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By Emily Drier
The field of tech is here to stay. Now, especially with our global pandemic, technology is growing at a pace the world is scrambling to keep up with. Most companies find themselves thriving with remote employees and online offerings for their constituents; there’s certainly no going back to how it was before. I’m grateful to be part of an industry that continues to evolve.
These days, I’m a part of this industry as a technical project manager for Human Element, an Ann Arbor-based ecommerce web development agency. I spend my workday managing all aspects of ecommerce website building, from development team communication to client reporting and interaction.
It may surprise you to know that I don’t have a computer science background. I have a bachelor’s degree in education from Michigan State University. A non-technical education such as this is more common than one would expect in the technology industry. However, many job seekers may shy away from more technical opportunities because they think their education takes them out of the running.
Don’t Stop Learning
Following my graduation, I taught eighth-grade English for three years. I found myself wondering if there might be something different out there for me. Saying goodbye to the students was difficult; the decision to actually leave was terrifying. But I stuck to my choice and decided to follow a new career path. My favorite aspect of teaching was working with and inspiring students. However, as a career, education is wrought with countless uncertainties and administrative decisions that are beyond one’s control. I sought to have more control over my professional life.
Seven years have passed since I left teaching. In that time, I’ve learned how to code, worked for some amazing Ann Arbor companies, and started a nonprofit organization to support marginalized individuals in tech. Oh, and I became a parent, too. Throughout that time, I’ve remained driven to keep learning, because there’s always something new to learn, a new skill to better myself.
While the career change was certainly challenging, it wasn’t impossible. I will say, though, you need to be willing to do the work and get uncomfortable. In my early post-teaching years, after my workday as an event coordinator, I spent my evenings completing online workshops, attending Meetup events to learn and network, and submitted countless resumes to tech companies. One of those submissions was picked up by a small web shop, where I became their social media manager. I immediately wanted to learn more, so my boss introduced me to the world of search engine optimization (SEO) and building websites in WordPress. Even now, as a technical project manager at Human Element, I can effectively comprehend and communicate with the team members working on development and SEO integration, despite not doing those things directly myself. Technical knowledge, complimented by my early years as a teacher, lets me communicate with clients in a way they will understand, rather than just repeating shop jargon.
The beauty and curse of a job in tech is being easily accessible, thanks to the myriad of communication methods and devices. Oftentimes, this can cause employees to never truly be “out of the office,” since they can simply log on to answer a quick email, or maybe put a few more hours into a component build for a looming deadline.
Something I’ve noticed in the technology sector is a high employee turnover. Between employees not being able to truly log off for the day and management blurring the boundaries between work and life, some people decide to take their talents to their next employer.
I’ve had the great fortune of working for local companies that champion the work-life balance. My current employer, Human Element, as well as my former company, Boxcar Studio, have followed through with this offering in many ways.
The standards for work-life balance in the technology sector have changed in the last 10 years. First, I’ve noticed that recognition for doing good work is no longer the exception, but the norm. Responsibility for team and project success is fairly distributed. There’s a flexibility now that allows for personal needs to be met alongside work priorities. If I need a couple hours offline on a weekday because my two-year-old daughter has a doctor’s appointment, there are no qualms from my team if I’ve communicated with people accordingly. I don’t need to sweat bullets wondering if my bosses will say it’s okay or if they’ll be angry with me. This privilege comes from communication and showing your dependability.
Unlimited Paid Time Off
Say what? Hear me out, employers! This can be done! Unlimited paid time off for all staff, starting on day one of hiring, builds trust.
I remember my Boxcar Studio boss, TJ, being asked, “But how do you stop employees from abusing this?” He replied, “If you hire the right folks, it’s a non-issue.” That always stuck with me for two reasons. First, he and the rest of his management team were confident in their hiring process. Second, they saw me as one of those “right folks” who would get the work done on their own schedule. Human Element sees me as one of those “right folks” too. They see to it that their employees use the unlimited PTO policy in more ways than one, including general company reminders to take time off, as well as during individual employee check-ins. While these new, more inclusive policies are not a fix-all solution to promote inclusivity in tech, they do provide more flexibility, which I especially appreciate as a new parent.
Recently, one of the founders at Human Element noticed that many employees were working late hours because of a large site launch slated for early 2021. Rather than just letting his employees carry on with putting in the overtime as if it were expected and normal, he addressed it immediately with a company-wide email. He certainly recognized and thanked everyone for their extra efforts, but his bigger priority was reminding employees that their mental health and well-being was most important, emphasizing that he wanted us to take a moment to ourselves to invest time into what brings us happiness and furthers our passions.
I invest that time into my family. This brings me immeasurable joy, but also leaves room for my nonprofit work. I’m passionate about providing resources to individuals who may, like me, want to pivot their lives and go into tech. Not everyone is presented with the opportunities to make that happen — that’s where my nonprofit work comes in. At tech[inclusive], we work to empower underrepresented people in tech to pursue new skills through a supportive community, providing low-barrier, safe learning opportunities and events. I will always remember the work I put in to make that career switch, and want to share that knowledge with those who are looking to do the same.
If you’re thinking about switching careers and going into technology, I’m here to say that it can be done. Not all paths into this field are traditional, and there are numerous opportunities besides the software developer path. My advice? Pursue opportunities to learn, surround yourself with a supportive learning community, and find a forward-thinking employer that will bolster your continued growth both as an employee and an individual. Lastly, try making connections with people you identify with. Their experiences may reflect some similarities, and provide unique insight that may not be reflected in larger learning resources.