I have received several questions about how to pivot into a tech career. The draw of high salaries, flexible work schedules, and interesting problems gets people wondering: Should I break into tech?
If they decide it’s something they want to do, the next question is how?
I received an e-mail from a reader wondering the same thing, and her story perfectly captures the essence of many others’ questions about changing industries mid-career. I’m going to do my best to answer, and then my hope is that you, fellow money mechanics, will provide your own experience, thoughts, and advice in the comments section. Without further ado, I will let Techquisitive introduce herself.
Dear Financial Mechanic,
I’m starting feel the pull toward a tech job, and thought you’d be in a great position to comment on my thoughts on a potential career change/shift, based on your unconventional job history. In particular, in your blog post about becoming a SWE with an ME degree you said,
“What is great (and terrible) about software development is that you are constantly learning what you don’t know.”
I LOVE that feeling, and in fact when I lose it in a role, it’s how I know it’s time to switch jobs!
I’m in my early thirties, a cis woman with a biomedical engineering BS, MBA, and PMP certification, living in the Seattle area, proud DINK with my husband (and we’re permanently childfree). I’ve worked in project management my entire career in various roles. I’ve never actually applied my biomed degree to any of my jobs, but employers are always happy to see it because it means I can understand technical concepts and/or learn them quickly. I threw myself into the FIRE movement about two years ago, and now we’re about 4-5 years from retirement.
What I'm Looking For
I’ve always liked the “engineery” side of project management more than the softer skills – building massive, complex schedules, analyzing project inputs and data to distill down into important takeaways, resource planning, etc. I can get lost in that sort of stuff for hours. In my free time, I freaking LOVE travel planning (we do an international trip every year, and a few domestic ones) – itineraries, travel hacking strategies, etc. And of course, my FIRE planning spreadsheet is off the chain.
This all makes me think I’d be well suited for something related to data science and/or programming. My current job is also starting to get kind of stale, so it seems like a decent time to consider a pivot. The question is now do I start applying for roles I am presently qualified for and just keep doing the same thing, or jump into tech (which I have previously avoided). Since we’re so close to FIRE, part of me just wants to keep my cushy job and good salary and let it ride, but the idea of doing something more interesting for the next few years is also appealing.
I’m getting my Scrum Master certificate in July, which I know will be useful if I want to move toward a project management job in tech. I also started with the Codecademy Python course (which I know just scratches the surface). Six years of my time at my first job exposed me to software development (C++), but all as a project manager managing engineers and suppliers. I also have a project at work right now involving some data analytics that I could use as a platform for a little Python project.
My Work Requirements
- I don’t want to exceed a 40-45 hour work week, with the caveat that I’d be more flexible on that if it was a virtual role (which would be awesome). Work/life balance is really important to me, and I’ve got a great thing going in that sense currently. Some stress and high workload at work is fine, but I want to be able to separate my work and personal lives.
- Similar to #1, I don’t want to work for a “sell your soul/indentured servitude” company….*cough cough* AMAZON. I’ve spent my whole career at corporate behemoths, something smaller would be nice.
- I make $127k/year total in my current role, which is I believe a little above average in the area per Glassdoor for my role and experience. I’d like to stay at or above this amount, to keep the FIRE train a-rollin’. I’m pretty sure I could do that, based on the cursory research I’ve done, but of course that isn’t the same as hard numbers from someone that’s been there.
- I don’t want to leave Seattle – we own our house and are invested in the area.
- I’m fine putting in some continuing ed work to make sure this is an area of interest, but not, like 2 years’ worth and/or thousands of dollars. I’m thinking more six-ish months. Again, being pretty close to FIRE makes me think signing up for a long-term educational endeavor at this point isn’t really worth it.
My Questions For You
- In your experience, could I find the qualities I’m looking for in low-level software engineering or technical project management role?
- Should I target software engineering or project management?
- How well should I learn Python or other languages before I start a job search?
- Have you ever worked with someone with more than a decade of job experience that suddenly pivoted to tech?
- Any other thoughts or advice for me?
Thanks in advance,
Financial Mechanic's First Thoughts
I am bowled over by Techquisitive’s thought and preparation– she is certainly not messing around. Many people mention that they would love to move into a career in tech but then bring up a hundred reasons why they haven’t, Techquisitive does just the opposite: she shows us that she is capable, qualified, and determined enough to make the switch.
There is a lot to dig into here, so I am going to go question by question.
Question 1: Could I find the qualities I'm looking for in low-level software engineering or technical project management role?
Let me be straight here: when I read the qualities that Techquisitive is looking for in a job, my mind went straight past engineer and bullseye’d in on project management. This makes sense because she is describing the parts of her own role of project management that she loves. As a software engineer however, most of those things (resource planning? massive schedules?) make me want to hand off the work like a baby with a stinky diaper and run for the hills.
I will back up a bit, however, to say that in the tech world often times the lines between roles can be blurred, especially in smaller companies. So before I say that the qualities of project planning, managing timelines, and strategizing sound a lot like project management to me, it is possible that as a software engineer you will be able to wear these hats as well.
As for Techquisitive’s job requirements, I think they are all possible in a tech role. The tech scene is booming in Seattle, with a slew of start-ups and smaller tech companies. I don’t think switching industries will require a move. If she decides to do software engineering and wants to take a structured bootcamp, there are several in Seattle ranging from 3-6 month timetables. I can check off each of Techquisitive’s requirements in my own software engineer career history so I think all of these are possible.
Therefore, my answer is yes, I think it is possible to find the qualities Techquisitive is looking for in a software engineering or a technical project management role.
Question 2: Should I Target Software Engineering or Project Management?
With all of that said, Techquisitive wants to know which field she should really focus on. For that, I have some of my own questions:
1. What are you motivated by?
2. How much do you want to shake things up?
3. How do you want the next five years to look?
Techquisitive already has a lot of experience as a project manager, so I think translating those skills into a more technical role seems absolutely doable. However, is switching industries enough to keep her challenged if she continues as a project manager?
Switching into software engineering will require more time and effort getting up to speed with new skills. Techquisitive expressed her love for learning, so the next five years could be spent taking on the complex world of coding, which she has dabbled in already. Is it worth the extra effort and frustration if she plans to leave the workforce in five years? I am curious why Techquisitive has avoided tech until now. What are those reasons and why did they change?
I would encourage Techquisitive to take advantage of the opportunity to take on the data analysis project at her current role. That is exactly how I got my first start into software engineering, a data analysis project using Python! By tackling the Codecademy courses and projects at work, she can decide if it’s something she would like to take on full-time.
One caveat is that a junior software engineer will likely start out making less than $127k. Based on PayScale data, the average entry-level software engineer earns an average salary of $98k, which seems higher than what I would expect for a junior level position as it is. While that salary nothing to sneeze at, it is still a paycut for Techquisitive. I would expect her salary to stay about the same or increase if she transfers her current skills into an upper level Project Manager position.
I don’t have an explicit answer to this question since it’s really up to what Techquisitive wants for the next five years. Technical roles can vary so much from company to company that it is hard to say which she should target. My advice would be to read job descriptions online of different roles, from project management, product management, scrum master, data scientist, software engineer, and whatever else pops up from there, and see which jobs hit those qualities you are looking for, regardless of job title.
Here are three examples I pulled from real job descriptions for roles in Seattle:
Experience with one or more statistical analytical programming languages, including Python or R
Can use relational databases, including MySQL
Skilled at identifying analytic insight in data, developing visualizations, and presenting findings to stakeholders
Knowledge of object-oriented programming, including Java and C++
Experience with creating and managing to a project plan, managing resources, scope, schedule, and budget, and providing status reporting
You are comfortable working under pressure and independently handling multiple projects and deadlines
You are flexible and experienced with juggling multiple projects in a fast-paced environment
Experience influencing not only your own team, but also the company as a whole and external clients
You partner well with engineers and designers to conceptualize, ship, and iterate on products users love
You obsess over data and growth. You love digging into data and extracting meaningful insights to make smart product decisions
I already see pieces of these job descriptions that sound just like what Techquisitive was looking for, so I think she’s well-suited for a tech role, whatever the title might be.
Question 3: How well should I learn Python or other languages before I start a job search?
The answer to Question 3 hinges on the result of Question 2. If Techquisitive wants to pivot into a software engineer role using Python or another language, she should get the fundamentals down for a tech interview.
The Tech Interview
The tech interview is a multi-step process that generally goes like this:
- The phone screen
- Offline assessment
- A take-home assessment
- Solving a HackerRank or other puzzle
- In person interview
- Behavioral questions
- Whiteboarding or live-coding questions
Coding will be a nice plus for a project or product management role, but they are less likely to grill you on how to traverse a binary tree. However, for a software engineering role Tequisitive should be able to solve a few different types of problems.
How well should one learn Python or other languages before you start? You don’t need to be an expert. I have been a software engineer for almost five years and I still don’t feel like an expert.
However, you should feel relatively confident to solve basic questions, and then start applying while practicing in parallel. In my experience, once you start getting interviews, it gives the extra motivation to study hard the weekend prior.
You don’t need a CS degree to be able to answer these questions, but you do need to study. The best answers are ones where you can communicate your thought process as you organize your thoughts, walk through the problem, and optimize your solution.
The only way to do this is to practice. I attended a software interviewing workshop on a Saturday, and the next Monday I used those skills in an interview. It taught me to slow down while my mind raced ahead, to communicate when I just wanted to write code, and make it through the terrifying moments of doubt. Without that practice, I might not have landed my current job.
Check out this comprehensive tech interview handbook, and practice until you no longer look at a question, go blank, and end up Googling for the solution right away.
Techquisitive mentioned her start using Codecademy, which is awesome! I will also leave these other resources here for anyone interested in practicing for a technical interview.
Question 4: Have you ever worked with someone with more than a decade of job experience that suddenly pivoted to tech?
On my first team, my coworkers had degrees in art, history, writing, and one had no college degree at all. Our Scrum Master had worked previously as a sports editor for the local newspaper. One of our recent hires just switched from being a teacher to being a back-end developer.
Then there are compilations like this one that tells the stories from 300 developers who got their first tech job in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. It features Tara, who finished bootcamp and got her first dev job at 41, after switching from her job as assistant dean at a university and an English professor.
Margaret says, “I got my first developer job a year ago this month. I’m 43. Worked in accounting for 10+ years and wanted a change after falling in love with programming. I’ve been going to school part time and studying via freeCodeCamp and others for about 4 years.”
All of this to say that it is not rare for people to pivot into tech after decades of job experience, and yes, I work with people who have done this.
Question 5: Any other thoughts or advice for me?
Techquisitive, you are on an impressive career track, with a fast timeline towards financial independence. With FI just around the corner, it is worth finding a job that is enjoyable and rewarding, potentially even one that you might not want to leave altogether.
The skills you can learn from changing careers now could help you down the road on entrepreneurial ventures, pet projects, or part-time work, depending on what you want early retirement to look like. If you are starting to get bored in your current role, I think it’s a great time to pivot to a new adventure into tech.
One extra piece of advice would be to check out meetups and networking events for tech in Seattle. Meet people in tech and ask what they do in their role.
Pivoting into tech will likely come with challenges, but we know Techquisitive welcomes a good challenge!
Money Mechanics, What Are Your Thoughts?
If you have made a big change in your own career, how did it go?
What advice do you have for Techquisitive?
Have you broken into the tech world? How did you do it?
Share in the comments below!