From here to IT
October 23, 2015 6:28 PM   Subscribe

It became apparent to me yesterday that I am going to want to find another job, and then also yesterday an old friend from high school said he would hire me. Lots more conversation needs to happen with my friend, obviously, but before it does I would love to have your advice on moving from FDA-regulated industry (foods, supplements, skincare) to IT (with very limited IT skills).

My friend, Johnny, is a high muckety-muck in engineering at a software start-up. I am a "scientist"/technical writer/project manager at a dietary supplement company. We're both 45. As part of my job, I make sites in SharePoint, and because I like to make them as neat-o as possible I am learning jQuery. We were talking about that over email, and he said, "I think that what you're doing is actually really very cool! When you say how awesome the web work is compared to what your'e getting out of your work at the moment, it does make me think that it's time to jump in and start engineering some things... I'd hire you!" That same day, I learned that the promotion I was looking for, that my boss and her boss had approved, got shot down. So, it is time to shake the dust off my shoes, as it happens.

Probably Johnny was just saying that to be nice.

But on the off chance he could be serious, I have questions for you:
  • What on Earth would he have me do? I've got solid skills in SharePoint, intermediate skills in HTML/CSS, am just a baby in jQuery... and know nothing else. You can get that for $40k a year or less, right? My BS is in Biology (Physiology). I am a very experienced technical writer, a good if inexperienced project manager, and a badass at data visualization (I make a very pretty chart). Do IT start-ups need those things?
  • What's it like working for a software company as opposed to FDA-regulated industry? I know they have, like, foos-ball tables and no-pants Fridays, but is it... Deadline-driven? Stressful? Collaborative? Are there rules everyone knows (like 21 CFR)? Are they flexible about hours?
  • What are the odds I could get a similar deal to what I have now with my skills? (Such as they are.) I make $80k now, 7% bonus, 4% 401K match.
  • Start-ups lose their funding and fold, and everybody's out of work, right? Job security?
  • Anything else I should think about?
I really do love the IT part of my job, and I think just techwriting or project-managing or whatever they would let me do would be very cool, because I would learn about stuff I like just by being around it. I think it would also be awesome to work for Johnny, or with Johnny. Johnny is a truly superior human being, if thirty years of experience can be trusted.

Thanks for any advice you can give me!
posted by pH Indicating Socks to Work & Money (5 answers total)
Startups are the ultimate small business in the sense that they're highly unique environments (because a very small number of people are influencing decisions, and it's probable that none of them know anything about HR.)

Basically, be ready for anything, as pants may or may not be optional on any given day of the week.
posted by SMPA at 6:38 PM on October 23, 2015

I would say learn as much as you can about the startup and try to think of ways you might contribute. Do you believe in the product? I have a bunch of friends I would love to work with but are working at startups I do not find interesting. The startup will take up more of your life than you might be ready for and if you are spending lots of hours outside the workplace working on something you are not that passionate about you might burnout very quickly.

Would he be your direct supervisor? Also IT seems very general here, definitely clear that up since you would not want to go in thinking you will write sweet jquery only to find out you are on desktop support or writing SQL triggers.
posted by z11s at 6:54 PM on October 23, 2015

Job security is zilch. If they run out of money, everyone is out of a job. That you might see coming. However, a partial staff layoff can hit you quite suddenly. I went to work one morning, got called in to a meeting with my boss's boss and was out of the buiding with my stuff in a box in about an hour.

So, you will want to ask questions about how they are doing. Do they have any income yet? How soon do they run out of money if they don't get the next round of funding?

But, as I see if the larger question is if you really want to commit full heart to pursue a new career. In that case, you get to learn stuff every day you are on the job, this job will be a springboard to the next one (and the next one). If this is where you want to go, as long as you can tolerate some breaks in employment )both financially and emotionally) the lack of stability is not a problem. (Says the woman who spent the past 30 years on the margins of Silicon Valley high tech)
posted by metahawk at 7:19 PM on October 23, 2015

What on Earth would he have me do?
I've been a technical writer at several small software companies. There are usually a lot of random, "somebody's gotta do it"-type tasks you can pick up, in addition to the basic job of writing documentation for users. For example, some things I do at my current job: write blog posts and announcements, make training presentations, make videos for training and marketing, and build/design/maintain the documentation and support websites. I also pick up some minor tasks that would probably be done by release/change managers or support staff at a larger company.

I know they have, like, foos-ball tables and no-pants Fridays, but is it... Deadline-driven? Stressful? Collaborative? Are they flexible about hours?
This varies wildly from company to company. It's really something you have to try to suss out during the interview process.

What are the odds I could get a similar deal to what I have now with my skills?
An experienced technical writer can make $80k in the software industry, through that is getting up near the high end for the role unless you find a management position. Of course, if you're in Silicon Valley or another crazy cost-of-living area, the numbers will probably be higher.
posted by neushoorn at 2:26 AM on October 24, 2015 [1 favorite]'s time to jump in and start engineering some things... I'd hire you!"

I could take this as saying that he'd hire you to jump in and start engineering things at their start-up. But I could also take it as "you should jump in and start engineering some things... [and then] I'd hire you [to engineer those kinds of things here]!" Do you know which he actually meant?

It's clear that you think very highly of one another, so it's well worth talking out what the fit could be now with the skills you already have, and the skills you might grow from there. I'm not in your field so I can't help with your other questions, but the answers to the ones about what he'd have you do and for what compensation hinge on which take above he intended. Best of luck!
posted by daisyace at 8:21 AM on October 24, 2015

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