While seeking to fill tech-related roles by shifting talent from your existing tech teams, it can also be incredibly beneficial to expand that search across your entire organization. Just because someone lacks the educational background to step in as a senior developer instantly doesn’t mean they can’t be upskilled to quickly contribute. As tech fluency continues to grow in importance across organizations, it’s likely you have talented employees seeking to make a career change right now.
Kristen Foster-Marks, a Senior Software Engineer, has a nontech to tech journey that led to her role at Pluralsight. Kristen’s journey started in academia and, while her initial interest was partially motivated by the potential of an improved financial situation, it blossomed into an extremely fulfilling career. Kristen was a professor at a university when she decided to make the change with the knowledge that, to move any further in her teaching career would require yet another degree.
We asked Kristen about her experience that started with a bootcamp and eventually led to her current position at Pluralsight.
What was your journey from academia to the tech world? Were there moments that pushed you to keep going?
Through my faculty study privilege at the college I was teaching at, I could take one class every semester for free. I selected a web development course that focused on the basics of HTML and CSS. There’s this instant gratification that helps you keep going in coding because I could open up a code editor and make something happen in my web browser. There is a wonderful satisfaction from seeing the direct result of your work so quickly. That quick feedback loop is like dopamine for your brain.
I can remember the first web pages I made in that class and they were so rough and rudimentary and then you go to a website that is clean with a flawless user experience and you gain a whole new level of understanding and respect for how those are built.
After that course, I studied for about a month before signing up for a coding bootcamp. I specifically signed up for a cohort that was starting in several months so I could give myself a runway to keep studying. My partner is in tech so I had an in-home mentor but the main thing he taught me was how to properly use Google. It sounds silly but search engines are so powerful because of the magnanimous nature of the engineering community.
I can Google a specific error message and instantly get hits from online forums, open source tools, or courses from tools like Pluralsight where I can get instant answers. This gets back to that instant feedback loop. Software engineering can be hard but you can get lightning fast feedback so you can fail fast and correct things even faster.
What did your timeline look like from the bootcamp to employment?
My path was slightly different, perhaps, than the standard route because my main goal of the cohort was to get selected to help teach the next bootcamp. They select one person who they pay to help teach the next round and with my background that intrigued me. I also thought, “If I spent six months learning this stuff and an additional six months teaching it, I’ll really have those foundational concepts down.”
Looking back now, I know that was a bit of imposter syndrome. I was nervous to approach my first full time job underprepared. After those six months of teaching, it was time for me to look elsewhere.
Did anything about the educational process take you by surprise?
The collaborative nature of learning how to code and building things with code totally took me by surprise. That can be startling for someone who is an introvert. I remember assuming I would be spending my time isolated and focusing on writing code but software development teams are their most successful when they work together and are constantly communicating.
It’s very analogous to language learning where you start off by studying books or courses online and then you take that knowledge base and expand it through interaction and collaboration. This is why mentorship is so valuable to software development teams. You can onboard someone from another department who has spent a few months learning the basics through course study and then you’ll see their knowledge leap off the page when they work with a willing mentor. The more collaboration your teams have, the more perspectives your new developers will receive and the faster they’ll contribute.
The best organizations will look within to be creators of talent as opposed to consumers. With that in mind, there will be countless opportunities for nontech employees to make the switch. What advice would you give them?
First and foremost, understand that you can make the transition. There seems to be this mythology about coding and programming that only brilliant people can do it. But we’re all brilliant in our own ways. Perhaps you come from a creative background or an analytical one–those traits will help you in ways you don’t even see yet. You need to be intentional about the switch but if you dedicate yourself, you can be a contributing code writer extremely quickly.
You don’t need to go back to school to make this change. Not only do tools like Pluralsight exist, but in many cases, your organization will provide you with access to them. And as you learn, lean on your coworkers, even if they aren’t your direct coworkers yet. I mentioned that software development is collaborative online and the same is true for most organizations.
Reach out via instant message and ask for courses they suggest or tips for learning a specific language. Harness the resources and people you have available, especially if your company is one that is focused on hiring from within. You already have industry and organizational knowledge so lean on that and seek out the necessary technical knowledge.
Tech doesn’t have gatekeepers. If you want to learn to write code and work in this industry, you absolutely can.
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