Road from Data Science bootcamp to Cloud Solutions Engineer from a Non-technical background.
My journey and 7 tips I want to share that helped me go from zero to hero in landing my first tech role.
I’m a data science outlier. I don’t have an advanced degree, I never finished college, and I’m in my late thirties with a background in Sales. I knew that going into this, and I struggled for years on whether it was too late to begin a transition into tech.
Clearly it isn’t, and I want to share what I believe helped me make the successful transition to becoming a Cloud Solutions Engineer for a venture backed company called SingleStore. This a database company that helps innovative organizations with real-time analytics and it can handle both transactional and analytical workloads.
I hope readers find that it is far more important to demonstrate the value you bring to your prospective organization regardless of where you are starting from.
Tip 1: Identify what motivates you
When I started out as an outside sales professional, I had a hard time hitting my sales targets and it was difficult balancing all related sales activities. These included calls for appointments, driving back and forth to the client sites, creating proposals, RFP’s, closing deals, and finalizing the backend paperwork without errors.
I really got to understand the process, and I discovered bottlenecks that were directly impacting my performance. After a few difficult years, I learned that I could solve these problems with formulas and macros in Excel. This quickly evolved to robust sheets where I could provide my clients with all the information they needed to quickly make an informed buying decisions. This cut the sales process from hours to minutes! My sales nearly tripled the following two years and it pulled me out of a bad spot after the 2008 housing market crash.
I realized that I could potentially help other people that struggled like me with improved processes working with data. “How much more is it worth if I could duplicate what happened to me for others, at scale?” I never could shake this thought and it marked the start of my journey.
Tip 2: Change your mindset
This could save you years. I made the mistake of thinking that transitioning into tech was too difficult, too late, or too selfish as I have a wife and child to support. People didn’t take me seriously and I ended up wasting time due to lack of confidence and direction. Don’t do that!
Thankfully my wife and her friend encouraged me into applying to a coding bootcamp. I got accepted into General Assembly’s 12 week Data Science Immersive program in April 2020. This is when I finally decided to mentally go “All-in” and I haven’t looked back.
To clarify, I don’t think people need to drop everything and spend all of their time on career goals as everyone’s situation is different. I’m talking more about identifying areas in life to optimize, and limiting time-draining habits that really aren’t that don’t really benefit your goals, and doing that consistently.
Tip 3: Create a realistic plan to gain the skills you need
I’d highly recommend finding a mentor to help build your plan, but I didn’t know anyone at the time so I did this part. I requested to start the bootcamp program at a later date for the July 2020 cohort in order to prepare. During that time I learned what skills are covered in the bootcamp, what the experience is like from previous grads, and researched technologies used in the industry that would be helpful to learn after I graduate. I didn’t know the exact specifics to what specific career I wanted, but this helped me to start getting my feet wet in relevant technologies today and it was pointing me in the right direction.
This is what I ended up doing for the 3 months before my program started:
- Statistics and Probability courses on Khan Academy
- Bought my first MacBook and learned the Mac OS
- Built my first data science workstation on a Linux OS
- Learned basic commands in the command line
- Created by own wireguard VPN hosted on a cloud server
My research pointed towards a job bias towards people with advanced degrees in math and computer science. With my background I believe I didn’t have a chance to stand out in the job market after completing the bootcamp without differentiating factors, so this was my focus.
I decided then how hard I would work during the program. I knew that I would be continuing my education and work on projects after the bootcamp finished, before it even started. Make a solid plan and go for it even if it isn’t completely right! You can always adjust after you have learned more.
Tip 4: Learn how you learn best
There wasn’t time for me to get to the same educational caliber of the students in my cohort, and that realization hit me hard the first 3 weeks into the program. My best efforts weren’t good enough and if I didn’t make changes, I probably would have failed.
Know where to look. Resources are all around you! Learning to google for answers is great, but for me what worked best was pulling knowledge from smarter people around me. I didn’t have to look far, and many people in my cohort helped in accelerating my progress. Even after the bootcamp, I’ve learned through courses made by industry leaders, joined Data Science and Cloud communities in different communication channels, and attended industry events to see what’s relevant today.
All the important information I’ve learned went straight into my notes which are easily searchable in spreadsheets or productivity apps. Humans are not really meant for memorizing everything, but for generating ideas. Having a system to store your notes and thoughts creates opportunities that you can continuously build on before you forget them. This is my method of learning, and it helped me organize my thoughts in choosing projects and achieving milestones in a relatively short amount of time.
Tip 5: Don’t be the best kept secret
I used to tell my wife “I’m the best kept secret.. No one knows me!” While that statement has a humorous gesture, it bothered me. When I started building automation tools during my sales years, I didn’t make the impact I wanted. No one used it because I didn’t do a good enough job to share it, nor was I skilled enough to code it to production. As an introverted creative thinker I knew I had something helpful to offer, but I clearly couldn’t make an impact in an isolated silo. I had to get uncomfortable, share my story, and learn from my mistakes.
Reaching out to founders, creators, educators, and other learners changed my professional life in the past year! Sharing my progress on LinkedIn, posting my opinion on educational channels on Youtube, and speaking with established experts and learners alike helped me to build the beginnings of my social footprint. I’ve made some great friendships along the way, and I’ve identified important skills that I could work on to position me better to reach my goal.
Tip 6: Focus on your long term goals and spare time for self reflection
My long term goal is to lead or be part of a team that builds scalable products and solves problems that can help society. Keeping this in mind, I chose my projects with real world problem solving in mind and I shared it on social media to see if there was any real interest in the projects I have been working on. A few company’s reached out to me when I did this, but I wanted to be in a position where I can learn industry best practices on building scalable products first.
When the Data Science program ended, I had a much clearer idea as to the type of work I wanted. Instead of using my time to get “any” job by sending hundreds of applications, I refined my plan and focused on additional skills I needed.
My focus was in answering 2 main questions:
Can I build useful models that solve real problems?
I formed a study group with like-minded individuals from a data science community server. We wanted to learn by doing so we agreed on participating in the VinBigData Data Science competition that had over 1,200 teams competing. The challenge was to create an object detection model that can classify over a dozen abnormalities in chest x-rays. This is a project that could potentially save lives, and and opportunity to work more on technologies I’m already interested in. My team placed 85th and we received a bronze medal (top 5–10%). This was a big confidence booster, and I’m grateful for the contributors on my team.
Can I build something that can scale?
Start ups, the cloud, virtualization, and data pipelines were all still new to me, so I needed to learn the basics to understand how products scale.
Here is what I did:
- I learned about start ups by watching all the videos in Y Combinator’s startup school.
- I spoke with a few startup founders and learned about important concepts building something successfully, and pitfalls to avoid.
- I learned cloud technologies from several resources and self paced courses with a focus on AWS.
- I took additional self paced courses for coding, data engineering, data science, SQL, and computer vision
- I found more experts in the space, and gained a lot of educational knowledge from YouTube
- I acquired AWS certifications to cover my perceived competency weaknesses.
Here is a screenshot of my AWS exam history:
In September 2021 I sent out a second round of applications to companies that I’m excited about. Out of 37 applications, I had two organizations that responded. One put me through to the hiring manager who decided to expedite my interview process. After a few meetings, I finally hit a huge milestone in landing my first tech role.
Interestingly enough, I found that nearly all of the skills I have learned (including sales) are going to be useful in my new position as a Cloud Solutions Engineer. I’m grateful as this is another experience that will get me even closer to my long term goal.
Tip 7: Pay it forward
I couldn’t have gotten to this point in my life without the help and support of so many people who invested their time into me. My family gave me an environment to pursue my career aspirations. My friends and mentors (and course creators), generously shared their experience and industry knowledge. My employer took a chance on me. I’m fortunate to live in a time and place that still has opportunities like this because the harsh truth is that a lot of places in the world do not.
When I first discovered my interests in tech and data, I tried and was unsuccessful in duplicating my short term success for others. Although the steps I’ve taken in my journey aren’t very linear, my hope is that people that want to follow a similar path have an easier time getting there with these tips. My firm belief is that you can always do something with what you have.
Even if you are starting late like me, you likely have time to make a positive impact.
If you have made it to the end, thank you! I hope there were a few useful nuggets here that can help you or someone you might know that needs to hear this.
- Find what motivates you
- Change your mindset
- Map a plan to gain the skills you need for your career goal
- Figure out how you learn best
- Don’t be the best kept secret
- Self reflection and focus on your long term goals
- Be a good person and pay it forward