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From Hairdresser to DBA – How to start a career in IT

By Greg M Lucas,

I left school more years ago than I care to count with minimal qualifications and more or less fell into a career in hairdressing.  I loved what I did for most of my time in that career but by 1999 had achieved everything I wanted to within that industry.  I decided it was time for a change of direction.  That new direction was IT, not the most obvious choice you might think and certainly not an easy change to make.  This post is about that change and tries to offer tips for others in a similar situation.

My Story

My last job in hairdressing was as a consultant travelling around the UK doing in-salon training and presenting at seminars or hairdressing shows. For me, that was the pinnacle of my hairdressing career – I’d run my own salon previously and had no wish to go backwards so I started looking at my options. Computers had always been an interest of mine so after much research and careful thought, I decided to make the move into the IT sector.

Having decided on such a major career change, in 1999 I started studying for an MCSE juggling a long work week with evenings and weekends studying,  using up all my annual leave attending courses.  I knew that I would need to be able to show potential employers that I was serious about such a dramatic change so passed my first two MCP exams before starting to look for my first IT job.

My first job in IT was on the help desk for a small software house, a job where people skills were deemed more important than technical skills.  This worked well for me as they expected to have to train staff up on their own software anyway, and the help desk was very customer-facing. This meant I could make the most of everything I’d learnt about dealing with people in my previous career as a hairdresser.

The help desk wasn’t what I wanted to do long term, but I recognised that with such a drastic change of career, I would need to prove myself first and this type of role had more in common with my transferrable skills.  Within 3 months of starting my first job on the help desk, I’d moved up to help desk management and systems administration. I later “discovered” T-SQL and the rest, as they say, is history.  After spells as a production DBA and SQL developer I have now been working as a freelance Development DBA for over six years.

Great Oaks from Little Acorns Grow

Or, start small, think big!

If you are planning a big career change, you have to be prepared to start on a lower rung of the ladder, possibly much lower, in order to gain experience that will lead to the role you do want.  The cold, harsh reality is that just because you want to be a Network Administrator, have read the books and passed a couple of exams, an employer is not going to let you loose on their network without you having proven experience.

There is no substitute for knowledge gained “in the trenches”.  When it all goes horribly wrong because some new virus is infecting networks all over the world, you won’t have time to get your books out trying to remember how to configure something you remember reading about whilst you were still a chef, hairdresser or milkman.  The higher up the technical ladder you aspire to, the more that real-world experience will count.

It is my experience that, the lower down that ladder you go, the less that technical experience matters.  Conversely, the more the right attitude and good soft skills can be enough to set you apart from the crowd.  So if you are serious about changing career, you have to be prepared to make a few short-term sacrifices for the long term goal.

You need to develop a career plan, and even write it down if that works for you.  Don’t plan further ahead than three years to begin with.  You will find that your plans will change once you are actually working in IT and get a better idea of what the different types of job entail.  My original plan was to complete my MCSE and become a Systems Administrator, possible specialising in Exchange. Instead, I completed my MCSE, MCDBA and MCAD and held several roles as a Production DBA Here I am now doing freelance database design, development and tuning.  I also do some coaching and .Net development so my weeks are really varied.

When you start applying for jobs in IT, look for roles where the skills the employer is looking for align with what you can already do.  Typically the help desk, 1st line support, or even junior development are the kind of roles where the soft skills you can pick up in other careers are more important than having a wealth of technical skills.

On the subject of development, if your chosen field is web development, have you created any web sites that you can include links to in your CV?  These might be for local businesses or perhaps a charity that you’ve been involved with.  Words of caution here. Make sure it’s a good web site.  Four static pages written in FrontPage is not a good advert for your skills!

What Have You Got to Offer?

If you are at this point in your life, you need to try and think strategically.  If the only experience you have of a particular technology is passing an exam or two, this is probably not enough to get you the job you want.  You have to be prepared to start with the job you can do (at least in an employer’s eyes) rather than the job you want.

When considering a major career change, you have to think very carefully about the skills you have now and how they might relate to a potential employer in your new field.  To coin a phrase, it’s not about what the employer can do for you; it’s what you can do for them.  What aspects of the job you do now would be of interest or value in the IT field?  What skills do you have that would be readily transferrable?  This might be the ability to build diverse relationships working in sales, people skills gained in a call centre or the ability to quickly get to grips with new technologies in a technical (but non-IT) field.  You might need to think outside the box to answer these questions (see below).

In my case, I was short on IT experience but my years in front of the public meant that I was strong on soft skills.  Whilst I couldn’t hide the fact that I was in hairdressing, my CV focussed on transferrable skills like interpersonal skills, coaching, influencing and man-management.

Your CV is a Billboard

When was the last time you bought a burger from a fast food restaurant that actually looked like the one on the TV ads?  The burger you see in adverts or on hoardings is (allegedly) the same as the one they serve up in their restaurants just presented in the best possible way.  You are that burger!

Your resume is just an advertisement.  I am not suggesting you lie on your CV – that is a really bad idea – but you can still present yourself in the best possible light.

For example, my final role in hairdressing was as a technical consultant for a major hair product manufacturer.  This involved planning and delivery of training plans within larger salons, working on stage or behind the scenes at big hairdressing shows, managing a team of other trainers and assisting telephone helpline staff with product queries from hairdressers.  Also, as the only computer-literate member of the team I became the team’s power user, designing simple spread sheets (e.g. time and activity tracking, expenses etc.) or helping configure Lotus Notes.

So in addition to emphasising my people skills, my CV at that time included the following bullet points:

  • Educational & Technical support to end users.
  • First line PC & application support for field-based users.
  • Design and implementation of computer-based performance monitoring system.
  • Dealing with technical queries via telephone hot-line.
  • Management, training and development of a team of field educators.
  • Key role in wide variety of projects connected with IT, education, sales & marketing.

These were all aspects of the job I was doing at the time, I just chose to present them in a way that potential employers in the IT sector would be able to relate to.  If I’d talked about doing hair shows and visiting lots of salons and building relationships with hairdressing wholesalers it would have been much harder for a potential employer to see that I had suitable skills and my CV would have ended up in the NO pile.

Don’t Burn Your Bridges

Don’t assume that the only way you can achieve a dramatic career change is to change employer.  Getting the right job with the right company isn’t easy and if you have no experience in that role, a potential new employer is taking a bigger risk.  If you have good standing in your current company, try and build relationships with the IT team – especially any IT managers that you deal with.  Managers often prefer to recruit people they or someone on their team knows but being able to get a reliable “off-the-record” reference is the next best thing.  It’s much easier for a hiring manager to get that reference if you already work for the company.  Obviously you wouldn’t be able to do this without the support of your current manager.  Larger companies especially may be more likely to be open to such sideways career moves as they may have better staff retention policies.

There may be a number of reasons why an internal move isn’t an option.  These could include lack of support from your current manager, or the company may be too small or the IT team located too far away to make the jump internally.  For me it was the latter, I was field-based and lived in Southampton whilst the IT department was based on the outskirts of London, over 100 miles away.

Should you tell your manager or even colleagues of your plans before you are ready to give notice?  In my experience, the answer is no.  As you are changing career, it might take longer than you think to get a new position and you don’t really know what could happen in the meantime.  For example, if the company need to start laying people off (not unheard of in these times) you may find that your name is at the top of the list, “as you’re planning to leave anyway”.

Another approach, depending on what you do now and what you want to do next, may be to try to get some experience in your chosen field within your current job.  This typically works better if what you do now and what you want to do are more closely related.  For example, I used to work with a guy whose job was application support but he wanted to become a developer.  He started trying to extend his skills by actually looking at what the code was doing, later getting to the point where he was able to recommend then actually implement bug fixes in the code.  He is now doing what he wanted to do, development, full-time but it did take nearly a year to achieve that goal.

In a Nutshell

These are the key points to remember:

  • It is never too late to change, I was 38 when I started in IT.
  • You can start a completely new career in IT, regardless of what you do now.  But it will take hard work, patience and a little humility.
  • Be prepared to attend some courses and take an exam or two in your chosen field to prove to a potential employer you are serious.
  • If you can, try for an internal company transfer as the door is already half-open.  Alternatively, can you start getting exposure to your chosen field within the job you’re doing right now.
  • Regardless of whether you are going for an internal move or looking externally, re-write your CV using language that a potential employer can relate to and emphasising your relevant strengths and transferrable skills.  But do not lie on your resume.
  • Be prepared to take a lower paid, more junior position if that starts you out on your new path.

One interesting point,  I thought that having all the hairdressing on my CV whilst trying to get IT jobs might cause problems but most people seemed to recognise that I had reached the top in one industry and were intrigued as to why I had made such a dramatic change to start again in another career.

Best of all, I have no regrets, in fact if I’m honest I almost wish I’d done it sooner – but then if I had I wouldn’t have had such great experiences as a hairdresser.  I think it was Victor Kiam (of Remington fame) who once wrote that those people lucky enough to find a job they enjoy should stick to it. I consider myself very lucky; I’ve worked in a total of three very different careers and have absolutely loved two of them.  I wish you the same luck in your careers.

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