A big challenge facing a career changer is how to get a hiring manager to take a chance on you.
Let’s assume that you have already taken steps to become eligible for your new career, such as getting trained or certified. Now it’s about telling your story in such a way that the hiring manager is willing to talk with you.
(Note: Part 1 of this series has some tips on how to become eligible, in case you’re still at that stage of things.)
Much like a formulaic network sitcom, the traditional career path candidate’s story is quite predictable. Candidate goes to college, gets a degree, participates in some relevant extra-curricular activities, starts hunting for that first job. Hiring managers are used to reading that story. They may not know all the plot twists and jokes, but they know exactly where those things will be at in the script and can see them coming a mile away.
Each career changer’s story is unique. When you think of Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime, you think of shows in which nothing seems familiar. And that makes it hard to anticipate what’s going to happen—not to mention whether or not it will be worth an hour or your life.
In the same way, hiring managers look at the career changer’s resume and find it strange. Does the candidate have enough education and training to do the job? Have the acquired enough hands-on experience? Are they going to settle for an entry-level salary when they are clearly twenty years into their career? Is this a passing fancy or are they committed to making the career change? Etc. Etc.
Your job is to anticipate the questions and answer them—but to control the narrative so that you make a favorable impression. Which is what I call telling your story.
The first thing to realize is that you want to make your resume look more like an entry-level person’s resume and less like a grizzled veteran’s resume.
I recommend the following resume elements in this order:
(2) Introductory paragraph in which you explain that you are changing careers.
(3) Section in which you describe how you have become eligible for the new career. This will include education, training, certification programs, etc.
(4) Section in which you describe the work you have done to apprentice for the new career. This will include academic projects, personal projects, open source projects, volunteering, etc.
(5) For programmer types, your skill list (programming languages, platforms, libraries, etc.)
(6) Only now do you provide your employment history. Because your employment history is only minimally relevant, you want to keep it brief.
(7) If you have non-relevant degrees, training or certification, that comes next. Don’t go on and on about non-relevant stuff. University degrees and any particularly impressive certification should be listed, but not much more.
Remember that your resume shouldn’t be overly long. Probably two pages should suffice. But on LinkedIn and other places where you can set up a profile, you can be very chatty. No one will fault you for a lot of detail on your LinkedIn profile!
Here are some sample intro paragraphs to give you some ideas about how to tee up your career change:
Example 1: I found my passion somewhat later in life than many. After a career spanning twenty years as a car salesman, an online class in Web development that I took just so that I would know what all the fuss was about was a revelation. I went from one class to another to another—I couldn’t get enough of them. Finally I decided to retire from car sales and complete an intensive coding bootcamp. I am now ready for my first job as a Web developer. I fully expect to start out at the same salary as a twenty-something year old. Lucky for me I have two decades of savings put aside, which enables me to follow my dream.
Example 2: Some people are lucky enough to know what they want to be when they grow up at an early age. I wasn’t one of them. I started college with a general idea that I love to solve problems, that I love science and technology, and that I love to work. While I did enjoy my college classes in environmental engineering, it wasn’t until I took a programming course that I realized where my passion lies. So I enrolled and excelled in an intensive bootcamp and am now ready for my first job as a programmer.
Example 3: After completing my bachelor’s degree in business, I enjoyed working as a product planner for several major retail chains. When I left the profession to raise my children, I thought that my departure was only temporary. But life throws some funny curves at you. Some of my volunteer activities required someone with database expertise. When no one else stepped up, I decided to get trained and take on the work. Turns out that I love it. Not only do I love designing databases, but I also love mining them as a data analyst, something that allows me to flex my math muscles. I attained a certification as a SAS Data Analyst. Now that my children are old enough, I am ready to find my first professional job in the field.
Notice that these introductory paragraphs are much longer than what you typically expect at the top of the resume. While I agree you want to be as concise as you can, I do think that you need to tell your story well. Otherwise the rest of the resume is lacking context.
Unlike people with a professional work history in the field, you have nothing to talk about other than your training, your personal projects, and your volunteerism. I don’t think that you need to include everything, but you should definitely list out everything that is major or impressive. This is what you have to brag about—so brag!
When it comes to training and certification, don’t assume that the hiring manager will know what is involved. You can elaborate on the main courses or subjects that were studied, on exams you passed, etc.
Sometimes people skimp on the details on their projects. I think that’s a mistake. Hiring managers are keenly interested in what you actually did. They want to understand how complex your projects have been. They want to get insight into how broad and how deep your experience with your tools has been.
And you should definitely make sure that your work is someplace accessible. You can set up your own Web site, for example, with your designs. You can get a GitHub repository and put your projects there. I would not publish the first projects that you did if they are very simple (or unpolished or buggy). Whatever you do publish, make sure that it runs and that it well represents your skills.
Sometimes there is something about your story that could be seen as a negative.
For example, maybe you jumped around from job to job and career to career. Some hiring managers will take that as a sign that you can’t commit or are flighty or difficult to get along with. If that is not the case, you need to get out ahead of it.
For instance, you could list just the last job or two and then write “Prior work history available upon request. It is not relevant to my new career.”
Or you could work out the common denominator between everything you have done, such as, “I have always loved helping people. As a teacher and as a translator, I was able to satisfy that desire. But neither of those professions gave me the intellectual stimulation and problem solving challenges I was looking for. Software development combines all of my interests in one career.”
Another example of something that might be seen as a negative is the fact that you are an older person who is coming into an entry level job. Your boss is probably going to be 15 or 20 years younger than you. How will you address that? Again, you want to get out in front of that by saying something like, “Although I have been in a leadership role in the past, I am enjoying what I do as a programmer just as much if not more. Maybe I will aspire to a lead role at some point in the future, but for now I am contented to work as a team member, learn everything I can and contribute more and more each day.”
You’ll work your resume and profiles over more than once, I’m sure, before you start to get really good nibbles from recruiters and hiring managers. Don’t be afraid to try something, get it posted and circulated, and then revise it and try again.
Ultimately, you will know when you are telling your story well because you will start to get interviews!
Read Part 3 of this series.
UPDATE: We are now hosting free webinars that cover career changing in the tech industry, as well as resume building and interview prep. Check out our events calendar.