Making the switch to programming careers: 3 Australian tales

Software development professionals who worked across hospitality, financial services, and sales share their tips and experiences about changing their careers to information technology.

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Lindsay Henwood (CC0)

Employers in Australia struggle to find IT staff, yet they demand IT skills for their hires. That can rule out career opportunities for those who pursued different careers earlier in life and now find that original career unsatisfying or simply want a change. But it is possible to enter IT from other fields.

Computerworld Australia talked to three software developers who came from non-IT professions—hospitality, financial services, and sales—and found in coding a satisfying new career. Like most things, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to become a software developer, but there are some tips and things to consider if you are looking to move into technology.

One thing that Alex Gujas, Michael Grimmer, and Selena Small have in common is that none of them had gone to university to study anything related to technology. What they all did was to take short IT courses or teach themselves how to code.

Alex Gujas: Learning to code meant leaving his old job for deeper study

alex gujas Alex Gujas

Alex Gujas

While a degree in economics may have helped Gujas get his financial adviser role with Commonwealth Bank, it was his own interests in stock markets that made him start learning more mathematics and taking Python programming lessons. Today, only three years since he started the journey to change careers, he is a software engineer at Labrys, an Australian blockchain development company.

Gujas started learning Python on his own and through online short courses that he could take while working full time with the bank. After 18 months with the bank, he quit his job and started to further his studies in programming, doing odd jobs here and there to use his recently learned programming skills. In 2019 he got his first full time job as a web developer for a tourism website.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he was let go in the middle of 2020, so he started freelancing until he got a call from Labrys, which was after a blockchain engineer. That was perfect for Gujas because it combined both his interests in finance and software development.

Gujas tells Computerworld Australia that he also joined meetups and other opportunities to connect with developers and learn. More important, during his interview with Labrys he was asked if he had worked with Solidity before. He told them no, but then went home and learned it over the weekend and developed an app. He got back to Labrys with the app on Monday, which he later learned was what made him stand out and get the job.

Michael Grimmer: The ability to work in IT without a degree opened the door to change

michael grimmer Michael Grimmer

Michael Grimmer

From the start, Grimmer had an inclination for IT. When deciding for his bachelor’s degree, he found himself choosing between computer science and business and e-commerce, ultimately opting for the latter. He ended up working in several sales roles but always with technology companies, including Logicalis and Telstra. After several years, he started to look into courses and found a Swift programming language course for iOS development at RMIT Online. Three years since his journey into development started, he is now an iOS engineer with software provider Xero.

Throughout his years working in sales, Grimmer spoke to his colleagues in IT roles and learned that not all IT people had a degree in IT. That made Grimmer reliase there could be an opportunity for him. He looked for courses and eventually opted for the iOS one, thinking that focussing on development for a popular device was a good starting point. To finish the course, he was required to develop a demo app that he later decided to publish in the App Store as part of building his portfolio. He was also advised to specialise in Swift, the native language for iOS, rather than move to other programming languages, at least for the start of his career.

Grimmer updated his social channels with his new course and started talking to people about what he wanted to do until someone in his network got him his first job interview and subsequently his first full-time job as an iOS developer. He tells Computerworld Australia that, although he wishes he had started studying sooner, he got where he wanted—and that his previous experience and contacts helped him move to his goal.

Selena Small: A friend’s advice opened the door to ultimately managing a development team

selena small fresho Fresho

Selena Small

Small dropped out of a landscape architecture degree and did a triple diploma in business, management, and accounting. She thought that diploma could be applied to anything in the future. Small was the general manager of a bar for a few years and then operations manager of a restaurant after that. But she didn’t want to keep working the hours the hospitality industry requires.

A friend asked her to try coding. At the time, in 2015, she had no idea what that was all about, but she was curious and decided to check it out. Small, who specialises in Ruby on Rails, is now head of delivery for network growth at Fresho, where she is in charge of building a new team and technology to drive network growth and the user onboarding experience.

Small took seven years to become a team leader. While some people might achieve that result faster, she is very proud of the road she took. “I don’t think I would have got to where I am faster, and, if I did, I don’t think I would have wanted to,” she tells Computerworld Australia. “I went from zero literally to team leader in seven years. You could probably get to team leader a little bit faster, but I also do actually have a really high proficiency in design and architecture. And I wanted to have that before moving into a sort of leadership role.”

Small started learning how to code by trying different things prompted by her friend, who ended up being her first mentor of sorts by sending her tasks to complete and things to research. Not long after, she landed her first part-time role. But that didn’t last long, so soon she started to prototype her own project. Still, she felt she needed more practical experience. Another friend suggested she acquired an AWS certification to help her land her first full-time job.

Once she acquired the certification and updated her profile and résumé, she was contacted by a technology company for an interview. Within a week of acquiring the certification, she got her first full-time job as a software developer. She worked for Hemisphere NZ for just over a year before moving to Fresho—and moving from New Zealand to Australia—as a software engineer and later as a team leader.

Being a woman in IT does present challenges, Small says. The data bears out her own experience: A Gartner study from 2019 found that unfairness-based turnover in tech is a $16 billion-a-year problem and that women leave technology jobs at twice the rate of their male counterparts. By the time women reach the midpoint of their careers, 56% have dropped out. The latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Quarterly Labour Force report, from November 2021, showed that there were more than 310,000 people employed under the computer system design and related servicecategory—including full-time and part-time employees, of which 226,000 were men and only 85,000 (about 27%) were women. The good news: The field is growing, the ABS found, so there is a need for employees, and an opportunity for women to help fill the gap.

In describing her career journey, Small related a few episodes when she said something at a meeting that had been disregarded but that got attention when the same thing was said by a male colleague. Early on, she learned to share her ideas with a person, usually male, that was more experienced than her rather than try and speak up at a meeting—and hope those ideas were actually raised. Later, as a team leader, Small says she has been vocal about gender diversity, even though she notes that there are many other diversity concerns in the IT industry as well.

Advice for anyone looking to switch to software development

Although they came from different places in their careers, all three developers invested in learning development languages on their own to prepare for a change. They also made good use of the time available,including spending personal time outside of their work to educate themselves. For many, the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed more free time for people to use in online studies.

And the three went beyond book learning into actual projects, even if only demo projects. As seen in both Grimmer’s and Gujas’s experiences, showing a working app or prototype can go a long way to getting hired as a newbie. Starting to develop something on your own also means you will run into real development process obstacles before your first job and will be better equipped to fix any errors and deal with challenges.

The three developers also used their personal networks to seek guidance and ultimately jobs. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” Gujas says. “Don’t be afraid to reach out, from Day 1”. He says the stereotype that IT professionals may not be helpful to newcomers isn’t true, at least not in his experience. “Everyone that I ever talked to was so excited that I was learning. They just wanted to help.”

Finally, each of the three developers picked a focus early on. There are many options in technology, in programming languages, and even in which cycle of the development you may want to focus on. Picking one from the start can make things easier in the long run, so you build sufficient knowledge to be immediately useful to potential employers.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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