Reddit AMA: Jumping Back into a Tech Career; Specialization is Key

Last week, we hosted a Reddit AMA (on /r/cscareerquestions) in which we talked about the post-pandemic job market for technologists, including skills in demand and whether some cutting-edge tech (such as machine learning) are overhyped. 

We broke down some of that Q&A in a previous Insights article; now we’re delving into some other, equally interesting parts of the conversation, including how to break into the tech industry. Check it out!

I am an experienced professional in a non tech career (12 years). I am transitioning careers to software engineering and am having troubles competing for entry-level positions because of the obvious large candidate pool, required years of experience and being out-competed by engineers with years of experience in the field. How can I best market myself to transition to software engineering given my professional experience and time spent working on a team and with customers?

Great question, and I understand the challenges that can come with a big shift like that. The key here, I think, is transferrable skills. Fortunately, it sounds like you have an incredible amount of experience working with other stakeholders, a team, and customers. That’s incredibly useful, because in addition to technical skills, numerous companies are putting more emphasis on “soft skills” such as empathy, communication, and teamwork when they hire.

As you’re applying for jobs, I bet that a lot of companies are asking for these “soft skills” as part of the job posting. You should use your cover letter and resume to emphasize them, mirroring the language used in the original job posting. In your resume, use the bullet-points in the experience section to highlight times when you’ve successfully collaborated on a project and helped it succeed on-time and on budget (for example).

Also emphasize your quick adaptability (preferably by mentioning how you overcame a challenge to make a project succeed, for instance) and aptitude for learning. For many tech positions, recruiters and hiring managers don’t expect every viable candidate to have every skill they list (which would be impossible in many instances, frankly); but they do want candidates to have, say, 60 percent of those listed skills, with the expectation that the candidate will quickly learn whatever’s necessary once hired. Your soft skills, collaboration and project management abilities can help you meet that mark, even if you don’t necessarily have all the technical skills listed by other applicants for the job.

Last but certainly not least, if you’ve done projects on your own time as part of your learning journey, and those are stored in a repository like GitHub or on a professional website you’ve set up, make sure that you offer up those links as part of your application materials. Lots of technologists without much formal experience can land jobs if they show a portfolio of work they’ve done on their own, because that demonstrates dedication, passion, and an aptitude for self-learning.

Do most senior SWE job postings require a certain specialization (like security/cloud) on top of the requisite years of experience? Are there many senior job postings that would be more conducive to ‘generalists’?

Great question, and you’re right in that a lot of senior SWE jobs come with some kind of specialization. There’s a pretty straightforward reason for that, which is that senior SWEs have often spent their careers developing a particular skill-set, and companies need those skills/experience in order to handle what are often extremely complicated projects.

That being said, there are also many senior SWE roles that are more generalist. Many companies recognize that technologists can’t have possibly mastered every conceivable skill before they step through the office doors (or log onto the company Teams/Slack, in our remote era) for the first time. As a result, many companies will hire SWEs who have a track record of successful projects, and then trust that they’ll adapt quickly to the new company’s tech stack and mission.

When you analyze job postings nationwide, you note that advanced/senior-level skills most in-demand among SWEs are a pretty diverse grab-bag, including software architecture concepts, AWS, JavaScript, data analytics, and more. This speaks to a lot of companies having very diverse needs for their senior SWEs. What they’re all uniformly looking for, though, are senior SWEs who have the experience and creativity to look at very complex projects and find the most efficient way of completing them.

Do you have any insights on whether video interviews are here to stay, or is there data pointing to interviews going back to being in person post-pandemic? I see pros/cons to each, but would like to know the industry outlook on zoom interviews.

Excellent question. I haven’t seen any data around video interviews reverting back to in-person, probably because many companies are still fully engaged in remote hiring throughout at least the summer, but I can tell you that many HR shops *really* like video interviewing.

It’s easy to see why. With video interviews, an overworked HR manager or recruiter can line them up quickly, and then take the final videos and send them to additional stakeholders in the hiring decisions. There’s less ramp-up and prep, and you can easily schedule them with people who live hundreds or thousands of miles away without needing to handle travel logistics.

The downsides, of course, are equally obvious—you know it’s good to actually take a walk through a physical office and meet people, get a feel for the culture, etc. But given all the reasons outlined above, I think video interviews will stick around at least for the initial interview rounds.

In 2020 and into 2021 I’ve noticed (purely anecdotally) that early career folks have been having a harder time than in years past finding new roles. Is there any evidence that points to more job openings than in ‘pandemic times’ for entry-level engineers as the pandemic loosens its grip on the U.S.? Is it possible that the number of entry level openings could even exceed pre-pandemic levels?

Hey! Thanks for the question, and it’s an important one. I actually have some data that hints at increased demand for entry-level and early career folks. When we crunched the numbers for our most recent Salary Report, we saw that, between 2019 and 2020, the average salary for technologists with less than 1 year of experience went up from $55k to $57k (3 percent); for those with between 1-2 years of experience, it rose 2 percent, from $58k to almost $60k. Usually we see salaries rise when there’s a good buildup of demand.

That’s one data point. Here’s another: Using Burning Glass, which collects and analyzes millions of job postings, we see that the vast majority of many tech roles (such as software developer/engineer) ask for 0-5 years of experience (for example, with software developers/engineers, 50 percent of nationwide job postings ask for 3-5 years). In other words, there are tons of employers in that 2020-21 range who are on the lookout for technologists who have managed to log some experience, but aren’t that far along in their careers quite yet.

So when we combine some signs of rising salaries among entry-level technologists, with nationwide job postings indicating that employers are very much on the hunt for technologists with less than 5 years of experience, I think there’s a lot of reason to be optimistic that the number of entry-level and junior positions will go up as we emerge from the pandemic. I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility that it could exceed pre-pandemic levels, especially if tech companies are feeling good about the economy and want to invest in their tech stack/new apps/etc.