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Understanding the Power of Pivot Skills While Hiring

A 6 minute read from Ben Greenberg

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There are many reasons why someone transitions into a new career: new challenges, opportunities to explore a passion they’ve had for a long time, overall readiness for a change in their life, and a chance to be part of a career that constantly pushes you to learn new things. All these reasons hold true for those who make the career switch to technology with the addition of a profoundly important one - people in tech earn a lot of money.

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, people in technology earn on average 3x more than anyone else in the country. It is common to understate the importance of this earning potential for why people switch careers, but let’s not fall into that trap. The ability to earn 3x more income, on average, can mean the ability to save for retirement and build financial security. It has the potential to be life-transforming.

Yet, switching to tech is not easy. First of all, it is a job built on a foundation of skill and that skill can take time to learn and grow. Second, the industry is full of people who followed the traditional path to their job. They grew up hacking on computers as kids, majored in computer science in university, and held important internships whilst in college. The career switcher is often seen as an anomaly.

I am here to tell you that the folks who took the courageous step to switch their careers and boldly step into a new field are not a liability to a company or less than the colleague who followed the traditional path. In fact, the one who transitioned possesses a superpower–pivot skills. A pivot skill is incalculably hard to estimate its value as it adds an exponential amount of depth and experience to any new hire.

At this point, you may be wondering: What are pivot skills?

A pivot skill is a competency gained in a previous career that is transferable to a current profession.

Pivot skills can include project management, public speaking, sales, contract negotiations, customer relations, content writing, video editing, and a nearly-limitless list of other possibilities. These skills are often seen as a liability by both the career switcher and the hiring manager. After all, if the role is for a Python Junior Developer, what relevance does customer relations have to that work?

The opposite is true. Pivot skills enhance the ability of a newcomer into tech to meaningfully contribute to their work, to their team, and to the organization. Let’s take a look at an example of how this would apply.

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Meet Sophie. They are a 32-year-old career switcher into software development after working for 8 years in a technical support role. Sophie recently finished an intensive months-long coding program and is looking for their first junior developer role.

You receive Sophie’s CV from the internal recruiter along with 10 other possible candidates to interview (in the interest of time we will have to skip a discussion on all the hurdles Sophie needs to face just to get their CV in front of a hiring manager). How do you view Sophie’s experience? How do they rank when put side-by-side with the other candidates who recently graduated from university?

You may be tempted as a hiring manager to put Sophie on the “B list” of candidates you’ll reach out to if no one else from your “A list” works out. But, let’s take a moment and think about Sophie’s previous experience.

They possess limited technical skills at this point. They just graduated from a coding school as we previously mentioned. But, they have 8 years of working in technical support. What does that mean? It means they can do some brilliant things. They can hear a customer/user/client describe a problem, translate the problem statement into a workable bug report, break it down into its component parts, diagnose the relevant issue, and effectively communicate the solution back to the customer/user/client.

Those skills–those pivot skills–are incredibly useful when working in software development. I can remember countless times when my colleagues and I received poorly written, vaguely described specifications from the business side of the organization, and our first job before committing any code to an editor was to elucidate exactly what was being asked of us. What precisely was the problem we were meant to solve? This ability can sometimes take years to foster in a new developer; by hiring Sophie, they come with it from day one.

What areas does Sophie need to be leveled up in once you hire them? Well, they will probably need mentorship in code quality, test writing, and design patterns. In other words, not that different from a recently-graduated computer science major who has a lot of theoretical knowledge of algorithms and data structures, but limited professional coding experience.

Is one type of candidate better than the other? Is the recent college graduate who has the ability to create their own array data structure better than the career switcher with pivot skills? No, absolutely not. Both the traditional candidate and the career switcher offer strong potential to a team. However, all too often, it is only the traditional candidate that lands the interview where they get to prove themselves.

A few months ago I began a side project aptly called hirethePIVOT. It is a reverse job board for career switchers into tech modeled after railsdevs, the original implementation of the concept built by Joe Masilotti. During the time since I began hirethePIVOT, I’ve learned about so many incredible career pivoters who bring with them an impressive assortment of pivot skills to their new-found love of technology and software. There is the author turned developer, the linguistics educator turned frontend developer, the salesperson who is now a full-stack developer and so many more. Each one of those individuals would bring worlds of value to any team they join.

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I, too, began my career in tech as a career switcher. After a decade of work in adult education, community organizing, and non-profit management, I made the leap into software. My first manager did not hire me, and my fellow coding bootcamp graduate, for purely altruistic reasons. There was a cost-saving factor for the organization as well. Yet, regardless of the motivation, if they had not extended the offer and the job, who knows how much longer it would have taken to have received my first break into the field? I’d like to think that my education, communication, and strategic planning experience enhanced my contributions in that first role.

As a hiring manager or a person involved in the hiring decisions of your organization, you possess a great deal of power. You can help launch a person’s career in this field while also simultaneously benefiting your teams with the superpower of a person with pivot skills. To do so helps reshape the paradigm of how our industry views career switchers, from liabilities to profound assets.

Ben is a second career developer who previously spent a decade in the fields of adult education, community organizing, and non-profit management. He works as a Lead Developer Relations Engineer at New Relic by day and experiments with open source projects at night. He writes regularly on the intersection of community development and tech. Originally from Southern California and a long time resident of New York City, Ben now resides near Tel Aviv.

@RabbiGreenberg on Twitter

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