career change, and while I don’t consider myself an expert, I’m certainly no novice. It’s also something I’m very passionate about. Career changes are fascinating to me. And my interest and passion for assisting career changers in tech led to my career change into recruitment.
I have experienced firsthand the rejection and imposter syndrome that comes with being a career transitioner into software engineering specifically. In one of my first interviews, fresh out of my coding bootcamp, I was rejected flatly with a, “We don’t hire folks who don’t have CS degrees.” To my knowledge, this company continues to hold that rule. Having this stigma against you doesn’t feel good, no matter how you’re entering into software engineering. There’s room for us all — traditional CS grads, bootcampers, and self-taught engineers.
In my conversations with engineers, especially entry-level folks, the question, “Why would a company hire a career changer?” still remains. While I’m certainly not trying to compare folks who took a more traditional path to software engineering with career changers, some common qualities of career changers stand out.
You have to be tenacious to learn something new in life, especially when it’s your entire career on the line. Career changers are often tenacious individuals.
Deciding to change careers takes a lot of self-reflection and shifting. Folks often switch to better align their career with what they’re genuinely passionate about and interested in.
I’m in the “anyone can learn how to code” camp — I genuinely believe code is for everyone and anyone who wants to learn. The magic of it all is that everyone writes code and solves problems in their own way. A lot of these problems are code and software-related, but many are also business or people problems. Having folks with diverse backgrounds helps foster creativity and innovation. Creating a team with people from different backgrounds will help solve diverse problems, not just code problems — and make your team better along the way. The experiences and lessons people bring from their previous careers into engineering are invaluable. Limiting a team’s access to these individuals by only hiring CS grads is a missed opportunity.
Okay, you’re getting ready to hit the job market in your brand new career — exciting stuff! Here are some things to consider for the best results:
Job descriptions describe the ideal candidate, which is oftentimes nonexistent. Instead of putting a horn on your head and pretending to be a unicorn, embrace being a human — use the cool human skills you already have and amplify those.
Here’s an exercise: Take a 5-minute brainstorming session and write out all the skills you’ve learned over the years. Don’t think too hard about them; just write out what you’re good at. Add these to the technical skills you’ve gained. Read the list and find all the good stuff that translates into your new career. Have you managed people, projects, and timelines before? Perfect! Are you an excellent communicator? Also great! Writing software encompasses many other skills.
Be sure to identify the special skills you have. Those would be the skills that you have experience with, are translatable, and enjoy utilizing.
There are examples of these skills in almost every profession:
- Service industry - communication, negotiation, attention to detail, works well under pressure
- Teaching - critical thinking, emotional intelligence, time management, project management
- Designer - attention to detail, adapting to new technology, project management, communication
You get the idea! If you get stuck on your particular role, you can use an internet search to look up the individual skills. This can be a great way to unstick yourself from “I don’t have any skills from my prior career” to “Look at all these skills I bring to the table!”
Figure out the convergence of your values, companies, and the type of work that would make sense for you
Along with identifying your specific skills and matching them to potential niches in your newly found career, you might want to consider the types of roles you feel aligned with personally. This is an important item to consider, especially in a tough market. There can be a lot of pressure to take a new job no matter what, especially if you are not actively working at the moment.
Finding a job aligned with your values AND skills will set you up for success. Similarly to the skills writing exercise, you can do the same for what you consider important in the next phase of your career. Several factors likely led you to your career change, so those might come up in this exercise as well.
Take a few moments to consider what’s important to you in your next role. Some factors may include opportunity for growth, mentorship and support, variety and challenge of the work itself, and salary. I can’t tell you which of these is most important, it’s all up to you! Be honest and vulnerable with yourself — there’s no shame in wanting and needing support in your role, for example.
After identifying these important factors, you can do a keyword search to help narrow down employers with overlapping values. You can also ask about these values in your interview. Remember: interviewing is as much about you interviewing the company as it is about the company interviewing you! Ensuring you’re aligned with your new role as much as possible will set you up for a successful new career.
After identifying your skills and what’s important to you, it’s time to write a pitch! Yes, like an elevator pitch. There are a few different reasons why I recommend you write a pitch about yourself:
- You’re going to be asked “tell me about yourself” many times in interviews, and it’s good to start with having a good, solid, cohesive pitch that encapsulates all of your positive qualities.
- You might find this handy while networking as well.
- This can help you keep things consistent — consider this pitch part of your brand. Your pitch can be expanded upon or shortened, depending on the context. It can be put into written form for your resume or your summary on LinkedIn, even on your GitHub profile.
When writing your pitch, consider including the following:
- Your pre-existing/soft skills from prior experience
- Your technical skills — languages, tools, technologies you’ve worked with
- What you’ve been working on
- What inspires you
- What you’re interested in
- What values are important to you
Utilizing your network is an underrated yet highly effective tool for any job search. Fortunately, in tech, there’s seemingly no shortage of ways to tap into different communities and grow your network. There are a ton of local meetups in most areas of North America and throughout the world. There are online groups on LinkedIn, Discord, other social media networks, and conferences. Some are more vague — general tech meetups — and others are more specific, such as Ruby on Rails Slack channels. Many have resources for entry-level folks and career changers.
Contributing to open-source software can also be a great way to connect to other devs and communities and keep your skills sharp while you job hunt.
Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Many communities are very accepting of new people and want to help out. Even if it’s cold messaging folks on LinkedIn that you heard on a podcast, commenting on Twitter and Mastodon, or posting about your experiences in tech so far, the community is vast and eager to support newcomers!
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