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From Crafting Copy to Cutting Code: Transitioning My Career from Journalism to Technology

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The information technology industry offers a broad range of job opportunities, but if you've started your career in another arena, how do you go about making the switch? In this article, former journalist Katie Miller shares her experience of transitioning into the tech world and offers advice for others aspiring to follow suit.
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“How does someone go from being a journalist to a software engineer?” It's a question I've been asked dozens of times, often with more than a hint of incredulity. For many it seems an unlikely career path because they view these two fields as worlds apart. If you're picturing Ron Burgundy morphing into Maurice Moss, then I can understand the sense of surprise (although a jazz flute app could be a real winner). However, looking beyond the caricatures, I think there are more similarities between these professions than most people realize; I see a convergence in the skill sets required by the media and IT industries. For me the transition was a natural one, although there were hurdles to overcome along the way.

The short answer to the question is that I went back to university and studied for a Master of Information Technology (Software Engineering) degree, building on undergraduate studies in journalism. The long answer begins in my childhood, as the motivation to make the career change in part stemmed from predilections cultivated then. This is one reason why I am enthusiastic about educating children about technology—especially girls, given we have a dearth of women in the IT industry.

I first became interested in both writing and computing as a child. When my two older brothers weren't thrashing me at various computer games, they took the time to introduce me to programming in QBasic. I enjoyed creative writing and, as a teenager, spent hours designing websites of dubious quality (the marquee tag seemed cool at the time) to present my poems and prose, tweaking snippets of JavaScript from other sites. When I reached senior high school, my subject choices reflected these interests; I took the two advanced math subjects and Information Processing and Technology, as well as Modern History and English. I also developed a fascination with linguistics and, when I finished school, it was this penchant that led me to journalism.

I studied journalism at university while also working at the local newspaper, which was a practical and fast-paced way to learn. The paper gave me the opportunity to report on a diverse range of subjects and engage with people from all walks of life with captivating tales to tell. I finished my degree and became the health reporter for a time, then did a stint as a features writer before eventually ending up as a copyeditor. In this role I became increasingly involved with the newspaper's website and found that I was not only delighted to be reunited with even humble HTML, but also I had an aptitude for technology that not every copyeditor around me shared. I didn't know then what job outcome I was aiming for, but with the media industry in flux and technology playing an increasing part in how we communicate, it made sense to me to go back to university and pursue my passion for technology.

When I enrolled in my Master of IT degree, I was terrified I might fail my subjects, having spent years in journalism mostly ignorant of the tech world. But my previous exposure to coding inspired me to at least give it a try. Given I had no recent programming experience, formal education seemed the best route to a tech job. I chose a postgraduate degree simply because it was shorter and, given I had a mortgage to pay, I couldn't afford to study without continuing to work at the newspaper. I knew working and studying full-time would be difficult to sustain over a longer period, not to mention I wanted to preserve some semblance of a social life.

The 16 months it took to complete my IT studies was indeed a period of hard work, late-night cram sessions and far fewer parties than most sprightly scholars enjoy. Rather than following the tradition of student sleep-ins, many days I would have to rise and shine in time for the 6 a.m. shift at the paper and then muster the mettle to head to class in the afternoon. I was often the only woman in my classes, but I befriended a bunch of the blokes and exchanged journo anecdotes and the secrets of my shorthand 'code' for their tips on tech tools, terminal tidbits and insight into geek culture. This casual coaching from my classmates was an extremely valuable part of the educational experience. Although hitting the books again was brain-bending and at times stressful, it was also immensely rewarding.

By the time I finished my degree, I had fallen in love with programming all over again. I knew then I wanted to be a software engineer. My degree became my ticket to software developer job interviews and helped me to secure a graduate job at a financial institution. This did mean a pay cut, as you have to expect when changing industries and starting at the bottom once again, but I knew it would be worth it in the long run.

After seven years working in the news media, I started my career as a software developer in February 2011, one week before graduating as Valedictorian. My fear of failing subjects had proven unwarranted and, more importantly, I had found a path into a world of exciting new challenges and problems to solve. I was given a role in an automated testing team, writing code to find bugs in an internet banking application; I found that uncovering errors in a live web app could be every bit as satisfying—and entertaining—as finding typos in copy. However, securing a job in an IT department  did not mean my educational journey was over.  I soon realized that flourishing in my new environment was going to take a lot more work and a lifetime of learning.

My degree hadn't given me all the answers; it had equipped me with sufficient understanding to comprehend what my new colleagues were talking about and figure out what questions I should be asking. Those questions prompted me to seek more knowledge—both in work time and outside of it—about aspects of the job that university didn't cover, such as idiomatic programming techniques and style used in the workplace and the specifics of the frameworks and libraries my new company favored. The IT field's rapid evolution means there's no end to this process; there is always a cutting-edge framework to learn or new programming language to master. Every week, if not every day, I came across some area of the tech landscape that I realized I didn't know enough about yet. I turned to online resources, books, user groups, workmates and mentors to fill in the gaps.

While I had a lot to learn on a technical level, I discovered that unlike some of the fresh-faced graduates around me, I wasn't truly starting from scratch in my new career. There was a confluence of the skills I had developed in the media and what was being asked of me in IT. There is a stereotype of the uncommunicative programmer in the dark in the basement, but programmers can't afford to be uncommunicative today. If you want a good job, you should know how to network, which is something journalists are well-versed in. You should be able to explain technical concepts in simple terms, just as news stories aim to do, and be a good interviewer; you have to ask the right questions to ascertain your customer's requirements. Many software engineers showcase their talents through a blog, which requires writing skills, or by presenting at conferences, which again comes back to communication capabilities. At the very least, most engineers at some point will be called upon to present their work to a manager or customer, so public speaking cannot be evaded, even for those who do like to hide out in the dark.

In addition to solid communication skills, software engineers—like journalists—must have keen analytical abilities. Both professions require attention to detail down to the level of each character written; you only have to look at a list of newspaper headline bloopers to realize this matters as much in copy as it does in code. Both reporters and developers need to be able to think creatively, solve problems and, if they want to truly make their mark, have the sort of passion that compels them to be chasing leads or optimized code solutions at all hours of the day and night.

I acknowledge there are some requirements that are specific to each of these jobs that not everyone may fulfill. I think one reason why software developers are surprised when I tell them I went from journalism to programming is because there is a perception that reporters are woeful at mathematics. While I have worked with journalists who seemed to suffer from arithmophobia, I'd like to think on the whole this is a poor characterization of my former colleagues (let's hope at least the financial journos are good with figures). What is true is that mathematical ability is important for programmers. I was privileged to have a natural proclivity for math, but I don't think those who do not should necessarily be discouraged from seeking a career in the wonderfully diverse IT world.

The IT industry needs much more than just software engineers. You might not be able to stomach the thought of staring at code for most of the day, but you may well be a perfect fit for the role of a business analyst, project manager, database administrator, network engineer, architect, system administrator, user experience designer, technical writer, manager or one of the many other positions available. Your background might not be in journalism, but you may still have transferable skills and knowledge that would help you in the IT industry. Almost every career area is undergoing change because of new technology today, so having domain expertise in one of these areas may perfectly position you to help develop the next generation of tech to take your industry forward. While journalists can take their skills to IT, they can also take skills from IT; many amazing stories could be produced if reporters were doing more analysis of open data and creating a wealth of meaningful data visualizations. There are myriad opportunities for technological innovation in the media industry as well as many others.

Although I wasn't sure where my path was heading when I decided to study IT, I am confident now that it was the right choice. Although I learned a lot through my time in the media, I think a technology career is a better match for my abilities, interests and personality. The industry is continually evolving, which means as developers we are always having to learn new tricks — and that's engaging, as well as a lot of fun. IT is a dynamic field with good job prospects; skilled women are especially sought after because of the underrepresentation of females in the industry. Thanks to the open source movement, IT is a domain where people are encouraged to share and collaborate for the greater good. It offers the chance to create new things that can truly change the world on a large scale. For me, not even the high of landing a front-page story can top that.

These days, I am working as a software engineer at the world's leading open source software company, Red Hat. It's a fun and flexible environment with the kind of perks prevalent at today's global tech companies, such as the chance to work from home, free snacks and drinks, and a casual dress code. I love the open source philosophy and being able to contribute code I write at work back to the community. Although I've left journalism behind, I'm never too far away from writers as a lot of my work involves developing tools for and answering questions from Red Hat's content authors to help them produce documentation. Every day I work with code, but I also call on my communication skills.

Given my experiences in the IT industry to date, my advice to others considering or moving into this arena would be to start pursuing knowledge now and make it a habit. With the rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), there is more computer science education freely available than most could absorb in a lifetime. Through sites such as Meetup.com you can find hackerspaces and user groups for all kinds of technologies in your local area (or start one if necessary), where you can get access to mentors. There are also many online tech groups, some especially for women, where you can ask questions in a non-threatening environment. One excellent way to learn is to come up with a project to build something you're interested in, and then give it a go, seeking help from members of these communities as required.

As well as continually growing your knowledge, I would recommend that you start building an online profile. Establish a blog and a presence on sites such as Stack Overflow, GitHub, Twitter and Lanyrd. This is the resume of the tech world. Becoming involved in open source projects is a surefire way to increase your skills while also contributing to the community and showcasing your abilities. This is an important part of the process of establishing a successful IT career. Although it may not directly advance your career, I also think it is incumbent on the few women in the industry to find ways to foster the careers of the girls who would follow in our footsteps. If we all give back in this way, we can build a future where the experience of being the only woman at the tech course, user group or business meeting is no longer commonplace.       

Finally, I think the key to a thriving career is to find your passion—something that delights and intrigues you that you can look forward to doing every day, despite the difficult or dull moments that all jobs have. For me, this is coding. I am well and truly addicted to the creative cycle of cutting code to conquer complex challenges. For you, it may be something different, but information technology is broad enough to provide a world of opportunities. It is just a matter of getting out there (or online) and exploring them. You don't need to be Maurice Moss to do that.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not of her employer.

For more articles and resources, visit our Women in Technology page.

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