How you can transfer to tech, explained by 6 Angelenos who made the move

November 17, 2016

Starting something new can be a rewarding process, but when the something new is a career, there's a great deal of unknown involved. The LA tech community certainly doesn't lack when it comes to its community members' diverse professional backgrounds, but before these six tech employees joined Silicon Beach companies, they were doing something much different than they do now.

 

Tiffany Chang was headed for a life in academia when she caught the tech bug. Over time, she started teaching herself programming languages, and eventually decided to attend General Assembly. She now works as a software engineer for CoreLogic Innovation Labs.

When did you decide that you wanted to change careers?

Prior to becoming a software engineer, I was heading toward a career in academic Philosophy. While I was still in my doctoral program, I had read articles about development bootcamps and knew a couple people who had successfully transitioned into the technology industry. This piqued my interest, and in my spare time I slowly began learning some programming languages. However, it was just a hobby for me at the time, something I found fun to do if I wanted a short break from doing research. It wasn’t until my graduating year that I began to seriously consider developing programming skills and transitioning into technology.

How did you settle on your career?

I wanted a career that would provide stability, work-life balance and plenty of challenges and opportunities to collaborate with others. The place where I currently work practices pair programming and focuses on sustainable pace. We each have our own monitor and keyboard but share a computer, meaning that both of us work on the same code, switching off between the “driver” and “navigator” role. Pairing is very effective for ramping up on a new project and learning new technologies, and it provides the highly engaged level of collaboration that I wanted out of my new career.

In the year since I’ve graduated, I don’t believe I would have learned as much if I had not had the opportunity to pair program with many different software engineers, all of whom contribute different strengths and levels of experience to the pair. Another benefit of pair programming is that it facilitates practicing a sustainable work pace. Because we code only in pairs, we do not work outside of normal office hours. In the evenings and weekends, I can fully enjoy my life outside of work and be relaxed and refreshed when I come back to work on Mondays.

What was it like explaining your career change in job interviews?

When I was interviewing, I had recently graduated from GA and from an academic program before that. Given that my prior background is in Philosophy, most of my interviewers already had an idea about why I would change careers: job stability. While they weren’t entirely mistaken, I wanted to make clear that I was mainly motivated by the methodical, challenging, and highly collaborative nature of the work of software engineering. It's a career in which I will never run out of new things to learn and in which I can collaborate with others on a daily basis. 

What advice would you give to someone considering a move similar to the one you made?

My advice would be to begin learning on your own to see if you enjoy programming  There are plenty of great blogs, tutorials and code “katas” or challenges available online. The next step would be to participate in meetups, particularly if they involve pairing, learning together, or open source contribution. Software development is as much about communication and collaboration as it is about applying your technical skills, so it's important that you also get some experience coding with other people to really get an idea of what it might be like to do this as a job. GA has quite a few free workshops and seminars which are a great way to get your feet wet.

How has your life changed since starting your new career?

With the pair programming and a focus on a sustainable work pace, my work days involve a lot more communication and collaboration than before, and my weekends have become more relaxing. I’ve taken up new hobbies that I previously did not have time for, and though my work involves many challenges, I rarely feel stressed out.  

 
 

Scott Sasser, a team member at on-demand babysitting app Bambino, took a very circuitous route to get to Silicon Beach. After graduating college in Chicago, Sasser served in the Marines, eventually reaching the rank of captain, before leaving active duty and attending Pepperdine Law School. While practicing as a civil litigation attorney, Sasser was drawn to the startup world, and now serves as director of operations and legal affairs for Bambino. 

What was your background before you began working in tech?

Originally from the Chicago suburbs, I earned my undergraduate degree in finance from Illinois State University. Following graduation, I was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps and ultimately earned the rank of captain, representing the organization as a spokesperson and strategic communications specialist. During my time on active duty, I served in Japan, the Philippines, Thailand and Afghanistan, where I completed a combat deployment. Upon leaving active duty, I attended Pepperdine University School of Law and subsequently practiced as a civil litigation attorney. Now I serve as the Director of Operations and Legal Affairs for Bambino. 

What drew you to the world of technology?

I have always been passionate about technology and innovation. I was raised in a tech-savvy household and have a father who is an electrical engineer. Tinkering with electronics and computers has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. Though, as I went through college and into my professional career, rather than pursuing coding and development, I gravitated towards business and the law. Nonetheless, I never lost my interest in tech and sought a way in which I could use my business and legal skills to help drive innovation. Transitioning to the world of technology made the most sense to accomplish that goal.

What was the learning curve like?

Working at a startup means facing new complex challenges every day, which makes for a difficult learning curve at times. The upside of a startup is everyone facing some degree of a learning curve because we are trying to accomplish something innovative. When transitioning to a new career, the ability to adapt and succeed is largely based on how well you can apply the skills from previous experience to a new context. Some of my work at Bambino draws directly from my knowledge of intellectual property law, venture deals or the skills I learned through directing military operations. Conversely, other aspects of my job require me to learn a new topic of law or an entirely new aspect of business. Nevertheless, being able to rely on past experiences has eased my transition into the tech startup world.

What advice would you give to someone looking to begin a new career at a tech startup?

Startups require initiative — there is no way around that. A successful company is built by committed individuals who work as a team to accomplish whatever needs to be done. When looking to begin a new career at a tech startup, it is important to understand the amount of drive that is required.

When networking, do not just attempt to find a job, but instead, seek out ways in which you can help an emerging company. Startups rarely have enough resources so there are plenty of opportunities to establish your value as a resourceful team player. This will still allow you to grow your network and, in the process, you will be demonstrating your initiative to potential future employers.

How is your life different at Bambino than it would have been as a litigator?

There is certainly teamwork in a law firm, but not nearly to the level of cross-functional collaboration found in startups and tech. My work environment changed significantly as I moved from my own office at a law firm to sharing an office with the rest of my team at Bambino. This dynamic fosters a constant exchange of ideas and allows for rapid progress. Things move very quickly in the startup world.

When I came to Bambino, we did not have an app and now, just a few months later, we have a live product generating thousands of dollars in bookings. This rapid growth results in a career with constantly evolving requirements. While different, it is certainly an exciting environment. 

 

Daniel Kauffman had lived the startup life, wearing a number of hats for Studio City-based Bangstyle. During this time he taught himself user experience design, and immediately found himself drawn to this side of the job. Eventually, he decided to apply to General Assembly and has since moved on to a successful career in UX.

When did you decide that you wanted to change careers?

I spent a number of years in a startup doing everything from Content Management and Brand Strategy to Art Direction and design. I taught myself UX while I was trying to find ways to grow our audience and improve how they related to our existing features, as well as create useful and adaptable new ones. I became really fascinated with that world and tried to learn everything I could and apply it to my designs. I started to get this guttural feeling that I wanted to do this for a living, helping companies better connect with their users, and make interacting with businesses and technology a more pleasant experience for everyone. Eventually, I made the decision to leave my startup in pursuit of this, however, I still wanted to level-up my abilities. I wanted to fill any gaps in my knowledge from being self-taught and learn how to better execute the entire UX process, especially in areas where I had previously been restricted at the startup.

How did you settle on your career?

UX quickly became my favorite aspect of my job. I was most excited to go to work on the days where my entire focus was on fixing or creating something new on the website or the app. I really enjoyed thinking through potential solutions and trying to empathize with our users and create something that would help them. It wasn’t so much of a career change as it was a career focus.

What was it like explaining your career change in job interviews (post-graduation)?

I think my situation was a little unique, in that I had relevant previous experience in the digital and UX space before enrolling in GA, so my narrative is more of a linear progression than someone who may have completely switched fields. I always frame my decision to go to GA, and my experience there, as improving my process and providing me context in which to apply the various tools I have at my disposal.

What advice would you give to someone considering a move similar to the one you made?

Most importantly, I think it’s critical to evaluate yourself and the situation. It’s a tough call to leave the comfortability of the familiar for the unknown; I know I struggled with the idea of walking away from something I’d invested four years of life, sweat and creativity into. Making a big leap like this essentially comes down to a gamble on yourself, which can be scary. Do you believe in yourself enough and are you willing to put in the work? That being said, I think there is tremendous value in loving what you do and being passionate and motivated to accomplish your goals. If that’s you, then my advice is to go for it. Make the leap, don’t waste any more time. Fully invest, and I think you’ll be pleasantly rewarded on the other side.

How has your life changed since starting your new career?

My general happiness has increased exponentially. I look at where my life is now versus a year-and-a-half ago and I could not be in a better place. I love what I do, every day, and I’m around amazing people who inspire and mentor me. I’ve been able to work with some interesting companies and gain exposure into a variety of fields. One of the coolest things for me, though, has been the opportunity to continue working with two friends from my cohort. Two of my teams on projects this year have consisted of my immediate GA family, which has been a really empowering experience to continue to collaborate and grow together, pushing each other forward.

 

Eirini Schlosser, founder and CEO of Chuz, an app which helps users find exactly what they should be doing based on the situation, left a career as a successful investment banker in London to launch her app. 

When did you decide to leave the world of investment banking?

I found that my learning curve began to peak and the thought process involved in mergers and acquisitions become slightly repetitive. I had worked with companies from tech, consumer, oil & gas, industrial and healthcare sectors. Even still, the M&A process is a particular one. So after two years I craved a career step which would continue to challenge me with new problems to solve every day. As a tech entrepreneur, you're never short of daily challenges. 

What drew you to the world of technology?

I was drawn to technology initially while working on the Net-a-Porter / Yoox deal with Natalie Massanet's team. I will always vividly remember sitting in their boardroom and watching how many creative solutions her team was developing. I found myself looking from one side of the room to the other thinking 'who do I want to be in ten years? Natalie or my managing directors?' The answer was clearly Natalie and I knew my time in investment banking ready to end. 

What was the learning curve like?

The learning curve as a tech entrepreneur is beyond anything anyone can prepare you for. I am someone who enjoys unpredictability and having zero routine. However, I think the uncertainty of what might work and what will not work is incredible. You learn everything you need to learn to continue testing, tweaking, building and growing. For me this has included investor relations (for the 100's of different types of investor personalities), team management, team motivation, defining a vision, adapting a strategy, learning photoshop and design, learning to code or at least understand it, learning how to market and acquire users, among many other things. There's always a new challenge. Sometimes it feels like trying to throw gum at a wall and seeing what sticks. Other times I feel much more in control of outcomes. 

What advice would you give to someone looking to begin a new career at a tech startup?

Have multiple backup plans. Have as much money as possible saved up (think along the lines of $100K). Test and build the product as per your users' consensus. If something is not working quickly, pivot. Remember that an idea is rarely unique and execution is everything. Be ready to execute for years without ever feeling successful. This is not a lifestyle job. 

How is your life different at Chuz than it would have been as an investment banker in London or NYC?

I think the main difference is that in investment banking I was working 100 hours per week or more but my personal life was still separate and carved out. Now as a tech entrepreneur all the lines are blurred. My mind always feels like it is working to some capacity. There's a big difference between working on a deal that may be $10-20 billion for a client and working on a project that determines your future livelihood and is directly your baby. 

 

GA graduate Jackie Tanner worked as a respiratory therapist for almost eight years when she realized she needed a change. Now a UX designer at NBCUniversal, the career change couldn't have gone better.

When did you decide that you wanted to change careers?

I can actually pinpoint this to the exact moment during the summer of 2014. I had been working as a respiratory therapist for the better part of 8 years. I specialized in long-term convalescent care for patients who were either vegetative or had incurable conditions. It was a grind. I was waking up at 4am and working 12 plus hours a day at 3 different hospitals. That summer I found myself wondering if I really wanted to do this for the next 30 years and realized it was time for a change. Now or never. 

How did you settle on your career?

I decided that if I were to change careers I wanted to pick something I’m deeply interested in. That pretty much narrowed it down to puppies, pizza and technology. Being the pragmatist, technology seemed the most sensible. 

I actually went to an info session at General Assembly for the web development immersive program based on the assumption from my previous work with complex machines that it would best suit me. Learning more about the program led me to the user experience design and it felt totally right. It seemed like the perfect balance between social and analytical, which is totally me.

What was it like explaining your career change in job interviews (post-graduation)?

My background sounds so completely different from my new career in so many ways. So of course, there’s a lot of “why?” whenever I interview. In reality, there’s a surprising amount of crossover, especially when it comes to approach and analysis. It really took a lot of practice for me to learn, and not just to explain what I know but also explain it in a way that bridges the gap between the two roles.

What advice would you give to someone considering a move similar to the one you made?

Rip the Band-Aid off. Don’t wait for the “right moment.” You might be waiting for a day that never comes. When I first told people I was planning to change careers, a lot of people seemed to think it was impossible after all I’d gone through in my former role. But it’s not impossible. Changing careers is a challenge, but it’s not a hindrance. It’s actually an asset because your unique perspective is truly something no one else has. In fact, I’m proud of my history and I openly discuss my experiences with my bosses and team. I’ve found that they respect the path I’ve taken and the lengths that I’ve gone through to achieve my goals.

How has your life changed since starting your new career?

It’s completely different now. The lifestyle is totally different. I still wake up pretty early, but now it’s because I like to. I finally have weekends off, so I get to spend more time with friends and family. I have a 401K which I never had before and I just feel more secure about my future overall. My “interest” in UX has now become a fully-fledged passion. It feels good to waking up every day wanting to learn and do more instead of being stuck in a sort of Groundhog Day-esque loop. And now I’m in a position where I can help others like me and it’s just a great feeling.

 

Thomas Jones hails from a place called Big Stone Gap in Southern Virginia. He played in the NFL for 12 years (his younger brother, Julius, played eight years in the pros), and upon retiring, Jones started getting acting work and relocated to LA. In 2014, he helped create Castar, a social hiring app for creatives.

Did you always plan on starting a tech company when you finished playing football?

I have always been into technology. Unfortunately playing in the NFL for 12 years didn't leave me much time to actually invest as much time into creating and operating my own startup. When I retired I saw The Social Network for the first time and it sparked my interest in technology and that's how I ended up creating Castar Applications Inc.

How was the transition from "retirement" to tech?

The transition from football to technology was fairly easy to be honest. I was fortunate enough to meet my partners Joel Robinson and Sky Powell in the beginning stages of Castar and because they are 11 years younger than me, they had me on the go all the time. There was never a dull moment and we collectively stayed on the move, teaching each other the tricks of the trade. It was an incredible learning experience.

How have your technical skills evolved since founding the app?

My technical skills have really become second nature because of my app Castar. The work never ends. Whether I'm thinking of possible updates, talking to our developers about a functionality issue or staying on top of the competition there is always something important to be doing. Always.

What advice would you give non-technical employees looking to work in Silicon Beach?

I would advise non-technical employees to really understand what they are getting themselves into. Sometimes the glitz and glamor of a billion dollar acquisition or the rise of an app can mask the truth about this tech space. There is a lot of day-to-day work and maintenance that has to be done in order for your startup to be successful. Be ready to compete if you plan on being here. Otherwise, you're wasting your time and money.

What's your tech career like vs. your football career?

Tech and football are a lot alike, actually. They are both very prestigious industries to work in and they both require dedication and hard work to be successful. I prefer tech because it's safer and if you play your cards right, you could make an NFL salary look like chump change.

I loved playing in the NFL and I'm very proud of my accomplishments, but being in technology and creating my own startup is something that people wouldn't expect me to do. And that is my motivation in life. Doing the unexpected!

Some responses were edited for length and clarity. Images via participating companies.

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