How to break out of the assistant rut and into an awesome job in tech
Bored and bitter at work? Tired of being stuck in an admin role, watching everyone else get a pay raise, while you are busy scheduling meetings? Heard that the Internet is going to be big, but unsure how you can get in on the action?
That’s how Paola Maldonado felt back in 2012, before she jumpstarted her new career as an iOS developer. Paola had landed an admin position right out of college, thinking the job could pay her rent while she figured out what she could with her English degree. Six years later she was still in the same position, with the same title and virtually the same salary. The 32 year old, now an intern on the mobile engineering team at New York City startup Viggle, said she felt like her career was “going nowhere.”
Sound familiar? Paola’s story is all too common, especially among women. So what is a hard-working lady to do?
First, know that you are not alone. Assistant is still one of the most common job titles for women in America, just as it was in 1950. And although administrative jobs are incredibly important, it’s never fun to find yourself stuck in a position you thought was just going to be a stepping stone.
One of the best ways to break free of the administrative rut is to set your sights on working in technology. With fast growth, less hierarchy, and diverse opportunities, technology companies – and teams – are a fantastic option. Luckily, there are lots of women out there who have broken free of support roles and now work as designers, developers, and social media strategists at all manner of tech companies.
And today, these trailblazing ladies are sharing with you the steps they took to get there.
How to go from administrative assistant to full-fledged techie
1. Got a germ of an idea? Just start working on it. Seriously, start today.
For many of the women who successfully made the transition from assistant to full-time techie, their interest in tech started as a side project.
“I started a blog as a hobby, because I’ve always enjoyed writing,” says Paola. “It helped to distract me from my work dissatisfaction and along the way, I realized how much I enjoyed changing the layout and adding widgets.” So she decided to sign up for a Skillcrush class on HTML and CSS and was off the races.
Meighan O’Toole, an independent social media strategist in Boston, had a similar experience: “I started an art blog in 2007 and it became one of the most popular art blogs in 2010.” Without her knowing it, Yahoo had started following her on Twitter and then offered her a job on their social media team. Up until then, Meighan, who went on to work for Wikia and Wired Magazine , said, she “had no idea people actually got paid to do social media!”
2. Look for an admin position at a tech company
A great way to begin is just by putting yourself in the environment you want to end up in, even if you have to stay as an administrative assistant a little bit longer to get there.
This was just what Melanie Archer did, now a freelance web developer based in Oakland. “At the end of my first week there I felt like I’d been blindfolded and parachuted out of a plane into a remote mountain valley,” but every moment, says Melanie, was a chance to get educated in “the lingo and the mores of tech industry.”
“One of my first responsibilities when I started my old administrative assistant job was to take minutes at all the team meetings,” says Emily Davis, formerly a web developer at the Broad Institute at MIT. “As soon as I got back to my desk after a meeting, I googled all the foreign tech terms I heard. What’s a web server? Ubuntu? What’s this Git thing they mentioned? I learned a LOT in those first few months.”
Once you can speak the tech lingo, you are instantly a more valuable candidate for a job with more responsibility, whether at your tech company or at another organization.
3. Tell everyone that you want to learn & look for community groups who can support you
Tell everyone at work that you want to learn about tech. Seriously, everyone. You’re bound to come across more than one person that is willing to mentor you. “Even if all they do is give you a tour of the server room or tell you some good books to read, you’re getting valuable information from a knowledgeable source,” confirms Emily. “And if they helped you once, it’s pretty likely that they’ll continue to help you if you keep bugging them.”
Lillie Chilen, a web developer based in San Francisco, says that for her, a key step was finding local community groups to support her learning to code process. “It’s so much easier to learn when you have someone who can answer your questions and help you grow as a developer.” So join any group that will connect “you with other people who are passionate about coding will help tremendously, first as technical resources and later are connections when you’re ready to apply for jobs!”
Look for local groups on Meetup or join an online community like Stack Overflow or Skillcrush.
4. Offer to take over boring tasks, in exchange for lessons
If you feel like you are doing boring tasks anyways, best to learn something!
“Every technical workplace has repeating, small, annoying tasks that the engineering team is usually all too happy to pass of to someone else.” Melanie found that the developer at her job were glad to teach her how to do small content updates, database queries, or QA tasks if it meant less work for them.
5. Look for interim steps
Remember, nothing of value (including your career) is built in a day. All of the women we spoke to made the transition in a series of steps. Making the jump straight from assistant to developer can be too big of a leap, but break into smaller steps, and you will be amazed at how fast you get there.
Paola started with her blog, then took online classes, and then enrolled in a full-time developer bootcamp. Lillie says that the breakthrough came for her when she took a job in tech support, “eight months after that (and largely due to my coding hobby), I got promoted to Sales Engineer.”
Have you transitioned from an assistant into another role? What steps did you take to get to where you are now? Tell us your story in the comments!