4 lessons I learned from the Academy That Can Help Anyone Switching Careers to Get into Tech.

Jillian Ellis 13th April 2021

Career switchers and people just getting into tech – this one is for you!

In the summer of 2019, I quit my job, I packed my bags, moved to London and switched careers.

Okay, it wasn’t that abrupt and dramatic. It wasn’t like a scene out of a movie where a musical number plays during a montage of me selling all my stuff to gather up enough money for a one-way plane ticket to Europe. But I did make the transatlantic move across the pond from New York, and I did leave my career of being a math teacher behind. It’s a career I loved but I was ready for a change. And that change was a career in tech.

My journey into tech has been an interesting one to say the least. So far, it’s looked like this (feel free to imagine this in the form of a movie montage with a musical number):

  • A couple of Udemy classes, teaching myself “what getting into tech” means at various hot desk places in South London,
  • Attending as many codebar sessions as I could physically get to (while really getting to know the London underground),
  • Meeting the CTO of a start-up and snagging an internship to learn how to become a Software Developer,
  • A tiny, minuscule, almost irrelevant little hiccup in the form of a world-wide pandemic…
  • Said start-up not making it and being unemployed with little experience for several months,
  • Finding ECS and learning about the Academy,
  • Applying for, getting accepted into, going through and then graduating the Academy,
  • and well… watch this space 😉

Along this journey of switching careers and, most recently, my time in the Academy, I’ve learned a few things along the way. Between technical workshops, soft skill workshops, and projects, there is a lot to take in. We learned a lot in 3 months! And while I’d love to go on about the tech I’ve learned (future blogs?) the most valuable thing I learned wasn’t AWS, Jenkins, or even DevOps (sorry Jason).

My biggest take away from the Academy goes beyond the specifics of each workshop and focuses more on the general mindset I had while changing careers and learning new skills.

These are the lessons I learned in the Academy that I will take forward in my career. And I hope they will be of help to anyone in a high performing / fast moving industry such as tech.

Ask for help, ask questions.

Seems simple but I can’t stress this enough. Ask for help and more importantly, don’t feel shy or embarrassed about it. From day one, everyone at the Academy we met said this in some form or another. For two months, we had workshops almost every day and were taking in a lot of information. A fact, or two, or many, were bound to slip. It’s almost impossible to memorise every single piece of information so if you needed something clarified or repeated, it’s not out of the ordinary.

Now I say this with conviction, but let’s be honest about what actually happens in my brain when I have a question about something or I need help: “Oh no, did I miss something that everyone already knows and I’m the only one that doesn’t know? Will everyone think I’m stupid if I ask this question? What the hell is a Lambda?”

The only thing I’d change about my experience in the Academy is the number of questions I asked, and the number of times I asked for help. I have ADHD and sometimes I feel insecure about things that I may have missed because I zoned out. I had the least technical experience of my group, so I was insecure about that. I was also the only woman and one of two BIPOC in the Academy so I was insecure that if I had too many questions, everyone would pin it on me being a girl or being a minority. Of course, that’s all ridiculous.

This tip is easier said than done – but don’t let your insecurities stop you from asking your questions and asking for help. No one is judging you. In fact, most people want you to succeed! The best thing you can do for yourself to help you have the courage to ask questions is to know how you learn. Which brings me to my next point.

Knowing how you learn is extremely important!

Not everyone learns the same. Take it from me as a former teacher who had to work around many learning styles and as a person with ADHD who doesn’t learn the same as everyone else. Not everyone learns the same, but what people always forget is that not everyone teaches the same.

In the Academy, you might have anywhere from one to four different instructors in a given week. Over the course of two months, we had about 24 different instructors! That’s 24 different teaching styles and 24 different ways to learn. If you don’t know how you learn and a teacher is running a workshop in a particular style, you’re going to struggle to keep up.

Take the time to know if you work best with visual, audio, or more kinaesthetic. Do you prefer to listen to a speaker and take notes or does a YouTube video resonate more with you? These are all important things to know when absorbing information! And since the learning continues past the Academy, this is a skill which will help you during your entire career.

Me personally, I like a YouTube video because I have visuals and I can start and stop when I need to. I like a notebook with unlined paper and different coloured pens because it makes certain information pop when I’m revising. I like taking notes and I love a post-it for jotting down questions for later. Getting hands on is my favourite way of learning, but I find I learn best when I do procedure first and theory second.

That obviously doesn’t work for everyone! In contrast, there was an Academy member who wrote down at most 3 words all Academy (I exaggerate) but could recite everything he learned back to you without hesitation. Taking notes didn’t work for him, so he didn’t. I love taking notes, so I did. Simple as that!

What to do if your instructor isn’t teaching the way you need? Honestly, you can’t have a perfectly tailored learning experience. But you can make requests, you can make personal adjustments and you can ask questions when you need (see above for reference on asking questions 🙂). The teacher doesn’t know how you learn best so it’s up to you to either tell them or make it work. If you ask for help and someone is explaining something to you that just doesn’t make any sense, tell them! Ask them to repeat it, explain it differently, ask them to compare it to something else, ask them to use real life examples!

Highlight your strengths

Whatever they may be! Another fantastic aspect of the Academy is harnessing a well-rounded consultant and the focus on highlighting what you’re already good at. The Academy isn’t just tech skills all day every day, our weeks were mixed in with a variety of soft skills such as presentation training, Agile training, business writing and more. This was a great set up for a few reasons – one was having the days broken up between soft skills and tech skills which provided a nice brain break after particularly tough tech workshops.

Another great aspect was that it allowed everyone to shine in different ways. I’m particularly grateful for this because my teaching experience gave me the confidence to really shine during presentation training. Admittedly, I wasn’t the strongest or most advanced technically of the group. And while this was something that bothered me (see list of insecurities above), I was reassured multiple times by several people that being a consultant isn’t just being good at the tech. It’s about being well-rounded and being able to present yourself and the work that you do. We were wisely told that “the hard work we do means little if we can’t present it properly.” (second Jason shoutout) If there is one thing being a high school math teacher harnessed in me was being able to present difficult topics!

This lesson was particularly helpful because in an industry riddled with imposter syndrome – it’s important to focus on the positives and strengths. In any situation, whether it be learning a new technology or starting a new career, it’s so easy to default to all the things you’re terrible at. I know that’s something I tend to do. However, this experience at the Academy was a big step in helping me to not only focus on my strengths, but to feel good about it. I sure have a lot to learn but I feel good knowing that my particular strengths are not only good enough, they are celebrated.

A well-rounded life is a happy life

Okay, this one is a bit niche, but hear me out.

I’m the type of person that loves an extracurricular activity. In high school, I was the geek that was a part of a bunch of school activities, sports teams, and after school clubs (including Chess Club, which, after watching Queen’s Gambit, kinda wish I stuck it out). This is something I’ve carried on in my professional life and there’s no better place than ECS to be a part of the community through a social event.

Interested in a particular technology and want to talk to others in the company with the same interest? There’s a guild for that. Have you ever wanted to try something different like chocolate making or a street dance class? There’s a social event for that. Like to look at cute animals all day? There’s a Slack channel for that.

I appreciate this more, especially because we’ve been in a pandemic the entire time I’ve been at ECS. I was able to meet my Academy members and some instructors at the office with strict COVID policies in place but other than that, I haven’t met many people in person! Thanks to the hard work of so many people, we’ve been able to create connections and stay in contact with the people we work with. I heard of the fun social events in BC (Before Covid… can I copyright that?) and I have no doubt that in AD (After Disease) that they’ll be fun. I can’t wait to meet more of my colleagues in person but until then, there are plenty of ways to connect with anyone at ECS

The lesson from this? Take advantage of what is offered to you! Find your people and build relationships. I’m so glad to be working for a company with so many outlets, both for work and social activities. If there is one thing that has made this whole process easier is the support I’ve had and the relationships I’ve created here with my co-workers.

Looking back at my time in the Academy, I’m so thankful for the lessons I learned and the relationships I’ve built with the incredibly smart and talented people at ECS. I was able to get to these conclusions because of endless support and encouragement from the instructors, my peers and everyone I’ve met so far! There will always be a new team or a new project to work on and these skills will always be useful. Best of luck to anyone looking to switch careers!

More about the author:

Hello! My name is Jillian and I’m from Queens, NY. I spent the first part of my professional career as a high school math teacher and after moving to London almost 2 years ago, I switched careers to get into tech. I started at ECS as a member of the Training Academy and have since graduated after an intensive 3 months. I’ve since joined the AWS Guild and the iDEA team within ECS, helping to contribute my unique perspective to both groups. When I’m not at work (and not in a pandemic), I enjoy playing most sports (particularly American football, volleyball, football and tennis) and traveling.

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