3 Tips for Pivoting to Tech with a Non-Traditional Background
Health and fitness is at the core of Kathy Le’s being.
On any given day you can find her working out at her fitness studio or playing rugby for a league in New England. And when she isn’t training her body, she’s training her mind by learning new skills as a Software Development Engineer 1 at Audible.
In 2020, Kathy made a career pivot from full-time fitness to tech. We sat down with her to learn about her challenging, yet rewarding transition into the engineering field. Keep reading to hear her story and her advice on how to combat imposter syndrome and achieve professional growth.
Making the Leap into Tech
Boston native Kathy completed her Bachelor of Science in Health Studies at Boston University in 2016, which she immediately put to use as a health and fitness personal trainer and eventual fitness studio owner. For 4 years, she followed a defined schedule based on her 1:1 training sessions with her clients in the gym studio she opened.
But when COVID-19 hit, her business came to a halt. “One of the first industries to disappear was fitness and health,” says Kathy. “We couldn’t social distance. I needed to act quick.” So she began researching different jobs and potential career paths. One of Kathy’s social media friends posted about a bootcamp they were doing. “It's a nonprofit based out in Boston called Resilient Coders,” explains Kathy. “They serve people of color and people from low income backgrounds and put them through an 18- to 20-week bootcamp.” Without hesitation, she signed up and embarked on a three-month journey to learn full-stack development skills.
Audible hired Kathy directly from the bootcamp as an apprentice Software Development Engineer. From the start, she was assigned a mentor, and began working on exciting projects with full support from Audible throughout the transition. “I’m very lucky. I feel like it's been a dream where my background has never been a problem,” Kathy explains. “My favorite thing about working at Audible is actually my team. They just welcomed me like anyone else. [They’ve been] super open, accepting, and very fun, so I never feel like I'm actually at work.” From the beginning, Kathy felt at ease asking for help, and received the necessary support and encouragement from her team members and leadership.
Transferring Skills and Reaping the Rewards
Transitioning to the tech field with a non-traditional background requires pulling from skills acquired in other professional experiences.
Kathy was able to transfer many of her skills from fitness to her new role as a software engineer. “In physical training, you have to break information down, especially depending on who you're talking to. If I'm trying to break down a specific exercise for someone, I have to try different ways, because one person might not understand it the way that I'm teaching it,” she says. “Coding, in a way, is similar. It's very systematic and requires breaking information down. I’m always trying to analyze how to get from Point A to Point B. I think of the steps and try different ways until I achieve my goal, like I do when I train people.”
And, similar to training, she also loves seeing the results of her work. “'I’m working on Audible on Alexa devices. So, I can immediately turn on my device and say, ‘Hey Alexa, play Audible.’ And then I can literally see my work playing out in front of me.” The same sense of pride she feels when one of her trainees reach a fitness milestone is reflected in her engineering work.
“We launched a new product in India. [GR2] It was my first time leading a project and I was very afraid, but I had a lot of help from my team and we were able to launch it on time,” she explains. “Now, it’s available in the whole country and it’s a very exciting new way of listening. So I'm amazed how my code is touching so many people.’”
So far, Kathy has been enjoying the benefits of making the switch over to tech, such as the flexible work time, Audible’s Hub+Home hybrid model, the snacks and cold brew at the office, and the company’s multiple reimbursement plans, such as for learning, travel, and fitness. She also continues to participate in a mentorship program, even after completing her apprenticeship. Switching to tech has given her the space and resources to work as she sees best.
Combatting Imposter Syndrome and Building Confidence
One of the hardest things Kathy has experienced in her career pivot has been dealing with imposter syndrome. She explains that, “when you start, you feel like a fraud. Like you don’t have enough knowledge or experience to be able to fill the role.” When dealing with imposter syndrome, Kathy credits intrapersonal skills and the work environment for helping her gain the confidence to accelerate in her tech career.
“One thing that I really enjoyed about this experience is the fact that I came in as an apprentice,” she elaborates. “It takes that pressure off of knowing what to do. You know you’re there to learn and it gives you comfort to ask a bunch of questions.”
At the start of apprenticeship, Audible hosted a workshop that taught newcomers all the basics, including non-tech skills required for the role, such as knowing how to work on a team, introduction to different roles, and how to break down tasks. By the end of her apprenticeship year, Kathy says, “I felt really solid in my skills. I thought, ‘Imposter syndrome, who?’” Apart from the support of Audible as a “safe and welcoming place to ask questions,” she shares that self-awareness and open communication have also helped her build confidence in her role.
Three Pieces of Advice for Pursuing Growth
In her first year at Audible, Kathy has been promoted and led multiple projects. Drawing from her career transition experience, she gives us three pieces of advice for pursuing career growth.
- Be fearless in putting yourself first. Keep your career growth top of mind. “Don’t feel guilty about advocating to be on a different team if it means growing your skills,” says Kathy. “The teams you switch from will be able to adapt without you, so just focus on your goals and pursue the opportunities that will help you first.”
- Ask for help. When switching careers, being open to learning is key for a smooth, successful transition. “Have the awareness to know what you don’t know and be confident to speak up, collaborate with others, or ask for help as many times as you need to,” Kathy advises.
- Set clear, measurable goals, and communicate with your manager. “Clarify your goals by setting benchmarks or guidelines with your leadership. That way when you ask for a promotion, you can point out the specific tasks you’ve accomplished and how you’ve reached certain goals for the company,” Kathy explains. “That is a good way to figure out if you are ready for the next level.”
If you’re interested in working at Audible, check out their roles!
Quan Le loves being outdoors.
“I love climbing. My partner and my life goals revolve around it. We want to climb the hardest routes or the coolest mountains,” Quan shares with excitement.
Although Quan and their partner share this hobby, they also have their separate outdoor interests. “My partner likes to go backpacking and I prefer scuba diving,” they explain.
Quan enjoys the outdoors so much that you’ll only find them inside on two occasions. The first is to watch movies like Everything Everywhere All At Once, and the second is to work from home as a software engineer for CrowdStreet.
We sat down with Quan to learn more about their career journey from mechanical to software engineering and the lessons they learned along the way.
Starting out in Mechanical Engineering
When Quan got accepted into the University of California Irvine (UCI), they majored in biological sciences thinking they would fulfill their parents’ hopes of them becoming a doctor. However, they quickly became uninterested in the subject.
“I just didn't like it,” they admit. “So once I got to UCI, I struggled for a year to try to figure out what I wanted to do.” This temporary uncertainty led them to change their major to accounting because of their interest in money.
“Money is universal to everyone, especially in today's economy,” Quan says. “Knowing how to handle your money and how it flows between different accounts is very useful.”
Even though finance interested them, it wasn’t exactly the career field they wanted to be in.
“I realized early on that I like to be mentally stimulated. I like challenges. So, I switched to one of the hardest majors: mechanical engineering,” they explain.
With this new focus came a new career goal. “As cheesy and stereotypical as it is, I wanted to work for SpaceX and launch rockets to Jupiter or Pluto and things like that,” they admit.
However, Quan had to face the reality that there are limited career opportunities in space travel and more opportunities in software.
Pivoting to Software Engineering
Quan enjoyed the logical approach they learned in mechanical engineering, but there was one drawback.
“In the industry, unless you're doing research, which you'd have to get your PhD for, it's a lot of paperwork and documentation,” Quan says. “You're not doing formulas or looking up series anymore.”
“I don't think people should derive their happiness from work, but I don't think you should be miserable from work either,” they explain. With this realization, Quan determined to make a career shift .
In search of something more fulfilling, Quan made a career change and shifted into the world of software by attending a coding bootcamp. This helped them build a foundation in coding, and smoothly transition into software engineering.
However, a relatively seamless transition didn’t mean a career without challenges.
“With software engineering, you're going to come across problems with your code,” Quan shares. “It's not going to work and you're not going to understand why.”
In these moments of frustration, Quan learned how to deal with these challenges without getting overwhelmed.
“When I feel like banging my head on the wall because of a problem, I go lay down," they explain. “I go sit somewhere, look at my phone, text my friend, or go on a short run.”
Learning to navigate these stressors has helped Quan produce influential work.
The Advantages of Working in the Startup Culture
As the tech industry boomed, Quan saw the allure of wanting to work for big companies.
“I realized there's a lot of talk about joining big companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Google,” they share. “But at the same time, when you're at a big company you can feel like a cog in the machine. To see one small change, you're probably going to be working on it for years.”
With this in mind, Quan focused on working at start-ups, where they even saw one of their inventions come to life.
“At my former job, I started an app with my teammate,” they explain. “We went from nothing to creating a product that the stakeholders wanted and enjoyed.”
In just three months, they created an app that allows you to upload a file, be it a pdf or video, and have it translated into another language.
“I thought it was an important thing to have because there's lots of great literature and video content in different languages, but we can't access them because not everyone can speak 10 languages.”
Being able to see the results of their hard work is something that Quan appreciates about working with start-ups. This, along with the remote freedom and supportive work culture that comes with it.
Remote Freedom at CrowdStreet
Soon after creating the app for their former employer, the pandemic hit, which temporarily forced Quan to work remotely. Fortunately, this allowed them to support their partner who was working in the ICU at the time.
“I wanted to find a remote solution so that I could be home to support him,” they share. “After a 12-hour shift, the last thing you want to think about is cooking dinner or a two-hour commute.”
In search of a company that would allow them to work fully remotely, they found CrowdStreet, one of the leading real estate investing platforms.
At CrowdStreet, Quan not only gets the freedom to work from anywhere they want, but they also reap the benefits of a dynamic and supportive work environment.
“Sometimes during our stand-up meetings, we talk about coding or our weekend,” they say. “We don’t only talk about work.”
CrowdStreet’s ‘stand-up’ meetings provide space for daily check-ins and help build comradery. They also have ‘retro’ meetings, which focus on long-term plans.
“In retro planning, we talk about our goals for the next brand and what we want to accomplish,” Quan explains.
Within the team, everyone has a say. “It does feel very democratic,” Quan shares. “The product manager can present the needs and concerns of the stakeholders, but we have the opportunity to push back. For example, the customers may care about this, but we need to fix this major bug right now.”
“The culture of collaboration within the company makes you feel like you're not just a cog in the machine, that your opinion does matter,” Quan comments.
3 Points for Pivoting Careers
From biology major to mechanical engineer to software engineer, Quan has a lot of advice to offer about shifting career paths. Here are their top 3 points:
- Switch to a field you are genuinely interested in. Some careers may look appealing from the outside, but may not be what truly interests you. “I love puzzles,” Quan shares. “I can get lost in them. Software engineering is like a giant never-ending puzzle.” If you switch careers based on appearances, popularity, or salary, you will ultimately get burnt out. “Ignore what's portrayed in the media about how great software engineering is and find out what you like about it.”
- Find what you like doing outside of work. Having hobbies outside of work is just as important as doing work that you enjoy. “All my friends who are software engineers like what they do, but they are the happiest people because they have something else outside of work that they love,” Quan explains.
- Keep on learning. Quan suggests taking your learning outside of the office. “You don't always have to be learning about your work,” they advise. “It's hard to do that all the time. Learn how to build a bookshelf, go read a book, or try a new crocheting technique.” Quan encourages you to study what interests you in addition to your professional needs.
Insight from CallRail’s Amanda Raymond
If you ask any of Amanda Raymond’s friends, family members, or colleagues, they’d all agree that she embodies living life to the fullest.
The Staff Engineer at CallRail is currently exploring the great American outdoors in a custom camper which doubles as her portable office. And when she’s not showcasing her coding skills at work, she’s busy exploring, kayaking, solo hiking, or making repairs on her house with wheels. “Everyday something breaks, so I'm learning how to be an electrician, learning how to be a plumber, and everyday I have to learn something new,” she says cheerfully.
This roadtrip is a full circle moment for Amanda because, just over 8 years ago, after quitting her job as a biochemist, she set off on another cross-country trip that reconnected her with an old friend who introduced her to an opportunity to change her career trajectory by joining a coding bootcamp.
“Coming from a biochem background, you had to have a certificate on a wall with a high degree to get through a door. I had a bachelor's, I didn't have a Masters, I didn't have a PhD,” says Amanda. “I knew that I wanted the freedom of a career in Tech and the lifestyle of a coder so I took a leap of faith.” And she dove headfirst into a full-stack web development bootcamp. That leap of faith has helped her transition from a job in science that she wasn’t passionate about and grow a fulfilling career that allows her the freedom and flexibility with a company that embraces her adventurous spirit.
We sat down with Amanda to hear more about her career journey, and to gain some unique insight on starting a career in technology with a non-traditional background. Keep reading for her top 5 tips for breaking into a career in technology.
Tip 1: Acquire the Skill Set: Join a Bootcamp or Use Online Resources
Amanda’s journey began when she attended a coding bootcamp. “At the time I joined, the whole concept of coding bootcamps was new,” she explains. “So a lot of people didn't know what bootcampers were.” But nowadays, bootcamps are one of the most popular ways to learn how to code and, like for Amanda, they serve as a great foundation for career pivoters to break into the world of tech.
Amanda highlights the fact that you don’t have to have a degree in computer science to start working in tech. Career pivoters have valuable experiences, perspectives, and transferable skills that can be hugely beneficial for companies. Amanda sees having a background in something other than tech should be seen, “not as a disadvantage, but as an advantage.”
But bootcamps aren’t the only way to accelerate your learning, especially considering the financial investment required for these intensive courses. “There are so many free resources out there,” Amanda elaborates. “If you have the discipline to teach yourself, you can listen to podcasts, you can do tutorials online, you can watch YouTube videos, the possibilities are endless. Information is free on the internet these days and so at the end of the day, if you're trying to see if you wanna go into tech, I would say immerse yourself with that information.”
Tip 2: Network to Build Personal Connections!
When it came to finding a job, Amanda eagerly recommended networking. “My advice to people going into transitioning into tech is to go to meetups consistently, but don't go with the intent of getting a job,” she warns. Instead, she advises to focus on making connections, and the professional opportunities will follow. “Get to know people, be excited to be there, be motivated to learn, and be curious about the people that you're meeting. Because at the end of the day, a lot of people just want to work with people that they get along with.” Amanda secured her first major tech job at a small startup via a networking event. Her connection with a friend of a CTO of a local startup led to an interview, her first job in tech, and a “forever mentor.”
After a bustling three years of learning under the wing of that CTO, Amanda was ready for the next learning experience via a different lane in the tech industry. “The fervor and energy surrounding ‘startup life’ was incredibly rewarding and insightful for my apprentice-like mind for 3 years, but eventually proved pretty taxing,” she explains. “ I was excited to dig into the next phase of my career transition at a larger company..” So, once again, she utilized her network to transition from her startup to a position in CallRail. “Some of the CallRail admins had previously worked for the same startup I was currently working at, and my CTO advocated for me as a reference to let them know I was going to apply.”. She started her journey with CallRail in 2017.
Tip 3: Leverage your Transferable Skills
When pivoting into tech, your transferable skills will help you bridge the gaps that you might be missing with education. In fact, they can also give you a leg up on your colleagues. In Amanda’s case, applying the scientific method to coding came as a strength. “I use it daily at work for solving problems,” she explains. “It comes down to observing a problem, researching the topic, proposing a hypothesis, running an experiment that can test that hypothesis, analyzing the results, and then reporting the conclusion.”
Having an idea of how your prior skill sets can be applied in your new career is an interview must. Being prepared to explain your non-traditional background can help employers better understand who you are and what you can bring to the table.
Tip 4: Find the Right Work Environment for You
One of Amanda's favorite aspects of working at CallRail is that the company prioritizes employee passions. “CallRail is a place where, if you are passionate about something, then they will do whatever it takes to help you to do it. They want people to be passionate about what they're working on.” And that doesn’t just mean in the workplace. In fact, Amanda credits her current lifestyle to CallRail’s trust and willingness to provide remote opportunities post-COVID. “Not many companies would be okay with what I am doing, but CallRail has been very supportive. My manager has, from the very beginning, been supportive of this track for me.”
Having a sense of support and trust at work translates to overall happiness and wellbeing. “At the beginning of my mobile office journey, I asked my manager to please let me know if I have a decrease in work efficiency, and that I would promptly adjust,” she explains. “And my manager responded with,, ‘If anything, we think that you are going to do better work because you will be happier.’”
To find the best work environment for you Amanda recommends doing your research on company values and culture and asking questions to make sure the company is a good fit. “When you're interviewing for a job, they're not just interviewing you, you're interviewing them to see if that's a place where you can thrive.” She further explains, “At the beginning of your career transition into Tech, you want to find an environment that celebrates where you are currently in that journey and provides you with tangible resources and guidance to take you to the next level.”
Tip 5: Build the Right Mindset
In order to best succeed in this field Amanda highlights three mindset shifts she believes led her to success.
Be patient with yourself. “You have to have a lot of patience with yourself when learning something new. And if you have confidence that you can do anything you set your mind to and the patience with yourself to stick with it (because it won't happen overnight)— you can be successful,” says Amanda. “The patience to stick with myself and continue to believe in my abilities during challenging times was my map to transitioning into tech.”
Get comfortable not always having the answer. For Amanda, starting a career in tech requires accepting that you will need to be a continual learner. “I think that being in tech is kind of like being on a constant roller coaster of newness and learning. That journey never ends, and you have to kind of be okay with that and then get good at it,” she explains.
Be passionate and coachable. As the previous point suggests, teachability is a trait that any career pivoter needs to embrace. During her time as a coding instructor, she noted that the most passionate students were the most likely to succeed, saying “What I saw as a teacher and as a mentor is that the people that were truly passionate, in a way that was contagious, were able to succeed by constantly communicating and staying humble, yet eager to tackle the rigorous process of learning.”
The 3 Transferable Skills that Helped Raytheon Technologies’ Sierra Weaver Pivot From Communications to Cybersecurity
As a Cybersecurity DOD Collateral Alt. Information Systems Security Manager (ISSM), it’s easy for Sierra to lose track of time at work because she loves learning, and her field is constantly refreshing itself with new tools, technology, and processes to stay up-to-date on.
Sierra Weaver’s boss at Raytheon Technologies keeps a good eye on the entire team to ensure no one is overworking themselves.
“He’ll jokingly say, ‘I’ve seen you online at this hour!’ and consistently reminds me of work-life balance,” she says. “He’s very supportive—we honestly have an amazing team.”
But ask her five years ago whether she thought she’d be in cybersecurity, and you would have gotten a resounding “no.”
Sierra planned to work in broadcast journalism, but after being exposed to cybersecurity while working in a contract position at a different aerospace company, she realized she wanted to transition into that industry.
“When I started, I didn’t have all of the technical skills, but that was something I learned along the way. Anyone from any background or career, so long as you are determined, open to learning, a great problem solver, and have some core transferable skills can be successful in a Cyber career,” she says.
We sat down with Sierra to learn more about what exactly those skills were, how she uses them on a daily basis, and what the future of cybersecurity looks like from her perspective.
Core Skill: Determination
Sierra studied communication and Pan-African studies at Cal State while working full-time—and she credits a lot of her success in cybersecurity to her ability to work hard.
Even her first experience with the industry required determination. As a contractor, she was involved with different departments and processes, from purchasing to contracting to licensing.
“With all of the hats I wore, I was doing quite a bit, but cybersecurity is what interested me the most,” she says. After getting hired at Raytheon, Sierra applied her work ethic to deepening her expertise in the field through certifications, including the Security Plus certification.
“As long as you are willing and open to the training process, I feel like anyone can make the pivot, just by being determined,” she says.
Core Skill: Communication
Though she loves her job, Sierra is a lot more than just her work. For one thing, she’s one of 15 siblings. Growing up in LA with that many family members, Sierra learned how to communicate with different kinds of people with various backgrounds, needs, and styles of interaction.
“With cyber, you’re communicating and collaborating with many stakeholders most of your all day,” she says, citing everyone from the IT department to program managers, and our customers.
Sierra calls her Raytheon coworkers her work family, and says that at the end of the day, “we all get along so well, communicate effectively with one another, and ultimately they help make work so much more worthwhile.”
“We spend so much time at our jobs. You always want to be in an environment you feel comfortable in, one you can flourish in. I’m lucky in the sense that the folks I work with are extremely supportive. I can leverage their knowledge. I can lean on them if I need anything. And I’m just so appreciative of that. That’s what keeps me at Raytheon Technologies,” she says.
Core Skill: Problem-Solving
Sierra’s team ensures that Raytheon’s clients, particularly those with classified contracts, have their systems set up in a way that ensures no classified information is compromised. They work with the Defensive Counterintelligence Security Agency to keep things up to snuff, which includes maintaining the systems for the life of the technology.
It requires a nimble approach to problem-solving—and a hands-on one, too.
Even though she’s now a manager of a team of six, Sierra still does some of that work herself.
“I want my team to know that anything that I ask them to do, I’m willing to do,” she says, referencing site visits and tough systems. “I want to give my team the tools to be able to fish on their own, and to feel comfortable and confident, but I also want to be just hands-on enough for them to know that if they need my support, I’m there and available to help them.”
Building the Next Wave of Women in Cybersecurity
When Sierra looks around her industry, she doesn’t see many people who look like her.
“I would love to see more women within cybersecurity. And I am absolutely doing my best and doing my part to encourage women, and women of color as well, to join cybersecurity,” she says. “For us to continue to be successful, we need diversity on all fronts.”
Part of Sierra doing her best is sharing her story, like she’s done with us here. Another part of it is offering herself up as a resource for women looking to break into the field.
“I hear from folks that they look at job requisites for cybersecurity, or research all of what the field entails, and get intimidated and discouraged because they feel like they have to have all these certifications or several years of experience just to get their foot in the door at a company like Raytheon Technologies. But honestly, we truly need individuals who are passionate about cybersecurity and willing to learn; you don’t need to be a technical expert to get started,” Sierra says.