The ‘Non-Traditional’ Path into Tech
How to leverage your experience to pivot into a tech role
Recently, I questioned why it is conventional for those with graduate degrees to declare it in their titles, but not those with undergraduate degrees. In my family, it is a great feat for me to have graduated from college considering I am the first woman to have the opportunity. In an act of rebellion, I decided to append the abbreviation “B.Sc” to my LinkedIn title, but that opened up a broader topic of my unconventionality within tech including my major, degree-level, and even my identity as a Black Latina.
A career in tech was not within the purview of my career aspirations as an undergraduate in biomedical sciences. But, after obtaining my degree I was unsure of medical school and accumulating additional debt; I decided to enter the workforce. Soon into my journey into tech, I realized I had been labeled ‘non-traditional’; a term used to disqualify my capabilities. Even after obtaining a role it seemed like the boundaries of my knowledge were constantly scrutinized. It seemed being a ‘non-traditional’, both academically and culturally, would set limitations on my future in tech. Eventually, I realized my non-linear background brings traits of scrappiness, tenacity, impact, and innovation. I find myself trying to find synergies between tech and biology, or art, and asking questions that spark deeper levels of thought. I embrace those attributes that make me ‘non-traditional’, because they are what gave me the audacity to be in places I never imagined.
“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” — The Alchemist
1. Research the tech landscape before committing to a specific path.
There are several overarching branches within tech that encompass a myriad of roles each requiring a specialized, but not exclusive set of skills. The extent of familiarity with each skill may differ on the select role. Identifying the best-suited role is a process of trial-and-error, but is vital for long-term satisfaction and success. It can be helpful to consider your strengths, interests, and previous experience when determining your ideal role.
- Engineers — Design, develop, and maintain tangible output in the form of data tables, software features, ETL pipelines, or ML models. (e.g., Software Engineers, Data Engineers, Machine Learning Engineers)
- Analytics — Produce metrics, data products (e.g., dashboards, models, reports), and business insights through analytics or machine learning. (e.g., Data Analyst, Data Scientist)
- Sales — Manage accounts with customers, negotiate product and service pricing, and leverage detailed information on products and services to increase revenue. (e.g., Technical Sales Representative, Technical Account Manager)
- Management — Lead the initiatives of the team, maintain interpersonal relationships within the team, and drive relationships with partners. (e.g., Manager, Director, Lead)
- Recruitment — Seek talent with specific alignment with the existing team and company culture, and evaluate technical qualifications. (e.g., Technical Recruiter)
2. Identify any transferrable skills that can be leveraged as qualifications.
Consider your academic and professional experiences which may be valuable in your prospective tech role. Drawing explicit parallels between your background and the required qualifications is vital in telling a meaningful story during interviews. To get a firm understanding of the role, I suggest reviewing a diverse sample of job descriptions across different companies and industries. These skills will likely be non-technical in nature, but nonetheless are necessary for many technical roles. Additionally, if you have subject matter expertise, you can leverage that as a plus for most technical roles by seeking roles as tech companies that are within that space.
3. Diversify the resources utilized to acquire new skills for a holistic perspective.
No single resource, whether it be a specialized degree or online course, will provide a comprehensive foundation of a concept or tool. Tech is an ever-changing field! It will require a combination of books, courses, projects, and conversations to develop a firm understanding. Remember that you have to establish a strong foundation in order to build upward. Additionally, most technical interviews will evaluate your comprehension of foundational topics and tools as this will likely determine your ability to learn new skills. Below are different resources that can be utilized to supplement your learning.
- Team Treehouse
4. Work on side projects to get a sense of the day-to-day and gain practical experience.
Early into my journey, I considered becoming a UI/UX Designer (which likely stemmed from my love of customizing my MySpace page). After starting on a personal project with HTML and CSS I realized it wasn’t a good fit. However, I did learn that I have great product sense and end-user empathy, which became vital assets for product data science. Taking the time to work on realistic projects was necessary to ensure that I was not embarking on a journey prematurely and also helped to navigate me into data analytics and data science. It is not a bad idea to have a personal website or repository of personal projects, but I would recommend steering clear of common projects (i.e., iris classification, titanic survival, etc.)
5. Enter into spaces where conversations are happening by leaders in your prospective field.
Twitter, LinkedIn, blog posts, etc. are great places to learn about what leaders in the field are discussing. You will notice trends of tools, software, and techniques in these spaces. These will likely make their way into job descriptions in some form, and so having a baseline understanding can be incredibly helpful in preparation. I have been able to develop a strong network within these social media platforms that have allowed for greater exposure and opportunities to impact the field.
6. Do not get pigeonholed to a specific company, title, salary, or domain early on. If one door closes, check another!
Especially at the beginning of your journey, you should be flexible and open to any opportunity that will allow you to work with tools that are essential for your dream role. These roles are likely not where you plan to be long-term, but they allow a fairly low barrier of entry where you can get your foot in the door, make a real impact, and prepare for your next opportunity. You should be strategic about every role you take, and salary is usually one of the last factors that I consider when selecting my next roles. Be wary of companies that are prohibitive of you opening yourself up to other opportunities.
The ranking order of determining factors:
- Experience with core skills
- Professional development opportunity
- Culture fit
- Salary + Benefits
7. Consider a Bootcamp, fellowship, or interview preparation program that can assist with your career entry or transition.
There are a lot of programs available that cater to career transitions in tech. I have seen the best outcome when you establish a solid baseline of knowledge before entering a program that introduces you to employment opportunities. It takes time to develop muscles for coding and many of these programs are fairly short-lived, thus not giving the time necessary to fully ingest these infrastructures. However, the direct connection to employers gives you an advantage over the majority of other applicants.
8. Seek out job boards that will be able to provide specialized assistance or recruitment options.
There has been a growth of job boards as the specialization of skills for roles has increased. Many are now also serving those who have been traditionally marginalized in tech. It can be a difficult process to find your first role in tech with a non-traditional background, however, finding support for your transition can be exceptionally helpful to avoid applying into a black box.
9. Expect to job hop to build up your tech stack, and increase your salary.
Once you become the go-to person for everything that is a good time to consider other opportunities which may not be easy, but you will likely stunt your own growth if you stay at the same company for more than 2–3 years at the beginning of your journey. (This is a broad generalization from my own experience, where I felt fairly confident between 9–12 months). I advise interviewing at least once every 6 months to reduce getting stale or complacent in any role regardless of whether or not you are actively seeking a new position. This has a dual purpose in staying aware of what other companies are looking for in a candidate, and give you data points for the market value of your role.
10. Find a sponsor who will actively mention your name in conversations and create space for you. Build honest connections.
Mentors or sponsors may be short-lived or long-lived relationships. It benefits you most to have someone who has traveled a similar path. There are programs that pair you with a mentor, but sponsors are typically someone you develop an interpersonal relationship without a financial incentive. Typically, people sponsor those who they see themselves in which can make it a bit scarce for those in marginalized communities (but we are still out there!)
11. Focus on acquiring foundational skills over software or tools with a lower shelf-life.
There is a plethora of software and tools that are highly valuable including Tableau, Docker, and GraphQL, however, when first transitioning you should focus on foundational skills, and concepts. Interviews will largely focus on your practical and conceptual knowledge of foundational skills as a test of your ability to adapt to new tools and skills. Most companies use different software or tools for the same task, and thus it may not benefit you to learn these first. But, staying abreast of changing technologies is helpful for having a dialogue with others in the space.
Examples of foundation skills
- Data modeling
12. If you don’t enjoy the journey, you won’t enjoy the destination.
That is not to say you will love every second. In fact, if you don’t consider quitting at least a few times, are you even doing it right? Keep in mind that tech is a consistently evolving field that requires consistent studying to avoid getting stale. If during your journey of skill acquisition, you are not satisfied then it may be a sign that you have not found the right role. Remember to take the time to reflect on your growth in the last month, 6 months, and 12 months to keep perspective on how much you were able to learn. There will be plateaus along the way, but you can overcome them with consistency and perseverance.
If you have not heard it before — you belong in tech without the need to conform.