Want to be a techie? Here's how to make it happen
Didn’t major in computer science? You can still break into software development
September 17, 2021 15 min read
Based on a talk by Marisa Machlis and Cassidy Maher at Grace Hopper Celebration 2021.
Wishing you could go into a tech career but feel like your art history or environmental studies degree might hold you back? Did you know you can leverage your skills in the humanities or STEM fields as a software developer! That’s right, your unique educational background equips you to think differently and—with the right training—will help you to drive novel solutions in your tech career.
When you see a job description targeted at software developers with a BS in computer science (or the equivalent), 3+ years of experience in five different coding languages, experience with SDLC, AWS, and microservices, do you feel daunted? Here you are, a philosophy major or biology major, wondering what could have been if you’d gone into coding instead.
As humanities graduates starting our own careers in tech, we definitely felt this way! We want you to know that it’s never too late to embark on your tech career, regardless of your degrees. Your unique education and experience in other fields can bring valuable diversity of thought to tech, and set you up for success in your career. Here’s how.
Getting started in tech with a non-traditional education background
If you’re a job seeker from a non-traditional education background looking to get started in tech, you’ve come to the right place. We’re your guides, Cassidy and Marisa, and we are both liberal arts majors who started our tech careers through the Capital One Developer Academy (CODA).
Software training programs or bootcamps like CODA are a great place to start your journey into tech. This blog focuses on how these kinds of training programs and apprenticeships can break down barriers of entry into tech and produce highly qualified software developers. We will hone in on the overarching skills that the job and career path require: analytical skills, communication skills, creativity, being detail-oriented, interpersonal skills, and problem-solving skills. We will also break down these overarching skills in a way that highlights how people from different majors can contribute their expertise in these domains.
If you have 1000 engineers that all think the same, and one engineer that thinks differently, it makes the one engineer extremely valuable because of the fact that they bring something different to the table and a unique perspective. While I may not have the deepest technical background out there, the different mindset that I bring to the table can be much more valuable.
The tech world needs your skills
Even if you didn’t go to college for computer science, you can not only succeed but thrive as a software developer. If you consider yourself “brand new to tech” or “curious” or “eager to learn” know that you’re already on the right track. As with any new skill or career path, there’s a learning curve, but you aren’t starting from scratch. You have unique skills, experiences, and perspectives that apply to many of the situations that you will face as a software developer.
Here are some examples of skills that are needed in software development and the non-computer science majors that specialize in them.
Math majors hone their analytical skills while completing problem sets and writing proofs. They observe patterns and use logic skills to solve problems.
Economics majors find meaning in data sets, perform research, and analyze their findings against data models to predict future outcomes.
Business majors build presentation skills through case competitions and learn concise and informative writing while producing reports.
English majors learn strong writing skills, which are important for software developers who need to produce documentation as well as parse through dense writing.
Architecture majors learn design, art, and geometrical thinking. They have a strong interdisciplinary focus and can bring distinct shapes together to form cohesive structural designs.
Music majors learn performance, improvisation, and composition. Improvisation is the intersection between thinking creatively and reacting - musicians have to be so creative and in tune to their music that it doesn’t even look like they’re thinking.
History majors study historic texts and artifacts, analyze documents to draw conclusions and create connections between sources, and pay close attention to how historical details may impact our present and future.
Art majors develop strong eyes for detail and hone their sense of space and positioning. They use fine detail to create art as well as analyze others’ work. They also learn color theory, typography, and other skills that can be especially useful for UI/UX.
Education majors have strong presentation skills, learn to relate to other people, and have experience explaining complex information in a straightforward manner.
Information systems majors build interpersonal skills by tackling problems in group projects and develop the ability to communicate technical concepts and findings to a nontechnical audience.
Philosophy majors develop strong logic skills by debating philosophical theories, viewing arguments from multiple facets, and studying formal logic.
Engineering majors develop problem solving through group projects in which they build new products and solve complex problems by breaking them down into small parts.
I've done a lot of front end development in my current role and it's been interesting to work with our team's UI/UX designer because a lot of UI/UX concepts are based in psychological theory. As a Psychology major, I can see the whys for certain design decisions and feel comfortable offering my input during discussions.
If these skills resonate with you, know that there is a place for you as a software developer!
People who have majored in humanities, sciences, and other fields can apply these skills and others to software development to approach engineering problems in unique ways. After all, publications like the Harvard Business Review emphasize the importance of being able to ask the right questions to solve real-world tech problems.
Studying the humanities and sciences teaches students to ask thought-provoking and creative questions as they probe into their fields of study. Insightful questions have untapped potential to change the way we do business and design tech products - for instance, someone from a liberal arts background may ask questions about the ethics behind the algorithms we create or might be more considerate of making a product more available to people from a wide range of backgrounds by focusing on accessibility.
As a child, and still as an adult, I wanted to be an astronaut. So, I pursued aerospace engineering to fulfill that dream, and was recruited to be a part of a team that built software in the aerospace industry. During that time, I learned to love software engineering. If that path had not been open to me, I can't imagine the things I would have missed out on. The best technologists - regardless of their educational background - are those who love to learn because technology changes at such a rapid pace. It's only natural that those with the mindset, desire, and fundamental skills can learn the new skills needed to build and run good software, or really anything they set their mind to.
Software development also places a heavy emphasis on learning to learn. Because technology evolves so quickly, those in the tech field must also adapt quickly. Even experienced programmers often work with unfamiliar coding languages or libraries. As long as you have the drive and aptitude to learn, you can excel as a software developer with the right training.
When you learned to read academic papers, conduct research, and perfect your studying methods in the humanities and sciences, you were building skills that would help you learn programming languages and frameworks as well.
How software training programs can help you break into tech
You have the right mindset. Now all you need are the technical skills, tools, and professional network to go from “interested in tech” to “ready to contribute.” For recent college graduates who majored in something other than computer science, a program like Capital One’s CODA can help you polish your skills. For others, bootcamps, online training, and certifications can help you on your path.
Having gone through a training program ourselves, we think there is a lot to be learned from instructional programs specifically targeted at non-technical majors. With majors in French and Statistics respectively, we were both a little nervous going into our software training program. But we knew that if we stuck with it we could grow and develop our skills into a new career.
What is a software training program?
A software training program (which you may have heard called a coding bootcamp or a development academy) is typically a 3-6 month intensive program in which students undergo technical training in any number of skills.
The skills covered range from full-stack web development (building user interfaces as well as backend APIs and databases) to cybersecurity or data pipelines. Another noteworthy tidbit -- these training programs are typically much less expensive than an undergraduate degree in something like computer science, teach you practical skills, and are a great option for those who might not have gone to a four-year college, are looking for a mid-life career switch, or just want to learn to build their own website.
Our experiences in the Capital One Developer Academy
Software training programs have a limited amount of time to teach you a whole lot! One approach is to do a practical overview of the technologies and procedures you’ll likely use in your career. For instance, in Capital One’s program - called the Capital One Developer Academy or CODA - the curriculum is broken into units on frontend, backend, and full-stack development.
The CODA program takes place over six months and students come away with a strong foundation in:
- A front end web framework (e.g. Angular, Vue, React)
- SQL Databases
In addition to specific technologies, you’re also exposed to development opportunities in teamwork, presentation and communication skills, and project management.
As you work on projects, you apply the same project management methodologies that you’ll use on real-world tech teams. Practicing workflows and aspects of the software development role outside of simply writing code makes the transition into the workforce more smooth and reduces some of the initial stress you might feel when getting familiar with a new role.
At the conclusion of the CODA program, participants transition into Capital One’s Technology Development Program (TDP), a two-year rotational program in which you work as a full-blown software developer on a Capital One tech team. Since TDP is a rotational program, by the end of the program, you will have worked on two different tech teams and experienced different methodologies, technologies, and business problems that are specific to each team and role. This gives you the opportunity to explore multiple interests and find the software development role that fits your skills and passions.
But what other value can you gain from software training programs?
How software training programs help with support systems & networking
When transitioning to any new role, it is important to have trustworthy mentors and peers to whom you can turn. Mentors were plentiful throughout the CODA program as everyone is paired with a buddy and a coach.
The “buddy” is a graduate of the program who is familiar with the technologies taught and can help alleviate any concerns you might have with entering the tech workforce on completion of the program. The “coach” is a more experienced Capital One associate who can offer career advice and perspective. In addition to these mentors, there is also a strong and diverse peer group experiencing the program right alongside you. They can be there to offer technical help or simply get you to crack a smile when you’re feeling down.
You can also find support in affinity groups which are often based on commonalities such as gender, religious background, or ethnic background. These can be employer specific, but might also span an entire industry. These are groups that share or support part of your identity and can be crucial for feeling comfortable at work, in your career, and help you navigate any challenges you may encounter.
I (Cassidy) have personally found a lot of support within the Women in Tech (WIT) space here at Capital One, both within my smaller organization but also throughout the company as a whole. In fact, I recently found an opportunity through our WIT group to speak with over 400 women college students interested in pursuing a technical role when they graduate. I’d have loved this event as an undergraduate! I am proud that I was able to share my tech success story with people filling shoes I was so recently in, all thanks to Capital One’s Women in Tech affinity group.
Many other software training programs provide these important relationships and networking opportunities by pairing you with peers, as well as more senior and experienced members of the company. Your mentors can provide tips and tricks for how to get settled, be successful, and work towards your career goals. All important things when starting out in tech!
How software training programs help combat imposter syndrome
You may be familiar with the feeling that you don’t belong in your new position. It’s important to know that most people around you are feeling that way as well. Research says that 70% of people experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives.
I think coming from a non-CS background makes me feel like I need to work a lot harder to deserve to be in the same job as someone who does have a CS background.
Personally, we always have to remind ourselves that it’s not just us feeling this way - the majority of people, who are entirely qualified to do their jobs, feel some sort of discomfort or uneasiness in the role they are in. But it can be especially easy to feel like you don’t belong in software development when you’re not coming from a computer science background. We will discuss how important it is to have people like you who have diversity in thought and experiences for teams to reach their full potential.
How software training programs help support diversity, belonging, & inclusion
Diverse teams are stronger teams. They build better products that better serve customers. However, despite some improvement, the Tech industry is not diverse. At Capital One, we are passionate about not only continuing to ensure our culture is one where everyone feels they belong, but also in committing to help change the broader industry. I strongly believe that we must really start to challenge how we have done things in the past if we want a different outcome, and that includes supporting alternative career paths into Tech.
Recruiting talent from a wide range of majors can promote diversity in the workplace, elevating different points of view, as well as voices from underrepresented groups in terms of gender, socioeconomic status, and race.
Our CODA cohort was about 50% women, something you won’t find often in the technology space at most companies, as only 20% of software development grads are women. Additionally, CODA is not just a six-month-long, salaried bootcamp but it also segues into a full-time job as a software developer. Since it’s paid, it’s accessible to recent college graduates regardless of socioeconomic standing, and does not require incurring additional student debt.
Championing diversity in the workforce encourages innovation that will make company products and initiatives more well-rounded and suitable for a larger audience. Hiring those with diverse perspectives reduces the risk of groupthink stifling creativity and opinions. We saw this ourselves throughout the course of the CODA program. Our discussions amongst our peers were always lively and there were many different approaches to solving every problem due to our differing backgrounds. Everyone’s opinions were supported and valued, making the group stronger as a whole and pushing each one of us to approach problems in new ways.
A 2013 Deloitte study exemplifies this in their finding that when employees feel diversity and inclusion are valued in the workplace, they report increased engagement and an 83% increase in innovation within the business.
Be like some of the top leaders in tech
Many of the most influential tech leaders studied the liberal arts in college and have worked their way to the top. You could be the next one!
A few examples:
- Stewart Butterfield (co-founder of Slack): Philosophy
- Parker Harris (co-founder of Salesforce): English
- Susan Wojcicki (CEO of YouTube): History and Literature
- Jack Ma (co-founder of Alibaba): English Education
Programs that help train non-computer science majors into top-notch coders can help usher in the next generation of great leaders in tech. This starts with programs like CODA and other coding bootcamps that allow students to get their foot in a door that would have otherwise been closed to them. Change can start from the bottom up with people like us making small impacts on the technology sector through diverse problem solving, increased diversity, and a fresh perspective on the technology workplace.
Removing barriers to entry will make careers in tech accessible to more people, especially those who could make a powerful impact in tech.
Having gone through a tech training program, Cassidy and Marisa are passionate about bringing that opportunity to others.
Marisa received her BA in French literature from Washington University in St. Louis. Her first exposure to the world of coding came when she took a course on logic while in college, which motivated her to minor in computer science. After graduating, she set her sights on pursuing software development as a career and looked for ways to get her foot in the door. In 2019, she joined Capital One through their Capital One Developer Academy (CODA) program, which targets non-computer science majors to train them to become full-stack developers. Marisa is currently a full-stack developer in Capital One’s Card Tech - Voice division.
Cassidy earned her BA in statistics from Amherst College. She became interested in software development when she got limited exposure to coding through software built for statistical analysis. In 2019, she joined the Capital One Developer Academy, which gave her the opportunity to become a software developer via a more unconventional route. Cassidy is currently producing awesome code every day as a developer within Capital One’s Consumer Technology department.