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15. Pursuing a Career in Tech

Hosted by Charlie Gleason, with guest David Routen.

Tech is a rapidly growing industry with a wealth of opportunities across a range of skill sets. If you don't come from a programming background, or you’re just starting out and are interested in learning more, tune in as designer and front end developer Charlie Gleason and Rails developer David Routen share their advice on creating a career in tech.


Show notes

Designer and front end developer Charlie Gleason and developer David Routen are both on Heroku's marketing team, and both of them transitioned into the world of programming from disparate career paths. For them, moving into tech was about following their passion for creative problem solving. They did so by first creating a plan for what they needed to learn. After viewing several job postings, they got a sense of what skills each potential employer required, and then set about to learn them. Fundamentally, they believe that a strong grasp of the building blocks of the web, like HTML and CSS, plus at least one other higher level language (JavaScript, PHP, Ruby, Python), is a great way to get started. There are many free resources to learn programming on the web, but there are also more structured courses which you can pay for.

In order to practice those skills, they recommend speaking to members of your community who need basic web work done, and asking if you can volunteer there in exchange for putting the work in your portfolio or CV. This will show potential employers an idea of who you are and what you're capable of. Even if programming isn't your thing, there are loads of other roles as well, such as data scientists, project management, or software quality assurance. As well, following people in the industry—either through their blog, Twitter, or local meetups—is a great way to network and hear about additional opportunities.

Transcript

Charlie Gleason: Hello, and welcome to Code[ish]. I am Charlie Gleason a designer and developer on the marketing team at Heroku. And I am joined today by David Routen. David do you want to introduce yourself?

David Routen: Hi, yes. I'm David Routen, also on the marketing team, specifically on the marketing web operations team. We are responsible for pretty much all the public facing marketing websites for Heroku.

Charlie Gleason: So, we're here today because we're going to talk about changing careers, and more specifically changing careers in tech. You may wonder why us? Both of us have had experience in changing roles, or moving into tech from maybe slight less technical backgrounds or backgrounds that are tech adjacent. And we've worked through a lot of the challenges that are inherent to changing and up-scaling.

David Routen: Absolutely. And we're both passionate about the industry as well at our various places. And me more on the development front and Charlie more as a designer. Even though those roles are starting to blend a little bit more here.

Charlie Gleason: One benefit I suppose to tech is that there's a lot of work. I was reading the other day that there's a prediction, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, I have written down here, are predicting by 2020 that there will be 1.4 million more software development jobs than applicants that can fill them. So, it definitely feels like a space that is really exciting and changing and a lot of that's being defined. So, what does it involve? What does changing careers involve? What do you think David?

David Routen: I guess we should probably start out with kind of figuring out what you would like to do in tech, if you are considering making a change. There are an incredible amount of options, different kinds of things you can do. So, it's going to be challenging to kind of figure out what it is you want to focus on. One of the things that we would recommend, typically, if you're not sure what you want to do in tech? Is to kind of just play around with things. If you're interested in different kinds of programming, check out a few different languages. Write some code in it, do a couple of tutorials, maybe some coding challenges, see if that is something that challenges you, something that interests you. If not, check out Photoshop, check out some of the other Adobe Suite applications.

Charlie Gleason: Yeah, definitely finding something that you feel passionate about, or that you have an interest in. I mean, I think, all design and technology is problem solving at its core and I think if you are a person that solves things visually or finds it exciting to create things visually, then design is definitely an area to explore. And then if you're interested in maybe more of the logic around to how something works, the underlying logic and methods of communication and, I don't know... I don't know how to describe backend development in a way that doesn't sound less fun than design. Because I guess I come from a design background, but they're both fun.

David Routen: No, absolutely, they are. And actually a lot of what you just said applies to backend development too. You know, if you like problem solving basically. Pretty much everything, or every day you work as a backend developer. If you're lucky you run into a problem you've never seen before, or it's been nine months since you've had to do something similar, so the libraries and frameworks are different and it's, you know, pretty much a brand new problem.

Charlie Gleason: Okay. So, you've kind of... You're starting to explore these things, so what else could you do to kind of explore the industry?

David Routen: I guess, another important approach could be just talking to other people who are in the industry. Reach out to any kind of personalities you see online. Most of the people I've interacted with in tech are pretty open, pretty interested in lending a helping hand to people who are considering switching over. Talk to people in different roles, find out what they like about their jobs, what they wish were different, that kind of thing.

Charlie Gleason: I guess, the next step would be... once you have a bit of a feel for that direction is to come up with a plan on how you're going to learn. Because a lot of the time it's easy to get kind of caught up in how much breathe and scope there is to the tech industry. Especially when you're just at kind of starting point of trying to explore and plan out against all these different sub-industries or sub-cultures.

David Routen: Yeah, exactly, and that was very well put too. Especially when you're starting out, there... It just overwhelms you with the different number of technologies, different languages, frameworks, libraries that are available that a lot of people use on a daily basis. So, it's very important to kind of focus on a few specific areas, if you've decided that you want to go down that path. And then spend as much time as you can learning those skills, and again speaking just to web application development, which is what I do, if you're going to pursue a career in that and you don't have any experience or very little, I would suggest starting with HTML or CSS.

Charlie Gleason: Yeah, for sure, absolutely. Because that's like... If you're looking at... Let's say you're looking at a job posting, for a job that you're interested in, then you're going to see acronyms or terms or patterns in the kinds of things that people... An employer, like a potential employer is looking for and I think one of the things it does cross a lot of boundaries is HTML and CSS as a kind of way to kick off, kind of any exploration. Also, you don't need anything to do it, other than like a text editor and a browser, because everything is kind of natively supported. So, you can almost get trying without having to learn much. Mind you, HTML is complex in a lot of ways and CSS is as well, but like the underlying building blocks of it aren't so much.

David Routen: Well, that's a fair point, and yeah for both design and development those would probably be, you know, solid buildings blocks to start with. And then you most likely want to learn JavaScript, actually if you're going to do any kind of web application development, you will want to learn JavaScript. Which is a language that's run in the browser on the client side and then you'd also want to choose, at least to start off, probably one backend server side language. And some of the more common ones the dynamic languages would be like PHP, Ruby, Python. You could use some of the compiled languages, C#, Java as well. Although those are typically less friendly to beginners. So, I typically recommend people choose either PHP or Ruby, Python as like a close second.

Charlie Gleason: You know, I think the key is to not get overwhelmed and to find the things that you enjoy doing, because ultimately that's what you are going to stick with. Especially if you're a newcomer to the industry or if you're a... Even if you do have some experience, you don't want to get disheartened or frustrated too early. So, if it at all feels like it's getting too much, I think having those people that you can reach out to or finding meetups you can go to and talk to people; is really important. But do you have any thoughts on how to practice? Which sounds like a funny thing to ask, but it's surprisingly hard, I found it really hard.

David Routen: It definitely can be. Yeah, so once you've come up with a plan, you've chosen a couple of languages to start learning it's very important to, like Charlie was saying, practice as much as you can. And if you can set aside in your plan, maybe an hour or two hours a night, you know, during weekdays or a couple of hours every weekend, that's just going to help you progress that much quicker. And honestly, if you're learning a new skill, learning how to code and you don't practice, you take a couple of weeks off, it's going to make it that much more difficult.

Charlie Gleason: Yeah, that's such a good point. Because I think sometimes a lot of development is kind of like music, you develop muscle memory, right? So, you'll see a problem, or you'll come across patterns in design and in development that you'll have... You'll slowly build up this kind of tool set for dealing with, and then things will feel less frustrating and there's nothing as like joyous as realizing that you know how to solve a problem, before it's even become a problem, right? But when you're starting out it is... There is a lot of frustration, so again having resources and having ways to keep pushing yourself is really important.

Charlie Gleason: And another is... I mean, we were talking about some of the resources we knew off the top of our head, which like Codecademy, what do you think? Anything can you think of there?

David Routen: Yes, some of the sites that I used when I was teaching myself about six years ago, I used Udacity. I took a few classes on Udemy. I've recently did a couple of classes on Pluralsight learning some of the Go language. And there are tons of them out there, Adex, Google Web Fundamentals, like honestly you just have to search "learn how to program" or "free programming tutorials". There are very many of them out there, and a lot of them are very good and a lot of them are free. Some of them aren't, but it might be worth $50 a month or something like that.

Charlie Gleason: One of the things that I love about this industry is that you can get started for free. And you can do it for free for a pretty considerable amount of time, and I think there's a lot of opportunities to get involved in the community as well. To kind of have a cyclical relationship with other people who are learning as well, and I think that's where meetups come in. I mean, I'm a fairly social anxious person, so for me may not sound like my favorite thing, but you know there's a lot of ways to have that conversation.

Charlie Gleason: One thing that I think is incredibly important as well and I wished I had done more when I started, is to keep track of what I did and what I do, until I keep an almost portfolio of work, where I have references.

David Routen: Yeah. That... If you're transitioning into tech is going to be probably the most key thing that you could do to prepare. You don't need to have a degree to work in technology. It would obviously help, but you don't need a degree. You don't need certifications. You do need to show people, especially potential employers, that you know what you're talking about and can do the things that you list on your resume that you can do.

Charlie Gleason: Yeah, that's a good way of putting it. Yeah.

David Routen: So, creating a portfolio is just huge going through this learning process. You know, take screenshots, screen captures of projects that you're building. If you're building a website for your local YMCA or something like that, you know, include some screenshots of it. If you're getting paid to build a project, get permission first before you take a screen capture and show on your portfolio. But ask and then do if you can.

Charlie Gleason: Yeah. And you can always blur out sensitive data as well. That's a really good point. I think for me, I write a blog on Medium about web development, I don't keep it as up-to-date as I should, I have a Twitter account. I think when I was starting out or trying to get established in the industry, those tools were genuinely... They had a really profound effect on my progression and I think that and the people that I met were huge, huge influence. Oh and a website.

David Routen: Yeah, it's very helpful to have some kind of web presence. And again, you kind of alluded to this with the blog, the more up-to-date it is, both your blog and your website the better. But even if you just have a landing page, you could display a little professional photo of yourself, you include a short mission or objective statement. Kind of giving, you know, potential employers an idea of what you're looking for, what you would like to do, what you have been doing to kind of ready yourself for those positions. You can link your portfolio or merge the two, include your blog as well. You could even attach a copy of your updated resume, make sure it is up-to-date. And also make sure that if you do attach a resume your website, that you remove any and all personal information if this is going to be publicly accessible, that is very, very important.

Charlie Gleason: One other thing that I think was a huge factor in my career and my career growth is people. And I think more than anything in any of these lists, that's what's going to help you when you're stuck, build up your confidence, find your opportunities. You know, your network and the people around you are so important. And I remember I... Around the time I wanted to move from design, specifically very static design and print, to doing frontend development and development generally. Was...

Charlie Gleason: When I went to a conference in 2010, that Microsoft put on, there was a guy there, Lachlan Hardie, who is just one the greatest people in the world. He was giving a talk on microservices and I was really nervous, but afterwards I said hi to him. And we chatted for a little while and then a couple of months later I went to a conference and he was there and he introduced me to some people. And then a couple of months after that some of the people he introduced me to invited me to come and work with them. And then a couple of months after that we co-founded a business and then a couple of months after that... you know what I mean? It's like this rolling thing where you don't ever really know how these people are going to impact you, or inspire you or help you.

Charlie Gleason: So, I think meeting people, introducing yourself to people, you know, reaching out, being present with people when you're having a conversation and meet up at conferences. You know, there's a real value to those things.

David Routen: Right. Right. And that would be true in pretty much ever industry as well. Networking is going to be one of the most important things that you do to try and transition into this industry. And that doesn't necessarily mean that you have to, as Charlie was saying, go to meetups or go to conferences. Although those are and can be extremely amazing experiences, but even reaching out to people online through LinkedIn, you know, through friends, through... There's a lot of Slack channels for various communities around the United States that focus on tech.

Charlie Gleason: Sure. Sure. Twitter is a big one.

David Routen: Twitter is fantastic. And ask them if they wouldn't mind, you know, giving someone in their organization your resume. Even that little piece would set you apart and put you so far ahead of any other applicants who, you know, have gone through the jobs portal and just filled out a six page application.

Charlie Gleason: So, pulling all of those beautiful narrative threads together, we talked a little bit about exploring the industry, about coming up with a plan, about the importance of practicing and continuing to develop your skills, to the power of the people around you to help you in the future help them. So, I guess, just some final thoughts, that I kind of wish I'd known at the time. One thing, if you're coming from a different industry, especially if you don't have a lot of experience, it can be possible to take a pay cut depending on how senior you are in your current industry. That can be something to keep in mind and can slow down that process a little bit if you're not in a position where that's a possibility.

David Routen: Right. It could be hard to change careers into tech also, if you don't have any professional experience in tech yet. Something that could help is if you're able to find kind of a transitional position that mixes experience you already have with a more technical role. That could help quite a bit. Just a few examples of positions that could fit that bill would be like data analysts, working with large sets of data. Project managers or project management, because that's...

Charlie Gleason: Most of tech really, yeah, absolutely.

David Routen: Exactly. Or quality assurance engineers as well. You know, some of the engineers responsible for testing the different features and functionality of your web applications. So, finding one of those transitional roles and then spending a year, two years kind of building your skills there and also going along with your plan and teaching yourself and doing tutorials on the side would make that transition quite a bit easier.

Charlie Gleason: Yeah, and I think it can sound like starting a new career, but it doesn't necessarily have to. Like if you can find those crossover ways and use those existing skills or some credentials, degrees. I mean a lot of the times jobs will ask for a degree, but not specifically which one.

David Routen: Right.

Charlie Gleason: And you know, you can kind of use those to move across, so if you have experience building a house, you know a lot about working with different industries. You know, maybe that is one way or maybe you'll find someone that you worked with within that process who needs a website for their contracting company. There's like small ways that you can find contextual hints for how you can get more involved, or how you can start doing things that you can put in your resume.

Charlie Gleason: Ultimately there are lots of ways that you can bring your skills over to tech and you would be surprised, especially because there are roles that don't even exist yet that your existing skills are perfect for. So, I think, looking for ways to cross over, looking for opportunities to be involved in the areas that you're interested in and learning from the people around you, who may have skills in those areas; is incredibly important.

Charlie Gleason: And one other thing that I will say is that more and more there is a realization of the importance of soft skills, like communication, and I think you kind of touched on that with project management, diversity and inclusion, which I mentioned at the start and having a wealth of roles that aren't just purely sitting within STEM, but are tech related. So, I think... I don't know, it's exciting. I think most of all you should enjoy the experience, right? You should... It should be fun.

David Routen: Yes. It will most certainly be frustrating, make sure that you're ready for that. But it will also be extremely rewarding and it can be incredibly fun at times too.

Charlie Gleason: Absolutely. Glass half full.

David Routen: It's more than half full Charlie.

Charlie Gleason: Yeah. That's it. Well, thank you David for taking the time to hang out with me.

David Routen: Oh, of course. Thanks for having me.

Charlie Gleason: And to our dear listeners, please reach out to us with any questions on Twitter. You can find our Twitter handles at heroku.com/podcasts, and we'd love to hear what you think, and stay tuned for more episodes of Code[ish].

About code[ish]

A podcast brought to you by the developer advocate team at Heroku, exploring code, technology, tools, tips, and the life of the developer.

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Charlie Gleason

Lead Marketing Designer and Front End Developer, Heroku

Charlie is a designer, developer, musician, and creative coding enthusiast. He can usually be found somewhere in London, probably on a bike.

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David Routen

RoR Software Engineer, Heroku

David is best known for his skill at board games (false), preternatural hockey abilities (false), and love of reading, baking, & ancient Egypt (true).

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