How to Move from a Non-technical Role into Engineering

Regan Starr
Regan Starr / June 1, 2017

You don't have to start out as a developer—I didn't. You can start out in any career, and then work your way into an engineering position. Depending on your company structure, you might have your work cut out for you. I was fortunate that Zapier's management was deeply encouraging when I expressed interest in moving from our Support team to our Platform team. Here are some strategies you can use to move from your current non-technical role into an engineering role.

7 Tips for Making the Switch to an Engineering or Developer Role

1. Be Patient and Consistent

This is an unstoppable combo, which is why I’ve listed it first. Making the jump to an engineering role can take months or years.

A small part of me wanted to be on Zapier’s Platform team three years ago. I would casually check Zapier’s Jobs page every few months to see if there was a Platform role open that didn’t require a ton of senior engineering experience. When I finally got serious about joining Zapier, it took me 78 days to get hired for the Support team and then 8 more months to move to the Platform team. Settle in for the long haul and commit to doing a little bit each day to move towards your goal. Even before joining Zapier, I thought of myself as an unofficial employee and started a tutorial site where I answered questions that Zapier customers were asking on Twitter. After 156 total hours of this free work, I had a signed contract with Zapier for a Support job.

2. Get Your Foot in the Door

If there is a dream company where you want to work as an engineer, think about applying for any role where you can currently do a good job and where the company has an opening. This is particularly important if your technical skills are still a bit underdeveloped. By joining your dream company now, you’ll get a ton of great insider information to help inform which technical skills you should improve. The lessons I learned by first joining Zapier’s Support team were invaluable and helped me get an engineering job much faster. Keep in mind that not all departments lend themselves as easily to making a move to engineering. Finance, for example, is usually much less hands-on with the product that the engineering team is working on.

3. Become a Top Performer in Your Non-technical Role First

It can be tough to try and do one job when your heart is really set on doing another. But, you’re going to have a much easier time convincing people to let you take on more technical responsibilities if you are already “crushing it” in your current role. I always tried to be near the top in terms of how many email replies I was sending per week and also made sure my customer satisfaction rating was high.

4. Find opportunities to start helping with bite-size engineering tasks

About 3 months after I started at Zapier, the Platform team made an internal company announcement about a new weekly initiative they were trying called “App Day.” Every Wednesday, they would work on building out the most popular feature requests for the top apps on Zapier. The Platform team also said that anyone who was interested could participate in App Day. I jumped at this opportunity and started participating each week. Eventually, I became one of the top contributors for App Day. Even if you don’t get this type of formal invite, you’ll want to always be on the lookout for small, easy ways to help your future engineering department. This could be some extra QA testing, code review, or perhaps typo fixes.

5. Document Things Along the Way

As you get involved with new tasks, you’ll be in a unique position to view certain processes with fresh eyes. It’s good to take advantage of your “first timer” status to help improve any documentation of these tasks. It’s hard for veterans to put themselves in the shoes of a beginner, so take this opportunity to give quality feedback about anything you find difficult or unintuitive. I would regularly tweak intercompany articles that were out of date. I would also log every little bug or UX issue I came across in our internal tracking tools.

6. Default to Action

Talk is cheap—and actions speak louder than words. When you decide you want to switch to an engineering role, you might be tempted to tell your boss right away of your intentions. However, it’s best to have this conversation after you’ve started doing some extra tasks that are related to the kind of work you’d like to do in the future. In other words, roll up your sleeves and start picking up technical responsibilities on the side. That way, when you do have that conversation with your boss, it will have a tone of, “Here are some ways that I’ve already started helping,” instead of a tone of, “This is what I want. Can you facilitate it for me?”

7. Make the Official Request, Then Get Back to Work

Once you have let your interests be known to your boss (and perhaps your future engineering boss), play it cool and don’t bring it up very much. Instead, keep finding ways to help out in your future department. Even though the management team at Zapier was enthusiastic about me making the switch, it still took about 6 months for me to prove my skills and slowly transition away from my support duties. During that time, I tried not to bother them too much about it. I just kept on letting my “extra curricular” technical contributions speak for themselves.

After You’ve Moved to an Engineering Role

Now you’ve made it to your new role. Congrats! This may have been a year or more in the making. But there’s still work to be done…

Be Humble, but Not Too Self-deprecating

When I went to my first Zapier retreat, I was very intimidated by how smart all the Zapier engineers seemed. It was super humbling to see how “junior” I was compared to them. Unfortunately, this caused me to make a lot of self-deprecating comments about my own abilities. Looking back, this wasn’t a good way to handle feeling like an imposter.

I now try to have a more realistic view. While I might not be a top engineer, I can steadily push myself to keep building on the basic (and valuable) skills that I do have.

Seek Out Projects that are Slightly Outside of Your Technical Ability

It might be tempting to find some engineering tasks that you are comfortable with and stick with those for awhile. I know I did. However, once you feel that you’re not learning very much, it’s time to seek out something a little more challenging. You don’t want to completely overwhelm yourself by taking on a project you can’t handle. That said, if there’s an opportunity that feels slightly outside of your comfort zone and abilities, go for it!

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions

I still struggle with this one. The reason is, when I ask questions, it feels like I am showing just how much of a beginner I really am. When I mention this fear to my teammates, they shake their heads and strongly reemphasize how important it is to ask for help when I need it. So now, whenever I get stuck, I’ll spend some time trying to figure it out myself. But if I keep spinning my wheels, I’ll drop a question into our team chatroom. And if you’re worried about broadcasting your struggles to the whole team like that, you can always ask questions privately to a teammate who can act as a mentor while you continue getting up to speed.

I feel extremely blessed to work at Zapier, let alone call myself a software engineer here. I still remember the moment when I was driving and thought to myself, “Maybe one day I’ll move from Zapier’s Support team to their Platform team.” At the time, it felt very much like a big, far-off dream. But by consistently doing a little bit of work every day, it still amazes me how quickly that abstract wish became a reality. And now, I hope you can take the ideas presented here and also make the leap to a career in engineering. Good luck!

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