How to sell myself to companies as a former academic?
January 6, 2013 4:16 PM   Subscribe

Academic with non-CS background but software development experience looking to transition into the professional workforce, from an ABD Ph.D perspective. How to overcome the "lack of experience with real/big systems" question, and in general pitch myself to employers?

I'm a male in my late 20s. For a bunch of political reasons that I don't seem to be able to do much about (short of paying out-of-pocket and setting myself back another 2-3 years) it doesn't look like I'll be able to finish the Ph.D that I'm currently ABD in, with 6 years devoted. I've been halfhearted about the Ph.D for the past 3 years, anyway, and I think I would prefer to go back into the commercial software development world. My undergrad degree is in a liberal arts subject with no real engineering/dev street cred; I have a minor that required a lot of Java development but also isn't CS. The MA I've already earned, and the Ph.D I probably won't finish are in a subject that is also not compsci, but which required me to develop several substantial pieces of end-user facing software in Java and Ruby on Rails (so Ruby + Javascript). I've also developed a bunch of back-end tools. About half of what I've worked on has been very team/collaboration-oriented, but without any serious management oversight. These are pretty uniformly small-deployment stuff. I've been doing alright in interviews, but a lot of players in the small biz/startup space are really concerned with scalability, which I've never had to touch (2 or 3 concurrent users is all I've ever had to worry about). I've contributed to several OSS projects, too, mostly in small ways. I have some theoretically deep domain knowledge about a couple of technical areas, and because of my prior life, know a lot about some non-technical areas as well.

I am comfortable that I'm going to have to hit the ground running and learn a lot about development theory and practice that I haven't learned in my academic world. Any thoughts on what I could do to sell myself this way? If you are a hiring manager in the development field, how could I make myself competitive with new grads with CS degrees? I'm already planning to direct my job search towards firms doing software dev in the fields where I have domain knowledge from my pre-academic life, as a springboard to other things I'm more interested in, but beyond that?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Just talk about your projects and code you've written. Nobody cares about degrees.
posted by jeffamaphone at 5:13 PM on January 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

+1 to jeffamaphone. Few recent CS grads will have more "experience with real/big systems" than you. Development process, deployment methods, even programming languages can all be learned quickly. Show them that you are a good programmer who can break down a problem, write correct code, and collaborate well with other team members. The rest is details. Feel free to PM me any specific questions.
posted by scose at 5:39 PM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

I know a lot of new grads who have been hired without anywhere near the experience you just described. I would worry less about experience and more about academic CS knowledge. One of the things undergrad CS programs teach very well is algorithms and data structures and basic "systems" knowledge---what really happens when you execute higher-level operations like forking a process or allocating memory or making a DNS lookup. Fortunately, unlike design skills or good taste, these are things you can learn perfectly well with a textbook and some diligence.

Also, a lot of programmers have to undergo a very specific interview process where they're given a toy problem to solve in about a hour, often by writing code on a whiteboard or discussing algorithms and designs verbally. A strong performance on these interviews can more than compensate for weak credentialling. If you don't have any experience with these interviews, they can be terrifying, but you can definitely practice for them. Many words have been written online about technical interviews for software developers.
posted by d. z. wang at 6:50 PM on January 6, 2013

If you want to read more about interviewing, search for Joel Spolsky's Guerrilla Guide, Steve Yegge's Five Essential Questions, and Steve Yegge's Get That Job At Google!
posted by d. z. wang at 6:57 PM on January 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

Make projects and put them on github - or contribute to existing projects or (best yet) manage a project with multiple contributors. If you want a development job, your github profile is pure gold if it demonstrates your coding and collaboration abilities.
posted by SakuraK at 8:05 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Memail me if you happen to be in NYC. The description you gave of yourself sounds like a guy we just hired.
posted by Freen at 8:58 PM on January 6, 2013

I did this successfully. I wish I could say I had some magic strategy, but I just applied to 2 development jobs, and happened to get one of them. There was no technical interview, and they hired me at more than an entry level position. It was an incredibly steep and stressful learning curve, but after a year and a half on the job I'm doing pretty well at it.
posted by miyabo at 5:28 AM on January 7, 2013

In a situation not all that far off from yours, I just put my resume on Dice and let people call me. In the meantime, just get in some practice with some small project of your own.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 1:22 PM on January 7, 2013

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