All my life, I’ve had two passions: social justice and technology. Because as much as I wanted to make the world a better place, I also couldn’t help geeking out about the latest and greatest gadget.
I followed my first love when it was time to start my career. Teaching kindergarten in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn felt like the perfect place to make a difference. But as with most things in life, a funny thing happened on the way to building my career: I found out that my passion and my expertise were not necessarily one in the same.
Specifically, as an introvert, being practically on stage in front of 25 rowdy kids every day didn’t play to my strengths, no matter how cool my teacher ties were!
And yet, at the same time that I struggled to pull off the teaching thing, I found myself totally engrossed with all the techie aspects of my job: Building a classroom blog, teaching my students how to make videos, and even doing tech support on our ancient PCs. It was so clear that one of my co-workers finally pulled me aside and said: “Jeremy, what the heck are you doing here? You should be in tech, man!”
Typical, right? It takes someone else to see the most obvious truths in your own life.
But as much as it hurt to realize that I wasn’t cut out for (what I thought was) my dream job, I knew my colleague was right. And so I set out to find my new dream job—one that combined both my passions and my talents.
That journey took years, and I made lots of mistakes along the way. But what I’d tell anyone looking to change fields is that it’s totally possible to transform your career if you take the following three steps:
1. Find the Right Role
When thinking about changing careers, it’s tempting to focus on companies (“How cool would it be to work at Google?”). But please, resist that temptation and put yourself in the shoes of a recruiter, the gatekeeper who controls your occupational destiny.
Because as soon as you do, you’ll realize this fundamental truth: “I really need to find someone who wants to work at Google,” said no recruiter, ever.
Those companies are sexy for a reason: Everyone wants to work there! So, your generic interest—no matter how great it is—won’t help you get hired.
Recruiters are focused on filling a specific role, as in: “I need to find five coders now!”
So, do your homework and figure out what, specifically, you can do in your dream industry and company.
In my case, I knew I wasn’t cut out to be a coder. But, given my passion for social justice and technology, I loved the idea of using tech to reach millions of people around the world. And so marketing was the perfect fit (here’s a cheat sheet to other tech roles that don’t require coding expertise).
2. Get the Right Qualifications
Once you have the perfect role in mind, you need to figure out where the minimal bar for candidates is set. Because while you don’t need to have “5-7 years of experience” just to break in, recruiters often will require some other qualification in its place (a certain major, a specialized degree, a particular certification) to keep their candidate pools focused.
To get a sense of this bar, you can look at job descriptions. But those are often wishful thinking (e.g., when I became a hiring manager years later, I’d often throw the whole kitchen sink into my jobs on the outside chance that my perfect unicorn candidate was out there).
Instead, focus on reality. And the best way to figure out what really matters is to look at the profiles of people who actually hold the job you want. If it turns out that every single career role model of yours has a certain degree or experience under her belt, chances are that’s a good place for you to start.
For me, that meant going back to grad school. Because even though I thought of an MBA as a degree for consultants and bankers, it turned out that pretty much all of the cool marketers I met at Apple, LinkedIn, and elsewhere had one. So, I went out and got an MBA too. (And for me, it was worth it.)
3. Stand Out the Right Way
Sure enough, the MBA opened many doors for me. Because the same day that I got to campus, all the tech firms that had never previously returned my calls started trying to recruit me. But there was just one problem: They were also trying to recruit all my classmates!
And to make matters worse, dozens of my classmates had already worked in tech. So how could I possibly compete as a former kindergarten teacher?
The answer, again, lies with the recruiter who stands between you and career nirvana. Imagine him plowing through dozens of generic applications (“Dear Sir or Madam, I’d really like a job, blah, blah, blah”) and giving up in frustration.
Now imagine what it would feel like, in the midst of that sea of blandness, to get something different. To get an application that felt fresh, personal, and exciting?
And guess what? As a career-changer, you’re uniquely qualified to write that application. After all, you’ve got a unique perspective on your chosen field. So why not lead with that. That’s exactly what I did. Here's the beginning of my actual cover letter:
Dear [hiring manager name],
It was clear from your presentation last month that Apple is not your typical company. It doesn’t create typical products or provide typical experiences for its customers. And it certainly doesn’t hire typical people to design and market those products and experiences. Thus, as the only former kindergarten teacher to teach himself PHP/MySQL in my class, I proudly submit my application for a Product Marketing Manager internship this summer.
And exactly five months later, I was sitting on a bus headed to Cupertino (Apple’s headquarters, for those whose passion isn’t tech)!
So like I said, transforming my career from kindergarten teacher to techie wasn’t fast or easy. But hopefully it gives you a sense that just about anything’s possible if you focus on what matters. Because if you follow the same steps I did—find the right role, get qualified, and nail your application—you can change careers.