How to break into tech with an arts background
Image credit: Krys Alex photography
Remember that controversial campaign featuring a ballerina encouraged to take up a career in cyber security? It appears the current climate has nudged a fair few people previously in arts and humanities toward the tech sector. We spoke to a handful of people who have made this leap.
Coding, says a former National Trust professional, is a little like knitting. “It’s like magic – you write some code, click a button and results just appear. It’s more creative than I realised,” explains Jen Openshaw, a history graduate who’s retrained to become a software engineer. Her career, while unusual, follows a pattern familiar to many who’ve leapfrogged into engineering and technology from an arts and humanities background.
But when an ill-judged government campaign back in 2020 suggested a ballet dancer’s next job was in cyber, it provoked scorn and ridicule, and the government thought best to scrap it. The UK needs its thinkers, artists and creatives as much as it does its engineers, data scientists and programmers – it’s just that today, tech careers appear better paid, more abundant and more flexible.
Technology was one of the sectors fastest to recover in 2021 in the wake of the pandemic, second only behind healthcare. The sector took the top spot in the UK for hiring last year, with engineering in fourth place, says George Windsor, head of data and research at Tech Nation. Salaries are now nearly 80 per cent higher on average than other sectors, and two-thirds of tech professionals believe tech skills are essential for their career. Employment in the wider tech sector has hit a 10-year high at 4.7 million – 14 per cent of the UK workforce, according to Tech Nation’s latest (2022) report – although experienced people are more in demand than first-time jobbers.
But despite recent and very public job cuts rampaging through the tech sector at the likes of Twitter, Meta, Amazon and more, experts are bullish about longer-term employment prospects. “Ultimately,” says Windsor, “all work in the near future is going to involve tech skills in some capacity – whether that’s simply using and applying tech or using deep tech skills applied to innovation.”
It made sense to Openshaw, who, after starting a family, found she had moved to “a National Trust black hole” in north-west England and scratched around for career inspiration. She dipped her toe into coding at a friend’s recommendation. She loves sudoku, spreadsheets and puzzles and is old enough to remember when school computers were a novelty. “I Googled ‘tech careers’ and I was hooked, it was as if a lightbulb went on.” After a short taster with Free Code Camp, Openshaw completed a six-month part-time ‘bootcamp’ with Manchester Codes, which caters for complete beginners and welcomes people from the arts, civil service, healthcare, sports sectors and more. Over six months, she learned how to become a web developer, tutors helped her revamp her resume – “I’d not written a tech CV before”, and she applied to BAE Systems, where she’s worked as a developer for the last two years.
Impostor syndrome left her fearful. “I was terrified that I wouldn’t have the necessary skills,” Openshaw recalls. But her practical course had set her up well. “We’d been taught by people who were software developers by day.” She now works in national security and can’t reveal much about what she does: “We help keep the UK safe.” Manchester is a lively place to work in tech, and she likes the option of remote working alongside family life. “It feels more sociable and collaborative than I’d ever imagined.”
Her previous career has helped her in other ways – she’d led outreach programmes in schools: “I think I’ve had the opportunity to do this because I’m a career changer rather than a brand-new graduate.” If she’s ever nostalgic about her old job, she wouldn’t now go back.
Tech and engineering are notoriously white and male – employers have long known they need to recruit more widely. Companies need to step up to train career changers, says Phill Brown, head of market intelligence at Resource Solutions. “That’s part of the solution to the skills problem.” Across disciplines, he says, staff now need to be creative, adaptable, flexible.
Like many career changers, Openshaw repeats a common refrain. If only, she says, she’d known about science and technology careers when she was younger. “When I was at school in the late ’90s, it just wasn’t a thing. It was just for the boys. I wish I’d discovered this as a teenager, because I could have been working in it for the last 20 years.”
Former actor Jon White believes that empathy and the ability to listen have helped him make his way on the design side of consumer technology. He’s a long way from the Shakespeare and live audiences of his classical training in his user research role at fintech firm Wise. “You need to understand someone’s motivations and experience, and you need to listen well.”
He doesn’t miss his former career – he made ends meet working in hospitality – since he retrained some six years ago with a 10-week course in user experience (UX), a common home for career leapfroggers. “A great experience but I wouldn’t say it guarantees anything,” he says. “Those who struggle are the people who believe they’ll get a job straightaway.” He also teaches career changers and newcomers at design and technology trainer Experience Haus. “I tell students this isn’t a course to give you a job, it’s a course to give you skills to allow you to work and understand what you bring from your previous career,” he says. “That’s what is going to set you aside.”
More than a third of roles in the digital economy are not strictly technical; they include jobs such as project management, sales, user experience, legal and marketing, and these may be more accessible to career shifters, says Windsor.
But most individuals entering the nuts and bolts end of technology will likely face a chicken and egg situation – no job without experience, no experience without a job. There’s currently far more demand for experienced professionals than there is for newbies, analysis by Tech Nation shows. Some 13 per cent of roles advertised are entry level, while 77 per cent are for senior roles, and just 0.03 per cent require no experience at all.
“I feel bootcamps assure you – wrongly – that you’re ready for the world,” says Karen Willcox, a trained architect and graphic designer. She took a course in user experience design and has applied to more than 100 jobs since January 2022 from her home in Paris where she’s relocated. Adept at networking, she’s well connected on LinkedIn, but disgruntled. Brexit suggests it’s harder for UK companies to hire her, and most jobs in France appear to ask for years of experience and fluent French. As an older professional, it’s also difficult to accept entry-level salaries.
“Bootcamps shouldn’t say they make you ‘job ready’, because really they only touch the surface,” she says. “Product design – like architecture – takes years to learn and evolves speedily... it needs full dedication and determination and, even then, it’s not a ride in the park... [employers] don’t have time to train anybody, they need people to dive straight in. But I think maturity helps in product design as you are trying to solve really complex problems.”
There may be an element of ageism too in the sector, says Brown. “The demographic shift is going to require employers to look at people who traditionally were seen as at the end of their careers in their 50s, 60s, even early 70s; bring them back into the workforce and see what their value really is.”
It’s nice to be wanted, says Hannah Gooding. A philosophy graduate, she’d been freelancing in fashion journalism and retail at the likes of Boden and Net-A-Porter.
“I tried a lot of things in fashion,” – she also trained in garment technology – but “nothing paid well, and there seems to be no career progression. I began to think ‘am I really going to slum it in fashion for the rest of my life?’. I was moaning to a friend who suggested I retrain.”
Inspired to take a free part-time course with Code First Girls, she went on to quit her job and take a full-time bootcamp in 2019 (now an apprenticeship) with Founders and Coders.
“I was so nervous at the start; I had impostor syndrome. You code and it’s very public. But I studied super hard,” she remembers. “I’d come from a really competitive industry. It wasn’t until I learned to code that I really discovered the joys of working with other people.”
She went on to work at fashion app Lyst and is now a front-end engineer at retail intelligence company EDITED. “The money is good; I can work flexibly, and the opportunities are just so different. Being rung up, being able to negotiate my salary was huge.” She describes herself as visual and creative and was surprised to find herself at the nuts-and-bolts end of web development. “I feel you can go down the management route or the more technical route in this industry and I don’t feel pressure to decide now.” It helps that she’s cut her professional teeth in another industry. “You already have the soft skills, and colleagues notice that.”
She now helps mentor industry newbies and speaks at tech coding meetups. “Every now and then you’ll get a message from someone who says, ‘you changed my life’ and that’s amazing.” And if she ever yearns for the cut and thrust of fashion in the future, she could always return with new skills.
There comes a point “when you realise you know what you’re talking about,” says Lucy Rogers, a creative producer who’s made the move to Web3 technologies. Her creative agency Soga uses blockchain technology to give artists, footballers, boxers and others more control of their own material. To date, the agency has led the first music event with tickets based on non-fungible tokens (NFTs), Europe’s first NFT music festival, and the first boxing match to be streamed in the metaverse.
A photography student who quit her degree, she moved from advertising into music production and direction before changing tack as the pandemic struck. Her co-founder had identified the opportunity that blockchain presented for creatives, and since then she’s got hands-on with various projects. Her work is a whirlwind of conferences, which she initially forced herself to take part in and is now adept at fielding technical questions. “I’m a practical learner so I will watch, listen and read a lot, and I try to immerse myself in what I need to know.”
People with non-technical backgrounds tend to be stronger in softer skills – communication, confidence, teamwork and so on. “Listening is a big one,” says Resource Solutions’ Brown. “These are skills you don’t always get from those with science and technology degrees.” Amid Tech Nation’s list of sought-after sector skills, communication ranks highly.
The penny is dropping with larger employers to develop newcomers from all backgrounds, says Edleen John, board member at the Tech Talent Charter, and many larger employers now offer apprenticeships, returners schemes and intensive on-the-job training.
“If you’re not sure where you want to work,” she says, “or what tech role you might be able to do, then consider engaging the specialist training and bootcamp providers like Upskill Digital, Code First Girls, the Institute of Coding and many others who can help individuals explore different types of careers and help match them with companies.”
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