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What routes into technology are available for female and diverse career changers?

Zoe Cunningham is joined by Sophia Lin, senior sales manager, and Sasha Burgoyne, head of academy operations at TechSwitch to talk about how people of all backgrounds can approach career changing successfully.

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Transcript

Zoe: 

Hello, and welcome to Softwire TechTalks. I’m Zoe Cunningham.

Today we have a special episode that was first broadcast on Twitter Spaces, on International Women’s Day 2022. If you’re interested on hearing more from us on Twitter, do follow us @SoftwireUK.

And for now, I’m delighted to talk to two very special guests, about how you can get into the tech industry via career-changing. I’d like to ask my guests to introduce themselves. I don’t know which order you want to go in…

Sophia:  Hi, I’m Sophia. I joined Softwire in the summer of 2019, and I look after the placement side of our TechSwitch programme, which helps career-changers and returners get into tech.

My career to-date has revolved around helping people get into technology, whether they’re graduates, returners, or career-changers. I’m excited to be part of the first Twitter live!

Zoe:

It’s exciting to be here, isn’t it?

Sophia:

Yeah.

Sasha: 

I’m Sasha and I have been at Softwire for over four years now. Gosh, time really does fly, doesn’t it?  

I actually had a really non-traditional role route into tech. I did a classics degree at uni, and then found my way into recruitment and was recruiting software developers. And all I ever did, when I was having conversations with my candidates, was think, ‘wow, your job is so much cooler than mine. I really wish I could be doing what you were doing.’

So I decided to try and do it. I didn’t go into the coding route. I went down the project-management route and the UX, UI design route a little bit as well. So more into the product side of things. And then ended up at Softwire, started up TechSwitch back in 2019, so around when Sophia joined. And now I am Head of Academy, and TechSwitch is part of that.

Zoe: 

Brilliant. And so just explain a bit more about Academy, as well as TechSwitch…

Sasha: 

Yeah, sure. So TechSwitch is a career-switcher bootcamp, so people come on to it, they do a 12-week-long intensive course, and then get a placement within tech.

Academy is about apprenticeships. So we provide the full apprenticeship training for software development and DevOps courses. So that’s much more often people who either haven’t gone to uni, or sometimes career-switchers, particularly on the software development side. For DevOps, it’s quite often people who’ve had a career within software development, and are now moving more onto the DevOps side. So they do the full 18-month-long apprenticeship with us.

Zoe: 

Fabulous. All right, thanks, both of you. Thanks so much for coming on. What we’re talking about is changing careers to technology. So later in your career, what are the routes to go and work in technology? Why is that a good thing? And why is it a particularly good thing for women? That’s what we want to focus on today.

Maybe to set the scene, I think it would be quite interesting to have a bit of a chat about the traditional or ‘standard’ route into tech. What are we comparing this to? What are your thoughts on that?

Sasha: 

I suppose you talked a little bit about it with your own journey, Zoe, but I think traditionally, people often come from particularly STEM degrees. So people do a computer science degree or a maths degree, sometimes physics, that sort of thing. And as a part of that degree, they’ll probably come across some coding. It’ll be involved as part of what they’ve been doing. And they’ll find their way into the role via that, either because they really enjoy it, or because it means that they’re going to get to work in interesting industries that are related to what it is they’re particularly passionate about. That’s what I’d say the main route is – it’s generally graduates who come from those sorts of arenas. 

Zoe: 

Yeah, that’s a very good point about me. I’m the poster-child for the traditional route into technology. Maths degree, had a ZX Spectrum, coded at home on my own, thought, ‘oh yeah, computers are quite neat.’

My next question feels so obvious that I almost don’t want to ask it, but I think we have to do this, again, to set the scene. So why is this traditional route so problematic for diversity? By which I mean, why is recruiting from only these traditional routes problematic for organisations who are really keen to make sure they’re representative of the population at large?

Sophia: 

Because I think if all your employees are very similar, then the chance is that you’re limiting creativity within the organisation. And it’s proven that diversity leads to greater creativity and greater innovation. And I think with diverse teams, it also allows people to feel more comfortable sharing their ideas, and be able to voice their opinions. And it means that by having a diverse workforce, you’re incorporating that everybody has different ideas and perspectives, when you’re designing things, for example.

Zoe: 

That’s a very good point. And, again, like the most direct answer, right? If you recruit one type of people from one kind of channel, you’re automatically not going to have a diverse workforce. I think it’s also worth thinking about the makeup of the population who are entering these kinds of degrees. Or even looking earlier in the school journey. Are we already seeing a difference in who takes up which subjects? 

Sasha: 

Yeah, absolutely. I’ve talked to people who’ve said that they’ve been the only woman in an entire lecture hall, sometimes.

And I think it does come from such an early age. Even when you see really small children, you tend to have girls playing with dolls, or more generally, things associated more with emotional intelligence, and then you get boys playing traditionally with things like trucks and Lego and building things. And that just gets perpetuated, the further up the education system you go. It just gets more and more stark.

And I think even with the best will in the world, often people who try to bring more of a balance to their kids, the fact that the world as a whole is still telling them that these are the particular gender roles that everyone takes, these are the things that girls are interested in, these are the things that boys are interested in, it makes it really, really hard to push against that.

There is a real effort in it. There is a mental load of constantly being aware that you’re one of the few women who are taking part in your subject, or who enjoy a particular thing. It is definitely something that I feel takes a real toll on people. It’s probably why a lot of people end up just not bothering to put the effort in, because at the end of the day, maybe it’s just not worth it.

Sophia: 

Yeah, and to build on that, I think the lack of representation and role models is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Even though great efforts are being made at the moment to make tech more appealing to young women and girls in schools, there’s still a really long way to go.

Currently, only 21% of employees in the tech workforce are women. And there have been slight improvements in previous years. But the figures are moving at a snail’s pace.

Zoe: 

I think we’re very lucky. Lots of people are in a very lucky position of being able to choose how they want to make a living, and thinking about their careers. You know, it’s common for young people to be asked what they want to do, which is obviously a fantastic thing.

I think that the more you are able, though, to not think practically… I think gender-identification comes into it a lot more, when you think, ‘what would be a great thing for someone like me to be doing?’ I think you get a certain type of answer from that kind of question too.

Sasha: 

Yeah, definitely. I guess it’s a combination of the two. If you don’t have the role models, and the rest of the world is pointing you in a particular direction, even just by accident, then you’re just less likely to take that direction.

We’re asked to pick our degrees, our GCSEs or A-levels, at such a young age, that often, it’s really hard to make that decision, and it ends up leading you down a path where you do feel something like tech just wouldn’t be an option for you.

For myself, I did all arts at A-level, and then did an arts degree, and I never thought that tech was a space for me. I thought it was for people who’d done maths or a science subject.

And I think that’s something that is a little perpetuated by the industry itself as well. But it’s something that could definitely be dealt with at an earlier stage where people can say, ‘oh, hey, even though you did an arts degree, actually, that brings a lot of things to the table that will be really useful for you in software development.’

And no one ever really said that to me, or certainly the message just wasn’t out there when I was leaving university. So, I think that’s a big part of it as well.

Sophia: 

Yeah, I completely agree with what Sasha’s saying. Obviously, the focus is on software development today. But other roles within tech aren’t presented either. So even if you’ve studied an arts degree or humanities, there’s various other roles within tech, where your background is very relevant. But they’re just not really talked about, and not really presented at that level.

Zoe: 

I’m so aware, as we’re talking about which degrees people have done, we’re not even covering the fact that lots of people don’t have the opportunity in life to pursue education at that level, whether it’s an arts degree or a science degree. And I don’t think that’s a gender bias. But I do think it’s something that is really important, and another reason (maybe we can do another Twitter spaces event on it!) why it’s so important to have these routes into technology later in life.

I think Sasha summed it up there really, where there is this great expectation that technology career equals STEM degree. (By which we mean science, technology, engineering, or maths.) That‘s such a common assumption, that people either explicitly or implicitly think, ‘this isn’t going to be the right job for me.’

Let’s move over then. What do we mean by career-switching? What is an example of how someone would go about this?

Sophia: 

Firstly, just to highlight that the world of work is changing. Career paths these days are no longer linear. There might be various reasons why people might want to switch their career. Their career goals or values may have changed, they might want a new challenge, you might have discovered new interests along the way. Or it could be more practical reasons: you might want to find a more financially rewarding career, or have more-flexible hours or more work-life balance. The list goes on.

There’s various reasons why people will be motivated to make this career change. And ‘career change’ simply means switching from one field to another.

Zoe: 

Yes, to put it simply.

I feel like I want to add, #TechnologyIsAwesome. That’s definitely something I made a point of, because I think there are a lot of events and articles and messages out there around the lack of women in technology. And I have to say that as a woman, I don’t find that a particularly motivating message for why I should go and sort out this problem that someone else has.

Whereas I think the advantages of a career in technology, of which you’ve listed just a tiny fraction there Sophia, I think it is important to keep shouting about those. And about how those benefits are  great for everyone, but they can be particularly good for women, particularly if you’re looking to fit a family around your career, and you don’t want to have to just put your career first and be like, ‘that’s a decision I’m going to make.’ There are a lot more options and a lot more ways to be flexible within a technology career.

Sasha: 

Yeah, absolutely. And I think that is something that isn’t really shouted about enough at all.

I wonder if there’s a little bit of a reluctance generally, within our world of work, to talk about how something’s really flexible and something can really work around you.

But that is definitely starting to change. It is much more common for places to talk about how you have a really great work-life balance and they put their employees’ wellbeing first.

And I think that’s something that we’re slowly waking up to, culturally. And it’s something that technology really can offer a great deal towards, in terms of flexible working, being able to work from wherever, being able to potentially do lots of different types of things, either as a software developer, or just generally within technology: you can move around lots of different projects and lots of different things. So you get variety. And you’re really, really in-demand, which is great!

Zoe: 

And that’s compared to a lot of, maybe, arts jobs, where I think we could draw the graphs of some of the traditional careers that we would have been given as an option in school, such as journalism.

I’m trying to think what the really common examples are, where the number of jobs and the rate of pay for the jobs, are on the downward trajectory, whereas technology is on this upward trajectory. The demand is high: it’s grown since I started in technology, 20 years ago, and it’s keeping growing. We just need more and more tech.

Sasha: 

Yeah, definitely. And it’s only going to keep growing.

I guess this links back to what we were saying right at the very beginning, about why diversity is so important, as well, is that we are fundamentally building the things that we will be using in the future. We are building all of the tools that are going to be used globally, by everyone.

If you’ve only got one very small subset of people building those tools, then they aren’t going to work for everyone, they aren’t going to include the various different things that you’d think about if you had lots of different people who have lots of different use cases.

Zoe: 

Are we talking about periods, Sasha? Because I do think that was such a scandal on medical apps that the developers didn’t think to include it. I’m sure you were talking about other things as well!

Sasha: 

What’s even better about that story is, when they did add it, I think it was maybe with the Apple tracker, it wouldn’t let you track it for more than 10 days. It was just like, ‘nope, that doesn’t happen.’

That’s such a good example of something that just fundamentally didn’t work for the users, because they just haven’t thought about it. But it applies to so many other things as well. And particularly, as we start to use more automated tools, they can have bias more implicitly programmed into them as well. So you’ve really got to think about how the tools that we’re building could well be impacting someone else’s future, just because they weren’t involved in the process.

Zoe: 

Super-important. Well, I’d like to ask kind of the same question, from a different angle: Why do people who’ve come from different backgrounds, different careers, make great software developers?

Sophia: 

I think, firstly, it takes real courage to change your career path. So I think career-changers are very focused, very driven, committed individuals, who aren’t afraid to start over and try something new.

And then they also bring a wide range of skills from their previous lives, which can again contribute to more innovative thinking and different ways of looking at problems and situations.

So overall, bringing creativity and collaboration along with them, and just challenging the traditional thoughts of the industry.

Sasha: 

Yeah, I’d agree. I think as well, it can be a little hard, sometimes, for those career-switchers to see what they’re bringing to the table. There’s a few I’ve spoken to who I’ve been telling, ‘you’re doing a fantastic job, the whole team really loves working with you,’ or ‘your clients love working with you,’ and they just respond by going, ‘yeah, but that’s the easy stuff.’

And I think that’s because they’ve come from an environment where that sort of thing’s not celebrated or not a big deal, having that kind of interpersonal relationship. But if you compare someone like that to someone who’s literally just come out of university, they are just not going to have had that kind of experience and confidence with talking to clients, or just suddenly having to run a meeting by themselves because their tech lead’s Wi-Fi stopped working.

That’s the sort of thing that a career-switcher will just do automatically, and won’t even really think about. Whereas it could cause much more panic around someone who’s just left university. And I think it’s almost those really small, unappreciated things, that they really bring to the table. And I think it can be really hard for them to see it themselves, actually.

Sophia: 

There’s a whole spectrum of various skills that they’ve developed in their previous careers. We always get our TechSwitchers to focus on those things, like problem-solving, analytical thinking, teaching, mentoring, communication – to think about what they’re bringing to the table, essentially.

Zoe: 

Well, I think it’s just so true, that everyone, irrespective of what your strengths are, thinks that the things they’re good at, are the things that are easy, right? It’s just a natural assumption to make. If I’m happy chatting to people, that must be the easy bit. Whereas if I find coding hard, that must be the hard bit. Whereas for someone else, it’s totally different.

And, again, it’s another benefit of having organisations where you have different types of people, that you can actually start to realise what your strengths are, and go, ‘oh, no, wait, I must be good at this, because Sasha has just told me it. Maybe I need to focus on that a bit more.’

Something else it made me think of… some of the skills you’re talking about, they’re kind of life admin skills. The super-, super-basic skills, and hence the most important, skills for how you get what you want out of life, which I think we all get gradually better at, just from being alive for longer. And tech has such a focus on youth and on young people. In fact, there was an article I read in the Sunday Times saying, ‘oh, if you’re over 50, don’t bother talking to people about tech.’

And it’s so back-to-front, because, yes, of course, if you’re growing up with new technology, you are going to be more familiar with it. But that’s to throw aside all of these life skills, which can then be cross-applied to whatever you’re doing, right? That’s the whole point of them being basic skills, that only increase with age and with more experiences and new experiences and seeing different parts of the world, right?

Sophia: 

I completely agree. And it’s also, when you’re coming new to the industry, about questioning why things are done this way. If nobody’s asking these questions, then people don’t actually go back and review the processes or designs and things like that. So, if everybody’s of a singular mindset, of just accepting that things are the way they are, because they have been for a whole number years, then bringing this fresh talent into the industry challenges those perspectives.

Zoe: 

I don’t know if there’s an answer to this, but I’ll put it out there. Are there any particularly good careers to switch from, to technology? Or is it more a case of, if you want to do it, there will be strength, no matter where you’ve come from?

Sasha: 

I don’t know. I don’t think it’s anything really about your previous background. We’ve had people who’ve been teachers, we’ve had people who’ve been pharmacists, we’ve had people who’ve been bakers, literally all sorts of different things. And certainly, when we’re recruiting for TechSwitch, we don’t focus at all on any particular background, because it’s like in Ratatouille, isn’t it? A great software developer can come from anywhere.

It’s so much more about the individual person and what their passions are, what their interests are. That’s what really makes the people who love it, love it, and the people who want to stay, stay. You can have that kind of mindset and interest and come from absolutely anywhere, and have any kind of background. It’s so much more about having that bit of motivation and dedication to get over the really tricky bit, right at the very beginning. And then to realise the stuff that you’re bringing that other people aren’t, because you will be bringing so much interesting new stuff. That’s the more important part.

Zoe: 

This is a leading question: Do you see many women changing career, and what are the kinds of stories of women changing careers to become software developers?

Sophia: 

We see a lot of returners. So there are a lot of women who have taken career breaks, to care for family and various other commitments, and they’re looking to return to work. But as we touched on earlier, returning in a more flexible way. So they’re looking for careers that embrace potentially remote or flexible working. That could be working from home, greater control over their working hours. And that eliminates the barriers to entry. But we’re also seeing people who may not have previously opted for a tech degree, again, due to either gender stereotyping, or those that aren’t in a financial situation where they could go to university or return to university to do a second degree. So we get women from very, very different walks of life joining our TechSwitch programmes.

Zoe: 

I’m kind of setting up the question – I would go as far to say, it’s such an integral part of increasing the gender balance within your teams. Do you agree?

Sasha: 

Yes, I think particularly because otherwise, it would take such a long time for any grassroots change. As we were talking about right at the very beginning, how just even getting women into the more traditional routes into tech, that’s difficult in and of itself. That’s a whole other conversation to be had.

Zoe: 

And it starts so young, doesn’t it? Because it’s fantastic organisations out there, such as Stemettes, who deliberately target 13-year-old girls, because that’s the point at which girls start making decisions that eventually exclude them from the traditional route into the tech workforce, right? So there are lots of organisations doing that. But like you say, Sasha, those women won’t even be leaving university – if they go through that route – for another eight years. So that’s a long way off.

Sasha: 

Exactly. And I think that’s why it’s so useful tapping into this massive resource of women who are interested in getting into tech [later in their careers]. Potentially, when they left university, tech wasn’t even really a career option.

There’s this huge, huge pool of people who are really, really interested in what’s going on, and could be so good at it as well. It’s what we see all the time as people come in from all sorts of different backgrounds, potentially because they’ve had a career break, and then thinking, ‘what can I do?’, because potentially their old industry isn’t there anymore. And tech is such a big, growing space, and it offers so much to people. Why wouldn’t you tap into that massive pool of people who are super-interested in the industry?

Zoe: 

Why haven’t people [tapped into this pool], to-date? Why has tech recruitment been, in my opinion, so blinkered in this regard?

Sasha: 

I wonder if it’s just because it’s easy. If you find a recipe that works for finding really good graduates, it’s just easy to keep doing that. And then it’s quite hard to change that so that it’s attractive to a completely different group of people. I think now a lot of places are saying, ‘oh, we really, really want to be able to attract more women,’ and they’re just not always succeeding. And I think it’s because in many ways, they just haven’t ever had the practice. They just don’t know how to go about doing that and are potentially using the wrong techniques to try and do it, or it comes across in the wrong way. And particularly if a company already has poor gender diversity, then women might turn up for a job interview, see a sea of men and think, ‘well, I don’t really want to be the first [woman]!’

Zoe: 

It’s back to, ‘we’ve all got enough to be getting on within our own lives,’ right? Women don’t wake up and go, ‘I’m going to fix the diversity issue today.’ You’ve got your own job to do! So you want to at least know that there’s some other people making an effort.

One thing I wanted to ask is: What should an organisation do? So, if anyone’s listening to this event today specifically to go, ‘I didn’t think of this, I’ve always recruited in one particular way. And maybe this is a new way I haven’t considered,’ what are the first steps, and what do employers need to be thinking about?

Sophia: 

I think it’s looking beyond the traditional routes into tech and normalising the fact that there are alternative pathways into tech these days, and focusing on an individual’s potential, rather than their existing knowledge and experience. I think that’s a really good start.

Zoe: 

That’s a really good point, I might make a note to pick that up as a separate point. Because I think that it’s something, again talking about not realising your own strengths, at Softwire, we’ve got such a history of focusing on potential, rather than existing skills, that I think I sometimes forget that lots of people are recruiting with this notion of ‘I need someone who I can add to my team right now and can be 100% productive, otherwise, I’m not going to hit my date.’ So yeah, it’s a really good point.

Sophia: 

Yes, having a longer-term vision when it comes to talent-acquisition and the strategy around recruitment.

Sasha: 

I’d also say, having that support there, and the acknowledgement that it is a lot harder. There was that study done a while ago, that demonstrated that women’s code was reviewed more harshly, if they [the reviewer] knew that they [the coders] were women. Or in interviews, generally there’s a higher bar set for women. That’s the kind of thing that isn’t always appreciated. Particularly if you’re one of the first women to start in an organisation, a lot of expectation is put on you to almost ‘represent’ the gender.

Zoe: 

Right! ‘We’ll try you out. And then we’ll know whether women are any good or not.’

Sasha: 

Exactly, exactly. It’s worth employers really acknowledging that pressure and acknowledging that bias has taken place, and that women will often have had many more barriers put up in front of them than someone who just breezed through all of the traditional routes and come through it with the expectation that tech would be there, tech would be ready for them and everyone else there was going to look like them.

Zoe: 

And that ties in a little bit to the returners point as well, right? That actually, while we live in a society where women take on the majority of childcare, that means that after having children, that is going to affect people, in terms of how – I don’t quite know what the right way to put this is, because I think people often look only at the negatives – but I think it’s much more a balancing of its negatives and positives. So I’m mentoring someone who’s just come back off maternity leave. And I’m insisting that she goes through all of the challenges that she has encountered during maternity leave, which are myriad, right?… and actually look at the skills she’s been developing, on her own time, having to deal with this incredible new challenge, and how those map into the workspaces. So actually, I’m kind of rephrasing what you said, in that employers need to know how to make the best of that, right? And they need to recognise that people have different strengths, and be set up to take advantage of that.

Sasha: 

Absolutely. And it honestly makes me so angry sometimes when we interview people for TechSwitch, who say they’ve done loads of coding courses, they’ve done all this practice, or literally had previous experience at something: they tried their original role. And nowhere would get past their CV, because they’d see that they’d had a multiple-year-long career gap while they were raising a family, and that’s just it, your CV is gone, and it’s out.

And so many of them are both frustrated and incredibly disheartened. They really come with a complete lack of confidence because they think it must be something they’re doing wrong. And just every time it’s just, ‘no, you took the time out to raise a family,’ and for some reason that is not appreciated as anything that could ever be applied to a career, despite the fact, as you say, you’re juggling so many different things. You have to learn about time-management. There’s a lot of emotional skills that you learn. There’s just so much that you gain from that experience, and no one ever actually appreciates, but it could be applied in a workplace.

Zoe: 

This is quite a good time, I think, to talk about the flip side of this. So, again, if anyone’s listening, and they have joined this call, because they’re like, ‘no, wait, hold on, maybe I could work in technology, but I don’t know how to go about this.’ What are the kinds of steps you need to take if you are thinking about changing career to become a software developer?

Sophia: 

I think initially, doing some research. There’s various communities and groups and networking events out there that you can join, just to find out a bit more about what a career tech could look like.

It’s also having that support network there, so that if you are making a career change, there’s other people in the same boat as you. So you don’t feel isolated, as though you’re the only person in the world that’s doing this. So that would be something that I would suggest initially.

Zoe:

And then do you need to do a formal course? Can you just start flying? Do you need to do a formal course? Can you work on your own projects? What are the options out there?

Sasha: 

I think there’s lots and lots of different options, depending on how you prefer to go about it. So some people like to do the online communities where they all support each other. And they all provide different tasks, people help each other, a little bit like reviewing each other’s code, that kind of thing. That can be a really nice environment for some people. Some people really prefer to get stuck in and learn as much of the syntax as they can. Other people come up with a little personal project and decide, ‘I’m going to make this,’ and then just go about researching how to do that. There’s loads and loads and loads of different ways into it.

But that said, I think the real barrier is when you encounter a lot of the language, which particularly if you haven’t done a STEM degree, is just meaningless a lot of the time, some of the things that people are saying. And there are now so many more resources that explain to you in a much more ‘plain English’ way, what everything means, what everything does, and how it goes about it.

If you are currently trying to learn to code and you’re really struggling with it, it may just be that the resource you’re using isn’t the right one for you. There are lots and lots of different ways of doing it. And we see so many people who come in and say, ‘I watched hours and hours and hours of video on YouTube. And I still don’t understand how arrays work in JavaScript.’ And we’re like, ‘have you tried this method instead of just watching hours and hours and hours?’ and they go, ‘oh, OK, that makes so much more sense now that you‘ve laid it out in a different way.’

So I think it can be a case of you get slightly stuck on one particular way of learning. Instead, try loads of different things. Try what works for you, and bounce on and off things and find the one that you think, ‘yes, actually, I enjoy doing this. This is fun, and even when it’s hard, it’s still fun. And I still get that real kick, whenever I finally complete something, and I feel like a genius.’ That’s the one to aim for.

Sophia: 

So understanding your own learning style, and finding a resource or a way of learning that that fits for you.

Zoe: 

I think that’s another advantage of coming in via a non-traditional route. If you’re already different, just double-down on that, it gives you an opportunity and permission to do things differently, and find your own way. For me, that is the best advice I have for everyone. Irrespective of your background, you have to find the way that works for you. And not keep beating yourself over the head going, ‘oh, but someone else does it this way, therefore I have to do it that way too.’

Sophia: 

I think that’s the beauty of it, the flexibility is there. So going back to what we’ve discussed previously about other life commitments, you can work it [the learning] around your job if you’re still in a full-time or part-time role. Or if you’re juggling childcare, you can you can fit these courses or online resources, or boot camps around your life.

Zoe: 

Something else that it made me realise, with Sasha saying, ‘have you tried this?’ is that – and I’m going to have to generalise this out from having a Sasha – but community is a really important part of how we learn. And if I look back to my career, even though I went the traditional route, I actually did a maths degree. So my commercial coding experience when I started in a real job was zero. And I learned so much from being able to discuss with other human beings what my challenges were and what I was going through, and things I didn’t understand. That was a massive benefit to me. So I think that finding a way, whether it’s an in-person community or an online community, I think that can be a really beneficial way to realise that you can understand things better than you maybe thought you could.

Sasha: 

Yeah, definitely. And I think having someone be able to explain things to you in multiple different ways is invaluable. Because often, you spend ages looking at the thing and thinking, ‘this just doesn’t make any sense.’ And then someone explains something to you in the same sort of way, and you go, ‘oh, no, that just doesn’t make any sense to me.’ And then they say, ‘OK, actually, it’s more like this.’ And the light bulb suddenly comes on, and you think, ‘oh, that’s exactly what it is. Thank God, you said that to me. Otherwise, I’d have spent ages and ages struggling over this.’

It’s what we always find whenever people start TechSwitch: often we hear the same phrase, which is, ‘I’ve learned more in this first day that I have over the past couple of months,’ because there’s someone there and there’s someone pointing you in the right direction. So you’re not going down lots of different rabbit holes, you’re not accidentally going down the wrong path all the time. You’ve got someone to gently nudge you back on track. You’ve got someone to help explain things to you. And I think that’s the bit that’s just so, so helpful about having a teacher, having a trainer, having a community, having someone around that you can talk to.

Sophia: 

And on the flip side, you explaining something or talking to somebody else about it, also reinforces your own knowledge. I think it’s that kind of knowledge-sharing, and chatting to people – that community aspect is really important.

Zoe: 

Yeah, exactly. It’s not just going to ask for help and getting the answers. It’s a much more fluid exchange, and a great set of benefits, even if you’re on the teaching side, or the more-experienced side.

So, we’ve talked about how there’s a lot of different ways to start thinking about switching careers. How would you know, and again, there may not be an answer to this, but at what point do you start applying for jobs and go, ‘OK, I can do this now…’?

Sasha: 

That’s a really good question. It varies from person to person. Particularly if you can find places that are offering, say, apprenticeships, or are offering training from the beginning, or if you’re applying for a bootcamp, you maybe don’t need quite as much [experience] as you think.

We quite often get people to do a little online course. And then we get them to start doing some little online problems. So there’s quite a few different online options for just little puzzles and things that people can do by themselves writing code. And really, you don’t need that much fundamental understanding at that point. It’s more like we want you to have showed the drive to learn, we want to you to have hit some setbacks and got back up and started again, or tried again.

Zoe: 

The key software-development skill…

Sasha: 

Exactly! That is something we constantly try to hammer home to people, which is that so much of software development is having no idea what you’re supposed to do next, and just trying lots of different things. And the thing we tell people all the time is that learning to code is actually just learning how to Google things!

But I think it’s more about when you reach the point where you’re starting to cast around and look for other things. You’ve maybe done a little bit of an online course, or a free one, or you’ve built a couple of little pet projects, or you’ve watched a few videos, and you’re understanding what people are saying… There comes a point when you come up against that wall, which is like, ‘where do I go from here?’ And then the answer to that can be to start applying for graduate jobs!

That’s the sort of level that a lot of people who come into the industry are at, it’s just that they came across some programming during their degree. And they’ve done a couple of little online tests, things like Project Euler. And then they’ve just thought, ‘hey, I guess I could do this as a job.’ You need to have that level of confidence. That’s the key, I think.

Sasha: 

One question I want to ask is, is there anything you’re going to be missing? If you’re not coming the traditional route, is there anything you need to watch out for in terms of, you might not have the skillset, or you might not know something?

Sasha: 

I wouldn’t have said you’re necessarily missing a particular skillset. One of the things we’ve found is that if people take our course and they’re graduates, they’re still in that mindset where they’re a bit of a sponge. So they’re very, very used to learning and listening and absorbing things, and very used to having steps in place to support their own learning. Whereas if you’ve never been to university, or it’s been a long time since you were doing that kind of learning, I think that can be a little tricky.

But otherwise, I’d have said genuinely, it’s confidence. Because a graduate comes into it and goes ‘ah, a graduate role, that means this is meant for me.’ Whereas a career-switcher looks at it and says, ‘oh, well, I’ve done all of these hours of practice and all these different things, but I don’t have a maths degree,’ or ‘oh, but I’m not sure if this is quite right. Am I ready yet?’ So that’s a huge part of it, to be honest.

Sophia: 

I would agree, I’d say that confidence plays a big part.

Zoe: 

Any tips for that? Because I feel confidence is something, particularly if we’re talking about helping women into technology careers, that’s often cited as a female thing – imposter syndrome, etc. Are there any tools that people can use?

Sasha: 

I think it’s about talking to other people. And like Sophia was saying, if you’re talking to someone else, and almost teaching them, you start to realise how much knowledge you have. And if someone explained something, and you understand it, really take that on board and think, ‘oh, hey, I actually understood that.’ That’d be great.

Sophia: 

I think it’s quite natural to have moments of self-doubt, because you are moving outside of your comfort zone into a new territory. But I think the main thing is to acknowledge that it’s OK to feel that way. And, again, by having a community around you, you’re not on your own. There’s other people that you could chat to about all of this. And other people feel the same way as you. But I wouldn’t say there are any specific tools.

Zoe: 

I think what you’re saying about having other people that you can be honest with about what your fears are, is the quickest way to dispel them and realise that actually, like you say, everyone’s in the same boat. I can tell you for a fact that doing a maths degree doesn’t give you any special insight when it comes to learning coding. It’s that realising that you deserve to be there, and you’ve got all the skillsets, and it’s just a question of pulling them all together.

Sasha: 

I completely agree.

Sasha: 

Well, that is fantastic. Thank you both so much. I think we’re getting to the end of our slots, sadly – I could talk about this all day. What I just wanted to ask, who should people get in touch with if they want to talk more about TechSwitch? Should they go to the website, or can they get in touch with both of you?

Sophia:

Feel free to have a look at the website. And you’re very, very welcome to drop myself, Sophia, or Sarah, who’s our programme manager, a message on LinkedIn or Twitter or wherever, really. We’re very happy to answer any questions about it. And we’re also very passionate about it, so we’ll happily sell you on why we think it’s great.

Zoe: 

That’s TechSwitch – T E C H S W I T C H dot co dot UK. And Sasha, I don’t know if I can even spell your surname, for people connecting with you…

Sasha: 

Yes so it’s Sasha Burgoyne. Sasha, with an S, and then B U R G O Y N E. I think I’m like one of the only ones around, so it should be fairly easy to find me.

Zoe: 

Once you can spell it. You can’t miss her.

If you want to know more, please get in touch with any of us. I’m Zoe Cunningham. And I won’t be the right person to talk to you directly, but you can always get in touch with me and I will put you in touch with the right person, or Sophia Lin, or Sasha Burgoyne, who has kindly just spelled her name for you. It’s techswitch.co.uk, or if you want to know more about what Softwire do more generally, it’s softwire.com.

Thank you all so much. See you on the next one!

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