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How to Build a Non-Traditional Career in Tech

Keith Reid-Cleveland
June 27, 2023
5 min read
A woman focused on charting a non-traditional career path

Three learning approaches to help you build a non-traditional career in tech.

For many, building a successful career isn’t as simple as attending a prestigious university or four-year college. Not everyone has access to participate in on-campus recruitment or a career coach that helps them build their dream career. In fact, many people with the talent, ambition and drive to build a successful tech career simply do not have equal access to the most common opportunities.

This lack of access contributes to a widening racial wealth gap, and a lack of representation in the creation and growth of the tech products and experiences that influence our every day lives. As recently as 2022, Zippia reported that fewer than 26% of tech jobs were held by women, while Black Americans held 7% of tech jobs, Latinx Americans held 8%, and Asian Americans held 20%, respectively. As a result, aspiring tech pros look to non-traditional career paths.

An aspiring software engineer working with his mentor.

Our team at Next Shift Learning aims to build a more equitable workforce that thrives, which includes connecting under-represented talent with the resources they need to build a non-traditional career in tech. We help aspiring tech pros build non-traditional career pathways, grow their skills and capabilities, and show employers their ability to add value starting day one.

There are many ways to build non-traditional career paths — such as completing an apprenticeship that helps you earn while you learn, finding a mentor, building a network, and more. Here are a few ideas to help you explore different methods of learning in three different ways — learning by connection, learning by knowledge building, and learning by doing.

Learning by Connection

Build a Professional Digital Network

In the past, network access was restricted to who you knew. Now, you can start and maintain valuable relationships with anyone, from anywhere in the world.

Once you’ve established a career goal, start looking for people who work in that space that you can connect with on websites such as LinkedIn and Handshake — both of which also have high-quality content and community initiatives for anyone looking to jumpstart their career.

From there, write a personal pitch you can send to people in roles to which you aspire, and arrange a brief coffee chat where you can ask specific questions about their career experience, and get useful advice on how you can follow a similar path. These coffee chats can be in person, or virtual, using Zoom or Google Hangouts. As an added tip, see if they know anyone else you can connect with. People who built successful careers often love sharing what they’ve learned along their journey. So don’t be shy about asking for help.

“One very important word of advice for building professional connections — the quality of your network is just as important, if not more important, than the quantity. Connecting with 500-plus people on LinkedIn doesn’t mean much if you don’t maintain any of those relationships over time.”

Build relationships by congratulating your connections on their accomplishments and check in with people when you have good news of your own to share. Most importantly, be genuine.

Also, if you’re a graduate of a community college or university, use your college or university’s resources by joining alumni groups or talking with professors. If you don’t have a college education, there are many ways to build a professional network — check out more of our recommendations in this article.

Women connecting to build community and support for their tech career pathways.

Participate in Professional Organizations

Depending on which field you’d like to enter, professional organizations can be a great resource for networking, mentorship, and learning about job opportunities. They exist in practically every field — from marketing to mechanical engineering and from accounting to architecture.

Personally, I would’ve had a much harder time developing my career if I hadn’t joined my local chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) during my freshman year of college. All I knew going into college was that I wanted to have a career in writing, but I didn’t have any real-world examples in my network of what it would take to do so successfully. Not only did the organization give me a network of friends and colleagues with similar goals, but it connected me with professionals who had already accomplished what I was trying to do.

It’s worth noting that some professional organizations have requirements, application processes, and dues or payments that come with their membership. However, that’s not always the case, and they may offer discounted rates for students or recent graduates. Look around your area to see how you can potentially get involved, even if it’s just attending a meeting.

Other examples of professional networks that cater to emerging talent include the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting (ALPFA), and the American Business Women’s Association (ABWA).

Join Platform-Specific Networking Groups (Like Slack & Discord)

Even before the pandemic accelerated remote work and digital collaboration, networking was already evolving. When people think of “networking,” they often think of being in a room full of people they can shake hands with. While these types of networking still occur, there’s been an uptick in non-traditional networking groups for professionals over recent years.

Digital networking groups such as Slack workspaces, LinkedIn groups, and Discord servers can be great because they reach people in multiple locations at once, and offer more convenience. They can also be less intimidating to people who understandably get overwhelmed by the idea of showing up alone to a mixer and hoping for the best.

One prime example of a digital networking group that I’m a part of and have seen the benefit of is Online Geniuses, which is specifically geared toward people who work in search engine optimization (SEO) and digital marketing. Groups like this can be a wonderful resource whether you’re looking for work, career advice, or just trying to build out your professional network.

Here are some more Slack groups you can join, based on your interests and career goals:

  • Techqueria – A community for Latinx members of the tech community.
  • GrowthMentor – An active community of 1.9k+ founders, marketers, and product pros from around the world
  • Women in Technology – A safe, confidential space for women who work in technology to chat and support each other.

Find One or Multiple Mentors

Having a quality mentor in your field can completely change the trajectory of your career and ambitions. They offer guidance when you’re making important decisions, introduce you to other people worth knowing, and may even be the last piece of the puzzle you need for a job one day.

Personally, most of my mentors are people I worked for in the past who saw my potential. One even interviewed me for a job I didn’t ultimately get, but we hit it off so well that we’ve kept in touch over the years. And another brought me into the fold here at NSL.

“If you find a potential mentor, don’t be afraid to ask them to take on that role, but make sure to regularly check-in with them. Follow up to share how their career advice helped you take steps along your journey. Ask them about how they made critical decisions in their career. Build a strong and authentic relationship with them.”

Finding a good mentor, however, can be easier said than done. Thankfully, if you follow the suggestions we gave for networking, you might organically end up with a stable of mentors. Additionally, resources like Mentor Spaces are also available for professionals at different stages of their careers to connect with potential mentors or even become a mentor for someone else.

Three women collaborating during a course designed to up-skill them into tech careers.
Learning by Doing

Complete an Apprenticeship Program

Apprenticeships, which can last anywhere from three months to a year or more, can be direct pipelines to getting a permanent role in a company. (Note: Apprenticeships, much like internships, aren’t a guarantee of future employment, but they can help.) During the pandemic, I watched a close friend who had been furloughed use his free time to enroll in a coding boot camp. After completing his initial training, he joined a software engineering apprenticeship program at a Fortune 500 company. He’s still with the company now, and just got a promotion.

If you’d like to be able to tell a similar story one day, our team at NSL has curated a list of 20 apprenticeships for people who want to work as a software engineer, UX researcher, graphic designer, product manager, project manager, and more. The list includes apprenticeship programs from companies such as Google, Lyft, Uber, Microsoft, Pinterest, and more. Check out the Next Shift Learning Apprenticeships Guide to learn more.

Showcase Your Work

One of the best pieces of career advice I ever got was, “The best way to get a job is to prove you can do it.” By no means is this advocating for doing additional work you’re not being paid for — you should always know your worth. But showing a potential employer that you already have the skills to succeed in a role with concrete examples can surely get your foot in the door.

“Back when I was trying to break into content marketing and journalism, I started a blog where I would write articles like the ones I would see on my favorite websites. Later, I pitched myself to those same websites as a freelance writer and cited my blog as an example of my work, which got..."

Maybe you already have work to share, or maybe you are planning to complete an online course or an apprenticeship. Either way, you can showcase your work on sites such as Squarepace, Wix, Webflow or Authory. If you want to work in brand design, digital marketing, website development, software engineering, or any other tech role, take the leap and build a website or app to show what you’re capable of.

Take Online Courses

Being a lifelong learner is a great way to ensure that you’re constantly adding skills to your toolbelt and developing as a professional. And it’s an investment you’re making in your future — knowledge can never be taken away, it’s a lifelong asset. But learning doesn’t have to come from a traditional college track. In fact, there are many ways to continue to learn and build new skills.

Learning platforms such as Coursera and Udemy offer thousands of digital lessons on topics that can be used to launch, advance, or even switch careers. Udemy regularly runs sales on their courses, so it’s worth signing up to receive their newsletters as well. Also, Google and Microsoft recently announced free beginner AI courses for anyone interested in artificial intelligence.

Online courses can be especially useful because they offer a way for you to try out different fields before you’re fully committed to one. However, you also need to make sure that you’re being intentional when you’re enrolling. Establish a goal that the course will help you achieve, such as learning a new skill or earning a certificate. This way you ensure that your time and money — when courses come at a cost — are being put to good use toward your future.

Here are some additional courses from Udemy to consider:

To learn more about building a non-traditional career pathway, sign up to receive communications from Next Shift Learning, or follow us on LinkedIn and Instagram.

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