(Photo courtesy of Carlye Norton)
According to a recent report, Philly’s tech companies are grappling with an undersupply of qualified candidates.
From hosting job fairs to offering flashy perks, startups and large companies alike are pulling no punches in their battle over the coveted tech workforce. But if all of the empty jobs are going to be filled, as the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia puts it, tech’s many entry points need to be more fully leveraged.
“There’s a lot of room for people who aren’t in tech,” said Josh Sevin, director of the Economy League.
FYI, a July 12 networking event hosted by Linode is taking that spirit to heart. The cloud services company is looking to fill several roles that don’t require a technical background.
For those hearing the siren call of a career in technology despite coming from a non-tech background, here’s some advice from three very distinct professionals: A social worker, a restaurateur and a textbook editor who purposefully rerouted their career paths to join tech companies in different capacities.
Find your tools, your people, your projects
Instructional designer and former textbook editor Vanessa Gennarelli (one of 12 Philly designers you should know about) said her professional shift was more about values than a vocational thing.
“My career shift was less ‘tech/non-tech’ so much as I found kindred spirits in open culture and open source, which reflected the values I already held,” Gennarelli told Technical.ly. “That’s how I went from being a textbook editor to getting involved with Creative Commons, Wikipedia and Mozilla to now working full-time at GitHub.”
"Learning to code is not a golden ticket, or a quick fix: It's a discipline."
The Harvard grad, based out of Indy Hall, works remotely for the beloved San Francisco software platform as a teacher program manager. She has a word of warning for career changers:
“Once you transition into this world, it’s not simply hearts, flowers and turtles all the way down,” said Genarelli. “Learning to code is not a golden ticket, or a quick fix: It’s a discipline.”
In order to become a worthy student of the coding discipline, the designer proposes a three-pronged approach:
“My advice: find the tools, people and the projects that suit your interests. Your personal engagement is going to be the thing that sustains you,” she said.
Persist on your own
Jesse Alter spent the better part of a decade as a social worker in the pediatric health space before deciding to go back to school to certify his tech chops.
“I had always been interested in tech learning,” said the 33-year-old Alter, who used to program BASIC in 8-bit computers as a hobby back in the day. “But when I was in college I didn’t go straight for computer science because I was overwhelmed by the math, so I changed my major to social work.”
One day, while driving to work, something inside him clicked. “I got this sense that I was missing out on something.”
And so he enrolled at Thomas Edison State University. After graduation, he applied to several tech jobs to no avail until a Linode jobs fair in Haddonfield, N.J., yielded an on-the-spot interview and a job offer a few days later. He’s now the server provider’s Trust & Safety team lead.
Any similarities between working as a social worker and his current gig? Being prepared to handle emotional toll of his work was one. “We’re in charge of handling reports people are giving us that have human impact: from how their business was affected to responding to law enforcement when there’s criminal activity,” Alter said. “It can be emotionally trying.”
As Alter prepared for his career shift he spent the weekends polishing up on the math side of the job. “If you can find a company that’s willing to mentor you that’s great but what helped me the most was developing some persistence. I was spending the weekends reading books about code, and if one didn’t help me I’d go and find another book.”
Let your passion get you there
When we reached out to Stitch CEO Jake Stein to ask about his company’s non-tech tech staffers, he mentioned his Business Operations Manager, Than Adams. Adams is a former restaurant manager with a penchant for quirky tech projects.
Stein said we should ask him about building a coffee-bean roaster using parts salvaged from a popcorn popper, which of course was our first question.
“I built the roasting chamber, custom circuitry for the power supply, and wrote my own Python app to control the circuitry using a GUI,” Adams said in an email. “At the moment when I first threw the switch to power it up, I knew what I had to do. I needed to find a career working with people who passions and interests matched mine.”
And so, after 10 years in the restaurant business, Adams set out to combine the two passions in one. In March he became Stitch’s biz ops manager.
“A hobby project ended up pointing me to a career change,” Adams said. “And it’s been more exciting and satisfying than I had thought possible.”