How I Transitioned into the Private Sector and Became a Technical RecruiterStories from the Trenches

An exposed brick office as is typically occupied by startups in San Francisco and Brooklyn. This image depicts an empty conference room with a table and chairs prior to a meeting

I currently work in tech and actually switched to it when I made my big career jump at 26, but I am also a woman, so you might find my advice helpful.

First, some context:

I graduated from college in 2008 with a BS in Economics — I was recruited straight out of undergrad by SAIC, one of the largest contractors for the federal government. I worked for ~2 years as a quantitative analyst, working on natural gas commodities analysis, environmental impact statements, FERC liaison, etc. My clients included the Pentagon, Dept of Energy, EPA, and similar agencies. I performed many of the same job functions as a financial analyst, with a smattering of technical writing, as I co-authored many reports.

I hated that job. I hated crunching numbers using Excel and SAS, I hated the tedium, bureaucracy, and general lack of responsiveness of the government. Despite all this, when the Pentagon recruited me out of SAIC to become an analyst as a direct federal employee, I took the job, mostly out of a sense of obligation and because I thought job security was what I wanted.

I was very wrong. I stayed in that position for a less than a year before quitting to go to law school with the intent to focus on environmental law — I thought I wanted to focus more on policy initiatives and get away from number crunching. I did a semester at a Tier 1 law school before dropping out because I could not stand the people in my classes. Lots of emphasis on pedigree, which sorority or fraternity you belonged to, what your parents do, etc. I got good grades (mostly because I had no friends), but I hated it and resolved not to return for spring semester. To this day, it really bothers me that some of those people are lawyers now.

Then I hit sort of a wall. I knew I wanted to focus more on policy, but law school was not for me. When I returned to DC, I was again recruited by the federal government — this time the State Department — to co-author a paper on economic development initiatives focusing on labor policies as an outside consultant. I was involved with a lot of economic development projects in foreign countries when I was in undergrad, so I thought this project would help me “return to my roots” and be happier. Again, I was left frustrated by the bureaucracy and slowness of the federal government — the white paper I co-authored also involved a lot more number crunching than I was initially lead to believe.

When I finished that project in June 2012, I was at a crossroads. I turned down subsequent recruiting requests to work on other papers in DC, and instead headed for Boston, where a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend from high school had asked me to help write his tech startup’s product demo and manage social media content strategy. It seemed like an exciting opportunity and completely different from what I was currently doing, so I took it, thinking “Why not?”

Fair warning: I got extremely lucky by having someone recruit me, thus eliminating the exhaustive, time-consuming search that usually comes with a career/industry switch. Before launching your search, I encourage you to take a good, hard look at your skill set and figure out which of your strengths translate well to other roles or industries. In my case, I’m really good at translating highly technical information to layman’s terms, and that strength has always worked to my advantage in tech.

Another warning: I also took a MASSIVE pay cut when I made the switch, of more than 50% — and that was with the startup covering my relocation expenses and giving me a nice sign on bonus. You have to remember that in order to make a switch to a different field, you have to get in on the ground level, often times taking an entry-level (or close to it) role so that you can learn the ropes of your new industry. All of that seniority and experience you’ve built up for the past few years in your current role becomes moot, and I remember it being a pretty big blow to my ego. That blow translates not only to your pay, but to how your co-workers perceive you. I went from strutting my stuff as a budding analyst at the Pentagon to a cramped startup incubator outside Boston, where the recent grads out of MIT would tease me for mispronouncing programming languages (I recall calling C# “C-pound sign” one time and one time only). Basically, make sure you have built up your savings and check your ego at the door before switching.

I worked for a couple different startups writing product demos before I decided I wanted to get into tech recruiting. Frankly, I wasn’t making enough money copywriting (though I loved it) and wanted a role where I had more earning potential. I tried my hand at sales but was terrible, so I went into recruiting. I had to work for an agency for ~8 months because no tech company would hire me as a recruiter without agency experience, but a couple months ago I got recruited by a household name in tech, so it was worth it in the end. I’m now making much more money than I ever thought possible (more than I was making a federal employee), making that 50% pay cut I took two years ago very worthwhile.

So now my actual advice to people looking to transition careers:
Beyond preparing yourself for an exhausting search job and building up your savings, first figure out WHY you hate your job. For me, it was the tedium and bureaucracy of the government that made me leave — I discovered that I am a very impatient person. I want results and I want them now, and the tech industry caters to that personality trait well. Figure out why you hate your job, and then look for industries or roles that cater to those personality traits.

Second piece of advice, and though I’ve already touched on it, I can’t emphasize it enough: be really honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses figure out which roles/industries those strengths translate to best. This not only makes you a better candidate overall, but it ensures you’ll be happier and satisfied with your work in the long-run.

Final piece of advice: network aggressively, and leverage that network to develop a clear sense of direction (meaning, choose an industry you want to switch to and stick to it).

Most HR personnel are not going to give you the time of day if you just apply to jobs online — as a corporate recruiter, I can assure you that I see many, many applicants with little relevant experience trying to break into tech. Even if they write an amazing cover letter and articulate well how their current experience translates, they always get beat out by someone with more relevant experience.

I would first go on as many informational interviews as possible to narrow down which industry you want to get into. Once you figure that out, concentrate your networking efforts in that industry — go to meetups, message people on LinkedIn who you think have the type of career you want and take them to coffee/lunch, and set up job alerts for positions you think you want so you can target your application efforts.

The writer graduated with a degree in Economics and, after working in government, recruited into a major technology company in an HR role. This post talks about how she navigated her career transition. This article originally appeared as a reply to a post on reddit, and has been posted here with the author’s permission.

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Tapwage occasionally gets authors to write candidly about their career transitions, and experiences at specific companies. In this case, the author has chosen to remain anonymous.