I want to work with the beeps and boops!
May 3, 2017 12:10 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking to make a career shift towards the world of technology. How do I articulate what kind of job I'm looking for, what kinds of steps can I take towards making this happen, and did you do this?

I have a BA in the humanities and have spent the bulk of my career managing retail stores that sell a specialized (not tech related) consumer good that many people enjoy and use extensively. I am ready for a career shift and am very interested in the tech/IT sector, but I'm having a hard time figuring out how to articulate what I'm looking for and how to get there. Please help me speak the language of tech, figure out what I need to do to make myself marketable in this sector and, if you made a similar transition, tell me how you did it!

I live in a city with a burgeoning tech scene, with lots of start ups, and some more established tech companies with 50+ employees. I want to work in the tech industry because I think it's exciting, I'm drawn to innovation and entrepreneurship and the kinds of people who tend to start new ventures with new ideas. Also, it's a growing industry and, from what I've observed, many of the tech companies in my city treat their employees well and are forward-thing. My background has given me lots of skills and experience in customer service, sales, marketing, and general business development; I'm great at connecting with people and at learning complex concepts and communicating them in a way that makes sense to people (except in this particular instance, evidently). If I'm interested in leveraging those skills into a job at the kind of company I've outlined, how do I describe it? What's the job title I'm looking for? What are some sectors within the tech industry that do what I've described?

Next, what kinds of additional skills and experience do I need to make myself more tech-y? I've signed up for an Intro to Web Development course (I don't necessarily want to be a Web Developer, but it's something I've always been interested in learning and I think it will help me better speak the language of tech). I've also joined a MeetUp group for tech professionals and entrepreneurs, but haven't been to any events yet because I'm self-conscious that I won't be able to keep up. What else can I do? Which books, magazines, or blogs should I read? Which podcasts should I be listening to? Should I take professional development courses?

I am a card carrying millennial so have grown up using computers, smart phones, social media, apps, etc. I'm well-versed in Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Which additional platforms I should familiarize myself with and learn to use?

As you can see, I'm excited about the industry but a bit lost at the starting line. If you're able to help me make sense of my intentions and focus my efforts, I would be eternally grateful! Bonus gratefulness if you've made a similar transition and can tell me what worked for you and what didn't. For the record, I'm also working to network one-on-one with folks in my city who work in the industry, but I would love to have a more focused vocabulary and better articulated intentions when I'm meeting them. Thanks in advance to all who can help!
posted by rodneyaug to Work & Money (19 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Do you want to make things, or support things that other people have made?

Just reading your background and skills, you sound like a good candidate right off the bat for a customer support role (do not let anyone tell you that help desk and support roles don't take skill--to be good in these roles you need to have finely-honed communication and instructional skills, a solid customer service orientation, and the patience of a saint in addition to deep knowledge of the user side of the application as well as some less deep but still important back end knowledge).
posted by soren_lorensen at 12:21 PM on May 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

I agree, support seems like a good option. I have a humanities BA as well, and I'm in software support. My interest wasn't really in tech, but in general customer service originally when I got my current job, but I started learning to code after I got it, and it's been super helpful in terms of understanding how software works (or doesn't work). If you don't have any background in tech, support is a good way to see if you'd like it, without locking yourself into a career. The skills transfer to other industries nicely, so if you decide tech isn't all you thought it would be, you can go somewhere else and still have plenty of options. Or, if you do like it, there's a chance your employer will help support your professional development (maybe paying for coding classes, etc.).
posted by kevinbelt at 12:26 PM on May 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

Customer support sounds like it would be a great place for you to start. It's good because there's a low barrier to entry (you don't need years of experience in some technology generally), and there's a lot of lateral + upward moves you can make in small and/or growing companies: Do you want to run the support team? Manage communications? Help with hiring? Guide the product?
posted by so fucking future at 12:28 PM on May 3, 2017

Which additional platforms I should familiarize myself with and learn to use?

Find a project you maybe feel is worth while in GitHub and you can learn that platform (it's a site that is a nice web front end to some back end stuff, you can read about it on Wikipedia) and learn how projects are managed in shared environments. If you know how to leave comments, make edits, track more or less what is happening and interact with a team of developers, that is useful.

I am a non-coder but I've been able to get pretty deep in to technology being able to do a few things

- write clearly and effectively about technology things for various audiences
- participate in projects and help do some of the strategy and leadership stuff that some people who want to mostly just code don't want to do or aren't good at
- knowing how to do basic stuff like social media communicating (using automated tools), blogging platforms to run a basic website and coordinating campaigns
- documenting all of the above
- supporting all of the above (I LOVE doing support and many people don't)

My background is librarianship and in my niche (rural area, and I'm tech savvy) there are people who need what I have. Figure out how what you have, combined, solves a problem for someone. Get on LinkedIn and have at least some social media presence. Don't worry about not "knowing enough" to network. Your job is to learn stuff right now and let people know you are keen about it. You have deep knowledge of your own area, it's okay to talk about the things you DO know about and look for ways to connect it to where you'd like to go.
posted by jessamyn at 12:34 PM on May 3, 2017 [6 favorites]

Agree with soren_lorensen and kevinbelt. I got laid off from a position as an assistant retail manager. I decided I was done with retail, got a temp agency to get me into a local business in their call center. At the same time, I took a 9 month database/web development course from a nearby continuing education group - the course itself is nearly useless but it showed I was serious about getting out of retail. I showed an aptitude for (a) dealing with difficult customers and (b) understanding their complex, customized software package. I moved into the customer relations department and assisted their IT department with QA on the application. When they let one of the IT folks go, I was ready to take his place. I have since turned that into a Senior Systems Analyst role with a large company.

Get in the door, prove yourself useful and find out what direction you want to go in. You say there's lots of places with 50+ employees; keep in mind that a bigger company may present more directions to go in. When I was with the small local company, there were 4 IT people at most. With the company I'm with now, almost half the company could be considered IT in one way or another and I can take my career in a half-dozen directions.
posted by neilbert at 12:34 PM on May 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'd suggest doing the following things:
-Look for people on LinkedIn who have jobs in tech that you would want, and talk with them to find out how they got there. Ideally, find people you know through existing connections who can introduce you, otherwise send them a cold message (if you're sending a cold message make sure it's concise, and positions them as an expert... people like to talk to you if it's about themselves and if they feel like an expert).

-Use LinkedIn's advanced feature (you have to pay for this but I believe you can get a free 30-day trial) to search for people who used to work doing what you do in retail, and now work in tech. See what kinds of jobs they are in, and also try to connect with these people to talk with them about how they got there, what they'd suggest for someone looking to move into the field, what are the non-negotiable skills you must have to land their type of job, etc. (PS - Building these relationships with people in the field may lead to a job down the road, so make sure to nurture these relationships and always be professional.)

-Look up job postings for tech jobs that you are interested in and see what skills are listed most frequently as must-have skills. If you don't already have the skills, invest some time in learning them... there's tons of free online courses on places like Coursera, or EdX... even YouTube (but make sure it's credible). You can build your new skills and a portfolio (if relevant) by working for free at first, and taking on projects that will showcase you've learned your skills.

The good news is, lots of employers are looking to see that you can demonstrate the skills for the job, more than they are looking for any type of particular formal education. So there's never been a better time to be able to transition careers! Good luck.
posted by RebeccaBeaton at 12:40 PM on May 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Perhaps work towards a product owner or product manager role? Key skills are in translating and communicating business requirements into user stories that developers can work on. Some organisations come at it from more of a data driven / analyst perspective whereas others are most user and customer experience focused. Regardless, a good understanding of technology is important for it.
posted by JonB at 1:23 PM on May 3, 2017

I'll second everyone else, customer support or client services sounds like a natural fit. Job titles to look out for: product manager, product specialist, technical account manager, technical support analyst, customer service specialist...
posted by anderjen at 1:50 PM on May 3, 2017

For job titles, look more into "customer success" or "customer happiness" rather than "customer service" or even "customer support". The former will give you more tech-oriented companies, while the latter could be tech, or could call center hell holes.
posted by kevinbelt at 2:24 PM on May 3, 2017

Lots of good advice already. Here's my story from when I made a similar-ish transition.

My first degree was in philosophy. When I graduated in the 90s, I was intimidated by the idea of working for a living so I bummed around in temp jobs for a while, then eventually two ideas dawned on me: first, that working in an actual job probably wasn't as hard as I'd originally thought; and second, that I was interested in & potentially good at tech-related roles.

So in my case, I took a one-year post-grad course that essentially meant I could re-launch myself onto the graduate job market alongside people with computer science degrees. In no way did I have their skills - in one or two cases, when I blundered into interviews for roles that would involve actual coding, I was way out of my depth. But a lot of large tech organisations were hiring graduates back then, so it wasn't too hard for me to blag a position in the consulting division of a major software vendor. I'm still here, nineteen and a half years later.

A few things are different now. I probably wouldn't spend a whole year on a post-grad conversion course, the value & content of which was debatable to say the least - a couple of shorter, more focused courses would probably serve the same purpose - which is to show willing & to learn a new vocabulary that's relevant to where you want to be. Also, the job market (at least: the more interesting & dynamic end of it) is a lot different now. There's a much wider range of potential employers, many of whom are smaller, with products that are maybe more niche. And not everyone wants to spend decades in the same organisation.

You plainly have a track record of employability in roles where you know you can add value. That's three quarters of what any employer wants. You can add to that by turning up at some meetup groups & maybe by taking one or two short, focused, specific trainings on things you're interested in.

The culture in tech is such that you'll impress people by doing simple practical things that actually work. So if there's a project that you can contribute to in however small a way, then JFDI - maybe talk to people at your meetups to get ideas on that. If it's a project that's in any way relevant to the product line of some local startup that you might like to join, so much the better.

Good luck!
posted by rd45 at 3:12 PM on May 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

Incredibly helpful answers here so far. It's so great to hear the circular paths that have been taken into the industry.
Keep 'em coming!

soren_lorensen: I envision myself supporting things that other people have made. And kevinbelt, thank you for the invaluable advice about avoiding call center hell holes. I've spent enough time in customer service being yelled at by strangers that I would like to minimize my exposure to that as much as possible moving forward.
posted by rodneyaug at 4:40 PM on May 3, 2017

Your mention of having a humanities background reminds me of my current team of Instructional Designers. Most of us were history, art, or communications majors who stumbled into the world of ID, though you can get a degree in it. We create learning materials exclusively for other employees within our large company. We are considered part of HR (as training usually is), but technology is a huge part of the day-to-day work.

I'm sure I've posted about this before, but in this job (especially if you create e-learning courses) you may be doing writing, graphic design, audio, UI, photography, video, testing/assessment, and project management - all in one project.

If you've already created some kind of learning modules or instructional materials, these could possibly be used to get some kind of entry-level position. I went from web design into Instructional Design and never looked back. : )

If you want to look further into this area, read up on the ADDIE model, ISD (Instructional System Design), and national organizations such as ATD and the eLearning Guild.
posted by see_change at 6:03 PM on May 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

For job titles, look more into "customer success" or "customer happiness" rather than "customer service" or even "customer support". The former will give you more tech-oriented companies, while the latter could be tech, or could call center hell holes.

I definitely agree on "customer happiness" but at least in the market here, Customer Success Managers are considered senior -- most of my team has 5-10 years plus experience in tech and MBAs. Customer Success does not equal support for a lot of companies -- it is a more strategic role, but my suggestion would be to aspire up to that. It would hit all of your buttons (and I say that as a former History major with a background in retail -- although I do have that MBA and tech skills, but I didn't when I started out).
posted by hrj at 7:05 PM on May 3, 2017

If you want the answer of how most people with no IT degree make the jump, they do it gradually, starting with a non-tech focused job, and gradually take on more and more tech focused tasks, until that's just what they do.

I started in the mail room, then became the guy that knew how to fix printers, then was transferred to the help desk, etc, etc. now I'm a software engineer at a huge tech company.

I would caution against bootcamps and stuff like strayer or getting certs. They're a waste of money, unless you can talk your work into paying for it.
posted by empath at 5:36 AM on May 4, 2017

I would also agree to look for Customer Success Associate, Client Services Associate, or Account Manager* roles (these are all basically the same thing). At my last job at a tech company, we often hired people with retail experience for these types of roles. Having dealt with customers in a retail setting shows you can keep your cool with difficult and high-touch accounts.

*I don't know why, but "Account Manager" doesn't actually mean you're in a management role.
posted by radioamy at 10:29 AM on May 4, 2017

Oh and I should mention that those roles aren't support, exactly. At a SaaS company, you're the main point of contact for customers. You may transfer them to support when there's an issue, but more often you're checking in, answering basic questions, scheduling training, upselling, etc.
posted by radioamy at 10:30 AM on May 4, 2017

Be careful with account manager postings, though. Some companies use that as a title for sales, which you don't want. Make sure the job duties involve working with existing clients.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:01 PM on May 4, 2017

I didn't have any formal tech experience or qualifications, so I did Coursera courses. I showed up to meetups - really friendly, very helpful. I had done hobbyist stuff and known Linux (i.e. Unix-style commands and scripting, plus some details of networking) for a long time, and that helps me to this day.

My previous experience, teaching a non-tech subject, has really helped me in the tech job I'm doing because I can stand in a room and talk coherently and also write instructions and explanations in clear language. My boss cares less about my tech skills than the other stuff, in my opinion.

The main advice I would give is to learn to do stuff, rather than learning about stuff. Blunder through, make things work, and think about why the docs you read didn't help you get it right the first time.

Working with Free Software doesn't any money, so maybe think about learning how to accomplish some of the things you currently do using free tools?

If you do get in to a tech role: never feel like an impostor. Everyone is winging it at least some of the time — it's the most important skill.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 4:05 PM on May 4, 2017

You might also consider project management, a producer role, or working in client services, depending on the type of company. The producers at our studio don't have technical backgrounds, but they have a great high-level understanding of what goes into each project and are really good at communicating with clients and the other members of our team and keeping everything on track. There's a business-y side to that kind of role, to be sure, but also lots of soft skills when it comes to managing the team and the project over time.
posted by pourtant at 8:57 PM on May 4, 2017

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