Make the Leap: How to Build Your Skill Set and Change Careers
By Meg Duffy, Program Manager of the Grace Hopper Program
When it's time to move on, make the first move.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, two out of three job openings are vacancies created by career changers, and each year about 6 million people switch occupations. These statistics suggest that over the course of your career, declining job satisfaction may one day motivate you to look for opportunities in a new field. Lack of growth in a current job, frustration with the job market in a particular field, boredom, and the need for a new challenge are all factors that career changers cite as contributing to their transitions.
No matter your motivation for a career move, it's important to understand the difficulties of transitioning to a new industry. What if the work you want to do next is completely different from what you’re doing now? That constitutes a major career change and all the work that goes along with it. Will you be able to build the necessary skills and experience to land your new dream job?
Major considerations like those make changing careers seem daunting, but it is possible. Our co-founders transitioned from software engineering to running their own startup--us!--and many of our staff members once had totally different careers: Our academics team has former musicians; our marketing team has former accountants and actors; our instructors have been scientists and researchers and comedians in past lives.
Today, we all work with students from a wide range of non-technical backgrounds who are transforming themselves into full-stack software engineers on a daily basis. This type of career transition takes commitment, creativity, and guts, but with the proper strategy and career advice, it can be done.
Illustration by Emi Hensley
Learn By Doing and Practice
If you’re lucky, you might be able to talk to your boss about your plans and find a way to learn on the job. Your boss may be willing to place you on a new team where you can learn from coworkers who possess your target skills. Make sure you’re aware of professional development opportunities at your company and take full advantage of them. This approach can be a way to test-drive a new position without diving in head first. Often, this is easier in a startup environment where roles are less defined.
But not every work environment supports this type of transition. Often, you have to go it alone. Many of our students started their new career path as developers in this manner. By committing nights and weekends to self-paced exercises and personal projects, they were able to build a solid web development foundation. With consistent practice, they acquired enough of the basics to pass the admissions assessment here at Fullstack, where they’re developing a robust skill set that will empower them to successfully enter the job market.
Seek Feedback and Career Advice
Inevitably, you’ll reach a plateau in your learning and you’ll have to take another risk. As a beginner, it’s tempting to avoid getting feedback on your work. When you’re new, you may not be confident in your abilities. Criticism can feel like a personal attack on your efforts — but anyone pursuing a successful career change should welcome constructive criticism.
The path to getting good at something starts with being bad at it. By virtue of your lack of experience, you’re not going to know everything in your desired career field. Feedback will help you focus on the skills you need to improve. (Spoiler alert: The need for feedback never goes away. Even when you’ve attained expert status, there will always be more to learn.) In any case, once you land a job, you will be required to demonstrate your skills and iterate on feedback, so it’s better to get comfortable with that process now, when the stakes aren’t so high.
Many Grace Hopper Program students apply to the program to take their job readiness to the next level. They’ve done what they can on their own, but they want to advance their skills to prepare for a new position. The structure of the program combined with the personalized feedback and attention help them learn a tremendous amount in a short period of time.
Get in Front of People and Tell Your Story
Once you’ve demonstrated your skills and built a portfolio of your work (the curriculum here at Fullstack and Grace Hopper includes hands-on project-building to fill out said portfolio), it’s time to take yet another risk and apply to a new role. Or, rather, many new roles. But spamming out your résumé into the portal void isn’t going to cut it. If you’re trying to make a career transition from a non-technical to a technical role, your résumé alone will not give the full picture.
Cover letters can help explain the leap, but the best way to tell your story is to get in front of people. When you find a role that piques your interest, tap into your network. Do you know anyone who has a contact at the company? If not, try cold-emailing an employee on your desired team and invite them for coffee.
These coffee chats, called informational interviews, are great for two reasons. First, you can pass the first HR hurdle by making a solid contact at the company. Second, by getting in front of a person, you can explain the “why” behind your career change and illustrate the work you’ve put in to make it happen.
You’ll also clarify your own thoughts about the company by speaking with an actual team member. Does your perception of the company’s product and culture reflect reality? Would you really like working there? Keep in touch with the folks who are generous enough to give you their time and be sure to reach out when you’re ready to apply--they may be able to pass your application directly to the hiring manager or even give you job interview tips.
Making a career change can take a long time, so be patient while you build your skills. The road to a new job isn’t easy, but it’s definitely worth it.
Considering transitioning to a career in software development? Get inspired by these grads who did it and never looked back.