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Dear CertMag: I just walked out the door at the end of 25-year career in the city transit system. I’ve always tried to keep up with technology and I’ve casually pursued an interest in programming since high school. I have a website and I’ve been fiddling with various apps for the last 5-6 years. I feel like I’ve got a lot of good years left. Can certification help me advance my knowledge of programming? I don’t want to spend my second career at McDonalds or Walmart.
— Luke, San Francisco, Calif.
Luke, the short version is : Yes. Certification can be part of making a career switch!
As with many things in life, it’s never that simple. As a hiring manager myself, there are several things I am looking at when I see someone with experience in a different career path. Key things are whether the prior experience supports the level of position that they are applying for. As an example, let’s say that someone is applying to be a manager, or delivery lead, of a team. That is usually a job where we expect to see certain skills and experiences, and it takes some time to acquire those.
You ask: What does that past experience offer to the role? Maybe I would expect the “typical” candidate to have X years of experience for a role. Let’s pretend I expect the typical candidate to have 7 to 10 years of experience. This candidate has 10 years in another industry and a few more in applicable IT experience. What was in that other 10 years? Did it include management experiences? Did it include project ownership? Were there elements of financial management, or team leadership, quality checking, or other core tasks that can apply? Maybe I don’t look at the full 10 years, but does the candidate have the total package of skills and experiences that I need?
Given that, realize that you first role is going to be one of the most difficult ones to achieve. Certification offers a trust mark that a candidate has the book knowledge of how structures and languages work at a technical and syntax level, with appropriate knowledge of methods and structures that are particular to that type of development. Absent experience, unfortunately, it is a challenge to get accepted for anything outside of an entry level position in programming, where the mechanics of how code is built and optimized, knowledge of the specific toolsets required, and familiarity with working in the context of a larger team assignment are all critical skills.
Identify the programming language and types of opportunities that you are interested in. Prepare by looking for relevant certifications, and building up your capability. Look for opportunities to get some experience, building up to the target type of job you would like to be in. Do you have an “in?” Someone you can arrange informal work with for a while? Maybe, you can do some basic contract work for a while? Your first few opportunities may not pay particularly well, or have the most comprehensive benefits packages, but they are critical to building a second-career resume that says “full candidate.”
The other key thing you can start doing now is working on reframing your experience. What can you pull from those 25 years to illustrate how that experience has made you a more robust candidate than someone else who is entry level or mid-career? Look at the job description, and pull anything out that you can, focusing on those aspects in how you describe your past work. As you build programming-related experience, and earn certifications, highlight those aspects much more prominently and at more length than some of the past “prior career” opportunities.
This all may take some time. With diligence, however, you should be able to get started, avoiding the other types of work you may not be as interested in as a second career!