How To Make A Career Change Into Tech

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?

Thank you,
Future Techie

Career Change Into Tech

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.

“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 ect.) 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 ect.), 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. For example, here is a collection of labs for Cisco’s Packet Tracer Program:

http://resources.intenseschool.com/category/cisco/packet-tracer-labs/.

In case you are unfamiliar with Packet Tracer, it’s a free network simulation program that allows students to experiment with network behavior and ask “what if” questions. It’s a great way to get familiar with Cisco technology, even if you’ve never stepped foot in a server room or networking closet.”
Ryan Fahey, Marketing Manager, InfoSec Institute

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

Career In Wearable Tech

“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

“People who spend years in higher education studying technology have a lot of time invested in learning skills. If you want to play in the tech world, you need to have the skills to do so, too. The nice thing is that with the prevalence of free online education from top universities like Stanford and free educational websites like Khan Academy, you can get to work on loading up your own arsenal of skills right now.

Another thing a career changer needs to come to grips with is that they’re swimming upstream in regards to rising above their competition who have formal tech backgrounds. To compete effectively and get some much needed attention, learn some guerilla marketing tactics to market yourself to a potential employer.

Spend a few minutes researching some of the unique ways that a successful entrepreneur like Noah Kagan has used in the past to grab the attention of some high level CEOs that might not have otherwise given him the time of day.

One simple method is to find any contacts on social media platforms for companies that you would like to work for. Many companies, especially those in the tech sphere, will have an official social media presence. You can also do a little digging and try to find some HR reps or other influencers within a business who are frequent social media users.

Once you have some targets, try to frequently engage them in conversations. You can do so in a couple of ways:

– Respond to their comments/shares. Be persistent, but not spammy. The idea is to get your name known and easily recognized.

– Specifically for twitter, “@” add them to tweets. Basically, find something that’s relevant to their business and tweet it with a message to them, such as:

@JanetCivitelli I think this story might be right up your alley.

Again, the idea is to get a bit of a back and forth going. You don’t want to be spammy, but genuinely interesting.

It shouldn’t take long for someone to see you’re regularly commenting and contributing. Once they do, you can start to soft sell your experience and the fact that you are looking to change employers.”
Tim Backes, Career Advisor and Resume Expert, Resume Genius

“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


Do you know someone who wants to make a career change into tech? Please share this article.

Comments

  1. I have a liberal arts degree, but had also been programming since I was 7. Combined with luck/timing of when I graduated (95) this allowed me to segue straight into tech after college. Since then I’ve spent 18 years working in a variety of tech/business capacities at both large and small companies. So here’s my commentary.

    1) Remember you’re starting over, and you’re competing against a field of fresh, trained college graduates including foreign workers (H1-B) with CS degrees/MBAs. Switching careers into something you’re not trained in requires, well, training – lots of online courses are cheap/free. Like asking what it’ll take to be a nurse or therapist or landscape architect. It’s not enough to have an interest in the subject matter.

    2) It’ll also require hard work – probably harder than what you’ve been doing since you’re not familiar with it, and there’s an inherent bias against older people in tech (fairly or not).

    There’s little credit for “life experience” – unless you’ve run an actually related business and are going into the business side of tech (product management, for example).

    3) It’ll also require some luck & persistence. And the willingness to do things (startup, training, meet-ups) at night/on the side while you are working now. The great thing is with the rise of cloud computing, startup accelerators, “hour of code” type events there’s plenty of cheap/free opportunity to get actual work-like experience (albeit unpaid). But finding that first company to actually hire you may require going in at the ground floor, or starting a company with some friends (and failing).

    4) It’s also important to understand the cultural differences in tech and whatever you’re doing now. As an example, I talk to quite a few people who’ve worked in tech in non-tech companies (think universities, non-profits) and quite often they’re blown away by the expectations and pace of modern tech companies (startups, amazon, google, etc) – while they were enjoying 9/5 + 6 weeks vacation + working on the same tech stack they started with 20 years ago – the tech world has moved on. Not casting a value judgement, but it’s reality. If you’re not interested in learning a new programming language/database/tech stack every 2-5 years, tech is not for you. This is true even in the management side of things. If you can’t “talk the talk” the techies won’t respect you.

    5) Don’t think that getting in via “project management” or “help desk” or “IT” is a sure thing any more, either. There’s a glut of support folks especially as more traditional IT moves to SaaS/cloud platforms. I see an ever-shrinking number of jobs looking for those certifications, and you’re competing against people who have them and are in mid-career already. It’s not impossible to get in via this route, but the glory days there are long-gone (especially help desk which is increasingly an outsourced function).

    I’m not trying to be pessimistic or dissuade anyone from pursuing a career shift, but go in with your eyes open, a solid understanding of why you think “tech is for you” and a realistic sense of what the market is.

    That doesn’t mean there isn’t a market for enterprising, entrepreneurial mid-career folks to switch careers – but it’s probably as hard as it’s ever been.

  2. Future Techie,

    Don’t think for a second that you’re too old! I’m 55 and I still feel excited about my job in tech. I feel like I’m working on things that will change people’s lives and bring the global community closer together. The main thing you need to get a job and succeed–and excel–in high tech is passion. And it sounds to me like you have that already!

    The saying in high tech is “if you want to be a programmer, then write code.” There’s no requirement that you get a degree. People come to high tech from all walks of life and the thing that binds us together is the shared vision of making people’s lives easier in some way.

    So how to get started? The resource I started using awhile back is http://www.codeacademy.com and I like the way it takes teaches a concept and then gives you an exercise right away so that you can practice. I’m currently using it to learn Python. Over the years, I’ve taught myself several languages, as I needed them. Once you start doing lessons, it’s hard to stop.

    I should add that this past summer, I was talking to my neighbor and saying that I would love to get another degree but I feel like I’m too old. She said she returned to school at 60 for her Master’s and finished it at 64. She’s a nurse who works for the Red Cross and she is still working at 81. She works at sites that have natural disasters.

    I should also mention that I saw Vint Cerf speak a few weeks ago. He’s considered to be the inventor of the Internet. He’s 71 and is working as a researcher at Google on the next big thing.

    So don’t ever let anyone discourage you from doing what you want to do. The people who use high tech come in all ages and every kind of background. The only way to serve the needs of the world is to bring together the most diverse workforce possible.

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