Dear Dr. Civitelli:
Can you advise me about how to make a career change into tech? I think I would working in something related to technology but I don’t have any professional experience or education that is very relevant, and I don’t have the money or time to go back to school full-time. I hate my current job so I would also like to make a career change sooner rather than later. I have always been attracted to technology and it is the only industry that sustains my interest. If I want to make a living doing something in tech, how do I make a career change without going broke or taking 10 years to land a job?
Dear Future Techie,
To answer your question, I interviewed tech industry professionals and asked them:
– What are the best ways to develop tech skills if someone doesn’t want to pursue a traditional college degree?
– What positions are easiest to land?
– What are the best ways to meet people in tech?
– What technologies are in demand?
Their answers are below.
“One week ago today I accepted an offer for the role of Web Developer on the Microsoft Azure (ACOM) team starting August 20, 2018.
A year and a half ago, February 2017, I got let go from my job as a waitress in Seattle.
I decided I didn’t want to be a waitress anymore.
This past March two of my classmates and VERY close friends from Code Fellows started their own business, a dev shop working on software development contracts, and they offered me a position with them.
In April, I interviewed for a Web Developer position for ACOM but never heard back, despite countless attempts to check in, so I let it go. I’ve been working full-time for my friends’ dev shop startup learning new things every day and loving my job.
Two weeks ago the PM at Microsoft that I interviewed with reached out to me on LinkedIn and asked if I was still interested in a position with them. Although I’m incredibly happy in my current position, I’m always open to new opportunities so I said yes.
Last Friday they sent me an offer letter. This Monday we negotiated and I signed a contract (for triple what I made waitressing living paycheck to paycheck), full benefits, and unlimited PTO.
My life will never be the same. My career is one I love and am passionate about. Every single day is a struggle; filled with new challenges and obstacles to overcome, and so rewarding. I have never been happier in my life.
I’ll be 29 this September and I graduated in 2012 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Arabic Studies.
It is NEVER too late to change your life, to start a new career, to do something meaningful that you love. I am living proof of that.”
– Izzy Baer, Web Developer, Microsoft Azure
“There are some core competencies one should possess when pursuing a career in Information Technology. One doesn’t need to be a master of any of these. However, a basic understanding may make an interview easier.
Learn HTML – Have a basic understanding of how to write web pages. With data science being the current buzz, understanding HTML will give a candidate access to some of the most plentiful sources of information: static web pages. Knowing how HTML works will allow that person to extract that data from these pages and fuel a data science project.
Install Linux and understand how it works – Many distributions are free and this is a way to not only understand an operating system, but to learn a scripting language. A scripting language is used to write the procedures and steps an operating system will follow. These scripts can do anything. For instance, they can access the web hitting every page within a website. The script could then pull specific pieces of data from the HTML on those pages. This skill essentially creates a source of information for a data science initiative.
Learn a computer language – PHP is the easiest for a novice to learn as it runs easily on the Linux Server you just built. Java is also an option. For those serious about computer programming I recommend C++. I consider it the Latin of modern programming languages. There are plenty of resources online to learn these languages.
Get a basic understanding of databases – All the information is readily available online to build a MySQL database on your newly built Linux server. You can even use PHP to access the database and move data around. One could also use shell scripts to do operations on the database.
Read an eBook on network security fundamentals – Again, you don’t need to master this unless you want to go into cyber security. However, every IT professional should have a basic understanding of network security.
Having knowledge of the skills listed above should get your foot in the door in many places. I recommend doing the following to build your resume while job seeking:
Join an Open Source project – Search the web for an open source project that uses the new skills you have learned. This will allow you to understand how these technologies are utilized in a real development project. Anything you create or do for the project is great resume material.
Build a website – Build it on Linux using Apache Tomcat as an application server. You can also run a MySQL database, and use PHP to code an application on the website. Make it look professional, or have a useful application running on it. If it looks great and works well, then this is something else for your resume.
Volunteer for a non-profit – Donate your new IT skills to a non-profit. This builds out your resume and may eventually turn into a paid position. This option is great for people that require a little direction, as one needs to be a bit of a self-starter for the other two option.”
– Dennis Restauro, tech professional with 15 years experience in Information Technology, technology writer for Grounded Reason
“I am not a programmer but I changed my career from being a tour guide to working in public relations for a game development company, and my strategies are relevant to developers. To get started, I took a variety of free, non-credited but certificated courses. Coursera.org is my favorite but there are also good courses by MIT, Harvard, and Stanford. Being able to learn on your own is always going to make you a more attractive candidate than someone who relies on the education they had over five years ago. Tech companies especially want to understand how you maintain your relevance in an industry that’s constantly evolving – you have to show you can evolve with it.
In interviews, it is important to be able to say why you want to work for them. Understanding work culture is very important, especially in tech. Making headway and finding appropriate developer or digital-industry groups on Meetup.com is a great way to start. I’m still a member of lots of groups. I did research about the tech community and when I found a game (Beyond Flesh and Blood) I wanted to promote, it was helpful that I had geographic knowledge about the city where the game is developed: Manchester. Manchester is home to the most entrepreneurial tech businesses in the UK, and Manchester’s tech community really enjoys collaborating on design and software projects consistently. It’s also a small but relaxed city with a lot less pressure than London. I wanted to be a part of that and said so in my interview.
Finally, the whole conversion took a long time. In my spare hours, I dedicated myself twice a week in the evenings to volunteering with media communities and charities that needed IT and PR assistance. It’s a big ask but if it is something you can afford to do with your time and your mind, do it. While everyone says you should have a short CV, I’ve found that a fully-filled, lengthy LinkedIn CV has been much more appropriate and helpful in securing many job interviews.
I’m even getting job offers while in my current role!”
– Jane McConnell, PR, Pixelbomb Games
“The best way to get yourself into the industry is to network. LinkedIn is a great platform to use by publishing your past work, your work experience, and your interests in the tech field. Connections on LinkedIn can provide referrals and free advice within the industry to help you expand your network.
Focus primarily on local tech groups and start ups rather than larger companies like Google because doing this will give you an advantage to learn in a hands on environment and grow your skills with the company and industry rather than just being thrown into the job with busy, in-demand customers.
To find my job, I simply connected with people on LinkedIn within the industry I was interested in, and I published my work online and shared it on my professional social media accounts (always keep a professional account that you wouldn’t be embarrassed to show employers).
I can say firsthand, working at a tech company of about 20 employees, we hire exclusively online and accept referrals from our employees. We have unique interview questions, such as, “Explain the Internet to someone who has never heard of it,” and “What is your favorite food and why?” to find problem solving skills within their answers, but also get a feel for who they are and what their personality is like.
WyckWyre hires for personality over skills. We can train anyone on the IT skills needed, but we can’t train a personality to fit in with upbeat, fast-paced culture.”
– Michelle Burke, Marketing Supervisor, WyckWyre
“One of the best ways to develop technical skills without a college education is to earn an industry accredited certification. There are a wide variety of certifications available for all levels of knowledge and many vendor specific ones as well (Cisco, VMware, Citrix, etc.) if you are looking to learn a specific technology. Certification is not only significantly cheaper than a college education but takes less time as well. Many of the most popular certifications have boot camp programs available that are around a week long. With all of the recent large scale data breaches (Home Depot, Target, Michaels, etc.), the demand for security professionals is at an all time high.
It is also helpful to get hands on experience, and the best way to do that is to work on personal projects. Labs are also essential for learning a new technology. Luckily, there are tons of free resources available on the web.
The most important thing for tech professionals is hands on experience. In my department if we see certifications without experience, it is a NEGATIVE. But tech has a lot of layers and it depends on where a person is.
If you’re in engineering, you need to be careful. If you really love something and are comfortable with being a specialist in THAT THING, go to class. But if you prefer to be a generalist, don’t do it. You will be pigeon-holed. If you’re in project management, a PMP does matter. Get your Agile PMP and you can go anywhere. In business analysis, a CBAP will set you apart but your professional experience will be MUCH more important. In QA, we don’t care about paper, we look for experience.
But where certifications are a big deal is if you want to work for the company the certification is for. Microsoft cares. IBM cares. Oracle cares. It shows your commitment to THEM. Yeah, they’ll train you but they’d rather see someone who is already part of their world.
Certifications can be a profit-making scam if the certification training program are saying you can use certifications in lieu of experience. If you want to invest in something, go volunteer at a place that needs you and where you can learn. Put in a network for an animal shelter. Write a mobile app for a food bank that lets people see what the pantries are running low on. During Hurricane Katrina we had volunteers setting up kiosks to search databases for loved ones and systems to track medical patients coming into a shelter clinic. That is valuable.”
– Jennifer Renfro Brownson, Certified Business Analysis Professional, Certified Scrum Professional, BMC Software
“My company places a variety of candidates in IT positions. The best way to get experience in IT without a traditional college degree is to start out in a Help Desk position while developing skills through online education such as Codecademy, volunteering, and by visiting Meetup groups that focus on the area that candidates want to develop.”
– Michelle Comer, Practice Area Leader, Spark Division, The Messina Group
“The best way to develop tech skills without a degree is to complete a project. Many tech workers started by tinkering at home in their spare time. Thanks to the internet, almost every technical skill can be learned online.
Internships are a hugely useful opportunity for young people to spend time working for a firm. Many tech firms offer both unpaid and paid opportunities to people age 16+ to spend time with their developers, improve their skills, and even contribute to team projects.
The easiest positions to land are those using the latest technologies that are short on applicants. Specializing in an up-and-coming technology will give you the best advantage: programmatic advertising, development for wearables and mobile apps, data science, Swift.
To meet people in tech, use sites like Meetup.com. Also, there are hackathons and organized coding sessions taking part in every major city in the world. Wannabe developers can get involved, improve their skills, and meet a network of employers and unemployed developers.”
– Chris Muktar and Ed Mellett, Directors, WikiJob
“Online learning makes it easier than ever to develop new professional skills. You can take any number of classes at your own pace and at low cost that will help you to make the leap from one field to another.
People with computer programming skills are in especially high demand, and the best way to break into technology is to build something. Whether it’s a mobile app, blog, or other website, building something from start to finish helps you hone your skills, demonstrates initiative, and gives you a project to discuss during an interview.”
– Tyler Cole, GM, Skillfeed
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