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Zebra Chat: Non-traditional pathways to tech

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Are you curious about a career in tech but don’t think you have the educational background or experience to land a job in the field?

At The Zebra, we recognize that not all paths to tech are linear. We value the winding roads that lead people to our company and believe that our product, customers and teams benefit from varying perspectives. Allowing space to share these perspectives and stories is a crucial part of practicing ‘candor’ — one of our company's core values.

As part of Engineering Week 2022, our Engineering department put together a panel of Zeebs to share their non-traditional path to tech, the challenges they face and advice for those just beginning their journey. Here are their stories.

A musician’s path to engineering

Stephanie Engel, Lead SDET

I was a public school teacher, taught music lessons and volunteered with an orchestra. Even though it’s rewarding to teach others and to be able to share my expertise, I was feeling a bit run down from the output and not getting paid accordingly. Living on sheer motivation just wasn’t enough. Once I had that revelation, I started to evaluate what industries would make sense for my skillset and support the kind of life I wanted to live. That’s when I began to pursue a career in tech.

I asked myself, what is the most direct way I can get into software engineering? I really didn’t want to go back to school for a long time. My path to tech started by signing up for classes at Austin Community College. I was surprised to learn that many of my classmates were already working in the industry. I saw this as an opportunity to network and learn from their experiences. In speaking with my classmates, I received a valuable lesson: a job at a startup is an ideal environment for starting in tech. A startup gives you the opportunity for hands-on learning because the assumption is that you’ll wear lots of hats. There are also fewer barriers between departments, enabling you to figure out exactly where and how you want to grow.

Through my courses and conversations, I learned that almost anything is possible in tech! For many other industries and systems, you're sold on a particular way of doing things; take it or leave it. In tech, you realize that you can create new tools or utilize someone else’s tool for your problem (ideally with an open-source solution). My biggest mental hurdle to overcome was not to limit myself. If you are blocked by something, a solution is just a Google search away.

My advice in pursuing a career in tech is to stay curious, make connections, fail forward and get your hands dirty.

An aspiring biologist finally finds their niche

Justin Kelly, Infrastructure Manager

Non-traditional pathways Tech photo

I’m from Ireland and majored in microbiology, zoology and genetics. There weren’t many opportunities in Ireland when I graduated, which forced many of my friends and colleagues to immigrate. Instead, I continued to study and ended up with a post-graduate business degree, but I still didn’t find a position I felt passionate about. I took some time off to figure out what I wanted to do with my career.

It was during this period of career exploration that I found a one-year, intensive IT course that piqued my interest. The course offered two areas of focus: networking or web development. This was the late 90s (dot-com boom), so I knew that web development was where it was at. I did the year-long course and got hired straight away at Oracle. That’s how I got into tech. The funny thing is, when I look back at my decision to focus on web development, I (ironically) was hired at Oracle on their networking team.

My advice for those with non-traditional backgrounds pursuing a career in tech would be to not be afraid of failure. That’s how we operate at The Zebra. If we fail, we move on. So if you’re excited about a subject, go for it! And if it doesn’t work out, keep moving until you find the right fit.


An environmental scientist explores new avenues in DevOps

Christina DeStefano, DevOps Engineer

I studied environmental science with a focus on geology in college. I moved to Texas on a whim and lived in a hostel for three weeks. Eventually, I got a job working at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. My responsibility was to import samples from all water systems in Texas, but that only accounted for ten days out of the month. So, I had this huge gap of time where I could work on myself and my goals. During that downtime, I started teaching myself SQL.

From there, I started working in IT and moved on to tech support for a smaller company that also imported water samples, which was a great way to bridge my prior work experience and new tech skills. In this position, I was lucky enough to find a mentor. They were able to see my interest in queries and fulfilling tickets, which led me to a database admin role. However, I soon found out that role really wasn’t for me! So, my mentor continued to help me find my path. I learned about networking IT and landed an early-phase DevOps role where I was able to grow my skill set to include software like Ansible and Jenkins.

One of the most significant learning curves I had in my pathway to tech was embracing imposter syndrome and recognizing it as a challenge to expand my knowledge base. It's pretty empowering to say, I don't know, but I can figure it out. My advice to those looking for pathways to tech would be to embrace their curiosity. Tech is continually evolving, and there's always something to learn. I come from DevOps, so I don't have a lot of coding or programming experience. I recognize that taking a course, learning Python or JavaScript will move me further along in my career. It’s exciting to know that my career is only limited by what I want to learn.

Building a new career in a new country

Harold Zavarce, Engineering Manager - Integrations

I was an entrepreneur in Venezuela for 15 years. When I moved to the U.S., I had to start over and try to find a path here. Tech was always something I've been interested in, and I saw the move to America as an opportunity to dive into new technologies. I was very passionate about it, which drove me to take online courses and dig deeper. We Venezuelans tend to be very scrappy, so I started with freeCodeCamp, which is an excellent resource for those looking to learn the basics. I then moved over to Codecademy and Udemy, both affordable paid resources. It was important for me to be a part of an industry that’s growing, where I have the freedom to forge a new path in this new stage of my life.

My path wasn’t without its challenges, but the key is to have a growth mindset and a humble approach to learning. I have learned something from every person I interacted with on this journey. My coding skills are still pretty basic, but I’ll never stop learning. I’m currently studying object-oriented programming and Python — one of our primary languages here at The Zebra. I also took up some JavaScript. I’m not great yet (it’s challenging when you come from a non-English background), but I’m still working on it. The language barrier combined with my technical ability has been one of the biggest challenges. That said, having a supportive team makes these relatively large hurdles feel small in scale.

My advice for those considering a career in tech is to ask questions. It’s the best way to start learning about the industry. At my previous company, I asked a lot of questions of the database administrator who eventually became a mentor for me. I ultimately landed a technical integration role at The Zebra, which allowed me to work with a great group of people and advance my career. Finding someone to help navigate this industry is beneficial. If you’re curious and embrace a trial and error mentality, you’ll find someone to share their role and expertise. This is especially true at The Zebra. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

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