Making the Leap: How to Build Your Skillset and Switch Careers

By: ​Meg Duffy, Program Manager of the Grace Hopper Program

When it's time to move on, make the first move.

Over the course of your career, you will outgrow a job. When you feel like you’ve learned everything there is to know, it’s time for the next adventure. But what if the work you want to do next is completely different from what you’re doing now? That level of change may seem daunting, but it’s possible. A few years ago, I made the leap from Non-profit Arts to Startup Tech. Today, I work with students from a wide range of non-technical backgrounds who are transforming themselves into full-stack software engineers on a daily basis. Making this type of career switch takes commitment, creativity, and guts, but 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. Make sure you’re aware of professional development opportunities at your company and take full advantage of them. This approach can be 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 my students started their coding journey this way. 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 the basics on their own.

Seek feedback and iterate

Inevitably, you’ll reach a plateau and you’ll have to take another risk. As a beginner, one of the easiest traps to fall into is avoiding feedback on your work. When you’re new, you may not be confident in your abilities. It’s easy to take criticism as a personal judgement on you, so it will feel more comfortable to just build projects in a vacuum.

In order to level up your skills, however, you need to take the opposite approach. 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. Getting feedback will help focus your learning on aspects of the skills that need the most attention. (Spoiler alert: this fact never goes away. Even when you attain expert status, there will always be more to learn.) You will have to demonstrate your skills on the job, so it’s better to get comfortable with receiving feedback now.

Many Grace Hopper Program students apply to the program because they’re in this place. They’ve done what they can on their own, but they want to take their skills to the next level. 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, it’s time to take yet another risk and apply to a new role. But sending your résumé into the portal void isn’t going to cut it. If you’re trying to make a change 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 a team member and inviting them for coffee.

Coffee chats are great for two reasons. First, having a contact at the company can be a helpful way to get through to HR. 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. But also, speaking with an actual team member can help clarify your own thoughts about the company. Does your perception of the company’s product and culture match up to reality? Keep in touch with these folks and be sure to reach out when you’re ready to apply.

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.

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