Changing career paths can be scary, especially when you have some work experience in a different field already. You don’t want that to go to waste, how can you use your background to your advantage?
I’ve interviewed three brilliant self-taught women in tech about their experiences and how they’re using their non-technical backgrounds to their advantage in the technology industry.
Here are these wonderful women:
Tiffany – Software Developer at IBM
Milly – Founder of Box of Intimates
Julia – Product Developer & Data Scientist
Masha: What is your background and how did you decide to learn technical skills?
My background prior to getting into technology and specifically coding, I was actually in fashion. After high school, I went to school for fashion merchandising, followed by some opportunities to go overseas to model.
However, I felt like something was really missing and I was craving more education. So I was like, you know what? I’m going to come back to Canada and further my education. In university, I studied graphic communications management, which is really what it sounds like: a bit of graphic design, a bit of communication courses and a bit of management courses. It was in our fourth year though: it was required to take a very basic coding course. I’m talking like CSS, HTML – I think that’s all. But from there I instantly fell in love with coding and decided to pursue it.
I am the founder of Box of Intimates, a tech-led lingerie subscription box. We are using a blend of data, algorithm and a personal stylist to help women shop for lingerie. Whether you don’t know your bra size or you just don’t like shopping at all, we are here to help every single month. We ship a box to your house. And ultimately what we are doing at the moment is automating the bra shopping process, whether it’s to do with fitting or with going to the shop and buying, styling in general.
Next to that, I also work as a consultant for various tech companies, whether they are in the AI field or blockchain. Currently, I’m actually working for a cybersecurity company, which is very new, but, absolutely lovely. We are just kind of starting out, testing a new role, which is more based on sales and we are selling algorithms.
My background is in Management and IT. That’s what I studied a Bachelor of Science in London, really enjoyed it. That was back in the days, so 2007. But I ended up actually working as a dancer, which was my second degree in a different university. I was thinking that, well, I can work in tech any time while being a dancer, I can’t. So I ended up working for three years, kind of around the world as a dancer and did some modelling. And I came back to London to find a job more in my field, which, didn’t work out at the time cause I had just graduated. I just graduated and went away. So it was pretty hard to find a job and to kind of position myself as in what I wanted to do in the tech industry. Also because I graduated three years prior, it was impossible for me to get in a graduate scheme or graduate program which are actually really popular in the UK.
I am a product developer slash data scientist, working in Washington DC for a small tech startup company. But my background is in journalism and I didn’t start teaching myself technical skills into my senior year of college.
I decided to do that because initially, I thought it would help my journalism career. I thought that having coding, you know, some coding knowledge and a little bit of technical know-how would help me be a better all-around journalist and reporter. If I knew how to navigate the digital world that journalism is now having to, you know, be a part of or migrate to completely, essentially. So yeah, that’s how I decided to learn technical skills. But eventually I, very quickly, I fell in love with the data visualization world and storytelling through numbers and data. And that really became my focus post-college. So that’s when my journey really began.
Masha: What did you study and how did you get started?
So my introduction to data science started in school. In college, I took a data-driven reporting class as part of my journalism degree. And that was really the jumping-off point for me because we touched on things like Python and SQL and other things that I now use in my job every day, pretty much – or at least need to have some sort of know-how for.
It was definitely an introduction, a very basic introduction in college, but then I studied it more. It was enough to fuel my own research after college into those subjects. And I used that to find online courses and other, you know, self-paced forms of learning so that I could sharpen my skills and actually create a portfolio and apply for data science and data analyst jobs.
In terms of what I studied for technical skills, it was a lot of self-learning actually for coding. The first thing I learned was web development, front end specifically, and then from there went more to the backend side of things. And now I do a lot of mobile and really whatever is required of me, but it was mostly self-teaching combined with attending a coding bootcamp that was 10 weeks long.
Well, I studied a Bachelor in Science, in Management in it back in 2007 – ages ago now. And, how did I get started? I did not get started right away. Actually, I ended up getting really sick at the last year, during my last year at university and decided to just work as a dancer, which was my second degree. In a totally different, other university. Graduated on the same year and decided to pick working as a dancer and modeling also on the side
Masha: How are you using your background and experience to your advantage? Do you think they give you a complete edge?
Well, initially you don’t think, you start with a competitive edge in such a technical industry. You need to know what you’re doing. So coming back from three years off, being in the performing arts, I couldn’t see how it was an advantage to go back into technology. But later, you do realize that there are many more roles that you may be suitable for – whether it be your skills, your personality.
I didn’t get a job right out of university in the field. So I just leveraged my transferable skills, which I feel were in communication. And I just became the woman that I am today, which means a hybrid in technology. Which is also not exactly what it meant in the same way before entrepreneurship.
You are both your own CTO and your own CEO if you decide to start your company. Which is good in a way to build your prototype or your MVP, understanding what developers are doing once you start hiring and understanding how to hire a tech team, which is pretty important. And yes, I do feel like, on so many levels, every little bit of my past experience and my background was helpful, whether it be in consulting or entrepreneurship.
I think my background in journalism and my soft skills, as we call them – I use communication and creative thinking a lot in my current role. It really comes into play, especially for, I think anyone who’s dealing with, data and data storytelling. Which I know is sort of a, it can sound like sort of a vague term. But it really, at its core, is just using data to communicate something. And so having that communication piece, not just being able to use the data to get the answers that you need, but to be able to communicate those answers and the meaning behind those answers to anyone else who might not have the technical background or may not have the context or interest in the data at all initially. To be able to show them not just what you’ve found in the data, but why it’s important and why it matters is crucial for any data science, data analyst or that type of role.
I think having a diverse background leading up to tech really helps me now in my day to day. Anyone who is considering getting into tech specifically coding, or really anything in the tech industry, if you have different experiences, don’t be afraid to highlight those and bring those into the industry.
For example, for me, with fashion and modelling, a lot of times I was interacting with a lot of people, having to meet a lot of different individuals and that really helped my networking skills. So when I transferred into technology, although I had to learn a lot of technical skills, some things that I have from my past experiences were a lot of my soft skills that I could bring into that industry.
So don’t try and brush down or push away your other experiences. If it was in a different industry or job, you can really take those skills, even if they don’t directly apply and take them into the tech industry. Especially with my soft skills that I learned from the fashion industry when it came to always talking and networking and meeting new people, those are something I use every single day now in technology.
I think if you are someone who not only has the technical skills but also has a soft skill side of thing, you can really combine those and have a great career.
Masha: What would you recommend to people who come from non-technical backgrounds? How can they use their experience to their advantage?
For anyone out there who is considering getting into the tech industry, one of my biggest pieces of advice is to find your community. Find people that you connect with, or that can mentor you or help you along the way. For me, when I was making the switch, I really didn’t know anyone in the tech industry. So reaching out to people via LinkedIn was a huge help to me. And more often than not, people are very excited that you’re interested in the industry and you have specific questions for them, and you want to take them up for a coffee.
Once you have your network, it’s a great way to really have that support because as you’re entering a new industry, there are going to be some different changes and challenges that you face. And once again, the biggest piece of advice is to find that community to support you.
If we’re looking at non-tech roles, there are plenty of roles in tech that don’t require any coding skills in the tech industry. So I feel like it’s a good way to put your foot in the door in the tech industry. And if you want to be a programmer or such you would just take your time to actually learn the new language. While you are surrounded by people who know what they’re doing. So get yourself a mentor in the company and actually do the job, learn, build your portfolio – if that’s the plan.
Otherwise, in terms of non-tech roles, there’s plenty. And I think it’s worth looking at if you feel like coding is not your strong skill, sales, which is a very rewarding role and a lucrative career. Then you have product managers and more roles. So it’s worth understanding what you want to do, what you like, what you don’t like – before really taking the jump and deciding to pay 5k for a course.
And don’t forget to leverage your contacts. Create new contacts, go out and network. Definitely use every means you can to reach out to somebody you want to work with, or somebody you admire, someone in the company you want to work at. It’s pretty important. So network and leverage your contacts.
I’d say if you’re going into the tech industry, having a non-technical background is absolutely an advantage or can be used to your advantage. You should never undersell yourself for having soft skills or for having a background that you may not think is applicable to the type of work that you’re trying to do. There is always a connection.
I think there’s pretty much a way in almost any case to apply what you’ve learned to what you want to be doing. And it’s a matter of finding that connection and making the most of it. For me, that was being taught how to effectively communicate both in writing and verbally, in different formats and being able to string together a narrative. A narrative that makes sense and that is also compelling. That was the hook that really, I think gave me something unique to bring to an otherwise pretty logical, rational, otherwise fairly mathematical field that is working with numbers and data. So yeah, I think that would be my advice to you.
Thank you so much, Tiffany, Milly and Julia for sharing your experiences. I think all of your stories are awesome and are great examples of how everyone can create a unique career path for themselves. Make sure you follow all of those wonderful women on social media because they share a ton of value on a regular basis.
Instagram n2: https://www.instagram.com/talktechtome/
Box of Intimates: https://www.instagram.com/boxofintimates/
Let me know in the comments, what background you’re coming from and how you think you can use it to your advantage. I hope this video has inspired you to do that and has shown you some ways in which you can like this video.