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You don't need a STEM degree to be an engineer

March 7, 2022
5 mins
Heather Whyte
Backend Engineer

For some people, the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is an easy one. I have a friend who knew she wanted to be a neonatal nurse when she was just 9-years-old. And she's been successfully caring for premature babies for the last decade! 

For the rest of us, it’s not always that simple. Expectations from friends, family, and even society, play a big part in how we see our careers playing out. That was definitely the case for me. Even though I was a top student in Maths and Physics, Computer Science wasn’t even on my radar when applying to universities. Instead, I did a degree in Business because it was a better fit for my “people skills”. A few years later, I happily left that behind to become a software engineer. All before I turned 30!

And I’m not alone. A study by PwC found that only 3% of young women said tech was their first choice for a career, and only 27% had considered it at all, compared to 62% for men!

This can be true even for women who’ve always had an interest in computers, like Ella Taylor, the first woman to join Marshmallow’s engineering team. When she was younger, she “really enjoyed the eureka moment you get from learning how to use a new technology or figuring out why something isn’t working”. But, even though she was already dabbling in HTML as a teenager to customise her MySpace page, Ella told me “it never really occurred to me that this was something I could do as a career.” 

Thankfully, you don’t have to stick with the decisions you made when you were 18. “Career switchers”, as we’re often called, is a growing trend in the tech industry with more people, and especially women, taking the leap to switch their career every year. 

Leap of faith

I spoke to Marshmallow engineering manager Elizabeth Wicks who previously worked in HR and recruitment to find out her thoughts on career switching. She said “I’d thought about becoming a software developer before but assumed without a degree it was too late”. Nowadays, with bootcamps, conversion Masters, and infinite online resources, there are lots of options out there. 

If moving into tech is something you’re interested in, Elizabeth suggests trying to reach out and speak to people already in the industry. “It’s really useful to hear about different companies and the different roles you could do.” There’s such a variety of roles and opportunities. Maybe you’re a numbers nerd who would be a brilliant fit in a data team, or maybe you want to build something direct for users like mobile apps.

As much as there are huge career opportunities in tech nowadays, it’s normal to be nervous about making a drastic change. It can be stressful worrying about whether you’ll get a job, whether or not you’ll enjoy it if you do, and of course the financial strain of switching careers. Something Ella has experience of: “It’s not just the cost of a bootcamp, but also the cost of living while studying full-time. It helped me to remember that learning to code would be an important skill to develop anyway. And that, even if I didn’t end up in engineering at the end of it, I would still have this useful skill which wouldn’t detract from my existing ones.”

While upskilling is obviously important, you don’t need to wait until you feel perfectly trained for the task ahead either. Jo Dufour, a former Business Analyst and current Marshmallow Software Engineer, adds that “my perception of what I actually needed to know to get my first job as a developer versus what I thought I needed to know was so skewed.” 

“It turns out that, even after years of working as a developer, I still don't know everything I thought I should when I was first starting out. If I hadn't been so concerned about learning absolutely everything right away, I would have had the confidence to make the switch a whole two years (and a Masters degree) earlier!”

Switching careers earlier, even without the full skillset, can definitely be worth the risk. 92% of new tech workers reported they were happier with their jobs since making a career change. I can attest to this, and it’s especially true if you can find a company that doesn’t just accept your non-traditional path, but embraces it. 

Striving & thriving

Almost every career switcher I’ve talked to faced imposter syndrome at some point at work because they didn’t have a Computer Science degree. “If I was struggling to figure out a solution, I worried that meant I wasn’t cut out for this, when in reality that’s just what it’s like to learn something new,” Ella admitted. Engineering is all about constantly learning, Jo emphasises, “so make sure not to self-select yourself out of an opportunity out of fear of not knowing enough yet.” 

What is important to remember and highlight is all the ways your previous experience can make you stronger and more unique as a contributor. Elizabeth had developed valuable skills around managing stakeholders, project delivery, and interviewing that she probably wouldn’t have been exposed to until much later in her engineering career. Personally, my financial knowledge has paid off time and again, from working on mortgage investment platforms to being the only one to have actually used an accounting ledger before we built one!

Your life before tech shouldn’t just be an afterthought, both when applying for jobs but also once you’ve landed one. It’s important to find a company that recognises all the skills you can bring to the table, and supports you to build on your talents even further.

I think it’s fantastic that at Marshmallow, we don’t just hire career switchers, we also help them flourish in their careers. Ella originally joined as a Graduate Engineer, but had her first promotion in only four months! She thinks her rapid success was helped by the skills she learnt in her previous career, including communicating challenges effectively and structuring her workload. She also thinks it’s because of the environment at Marshmallow. “I’ve been able to learn so much and have been challenged on a regular basis without feeling like I’m completely out of my depth,” said Ella. “I love that no two days feel the same here and each week I feel like I’ve learnt something new, which helps me grow as an engineer.” 

Career switching into tech can be challenging, but it can also be incredibly rewarding, too. I wanted to be an engineer because I wanted to build things and constantly be learning, and now I get to do that every day. And luckily, at Marshmallow I’m allowed to grow and develop my technical skills while knowing that my previous experience is valued as part of who I am. Plus, I’m not alone - I get to work with other amazing women in engineering who’ve had all sorts of different career experiences too. 

P.S. We’re hiring! Whether you’re a fellow career switcher, or just want to work with awesome people like Elizabeth, Ella, and Jo, check out our open roles here 😊

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