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The power of Opportunity Academies: Jim Liriano’s unconventional transition into tech

January 05, 2023

Opportunity Academies give non-technical individuals the skills and experience they need to transition into tech roles. In this blog series, we interview Pluralsight Opportunity Academy participants. They share their experience with the program, how it impacted their lives, and advice for individuals and organizations interested in Opportunity Academies.

What is an Opportunity Academy?

Opportunity Academies provide an alternative career path into tech. Sponsored by a specific company, these programs help underserved individuals develop the skills they need for entry-level software, IT, and data roles. At the same time, they help the sponsoring organization develop high-potential talent to fill skills gaps, reduce pressure on existing teams, and improve diversity and inclusion.

Build diverse teams from the ground up with Opportunity Academies.

Table of contents

“An employer taking a chance on someone like me…is something I’m eternally grateful for.”

Through Pluralsight, Jim Liriano, currently a QA Engineer, participated in a learn to code program sponsored by a Fortune 500 company. We sat down with him to learn more about how the Opportunity Academy helped him land a tech role and improve his overall quality of life.

Jim Liriano (left) with a friend.

Jim Liriano (left) with a friend.

What led you to apply for the learn to code program?

“I thought I had my life figured out prior to applying to the program. I had been working for the City of New York for a few years and was very good at my job. But I needed a career change. So, I took a job opportunity in a completely different state in a completely different industry (making bowling balls) with the opportunity to take on a managerial position at a startup.

“That was in January 2020. Two weeks later, COVID-19 came to the United States. By March, I was back home in NYC without a plan, completely uncertain about my life and what to do next. I spent the rest of 2020 contemplating what to do, feeling really depressed that I left and lost a job within a three month window. 

“I felt like it was too ambitious of me to try and pursue a greater life in my career, instead of playing it safe like my ex-coworkers. I’m grateful for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) I received, but I had zero options while furloughed. I was a little scared about starting over.”

How did you find out about the Opportunity Academy?

“I found out about the program because of a friend I used to work for in NYC [who learned about the opportunity through Pluralsight’s marketing efforts]. They told me to look into the program. 

“A few things stuck out to me. First, the program’s aim was to bring in people who had no experience in tech on a professional level (me!). Second, they were looking for people who had an interest in tech but didn’t have the opportunity to pursue it. I dabbled in computers in my free time and was always curious about tech, but never wanted to commit money to learning due to my circumstances.

“Lastly, participants wouldn’t be guaranteed job placement, but would learn enough to give themselves a chance at tech roles. There was no cost if accepted into the program. I was receiving PUA at this time, so I was able to take this chance.

“If I didn’t apply, I would never have this opportunity ever again. I essentially felt forced to give it my all in the application process.”

What was the interview process like to get into the program?

“Someone with the program reached out to me for a 30-minute interview. I thought it was fairly smooth! I spoke to a couple of people who asked questions similar to those in a job interview. They asked me to describe myself and explain what I wanted to get out of the program, where I could see myself after the program was done, and how engaged I would be during it. I was also asked various questions ranging from my interest in taking the program’s 14-week bootcamp to why I wanted to get into technology at all.

“I was very candid when explaining my situation and why I wanted to take the program seriously. I had no expectations other than wanting to show the program that, if I was accepted, it would mean everything to me. I needed this opportunity, and I would not waste it. I ultimately was accepted! 

“I then received an email that outlined everything I needed to know, including the prerequisite courses and activities I needed to complete on the Pluralsight Skills platform before the program started.”

As part of this program, Pluralsight created a Pre-Work channel—one place for participants to easily navigate the beginning of their learning journey, as well as refer to resources throughout their time in the Academy. If you're interested in sponsoring an Opportunity Academy, we can help you build custom Pre-Work channels and learning paths that address your skills gaps and organizational goals.

How did you feel on the first day of class?

“I was excited, but I also knew I came to study. I was determined to finish and get the most out of it. Given my circumstances, I knew I needed to make the best of it. But I definitely struggled at first trying to understand basic HTML. I had an idea of HTML tags, classes, and attributes previously. But I hadn’t used it without the help of a program like Dreamweaver, so I definitely felt very rusty.”

During the program, what was a typical day like for you?

“It was very structured! I woke up at 8 a.m. and prepared for it like any regular job, so I was ready to join the Zoom class by the 9 a.m. start time. We had a one-hour lunch halfway, and then at 5 p.m. we were done for the day.

“Then, I would typically spend the next three hours either studying by myself, or going over notes with some of my classmates. I would sleep early to do it again the next day.”

What were your highest and lowest days during the program?

“I think my best day was after the first week of the program, when I started getting a sense of how to use React at a basic level. It also ended up being the hardest section of the class because it was quite the jump in terms of difficulty. 

“I wasn’t used to applying JavaScript the way the instructor wanted us to in React. I definitely studied (and struggled) to pick it up in the allotted time frame given the program’s tight 14-week structure. I ended up giving my feedback to the instructor and he dialed it back to a more realistic pace based on the group’s average. And I was able to pick it up then.”

Did you ever think about quitting?

“I never really thought about quitting because I knew that this was it for me. I had to get through the program and then bet on myself to use what I’d learned. This was something I needed to do no matter how hard or ‘impossible’ learning any of it felt as a tech newbie.”

How did the instructors support you during the program?

“If there was anything especially that the first two instructors did, it was to just be there if I wanted to talk to them about a particular issue. The first two instructors especially were great in encouraging me to try to figure out the solution without completely giving me the answer—to kind of keep the carrot on a stick in front of me. 

“It felt like I was able to at least make a friend out of the instructors, and they created a very welcoming environment for me to ask questions on anything I wasn't sure about during the classes. I never felt like I was a burden on them in any way.”

How did the class work together and/or bond during the learning process?

“Until the end of each section, when we partnered up for the React project, and the final project where we all worked together, there wasn’t a lot of collaboration. 

“I felt that because a lot of the other people in the program had lives to live (unlike me, who basically had nothing going on due to my circumstances), I only really got to know two or three people from the program.

“But don’t get me wrong, I pair programmed with quite a few of my classmates. And I was able to really sit down with my instructors a few times throughout the program. A lot of the bonding came from outside of the required projects. I still speak to my first instructor and three people from the program somewhat often (not every day or anything)!”

“I spent the first month after the program trying to detox and decompress a little after the final project. Then it was all hands on deck for me. 

“I went through the interview process with the organization that sponsored the learn to code program three times, and I didn’t receive a job offer. After that, I handled the job search myself entirely through LinkedIn. 

“I ended up taking an unexpected city position to get by, knowing full well that I wasn’t going to stay in the position for very long. I spent my time from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. traveling and doing my job. Every chance I had in between, I sat on LinkedIn, trying to expand my outreach as much as humanly possible to get myself in front of a recruiter or business owner trying to fill a vacancy. That went on for the next five months, until I was ultimately offered the QA (Quality Assurance) position I have now.”

Was the job search as you expected, or did it differ? And if so, how?

“I had struggled to find work coming off of the 2008 financial crisis. This situation was similar in terms of feeling like I wasn’t getting anywhere and reaching out cold to message people about things I wanted to learn more about. 

“However, it actually felt a little easier than before because the pandemic made the job markets hot. It felt like there was more opportunity, but I wanted to find the right fit. In the end, I only applied to about 30 jobs and ended up receiving offers from six of them. Five organizations wanted me to relocate, but the sixth one allowed me to work from home full-time, which I accepted.”

How did the program prepare you for the job you have now? What skills have you carried over?

“Without a doubt, I wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for the program. My understanding of end-to-end testing from the final project was instrumental to me gaining the QA position I have now. Learning about MySQL was also incredibly helpful, as it’s something I use on the job today. The basics I learned during the program allowed me to come right out of the gate and understand what the company uses.”

Does your employer provide support for new hires in your role?

“My employer does support new hires in our tech team and has helped me settle into the QA role without issue! They’ve been extremely supportive anytime I have a question. As I do still have a goal of being a software developer, they’ve even allowed me to dabble a little bit in minor bugs.”

What would you say is the biggest value you got out of the Opportunity Academy?

“Career advancement, absolutely no question about that. For the better part of the last six years, [I was] trying to find a place in the world career-wise that made sense with what I wanted to do, and I struggled hard. 

“While I know people say QA isn't for everyone (I still have a desire to be a full-time developer), I also feel that if I want to be a quality senior developer one day, it’s important for me to understand as many perspectives of the developer life as possible. I wanted to find my first job in the field to get my foot in the door, [and] a QA role was fine to start in and then branch off from there.”

Do you feel a sense of belonging in your organization?

“Yes! I have imposter syndrome, but who doesn’t in tech? I feel confident that I belong and that I can keep up! However, I’ve naturally had to bet on myself to get places, so it’s not a new thing for me.”

Do you consider yourself part of an underrepresented group in tech? And if so, can you tell me a little more about that?

“Hm, it’s hard for me to say. I honestly don’t really interact with many people, so I don’t see firsthand people’s backgrounds when it comes to tech. I wouldn’t even really know where to categorize myself in terms of representation. 

“However, given how big my family is and what they all do for work, I can’t imagine that there are many Hispanics around my age (34) who code for a living. I am certain that the representation is a lot better in the younger generation for sure. But from what I’ve experienced with a lot of past co-workers, having that ambition and grit to pivot careers is something that not a lot of people have, especially as age increases.”

How is life different for you now compared to what it was like before you joined the program?

“Oh man, my work-life balance is incredible. I’ve been able to reclaim three hours of travel time to and from work each day. I’m able to sleep a lot more, and I’ve lost over 50 pounds since I have the extra time to exercise and can save money on the food I buy.

“I’m also able to work at my own pace instead of having old-fashioned bosses hovering over my shoulder and constantly being under supervision. I’m just trusted to get my work done now. I don’t know if I could ever go back to my previous life again, honestly.”

What would you say to others who are thinking of joining a similar program?

“If you have an interest in learning about how products work (like computers, phones, or any programs), or if you want to give yourself a foundation to change careers into tech, do it. 

“The program gave me the knowledge and information I needed to be able to hold a candle to get into the interview room, and then the rest was me betting on myself. I would not have the incredible life change I have now without this program.”

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What advice do you have for an employer who’s thinking of sponsoring a learn to code program like the one you experienced?

“I know that everyone’s experiences differ when it comes to taking a chance on people for a program like this. I think seven of the 21 cohort members were hired by the sponsoring organization, and only two more found other tech jobs. But if you can give people who are interested a genuine, honest opportunity to pursue their aspirations and ambitions, do it. 

“The program was incredibly life changing for me personally. I would not be here without it, and I wouldn’t doubt that there’s a world of people out there, in my boat (or much worse), who need a program like this. An employer taking a chance on someone like me is something I’m eternally grateful for, and I am sure I’m not alone on that, if only more people were given a chance.”

What advice do you have for an employer who’s thinking of hiring non-tech to tech academy graduates?

“Don’t judge a book by its cover. I’ll be the first to admit that there were people who did not take the program as seriously as I did. But a lot of the things people in tech look for personality-wise are things people outside of tech already have as part of their job skills. 

“We’re willing to ask for help when we get stuck on something. Since we’re ‘new’ to the field, it’s easier for us to mold our skill sets and adapt to what we’re taught without having an arrogant attitude. 

“I developed overwhelming patience thanks to my work sitting in long depositions, so being able to translate that into taking a few hours to solve a coding problem felt natural. A lot of the soft skills from my previous positions fit into tech roles perfectly, but people may not necessarily know how to portray that right away because they aren’t used to connecting the two together. 

“I completely understand that there is a financial risk in something like this for an employer, but just from my own job, giving someone with a lot of potential a chance is something you have repaid to you in loyalty twice over. It would take a substantial raise for me to consider changing from the role I’m doing now at my current company.”

Solve your talent shortage, and close the opportunity gap

The learn to code Opportunity Academy gave Jim the skills he needed to enter the tech workforce—and transform his entire way of life. 

Pluralsight creates tailored Opportunity Academies to help you empower individuals like Jim, build diverse tech talent, and close skills gaps.