IT Career Shift: Is College the Only Answer?
It is not uncommon for people to assume that going back to college, or earn certificates, is necessary to acquire technical skills for a career shift. That isn't necessarily always the case.
A career shift into information technology (IT) from industries like manufacturing seems like a bridge too far for some.
Thinking about such a drastic career change may conjure images of nerds with STEM degrees grappling with arcane challenges of the future.
Migrating to the Technology Industry
The reality of IT is far more mundane. Like with other industries, the IT industry sub-divides its tasks into simpler components that workers can learn after short periods of training. Some functions, such as project management, are the staple of work routines in most industries.
As it matures, an increasing number of functions in IT are akin to roles like quality control in manufacturing, which need workers with vocational training not dissimilar to blue-collar workers, and companies pay to acquire it in night schools.
Transferable skills from other industries encounter lower barriers to entering into IT.
“We have had a great deal of success placing candidates from the military. They have rigorous training in client service, process and project management, lifecycle flows, and cybersecurity that the technology industry often lacks,” said Dr. Art Langer, Professor of Professional Practice at Columbia University.
He also operates a non-profit, Workforce Opportunity Services, which trains military veterans and underserved communities to transition to corporate jobs. Domain expertise in industries like the legal or manufacturing industry is transferable to the technology industry.
"Functions like business analysis and requirements gathering, software quality assurance (SQA), and testing attract professionals with subject matter expertise in industries,” Dr. Langer underscored. “While a career shift generally comes at the cost of salary cuts, these skills attract comparable if not higher salaries,” Dr. Langer added.
New technologies create unforeseen demand for new skills, not necessarily STEM, such as linguistics for training robots to speak and for natural language processing (NLP). In recent times, traditional industries have adopted technology solutions, and their users acquire rudimentary technical skills as they learn to use them to solve problems.
The demand for writers and editors has accelerated to produce content that communicates the value of technology solutions to the uninitiated as buyers get their information from websites rather than salespeople.
College is a Small Part of the Journey
It is not uncommon for people to assume that going back to college, or earn certificates, is necessary to acquire technical skills. That is not necessarily the case. The internet has abundant resources for people to learn on their own — YouTube is one of the most important sources of learning.
Yet, a career change to the technology industry is perceived to be daunting for real or imagined reasons. Recruiters reflexively look for experience in the industry, if not with a competitor, especially when the market is soft or stagnant.
Additionally, a career shift often entails lower compensation, which is unpalatable to especially senior professionals.
We spoke to Richard Alderson, founder and coach at the London-based Careershifters, who informed us that his company has helped more than 11,000 customers with their career changes. On their site, they feature 29 stories of people who’ve shifted into the technology industry without necessarily acquiring formal education.
“Career shifters generally don’t do well when they take recourse to traditional recruiters. Instead, success is more likely when career shifters establish relationships with people and organizations that excite them, before demonstrating their value to prospective employers by completing modest projects,” said Alderson.
“Career shifters succeed if they think and act like entrepreneurs who know how to sniff for opportunities and solve problems for others. Much of our coaching helps candidates to overcome limiting attitudes like fear, restrictive concerns about age, and risk aversion,” Alderson said.
The pathways to enter the technology industry could well be by retraining in coding academies or other institutions set up to train professionals in emerging technology fields with fast-growing demand.
“Choose educational institutions that provide credible proof that their graduates are employed. Some of them guarantee employment because of their relationships with companies,” Alderson asserted.
Proof of Skills
Regardless, demonstrable proof of hands-on capability, such as applications developed, and the effective communication of the skills clinches a career shift whatever the method used to prepare for it.
“For software developers, employers look at their activity on GitHub with updates of their code (pushes). They also review Readme files that go with the code to learn how developers communicate the problems they are solving and their approach,” Krieger added.
The projects, often completed for non-profits, have to appeal to employers in the industry. “Our students are mentored by industry experts, currently employed, who ensure that the projects have enough merit to indicate a viable future for the candidate in their new career,” said Allison McLean, a career coach at Springboard.
One of its students, who came after five years of experience in the healthcare industry, wanted to shift to data science without leaving his industry. He had experience in analysis and statistics in a lab setting and taught himself basic Python.
“He did a volunteer project for a company he found through AngelList before he applied for jobs and his coaching at Springboard helped him excel in the interview,” said McLean.
“Soft skills, accumulated from previous jobs, bolster the perceived value of career changers besides the specific value of their recent training and project work,” Krieger underscored.
“As a coach, I encourage candidates to construct and communicate a compelling narrative around their achievements in teamwork, leadership, communication, and growth mindset relevant to the technology industry,” Krieger noted.
She cited the example of a high school teacher who took the initiative to lead the introduction of data-led instruction and developed the curriculum, that a network of schools embraced, before he transitioned to data science in a company.
“Another person went from custodial services to software engineering. He had been an amateur boxer and did mountain climbing as part of a leadership program. He worked as a middle-school custodian before he taught himself how to code, he then worked as a technology manager for a non-profit, and then attended and graduated from General Assembly and completed multiple projects to demonstrate his capabilities," said Krieger.
Education for retraining to enter the technology industry is not necessarily a touchstone of competence. Adaptability is the hallmark of a person who can live with the flux of the modern industry.
Every individual will have their own path to achieving their goals.
A career shift is a way of professional life and likely more so in the future. The technology industry, more than any other, understands the inevitability of career change — its recruiters should have the ability to spot candidates who are able to change course seamlessly.
Everyone in the workforce should be thinking of acquiring skills that endure throughout their career.