#TechTable: Taking the Leap: Career Switching

#TechTable returned on 21st April with a group of wonderful speakers to talk about our non-linear pathways into tech and answer all your questions on switching careers. I found the discussion incredibly fun and informative and received loads of grateful messages from listeners who all told me they’d learned something from our chat – so before I dig in to my main takeaways – big thank you to Ro, Laura, Brenda, Anna, and Annie.

Our chat got deep, it was real, and I am so grateful.

Where did we come from?

I thought it would be useful to preface this post by reminding you that people come into tech from various backgrounds. As many of you know, I moved into tech after a great career in policy consulting (more on that here), I’m self-taught and applied for all kinds of companies when making the transition.

My guests – living in the UK, Germany, Belgium and Canada – equally came from diverse career backgrounds. Some of them working in retail and hospitality to make ends meet as they pursued open learning online, bootcamps and trying to make code their full-time job, others took a big leap from the world of classical opera and social care, with some of them making this decision amid maternity leave and raising young children (superstars!).

Why did you choose to make the leap into tech, what was the ✨spark✨ moment?

Again, many varied answers but I’ll summarise:

  • Burnout, poor mental health and apathy. Working in a job I knew I was good at but not loving everyday, and struggling to keep up mentally. After a short holiday, I came back with a renewed sense of inspiration – realising the women in tech I admired, listened to in podcasts and on YouTube in my spare time, could be me. I had to give it a go. I had to chase that feeling. Some of my speakers shared that experience, their “dark times” leading up to (and during) our career change. I was humbled to hear so many people be so open about how oftentimes it’s in the challenging moments that we find our “calling”
  • Financial security. A deeply honest answer many of us in the space identified with (speakers and listeners alike). Annie shared how she pursued tech for several of the above, but also to find a career path in which she could “relax” financially. After working three jobs, not knowing whether they’d be able to make all next month’s bills, moving into tech gave her a sense of security. By and large, tech is an extremely well-paid industry – even at the junior level. We all shared how being money motivated is OK, and how financial stability and providing for ourselves and our families were underlying reasons for our job decisions
  • The way coding made us feel. We all know that buzz – when you solve a problem you’ve been stuck on all day, week, month, create something new, something useful, something fun. It was described as an “addiction”, “chasing that high” – and maybe it is – but I also felt a strong sense of pride. For many of us who’ve experience low confidence, been put down, ignored, we were suddenly able to express ourselves in new ways and celebrated for it – no matter how big or small the challenge. And that’s a pretty great feeling
  • Finally, many of us were inspired by women in tech communities online. Twitter. Discord. Bootcamp groups. If they can do it, so can I! It was women who shared stories like Ro, Laura, Brenda, Anna and Annie that made me feel tech was the place for me, and we all had our own stories of amazing women who helped keep the fire alive when we were switching

What skills do you bring from your previous roles that help you in your current one?

Over the last year, many people have come to me to ask how to show transferrable skills from their previous job into their new ones. It’s the first thing you have to think of when editing your CV or writing that covering letter. When switching careers, this can seem even more daunting – but I’d like to remind fellow career switchers out there that your determination, drive and on-the-job skills are undoubtedly an asset to any new job you apply for and will only help you – if you market yourself right.

  • Management in restaurant industry gave Ro skills in reading the room, communication, in looking after her own and others’ mental health, and the ability to recognise if you need help and where you need help
  • Annie shared how her previous design career gave her creativity – doodling, getting active, being able to use tech to explain design placement has directly helped in her CSS art
  • She also shared how her experience as an english teacher gave her the ability to explain ideas and tasks clearly, but – more importantly – active listening. Even if you know you’re not the smartest person in the room, the most experienced, listen.
  • Anna shared how opera prepared her for programming (see her video on this here) with discipline and consistency in practice. She declared she’s not “naturally consistent”, not a naturally structured person, but her previous career allowed her to develop these skills
  • And, I shared about my skills in communication and public speaking. In my previous role I spoke to key client stakeholders everyday, delivered presentations on various technical topics, policy recommendations and briefings to clients at all seniority and technical levels. It’s helped me be a better engineer as I am deeply driven to understand client problems, investigate the best solution, do my research and confidently present and communicate this back to them and my team

There are undoubtedly many more skills we have that we weren’t able to share in the time – but I hope these help you in thinking how best to present yourself at your next job interview!

How do you know if the (tech) job you’ve applied for is right for you?

  • Again, we spoke about finances. One listener asked about whether it would “look bad” to leave an unpaid internship for another job that paid them. The answer might seem obvious – YES – but online I’ve seen many discussions around when the “right time” to switch jobs is in tech, and if the money isn’t right for you – or they’re not paying you at all! – and you get a better offer, move
  • Move if you’re not happy. Laura shared openly about her choice to leave DevRel after a few months, despite landing her first – supposed – dream tech job. There were many reasons (which she’ll be sharing on her site in due course), but one key reason for her was the lack of code. When looking for jobs, it’s important to understand what the “day job” entails. If it’s not for you, you know you won’t enjoy it long-term, don’t do it (or move if you’re in it)
  • Reach out to people in the jobs you’re interested in. When making my decision last year, I reached out to near thirty people on LinkedIn and many more on Twitter: from start up founders, Tech Leads at big tech companies, UX researchers, Solution Architects, Business Development specialists, developers from all fields. I asked them three main questions:
    • What does your day-to-day job look like?
    • (If in a senior/technically experienced position) How do I get to where you are in 1-5 years?
    • What do you dislike about your job and why?
  • These questions allowed me to understand what each of the jobs were and how they might fit for my personality. It also helped manage my expectations. It’s hard to become a cloud engineer without experience working in the cloud. If you want to design websites or apps – showcase your portfolio, build your Github etc.

How do you get over the fear that you’re not “good enough” for the jobs you’re looking at (or even working in)?

All of us on the panel shared our fears as to whether we’d be successful. Some of us months into our current jobs and feel this everyday. Others in the audience shared how they still felt the same years into their career. The key was to remind yourself:

  • Focus on the parts of your job, your work that makes you feel happy everyday and put your energy here
  • Remember that “everyone in tech is clueless”. You can never learn everything, so if you’re new you obviously won’t know everything. Switch your mindset to “this is a learning opportunity” and listen from others who know more than you, don’t fear them or get into the danger of comparison
  • Tech is constantly changing, the industry and products move at a fast pace, and this will only continue to make you feel like you’re behind. This time next year what you’re working on will look different and that’s part of the beauty of it – innovation drives us
  • Confide in communities. As I shared in Stefan Natter’s space when we spoke on Overwhelm, we often feel this fear when we feel alone. Like we’re the only ones struggling. The only ones who “can’t figure it out”. But you’re not. Any time I’ve struggled and asked a colleague, friend, community member for help 9/10 they respond with a statement about challenging it was for them first time around or how they’re still struggling themselves! You’re never in it alone – whether it’s a tech problem or a personal one – reach out and confide in us

Being an ally to women in tech

Finally, as we were a panel of women (and we know women are more often than not those making career switches into tech from “unconventional” – i.e. non-CS degree – backgrounds), we were asked two questions on how to be better allies to women career-switchers and what do to as a hiring manager/founder if you “feel you get along better with men” or you find that “women also tend to be more junior” or “women tend not to run start-ups/businesses/teams” but know you need to make your company (and collaborations) more diverse.

These were tough questions, but I’m glad they were asked. I work hard to make my space safe and non-judgemental and I don’t believe in shutting down opportunities for growth and learning. So I, and my fellow speakers, answered from the heart.

  • Firstly, for all those working in tech – and across sectors – it is not “on” the women (or minorities) you hire to change the culture of your firm. If you are hiring people to do the work for you you’re doing it wrong
  • The work needs to begin inwards. Ask yourself why you think you “get along better with men”, why you think of a White middle-aged man when you think of an expert in programming, why you’re disregarding the educational and professional backgrounds of those who don’t follow linear career paths, and challenge these perceptions everyday.
  • I challenge myself often. I catch myself wondering if I was biased in the decision I just made, that passing thought, why I imagined the type of individual I did. Importantly, I challenge myself – as a white cis woman – to think what learning I need to do myself before bringing my ideas, thoughts and “allyship” to the table. Regardless of gender, you should be doing this work all the time if you truly want to be inclusive and support change
  • If you’re comfortable with working in an all-men or all-White environment: you’re the problem. OK, so you might not actively say anything disparaging against women, against minorities. Sure, you might “have women/Black/Asian friends” (classic). But are you sitting in a team, comfortable with the status-quo, just going through the motions? If so, you’re a huge part of the reason why change doesn’t happen. We’ve heard it many times over the last few decades, but particularly this year in relation to the “Not-So-Silent-(White)-Majority”. White supremacy, patriarchy lives on the backs of those of us who are comfortable (and benefit) from things the way they are
  • Remember that a lot of women in our community have been pushed out of workplaces socially or – worse – from harassment. We have to make our spaces safe for women, not just to switch into tech but to stay in tech. It’s tiring to constantly fight these battles – both within ourselves and perhaps actively with colleagues or peers. As an ally you can support women by lifting women up, by speaking up when you see something not right, by sharing your words of encouragement, of confidence, by giving us the good projects because you see our potential rather than handing it to the same five men who always run things… support us as your equals, as you would like to be supported – believed – yourself
  • If you’re a hiring manager think about those transferrable skills we mentioned. Be clear in job postings what you need and what can be learned (or desirable). Remove the years of experience in place of technical ability, unless you’re going to take into account all kinds of professional experience. Remember that if you’re hiring someone who has experience in another field – they’re not starting at zero. Tech isn’t the only industry with clients, with customers, with agile project management methodologies, with investments, tight deadlines, budget management, team learning and support. The list is literally endless
  • To be an ally in the community is be conscious in your decisions, in your beliefs, who you lift up, who you listen to and who you don’t

Thank you to everyone who took part in #TechTable. The next session is on Wednesday 28th April at 6pm (BST) and we’re talking  ☁️ Head in the Cloud ☁️ – all things cloud computing.

Make sure to ⬇️ follow ⬇️ so you don’t miss out!

For more of my TechTable summaries, head to the category on this site and please get in touch on socials or 📧 contact@rkulidzan.com with your questions and ideas for future topics and speakers.

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