The secret weapon career switchers have over "computer scientists"

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Career Compass

The call came in around 3:00 PM and I ran outside to take it in private. The call was from the start-up in Michigan that I had been interviewing with for three weeks and they had finally made a decision.

They were going with someone else.

I was more than a little surprised. Things had been going great and we were already talking about future strategies and how I could get them to where they needed to go. They were excited by what I could bring and had even talked about stock options and exit strategies and plans to come visit their office.

I thanked them for their time and asked them what made them not choose me.

“You were great. By far the best person we interviewed technology-wise.”

That statement soothed my ego, but their next statement made me realize one of the biggest shortcomings every “computer scientist” has and one of the biggest strengths a person switching careers to programming brings with them.

Fatal Flaw

I’ve run into this a couple of times in my career. I am the proverbial “computer scientist” that majored in Computer Science and have been working as a web programmer since my very first job that I landed while still in school. I know web development inside and out, from what languages to use when, gotchas and caveats with client to server communications, what dangers lurk in web applications and a whole bunch of other web stuff.

And that’s about it.

I’ve worked for a web design company, an energy corporation, a jewelry corporation, a point of sale manufacturer and they all have very specific business models and marketing strategies. And I tried my hardest not to learn any of it.

I’m a programmer, damn it! I don’t need to learn any of that salesy, foofoo stuff. I just want to program my little websites and have everyone just leave me alone in my little cave.

And this is exactly what most web programmers do. We’re not a real sociable bunch. And that’s exactly why people who want to switch their career to web programming already have a leg up on nearly everyone that’s already doing it.

Little Advantages

To see why, you just need to understand one thing about computer programming in general; for the majority of businesses computer programmers don’t make money, they’re there to help other people make money. This is why every IT department is considered a Cost Center, a support to the business, a place where money is spent, not made. The focus of most companies is not writing software. Software is just there to help the real business be more efficient. IT should be saving money, but they sure aren’t making money.

So how do you know what kind of software solution can save the most money? By understanding the business first.

As a web programmer, I don’t know a damn thing about diamond clarity, inventory control, kilowatt-hours, OSHA requirements or charge backs. I can’t prioritize my work myself or, more importantly, recommend features that will save the company money. And that’s how you stand out as an exceptional programmer. Your boss won’t get the merits of picking a queue over a stack, but if you can show a bottom line return on what you’ve built, you’re on the fast track to greater things. If you can speak the boss’s language and the industry’s language, you have a huge leg up on every other programmer you’re competing against. Demonstrate that ability in a job interview and you’ll easily beat out the chump that’s just done nothing but web programming for 15 years. (That would be me.)

And that’s your secret weapon over guys like me: Industry Knowledge.

Industry Knowledge

What they told me was, “You’re the better programmer, but [the other applicant] has worked in our industry before.”

Don’t discount this. There have been a number of career switchers that I’ve tutored that have said things like, “I hated my job. I never want to work in that industry again.”

Don’t do this. Yes, I realize that you hate what you’re doing now, but you’re throwing away your biggest advantage by trying to ditch the entire industry. There’s a reason you got into that industry in the first place and you need to figure out what it is and then tap into that in your web programming.

Were you in finance and now hate what you’re doing? Don’t get out of finance completely. There are plenty of start-ups that are working on banking software or personal finance applications. Investigate them and see if you’ll fit in. Most start-ups would jump at the opportunity to hire on someone with deep industry knowledge that also can work on the programming side of things.

Just had a couple of years working a call center? You might think that’s wasted time, but you have intimate knowledge of the software used to handle and route calls and can provide valuable insight into how it could be improved to speed up call times and get information to the operator when they need it. When you don’t do amazingly on the tech side of an interview, this is the kind of knowledge you whip out to show that you can do things that directly makes or saves them money.

My business partner at RuskinARC holds most of the equity in that company for a reason, he knows historic preservation surveys. It’s a niche field and he has a Masters in Historic Architecture. There’s no way I could have created that application without his knowledge. Without a framework to build against, a pure computer scientist doesn’t have much of an application to build.

That start-up in Michigan eventually made me an offer a couple of months later to come on as employee number two. I had found something better in the meantime and turned them down, but I did learn an important lesson:

Programming is a skill that can be taught, but industry knowledge is invaluable and rare and, if used right, will set you apart from the crowd.

If you’re wondering where to even start in web programming, I wrote up a little post called What to learn when you want to learn web development to help get you started.

What industry are you coming from?


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