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How to Break Into the Tech Industry Without Having Formal Tech-Education

Coaching / Training / Mentorship
Team Processes

9 December, 2021

Allison McGillivray
Allison McGillivray

Vice President, Engineering at FMX

Allison McGillivray, Vice President, Engineering at FMX, shares her roller coaster ride of changing careers in the technology industry without having any formal technical degree.

How Tricky Is Too Tricky for a Field Change?

To begin with, I did not have a fancy degree in engineering, or any of the technical subjects.

I have a Bachelors in English, and have studied digital communication, user experience and subjects of that sort. I began my career journey with content marketing. I later joined my current company as a product marketer. My favorite part of that was playing around with the product, and trying to figure out the use cases.

I enjoyed writing technical briefs for the sales team and doing sales enablement. Being a small company at the time, we did not have any dedicated product roles when I started. Later when one opened one up, I applied for it. My later boss decided to take a chance on me based on my success as a product marketer. The product position required me to be a jack of all trades. I did product management, product ownership, UX, QA, triage, etc. Later, I even added engineering management.

However, with every transition 一 from marketing to product to engineering 一 I felt the lack of knowledge and experience. In some cases, I even struggled with imposter syndrome.

A Combination of Soft Skills and Passion Can Do the Trick

I started writing down everything about product management and ownership while working on my UX skills. I learned more about how QA and QA teams work in general, as well as the software development life cycle, and anything I could get my hands on that I thought could make an impact.

I started to think of the developers that I worked with like manufacturers instead of just as programmers. This allowed me to start thinking in terms of what they needed in order to produce their work. Above all else, they needed clear instructions on the projects they were working on. In that regard, I knew I could provide value. When I didn’t understand something, I asked the developers to explain it to me like I was a 5-year-old.

My willingness to learn, curiosity about the role, and excel in it drove me to succeed. I was not formally trained, which led me to take it upon myself to learn everything I could. Exploring different possibilities and working hard to confront my imposter syndrome.

Eventually, the company needed someone to manage the engineering department. Of course, since I was not a developer by training, I never applied, but because my boss was impressed with my management skills in other areas he offered me the opportunity.

If you have an understanding of the processes, product and how to get things done, you can be a manager. You just have to believe in yourself and find ways to manage your weaknesses. Although I never intended to go into engineering, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Don’t Shy Away From Anything

  • If someone gives you an opportunity, don’t turn it down. At the moment, you might not have all the information you need to make a decision, but trust yourself, and don’t skip out on chances just because you are not 100 percent confident. Take the risk, push yourself a little harder and you will reap the rewards.
  • It’s important to establish a group of advisors around you, and that was something I waited for a while to get done. Gather people surrounding you who can give you solid advice, and can be your go-to people; it could even be people outside of your team. You will notice that they will give you ideas that you may have never come up with on your own.
  • When making a career change to a technical field, it’s important to be transparent about what your limitations are. Be honest about what your weaknesses are, and then find a partner who can balance those limitations.

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