Here's How to Switch From the Humanities to Tech
Switching careers is an exciting but scary adventure.
Most of us will change jobs every few years, but how many of us pick up roots and change industries completely?
A few years back, I decided to take the plunge and leave my Humanities background behind to become a developer. At the time, I worried that not having a formal academic background in Science would hold me back, but I eventually realized that my non-tech background has actually prepared me well for a STEM career.
I wrote this article for other folks in the Humanities who may be thinking of making the jump into tech but aren't sure where to start. I can tell you it absolutely is possible and you shouldn't sell yourself short. In fact, many of the skills you already know from the Humanities are transferable to other industries.
But first, let me tell you how I got here.
Back in 2013, I was on track to getting my PhD in Early Modern History. I attended conferences all over North America to present my research and I even studied in an archive in Dijon, France for a summer.
In the end I realized academia wasn’t for me and I started wondering what I should do next. I'd always been interested in learning how to code, but a career in software development seemed out of reach since I didn't have a formal background in Science.
Fast forward to today, and I've got a year of learning C# under my belt, tons of experience creating games in Unity, and a budding freelance career as a developer.
My career trajectory has been somewhat atypical but it is totally achievable for any Humanities grad. It also wasn’t totally linear, which I discuss in more detail below.
Tips For Making The Switch
- Find a middle ground
- Join social media
- Utilize free resources
- Create an elevator pitch
- Focus on your transferable skills
Find a middle ground
One of the biggest reasons why people hesitate to make a career switch is because they think it all has to happen at once.
One day you're in the Humanities and the next you're in tech, right?
While there is nothing wrong with making an abrupt switch if that's what suits you best, you absolutely do not need to do it all at once.
Instead you can find a middle ground between the two industries to explore first. For example, while in grad school I began freelance writing. At first I wrote press releases and informational articles but I soon fell into tech blogging since I've always been interested in computers and video games. I started writing freelance articles for a big Canadian tech blog, which was an awesome experience that helped expose me to the terminology and skills I’d later need as a developer.
I hope my story shows that you don’t have to make the jump out of the Humanities all at once. Instead you can take small, measured steps and work your way slowly to a new career.
Here are some ways you can dip your toe into tech if you’re not quite ready to fully make the transition.
- If you’re employed, see if you can take on a few additional tech-related responsibilities related to your current position.
- Work your way through an online coding curriculum in your spare time.
- Volunteer your computer skills for family and friends.
- Watch YouTube videos for newbies in tech and follow along with online tutorials.
- Get involved with the open source community.
- Buy an affordable gadget like a Raspberry Pi to tinker with or a computer upgrade to advance your hardware skills.
- Install Linux on a virtual machine and play around with it (or any other piece of software that will help you practice your skills).
- Read up on tech news or trends and share your thoughts online in a blog or social media.
Join social media
I’m an introvert, so the thought of putting myself out on social media was never very tempting. But I realized that if I wanted to get the ball rolling on a new career as a developer, I needed to make some connections.
It can be daunting to jump into the tech sphere without much experience under your belt, but my advice is to start small. Twitter and Instagram are both popular platforms for people in tech and are beginner friendly. Certain coding communities such as Code Newbies are geared towards beginners who are looking for direction and advice. Don't be afraid to share your work from the get-go, even if it means only publishing a wire frame or basic design. These are all opportunities for feedback and it’ll get you used to the testing/integration stage of the software development life cycle.
Here are some tips for setting up your social media account.
- Choose a professional sounding user name and profile pic.
- Be open and honest about your background-- never pretend to be something you're not.
- Don't over-commit yourself. There’s no need to post every day.
- Read and leave insightful comments on other people’s posts.
- Be a friendly face in the community. Offer help, advice, or encouragement.
- Don't be afraid of making a mistake or saying something silly (as long as you are professional and respectful of others!)
Utilize free resources
So let’s say you’re a Humanities student who’s interested in coding but you don’t want to shell out a lot of money for a bootcamp just yet. No problem. There are many free or very affordable resources online that allow you to start learning coding right away without making a financial commitment. These websites let you set your own schedule so there’s no pressure to complete the curriculum in a set amount of time. This is particularly useful if you’ll be working on these skills in your free time, evenings and weekends, or sporadically over many weeks or months.
I’ve covered these resources before in previous blog posts but I think they’re worth repeating here because they’re so helpful for beginners.
Create an elevator pitch
One thing I wasn’t prepared for when I made my own career transition was the number of people who would question my decision. At first, attending social events was a major source of anxiety for me because I didn’t know how to articulate why my passions had changed.
In hindsight, I should have expected that people would be naturally curious about my career. Instead of side-stepping conversations about why I was changing fields, I should have embraced them. Nowadays, I’m excited to talk about my Humanities-to-tech journey; however, if you’re like me a few years back and tend to get tongue-tied, I suggest taking the time to craft an “elevator pitch” you can fall back on.
An elevator pitch is a little speech that encapsulates what you want others to know about your career. Your memorized elevator pitch should only take around 30 seconds to say. Rehearse it in a mirror if you need to so you can whip it out whenever the need arises. Here are some things to think about when crafting your own pitch:
- Focus on your journey: Whether you are between jobs, in a job you love or a job you hate, focus on the path that led you to your current position. Look for the common thread that links all of your past experiences together and bring it to the forefront.
- Show your uniqueness: Don't hide the fact that your background is in the Humanities. This is what makes you unique and helps you stand out.
- State your goal: Whether your goal is just to learn something new or to get a full-time job in tech, make your overall goal a part of your pitch. You don't need to include a lot of detail; just offer a general sense of where you see yourself heading.
Use your elevator pitch whenever you feel stuck and don’t know how to explain the current stage of your career. Your pitch will naturally evolve over time as your passions continue to change and more opportunities come your way.
Focus on your transferable skills
Did you know that many of the skills you learned in the Humanities are also usable in tech? Soft skills are in high demand and as a Humanities grad, you’ve got a ton of them in your toolbox. In the section below, I detail four important transferable skills and discuss why they are important to both industries.
Let’s begin with a pretty obvious one. There are many similarities between learning a natural language and a coding language. I’ve listed a few major ones below:
- Complex syntax rules that dictate how words or terms can be arranged to create meaning.
- Families of branching languages that share similar characteristics (Romance Languages-> French, Spanish, Italian; OOP languages-> Python, PowerShell, Ruby, etc.
- Both programming languages and natural languages continue to evolve over time with the addition of slang and new syntax.
- Editing, proofreading, & reworking are important to both.
Of course, there are important differences too, but with a background in the Humanities, you are probably already used to working with languages on a micro level. Your keen eye for form and syntax will be a boon in the world of coding. So don’t be afraid to add a programming language to your lexicon!
As experienced developers know, there’s more to this profession than just coding. You need to be able to describe your ideas, give and receive feedback, complete project management tasks, draw up project outlines, communicate with clients, and the list goes on. I’ve found that communication skills are integral to my identity as a developer since I also enjoy blogging, participating in live chats, and creating content for social media. Even if you make coding your sole focus, you’ll need to communicate well and build a personal brand in order to get a job or connect with potential clients.
Since the Humanities place a big emphasis on written and verbal communication, your skills in this area are probably already well-developed. But just in case, here are a few reminders:
- Always remember to write/speak clearly and concisely.
- Use spell check/grammar check when necessary.
- Don't overuse punctuation or emojis.
- Gear your writing towards your audience (for example, your writing will be different in an email to your boss than in a tweet on social media).
- Consider using branding tools, such as Canva, to create a standard kit of fonts, colors, images to enhance your written communication (where appropriate).
Switching careers often takes a lot of time and patience-- it doesn’t just happen overnight. At first you’ll probably have a lot of practical questions such as:
- How hard is it to get a job? (Depends on too many factors to list here).
- Which programming language(s) should I learn? (If you’re a total newbie, start with HTML and go from there).
- Should I attend a bootcamp? (Depends.)
- Do I need a computer science degree? (NOPE).
- Are self-taught developers employable? (YES!)
When I first dipped my toe into tech, I spent time researching the answers to all of these questions and more. I swear that some weeks I was doing more researching than learning to code! And as a freelance developer, I still use my research skills every day, whether I'm collecting information for a freelance project, looking up syntax, examining the compatibility between different pieces of software, or troubleshooting a problem with my code.
The good news is that as a Humanities student, your research skills are probably already excellent. You’ve likely written many essays or compositions which required you to synthesize information from different books and articles. You understand that not everything you read online is trustworthy and you know how to weed out the good sources from the bad ones. The ability to find the answers you’re seeking is an important skill in not only the Humanities and tech, but also in life.
Big Picture Skills
Picture this: you’re nearing the end of term in a Humanities class and the professor assigns a big essay, to be completed in only a few weeks. Inwardly, you panic. How will you ever write thousands of words on a topic that you weren’t even familiar with a few months ago? You trudge to the library and start pulling books off the shelves, looking for any piece of information, no matter how small, that can be used in your essay. And slowly, over time, those pieces of information grow to form a collection of useful arguments you can use in your essay. The faith and tenacity you exhibited when conducting your research paid off. At the time, the bits of information didn’t seem like much on their own. But put them together, and you can finally see the ‘big picture’ of your project.
Compiling little bits of information in an essay is much like compiling little bits of code in a program. You may hum and haw over individual lines of code and worry that they’re extraneous or not going to make much sense in the end. But to progress on your project, you must put those doubts aside, keep your focus on the ‘big picture,’ and have faith that all of the little choices you’re making now will reap big rewards in the end.
As someone experienced in the Humanities, you're used to seeing the forest for the trees and working piece-by-piece on a solution to a large problem. These 'big picture' skills will serve you well in STEM.
We are privileged to live in an age when the barrier between the Arts and Sciences is more permeable than ever. These days, your professional identity can be flexible. You don’t have to identify as “just a Humanities girl” or “just a tech girl”-- you can be both. I love being able to use the skills from my grad program each and every day. As a developer, I proudly wear my non-tech background as a badge of honour-- and you should too!
So the next time you worry that you'll never be able to succeed as a developer without a Science degree-- put those fears aside! We are all unique and the path to your dream job is hardly ever linear. Enjoy the ride and never feel “lesser than” because of where you came from.