I Did It and You Can Too: How to Navigate a Career Pivot Into Tech

The tech-industry talent market has been completely upended in recent years by Covid-19, hybrid and remote work, and a renewed focus on work-life balance. It’s created an ultra-tight labor market across job functions–not just in always-competitive engineering roles–where candidates are holding most of the cards. The recent drop in tech stocks notwithstanding, the tech industry is still attractive for many reasons. Hiring at U.S. tech companies recently hit a two-year high, and the unemployment rate for tech occupations is 1.5% versus the national rate of 5.2% according to CompTIA. Factor in tech’s high payscales and it’s no secret that many candidates want in.

Less discussed is the fact that the current environment also presents opportunities for workers interested in making a career pivot into tech, and for hiring managers creative and flexible enough to hire these candidates and develop them. Pursuing “outsider” candidates with unconventional backgrounds and skillsets can help you accelerate the timetable for making new hires and even advance your diversity goals.

I know this landscape well for two reasons. As Battery’s VP of talent and recruiting, I support our venture-backed, tech-focused portfolio companies as they make mission-critical hires and scale out their teams. But I also understand this issue well for personal reasons: I’m a career-switcher myself after six-and-a-half years as a criminal defense attorney.

Here are a few tips and lessons learned from both my personal career journey and my current work as an executive recruiter for technology companies.

Do your research to understand the tech landscape and where you might fit best.

“Tech” encompasses companies of all stages and sizes. You’ll need to balance being open-minded yet targeted on the types of companies and opportunities you want to pursue. Some roles – such as software engineering – will be almost impossible to break into without the requisite experience and training. Consider the type of work environment that resonates best for you.

Tech encourages people to think big about innovation and solving problems. They’re dreamers but also doers! Highly flexible self-starters tend to fare well, particularly at earlier-stage startups. If you prefer structure and hierarchy, you should know that about yourself and aim for larger tech enterprises – but also know that these employers may not be as open to pivoters.

Pinpoint your exact reasons – to yourself at first – about why working in tech attracts you and how your skills, both professional and personal, might transfer well. High pay shouldn’t be your only reason.

Build and nurture your personal network.

Career pivoters need to do a lot of discovery on their own and get comfortable with asking people for 20 minutes of their time. You’ve got to approach this with a spirit of curiosity and openness to learning about your options.

In my own career pivot, I got into criminal defense law during a criminal law clinic in my third year of law school. I was tasked with defending a man with a prior criminal record on charges of misdemeanor theft and multiple vehicle code violations. He had few resources, and I spent a lot of time getting to know him and working on his case. I got the charge dismissed and was instantly hooked. From there I spent time on a contract position with the public defender’s office with a focus on juvenile work.

After my contract expired, I joined a group of private criminal defense attorneys to assist them with legal research and writing, court appearances and support on felony and homicide trials in both the adult and juvenile courts. I also took on my own retained and court-appointed clients for felony and misdemeanor cases. I absolutely loved this work, but it’s an emotionally and personally taxing job with modest pay. When it came time to start my family, I realized a career pivot might be in order.

That’s when I started working my network in earnest. At first I tapped attorneys I trusted who pointed me in the direction of legal recruiting. That’s a logical next step for my resume, and I did learn more about it via multiple conversations. But ultimately it didn’t feel like the right fit.

One of the legal recruiters I spoke with recommended I look into executive search. I didn’t even know this was a career path and was curious to learn more. My sister-in-law connected me to a former colleague who now worked at Spencer Stuart, one of the big-five executive recruiting firms. We had an excellent informal conversation, which led to a more formal job interview and ultimately an executive recruiting role at Spencer Stuart’s technology, media and telecommunications practice. I loved the job and the people I worked with.

Informational interviews are low-obligation and flattering to the recipient. By and large, I believe people like to help others – and my own experience with informational interviews bears this out. Make a compelling case for why you want to meet a certain person and respect their limited time, and you’d be surprised at how receptive people can be.

Start by mining your own network to find common connections and asking people you trust if they’d be comfortable introducing you. LinkedIn can help you determine contacts you have in common with other people. Your opening lines can be straightforward: “I’m looking to switch from X into [your area of tech]. Person Y thought talking to you made sense for the following reasons (ABC). They also thought our conversation could benefit you in XYZ ways.” If you can’t think of a way to make the call mutually beneficial, that’s okay – just promise to keep it targeted and brief. If a given call goes well, ask the person for referrals to other people in their network you should meet.

Think about how to ‘translate’ your skills for a strong resume.

It’s worth spending time on identifying your favorite transferable skills. For me as a defense attorney, I loved working collaboratively in teams. I’m fairly creative and resourceful. I’m a good communicator and good at sizing people up. I’m also adaptable, which helps in criminal defense work where you encounter people with many different backgrounds and need to switch contexts frequently. I also have a strong interest in helping others, which fueled my desire to become a lawyer in the first place and makes recruiting a good fit for me- I enjoy helping candidates and companies. All of these skills transfer well into recruiting for tech companies, and they’re ones I love to use.

You should also think about other points of commonality / transferability like industry experience, functional expertise, even similar company missions or end customers. The ideal pivot will have identified and highlighted some common ground between your old job and the new one.

Don’t limit your job search to a specific geographic location.

Lean into what makes you unique – your diversity of thought or background – and how those differences can be parlayed into strengths. Employers are more open than ever to widen the applicant pool to candidates who don’t live in tech hubs, or who have non-traditional resumes and career backgrounds.

The normalizing of remote work means you can consider tech employers beyond your locality – and they’ll consider you, too. If you find a good match and things progress, you’ll want to research compensation on sites like Glassdoor* and understand what realistically makes sense for the role you want and experience you have, keeping in mind the different pay scale different companies have. (And while you’re researching potential employers, check out Battery’s list of the best cloud computing companies to work for, produced in collaboration with our former portfolio company Glassdoor.)

Some companies may not base salaries on location, while others may have a sliding scale depending on the cost of living where you live. Some states now require listing the comp range for roles to bring more fairness to candidates with regards to comp. Don’t forget: You can also leverage trusted people in your network to provide insights on comp.

I encourage everyone, pivoters included, to negotiate compensation, even if that feels awkward. Doing your research can help you substantiate why you’re asking and help you get what you’re worth.

Hiring managers: take pivoter candidates seriously!

Everyone is struggling to hire great talent right now. A pivoter might not resemble your job description in every particular, but don’t think of this as ‘overlooking’ those gaps. There’s real potential upside to hiring a nontraditional resume including DEI and culture benefits. Make sure your entire interviewing team recognizes the additional value that pivoters can bring to the table and thinks expansively about these candidates.

This material is provided for informational purposes, and it is not, and may not be relied on in any manner as, legal, tax or investment advice or as an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy an interest in any fund or investment vehicle managed by Battery Ventures or any other Battery entity. 
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*Denotes a Battery portfolio company. For a full list of all Battery investments, please click here.