Insight on Transitioning Into Tech with a Non-Traditional Background
Emily King much prefers road-tripping over flying.
Having lived in many places – from Florida to Texas to Colorado – she’s always enjoyed the adventure of travel. “I love to get in my car and just drive for 30 hours to Florida and just see what’s out there,” elaborates Emily. “I could fly, but just driving through and seeing the country and meeting people in each town; it’s super fun to me.”
Emily’s ambition and attention to detail also translate to her professional life. It helped her transition into tech without a software engineering degree or a Bootcamp certification. We sat down with her to hear more about her journey pivoting from wedding photography to becoming a Software Quality Assurance Manager at cloud marketplace Pax8.
Keep reading to learn how she’s broken barriers throughout her journey and advice for women looking to pivot to tech.
Breaking into the tech world
When it came time to pick a career path after high school, Emily wasn’t sure which route to go down. “I literally had no idea what I wanted to do,” Emily reminisces. “I am very methodical. I remember one of my teachers telling me I had the brain of an engineer, but you want to rebel from that for a little bit when you’re a kid.” Encouraged by her family to explore more of her creative side, Emily opted to study one of her hobbies: photography. “I enjoyed it, so I decided to go down that path,” she explains. “But at a certain point, I realized that that wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life.”
After doing some wedding photography and other side photography work to make ends meet, Emily decided to find a job where she could leverage some of her different strengths. “I knew that I’ve always been really great at helping people. I’m very patient. I love to help,” she says. “And so I was at a point where I needed to pay the bills, and I was like, let’s go to Apple.”
She started on the sales floor, showcasing the newest Apple technology to customers. But she quickly moved on to the tech side of things – doing repairs on computers. “I wanted to work towards something. I wanted to know the ins and outs and why things work the way that they do,” says Emily. This is why she wasn’t afraid to ask questions and dig deep into solving problems. One of her store managers noticed her drive and attention to detail and connected her with an opportunity that would change her life.
“He pulled me aside and explained career experiences at Apple’s corporate locations – Austin or San Jose – where they offer people in retail to go out to their campuses and work in a career job for four months,” she elaborates. “It doesn’t guarantee you a job, but it’s something to get your foot in the door.”
Without hesitation, Emily packed up and left for Austin, Texas, and dove into her first official engineering experience. “That’s what led me into Quality Assurance,” Emily explains. She began testing different hardware parts for iPhones and computers, which she already had experience with at her retail store. “But when I started to get into diagnostic testing, seeing all the different things that go into testing software and hardware was eye-opening. I had never felt that before. It made me so excited being able to solve a problem that I couldn’t figure out,” Emily shares.
Her corporate experience at Apple extended from four months to six months, and she eventually joined a team to continue her journey there for four more years.
Tech leadership at Pax8
A move back to Colorado is what sparked her next career step. “There came a certain point where I didn’t see myself making a home in Texas, so I moved back to Colorado. But when I moved back, I honestly didn’t like the remote experience,” she says. “I was still working at Apple, but I felt really disconnected. I didn’t feel as motivated as I was before.”
In search of the work camaraderie she experienced in Austin, she reached out to her local network to learn more about the Colorado job market. One of her colleagues mentioned the cloud solutions management platform Pax8. “The way he spoke about the company convinced me,” says Emily. “He loved what they did, the opportunities he got, the training that he got, how supportive everybody was.” So, when a position opened up, she jumped on the opportunity.
Emily’s former QA experience set the foundation for her new position. “Because I had hardware and software experience, I was able to translate that into the role here, and I came in as a QA II.” Within a few weeks, her manager approached her about taking on a new project. “They needed a senior engineer to create a process to QA their tools and collaborate with the team to find opportunities to make a more efficient process,” Emily explains. “I was honestly excited that people trusted me to be able to do it, but man, it was a little intimidating at first.”
Yet she moved into the role with confidence, thanks to the support of her team. “They really encouraged me, and I thrived,” she says. She worked in that role for a year and a half before transitioning into a new one. The decision to take that role helped her gain the leadership experience she needed for her current management role. “I took an opportunity that really not that many people wanted to, and I made the best process that I could for that team,” she elaborates. “I created that relationship to where, when I got out of it, it just kind of eased me into leadership because I had to train people to take it over.”
Emily then started spearheading different projects and moved to QA Lead, and most recently took on a role as QA Manager. “I’ve been in the manager role for six to eight months, so I’m still new, but I feel like I’ve been doing it for a long time now,” Emily shares.
Emily’s drive, inquisitiveness, and problem-solving skills have helped her advance her engineering career. However, riding the tech wave was not always easy. Being a woman in tech with a non-traditional background has not gone without its challenges.
“I didn’t go to school for software development,” Emily shares. Although she had a bit of coding knowledge, she didn’t start with the foundations that most software engineers have when they enter the professional world. But the hands-on experience she obtained while working allowed her to gain all of the knowledge she needed to thrive in an engineering role. “Certifications and everything are really great, but a lot of times now when you look at software development, it’s more of the skillset that you got from other jobs,” she elaborates. “I had real-life experience, and I was able to apply it. The ability to adapt and run with that is what got me to where I’m at,” Emily says.
But that’s not to say that imposter syndrome doesn’t creep in now and then. “Anxiety is real. And if you don’t feel like you’re meeting [expectations] or maybe not [meeting them] perfectly, it just becomes too much.” This is why Emily works with a therapist to learn how to combat those feelings. “There’s a stigma to it, but therapy is one of the things that really just allows me to open up my mind a little bit more,” she states. “It’s really hard to give up that control sometimes and I continue to work on it.”
With the help and support of her team, Emily can see herself from a different perspective. “I want to be the best version of myself at work, and I think that’s something that helps me out with my imposter syndrome, and the anxiety – understanding that I’m seeing it in one way, but [my team] sees me in a completely different light,” Emily shares. “It just gave me the platform to stand on. You have the confidence at that point to know that you can shine and help out where you can.”
Advice for women pivoting to tech
According to Emily, “working in tech, in general, is an uphill battle, especially for [underrepresented professionals] like women and people of color.” She’s experienced exclusion and people doubting her intelligence first-hand. “I got to a point of frustration,” she explains. “I got to a certain point that I wanted to see representation. I wanted to see more women in a higher role, a leadership role,” Emily explains.
This challenge motivates her to focus on developing her team and encouraging them to break down their barriers. She values all of “the experiences that somebody can bring – different life choices and cultures – to bring more opportunities and different mindsets to the table,” she explains. “The biggest thing is just keeping people’s minds open, and they get really excited about [new] opportunities and seeing other people grow in their roles.”
Not only is Emily passionate about supporting her team, but she also wants to help other women with their transition into the world of tech. Keep on reading for her advice.
- Don’t take on too much. When you come from a non-traditional background, it can be easy to overcompensate for your lack of formal training. Ambition is good, but “you can’t take it all on,” Emily shares. As she continues to grow in her role, she’s eager to learn more about her industry, dive into leadership, and support her team with their roles. “My director makes fun of me all the time; I have ten books behind me of stuff I want to learn about work.” Emily shares. Now she’s working on “being able to find the right things to put my time and effort into that will have long, positive gains.”
- Listen to what others have to say. When you’re first attempting to enter the tech world, the different entry paths, careers, industries, and job titles can get confusing. “There are so many different things in tech, it’s overwhelming if you try to even narrow it down initially without knowing the experience or knowing what goes into it,” says Emily. She encourages career pivoters to network and form relationships with people who know their passions and know the industry. “What made things easy for me is that I listened to the people that told me what I was good at,” says Emily.
- Find your passion. Once you’ve figured out how your skills align with different industries, Emily encourages people to do some exploring to find a role you’re not only interested in but a role that you’re passionate about. “If you’re not passionate about it, get out as fast as you can.” Emily advises. “Life is too short to spend it in a job you’re not happy with.”
- Be persistent. Emily follows up her advice about passion with persistence. “There are going to be a lot of roadblocks. There are going to be a lot of people that are probably going to tell you no. There are going to be a lot of people that maybe don’t agree with you,” Emily explains. “If you can get through all the nonsense that comes with [being a] woman in tech, it’s great on the other side, once you get there, and you can say ‘I made it,’” Emily encourages.
Helix CFO Sarah Bobulsky Shares How She Reached the C-Suite & 3 Key Pieces of Advice for Potential Applicants
Before starting her journey at population genomics company Helix, Sarah Bobulsky worked in strategy consulting, most often with pharma and biotechnology clients. She accumulated a wealth of experience very quickly: “One of my managers always said ‘one year in consulting is like seven years in a regular job’,” Sarah jokes.
In spite of her rapid exposure to so many different projects and clients, she was a bit hesitant when her firm wanted her to branch out into diagnostics. “My reaction was, ‘I don't know anything about diagnostics! I don’t want to do diagnostics,’” she laughs. “Yet, here I am CFO of a diagnostics company.”
“I would not have guessed that I would be a CFO,” she confesses. “I always hoped my career would advance, but I don't think CFO was where I was starting my thinking.”
But thanks to a lot of hard work and encouragement from current and former managers, Sarah took on the CFO challenge and is thriving in her new role.
Now that she’s settled in, Sarah’s looking to expand the finance team at Helix. We sat down with her to learn what interested candidates can do to stand out in the application process.
The Road to Helix
Sarah ultimately said yes to the project with the diagnostics company and that led to three years of consulting frequently with diagnostics clients. “I ended up being pretty well-versed in that space,” Sarah says, explaining how she heard about Helix when they got their first round of funding. The company immediately caught her attention.
“I thought their business model at the time was really interesting. It was a departure from what other companies in the space were doing, with a lot of opportunity for innovation,” she says.
Sarah also happened to know one of the cofounders of the company through her previous consulting experience. This led to some organic conversations about opportunities at the company.
“I was interested in joining a startup, but also somewhat risk-averse,” says Sarah. “So finding a startup that had strong backing was appealing to me.”
She was also reluctant to lose the diversity of experience afforded to her by consulting, but she felt that Helix was dynamic enough to ensure that she’d still get to tackle lots of different kinds of challenges. So she took a leap and accepted a role focused on corporate development and strategy.
“I accepted the position without a job description,” Sarah reminisces. “When I first started, I worked on a lot of different projects, many of which were very much outside of my comfort zone,” Sarah says. “Over time, the number of projects kept expanding, and as the company grew, the role expanded and got more operationally focused.”
Working instrategy involved a lot of long-term planning and scenario analysis. But as Sarah’s role became more operational, she found value in better understanding the day-to-day operations on the ground. “I think getting my hands dirty was really important [in understanding] how little things can influence the company's strategy,” Sarah explains. She worked closely with Helix’s customers as well as with numerous cross-functional teams which helped her better understand the ins and outs of Helix’s product. This proved to be a great foundation as she moved into the CFO role.
Journey to the C-suite
Although she didn’t originally set out to be a CFO, Sarah spent much of her career working closely with her finance counterparts — both in her consulting days pre-Helix and during her time at Helix. It was Helix’s former CEO, himself a prior CFO, who initially raised the idea of moving fully into finance though. “He was the first person to tell me I’d make a good CFO and honestly I was very surprised at first,” Sarah explains. She was initially concerned that she didn’t come from a traditional finance background. “But he was thinking more about the strategic side of the CFO role, from being able to tell the story of the business to investors and to our board, and being able to understand different nuances that drive a forecast and long-term value.”
Helix’s former CEO wasn’t the only person supporting Sarah through the transition. “Our current CEO and co-founder has never hesitated to give me new opportunities. It’s always a bit of a risk to give someone something they’d never done, but I’ve always found leadership at Helix willing to take that risk” Sarah explains. “That's been a hallmark of my time here and what has kept me here as long as I've been here. I know that there's the opportunity for growth.”
Nearly 7 months in the CFO role, Sarah has spent a significant amount of her time focusing on a long-term value perspective. “We spend a lot of time on our annual budget, our forecasts,” she explains. “I spent a lot of time in the first couple of months painting a picture of 2024 and 2025 — What does that look like? How do we get there? What are the things that drive value?” She’s now looking for mission-driven finance professionals to bring their diverse perspectives and experiences to her team.
3 Essential Attributes in Finance & 3 Tips for Interviewees
While role-specific experience is important, there are three main attributes that Sarah looks for in any potential members of the finance team at Helix, regardless of position.
- Intellectual curiosity. “Even if you're not necessarily involved in the day-to-day on-the-ground operations, it's still really important that you understand how our business works. It influences everything we do on the finance team from invoicing customers to recognizing revenue to long-term forecasting,” Sarah explains.
- Creative problem solving ability. Problem-solving isn’t always about the solution itself, but more about how you created the solution. “I always look for examples of how someone solved the problem creatively or did a lot with only a little,” Sarah shares.
- Detail-oriented. “I'm a fairly detail-oriented person, and I think that's important in lots of roles, but I think it's particularly important in finance,” Sarah reiterates.
If that sounds like you, you might be a good tip for Sarah’s team! Keep reading for Sarah’s advice on how to display the attributes above during your interview (if you want to learn more about the interview process at Helix, click here!).
- Highlight Your Impact. “When you’re giving an example or answering a ‘tell me about a time’ question, make sure to highlight how what you did had an impact on the company – whether it’s optimizing a process or uncovering a new trend in the data – make sure that stands out,” Sarah says.
- Frame the narrative upfront. When explaining previous work, Sarah suggests using roadmapping language for your interviewer such as, “This was a big project. Here are the three things I'm going to tell you about it. And then walk [the interviewer] through each of those three things.”
- Be selective. While providing depth in your responses is important, be judicious about what you share. “Interviews are usually only 30 or 45 minutes, so it's not about describing every little detail. Acknowledge all of the things you had to consider, and then choose a few critical things to highlight,” she explains.
Interested in working alongside Sarah at Helix? Check out their open positions here.
If you told 10 year old Kristen Nelson that she’d grow up to be a Plant Manager at a manufacturing plant, she wouldn’t believe you. “I really wanted to be an astronaut. That was my goal in life and something I was very much fascinated with,” she reminisces.
Although her passions changed later in life, her ambition to learn new things and advance in her career remained unwavering. And she learned that sometimes going in a different direction– and even failing– can lead to unforeseen success. “If something's different, don't discredit it because it's not an advancement or what you would consider an advancement, it can still be critical for your growth,” Kristen reflects.
We sat down with Kristen, Plant Manager at Novelis, to learn more about her career journey and how taking calculated risks helped her career in the long run.
Learning from failure
By the time Kristen made it to college, she had a clear idea of what she wanted to study. “I was always strong in math and science when I was young and I would always be inventing crazy things or taking things apart,” she explains. Her natural gifts paired with influence from her dad who owned a milling company and aunt who was an aeronautical engineer, set her up to take the route of mechanical engineering.
When choosing what school to apply to, Kristen had one main requirement: the option to study abroad. “I wanted to experience different cultures and travel,” she explains. She ended up choosing Clarkson University which had a study abroad program with a technical school in Sweden. But before she took off on her adventure, she made sure to plan accordingly. “I was very worried about graduating on time, so I spent my first two summers ahead of applying taking summer classes.”
When she set off for her adventure, she was eager to soak everything in. “Studying abroad was one of the most pivotal times in my life. It’s amazing to wake up one morning in a place that you don't really know the culture beyond what you've read,” she reminisces. Living in an unfamiliar environment taught Kristen many lessons, but one experience with a linear algebra class would shape her for life. “I failed a course for the first time ever. It was taught in full Swedish, which I was not fluent in, and it did not go well,” she confesses.
Although she was disappointed, she took some time to process the failure, and decided to learn from her situation. “I didn't take it super well, but I learned that failing is okay,” Kristen shares. “I told myself, ‘this is why you worked hard to take summer classes to make sure that you could graduate in time and you still have the time to retake the course.’” And that’s exactly what she did.
Kristen’s failure taught her the resilience she would need to get started on a professional journey. And when she came to Novelis, she was prepared for all of the problem-solving and risk management her roles required of her.
Moving up and around the career ladder at Novelis
Kristen joined Novelis in 2012 after a 5-year run at a major beverage and packing company. “I felt a little bit stagnant there, so I was looking for change, more of a challenge, more growth,” she explains. And Novelis offered her just that. Novelis is the world’s largest recycler of aluminum and a global leader in innovative products and services. And providing their employees with growth and development opportunities throughout their career is one of their priorities.
Kristen’s career trajectory over the past 10 years at the company reflects this mission. She joined as an Associate Reliability Leader, and later got to explore other roles like Engineer, Maintenance, Reliability, and Automation Leader, CI Manager, and most recently, Plant Manager.
“You can see an obvious upward trajectory, but I want to highlight that a lateral move was really key for me in my journey.” The move from a technical role into operations offered Kristen new learning opportunities. “Lateral moves give you a whole different perspective, because you are able to see aspects of the business that you haven't been exposed to before, and you’re bringing knowledge from the prior role to give a different perspective into the new one.”
Moving up and around the career ladder wasn’t always intentional for Kristen, and sometimes career moves were met with some hesitation. “There have been times where I have said, I'm not interested in changing roles at this point,” she explains. To ease some of this hesitation Kristen decided that new opportunities were worth a try, to find out if she liked them or not. By focusing on the future, she knew which direction to move in. “I spent some time putting together a personal vision of my future self and by understanding what I want to do, I’ve gotten further into my career.”
Impacting women in manufacturing
Among her various roles at the company, Kristen says some of her biggest impact has been in the employee resource group, WiN (Women in Novelis). “Our purpose is to help develop, retain, and engage strong women talent so that we can continue to grow them, as well as meet our business targets.”
As the Chair of the North American sector of WIN, Kristen spends her time creating and planning internal events, external outreach, and safe spaces for dialogue. “Some of the main pillars that we focus on are engagement, development, networking, and community outreach,” Kristen says. Just this past year, WIN has done activities for International Women’s Day, engaged with local Girl Scout troops, raised almost $5,000 for women who have experienced domestic violence, set up speaking panels, and the list goes on.
Kristen works hard to continue expanding the impact that WIN has on women and allies both inside Novelis and in the community. “So we did a SWOT analysis– our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats– and we prioritized the top items that we would like to focus on for next year. It's been fun,” Kristen shares with pride.
With her passion for supporting women in business, she offers her insight to women trying to advance in male-dominated fields.
Kristen’s advice for women on moving up the career ladder
Don’t be afraid to make a lateral move. Career growth doesn’t always mean moving upward. “Making lateral moves [can] provide you with a lifetime of experience that will help you grow and learn,” Kristen shares. Within Novelis, she moved from tech to operations and has seen many others do the same. “We've had people start in finance and end up in supply chain. We've had people start out as admin and go into commercial groups, and then end up in procurement,” Kristen explains. “Don't discredit a role just because it's not what you would consider an advancement. It can still be critical for your growth, learning, and understanding, both personally and professionally.”
Share your vision for your career. Kristen also encourages women to be vocal about their career goals. “Share your vision with people that you consider your sponsors so that they can advocate for you when roles come up when you're not in the room,” she advises. “If no one knows what you want to do or the direction you want to take, they won’t be able to support you as well.”
Step outside of your comfort zone and don’t be afraid to take calculated risks. “When you're outside of your comfort zone, that's when we tend to learn and grow as individuals,” Kristen shares. She wants other women to take the leap outside of the familiar and try something new. “There have been times in my career where I won't know if I’d like [the role] unless I try it.”
But don’t take the leap without calculating the risks first. “I always like to say that I'm a calculated risk-taker,” explains Kristen. “So I weigh in what I want the outcome to be and what an acceptable result would look like.” It’s all about finding a balance. “You don't want to just go willy nilly, but you can't be so cautious that you never really push yourself to improve.”
Do you want the opportunity to move up and around the career ladder like Kristen? Check out Novelis’ open roles here!
Muldair Welch wasn’t your average 11-year-old. Instead of playing with toys, she was writing code to check her homework.
“I had just gotten a computer and my uncle had shown me some simple QBasic programming,” Muldair explains. “I was trying to do my homework and I wasn't sure if I was right, so I used the computer to write a piece of software to check my synthetic division.” And it worked!
From then on, Muldair was hooked. “I thought to myself, ‘I can get paid to solve puzzles on a computer all day?’” Motivated to keep learning and developing, she worked through the summers to save up for school. She started college at 16 and landed her first job in engineering at 18 while she finished up her undergraduate.
Nowadays, with just as much enthusiasm, you can catch Muldair pushing her team to keep learning and developing as the Director of Engineering at Tackle.io. We sat down with her to discuss her career journey and three pieces of advice for women in engineering who are eager to advance in their careers.
Foundational skills for career growth
Soft skills, or as Muldair prefers to call them, “foundational skills,” are not typically associated with becoming a successful engineer. Yet for Muldair, along her 20+ year career journey, skills like intentionality, communication, and emotional intelligence have been key as she’s moved up the career ladder.
Her first step was becoming a tech lead—a move she says was “100 percent intentional.” But her move to engineering manager came with some hesitation. “I was afraid it was going to be a career block,” explains Muldair. She was passionate about coding and worried that she wouldn’t be able to solve problems every day like she was used to. “I thought, ‘I'm not an engineer anymore. What if I'm a manager for a year and I lose all of my skills and I can never come back?’”
Although she admits these worries were irrational, she was able to push through her fears. As she immersed herself in her new role, she realized that her engineering skills were still being put to good use. “I was so shocked at how much I loved it because I'm still solving problems, but I'm solving what, to me, are so much more meaningful ones,” Muldair says cheerfully.
Moving up and giving back
Through the leadership lessons and unique experiences she gained as an engineering manager, Muldair was eager to take on another challenge. “If there's an opportunity, I'm going to take it, I'm going to try it, and I'm going to learn from it,” explains Muldair. “I knew that I wanted to take the lessons that I had learned and share them with other managers and help them avoid the pitfalls that I had fallen into.”
Muldair joined Tackle last year as an Engineering Director. She was attracted to the technology and intrigued by the company culture and leadership philosophy. “I saw a company that had a really good long-term vision with empathetic, intentional, and focused engineering,” says Muldair when talking about her first impressions of the company. She describes Tackle as a software company that, “supports not just the technology and the clients, but supports the people that make the business possible.”
As a director, Muldair collaborates with other teams to align on projects, creates sustainable growth strategies, and focuses on optimizing processes. She also meets with managers on her team to assure they’re supported in their daily tasks, as well as long-term projects and career development. “When I'm meeting with [my team], we're talking about career growth, we're talking about leadership evolution, dealing with things that are on their mind,” Muldair explains.
And she still gets to do some of the engineering work that she’s known and loved since she was a child. “I always ask how I can help my team be successful in the endeavors that they're working on at that moment, so I do a lot of hands-on support of engineering managers.”
Leading by example
With her intention of supporting other managers, Muldair has learned that, unlike technology, working with people doesn’t always render consistent results.
“When it comes to people, you give them tools, you partner with them, you let them go and you see if they're successful–and sometimes they're not. Sometimes they fail and you have to help them deal with that and make it into a learning opportunity,” she explains.
Along with supporting her managers through setbacks, she has learned that leading by example is equally as important. She uses time management as an example of this. “If I want someone else to grow and eventually become a director, I cannot establish this role as an 80 hour a week role where you're always on and you never disconnect.” She understands that the time she puts into her work is just as important as turning off her laptop at the end of the day or taking time off. “It's a challenging thing for me sometimes, but it's also been hugely impactful to my quality of life,” she shares. “It's really important to create an environment where people are successful when they're working their best hours for their best life,” Muldair points out.
Three pieces of advice for ambitious engineers
In true Muldair fashion of supporting others, she offers advice for fellow women engineers — especially those who don’t have many role models at their companies.
- Don't push yourself into a mold that doesn't fit you. “When I first joined leadership, there was no one that shared my demographics. There was no one that acted the way that I acted. No quirky, odd, humorous, empathetic people in positions of leadership,” Muldair explains. “I thought if I want to be a leader, I have to be cold, I have to be perfect, I have to be super professional and not connect with anyone. And this was a lie. Success will come when you embrace who you are.”
- Don’t be afraid to show off your work. “Very often, women will not champion themselves, due to societal reasons or the fact that they don't want to appear boastful,” Muldair shares. Showing off projects you are working on, achievements, and demos can be the factor that makes future employers want to work with you.
- Network and collaborate. Something as simple as joining a niche engineering Slack group can open opportunities for support and collaboration. “You will find people who want to be supportive,” Muldair advises. These early collaborations can set the foundation for working in larger teams.
“Failure is not a bad thing, it's a consequence of growth and it's a good thing,” Muldair encourages. “You don't have to change who you are to be successful. You need to embrace who you are to be successful.”
If you’re looking to work in a company whose success is a direct factor of how they invest in their employees, check out the job opportunities at Tackle.io.