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Switching Careers: Advice from a Nanodegree Graduate

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Mike Miller, Switching Careers

Udacity students pursue a wide array of career goals. Many are preparing to launch new careers, while others are switching careers—turning their existing skills and interests in new directions. In this post we feature Mike Miller, a Nanodegree Plus graduate who successfully switched his career from mathematics educator to iOS developer. In an in-depth interview, Mike generously shared details about his journey from software hobbyist to full-time iOS developer. He discussed his challenges, described his successes, and explored the role that Udacity played. His answers offer a wealth of advice and guidance to others contemplating similar career changes. Excerpts from the interview follow.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us Mike! Let’s get the basics established first: What is your current role?

I recently joined the amazing team at Audible, Inc., and currently serve as a software developer on their iOS team.

Congratulations! Now, for context, what were you doing before you joined Audible?

I was a mathematics educator with a passion for iOS development. I spent ten years designing and delivering learning experiences for students, teachers, and leaders of the NYC Department of Education, and during the last few years, I realized that software development was what I wanted to pursue full-time. In the year leading up to my current role, I devoted my nights and weekends to iOS development and am very excited to have joined a team that enables me to put my passion for iOS development to work.

How did you get started with software development?

The internet! It has everything out there that you could possibly want. It is an especially great tool for self-learning, and general software development information. For iOS development in particular, I worked through several structured courses, such as the free Stanford course for iOS Development, and courses from Udemy—I also did a lot of reading.

“It’s amazing what you can learn if you put the time in and really work at it.”

How did Udacity come into play?

Ultimately, Udacity is what really became the driving force behind the career change. The structured courses were really foundational because they outlined information, helped prioritize learning goals, and stressed the major concepts in iOS development.

“It really pays off to pick a course, stick to it, and learn from it!”

You took a hobby and transformed it into a career. Was there more to the process than just learning the right skills?

Beyond learning iOS development—to fully go from hobby to career—I had to put a lot of time into rebranding myself.

“Becoming a professional developer is more than just learning how to make something. It’s also about knowing how to market yourself for a technical position.”

What was the biggest challenge about learning how to market yourself?

Having spent ten years with my previous employer, I was new to this age of recruiting, and didn’t have any experience with technical recruitment. I had no idea where to start, or what—beyond iOS development skills—employers were looking for. I had to figure out how and where to submit resumes, how to make strategic use of a Linkedin profile, and how to use a GitHub account to showcase my work. Even after Udacity gave me the checklist of the materials I needed, I had to spend a lot of time building up all of the pieces. I didn’t want to put myself out there until everything was completed.

How did working with the Udacity Career Team help you?

A few months after starting the Udacity Nanodegree Plus program, I received an email inviting me to participate in a Preferred Candidates program, and it had two requirements: 1) complete four career-related projects (resume, LinkedIn, Github, and interview practice), and then 2) complete a survey to help the Careers team assess my fit for the program. I decided this seemed like a smart way to become a more competitive applicant, and so prioritized completing the career projects before finishing the iOS project I was working on—but this was no easy task!

What was challenging about the career projects?

Each career project required a significant investment of time—as a “career-changer” moving into a new, technical field, I didn’t have a lot to start with.  Each project required careful planning and dedication (because let’s be honest, rewriting a resume ten times isn’t nearly as fun or motivating as building apps!). Knowing that I wasn’t even eligible to be considered for the Preferred Candidates program until these four projects were complete was really motivating for me, and the several rounds of feedback that I went through with the Careers team on these projects really helped me to realize what potential employers look for in candidates beyond the technical aspects.

What was it like once you actually started the process of pursuing a new job?

Once I was finally ready to take the plunge, put my resume out there, and begin marketing myself, one big challenge was navigating job boards and managing an overwhelming number of emails. Initially, I didn’t know what to respond to. It felt like a full-time job to manage my inbox. Because there are so many opportunities, it was initially hard for me to understand what jobs were a good fit. Not to mention that learning how to interpret and make judgement calls about technical job postings is another skill completely!

Looking back now, having successfully landed a new job, do you have any tips on how to successfully navigate job boards and recruiters?

Firstly, put yourself out there. Market yourself the most you possibly can. Apply for lots of different things. And do whatever you can to stand out and make an impression—put time into cover letters and follow up. Even if a job isn’t the right fit, you never know who will remember you if something comes along that might be a better fit. I have been happily situated at my current job for several months, but I still get a call every once in awhile from a recruiter that I had a good conversation with months ago.

Second, stay organized. I followed the Udacity instructions to a T. I was able to track where I applied to, kept on top of the emails, and replied to anyone that reached out to me.

Thirdly, always be open to having a discussion. Even if the job is the wrong fit, a good conversation might lead you to future job opportunities. I found that no matter what, there would  be jobs that I was under-qualified for, but being upfront about my skill set and goals was an important asset to finding the right job. And every chance you have to converse with someone about your skills and experience—whether it be with a company, a recruiting firm, or at a local developer meetup—is really excellent practice, and helps build confidence.

Finally, practice interviewing and always be “ready.” Practice behavioral interview questions, technical questions, and general problem solving questions. You never know when you might receive an important call that could lead to a great job.  Check out the links in the interview practice project and on the Careers forum, and take the time to think through answers and how you might approach technical aspects of an interview.

Put yourself out there. Stay organized. Be open to discussion. Always be “ready.” That’s amazing advice! What else do you recommend? Other outside resources, perhaps?

The internet has a wealth of resources. The ability to click a link, learn about it, think about it, and apply it, was really powerful for me. It’s hard to imagine how I could do it without the internet and the ability to look things up! During the job search, I used technical practice websites and researched tips for behavioral interviews. Another great resource are postings for developer jobs—reading enough of these can give you a good sense of certain skills that you might want to further develop or hone in on, as well as a general sense of what the job market is demanding.

How many jobs had you applied to prior to your interview with Audible?

I had applied to 25 different positions, most of which went into a black hole, despite follow-up. I was fortunate enough to have a few first-round interviews and several screening interviews with recruiters at various firms across the city, but most ended with, “we are looking for someone with more experience,” which I fully accepted while remaining positive and thankful at these valuable opportunities to build confidence in speaking about my experiences.

That’s an impressively positive outlook! How did it feel to keep getting that response, and how did you respond?

I would just say “Ok! Let me know if you are ever looking for someone with my experience.” I never got frustrated because I know I was putting myself out the best that I could, and every conversation was better than the one before it.

“Turn every ‘no thanks’ into an opportunity to reflect and grow—was I lacking something that I could do something about?”

Can you talk more about the idea of using interviews as learning opportunities?

You can use interviews as opportunities to get insight on what employers really value—I personally made it a point to ask what qualities and skills they were looking for in order to be successful, and specifically for anything technical, I would then take the time to research it. If a company is saying it’s important, it might be one of those things that is a need-to-know for developers—you can take this as free advice, and put some time into learning more!

Next, don’t underestimate the importance of learning about the company you are applying for or interviewing at.  During my job search, I had the opportunity to speak to companies about their apps or project portfolios, and I learned that having some insight into the company’s work can be a great point for conversation, especially if you’ve worked on something similar and can draw comparisons.  

Lastly, ask lots of questions and never stop learning.  I am still taking courses online and still devote time every day to learning something new, digging deeper into challenging topics, or trying to stay on top of trends.  

How did the projects you completed in your Nanodegree program impact your job search?

I think the biggest benefit was completing the Capstone project and the opportunity to take the project to the App Store.  Even though it wasn’t a requirement, spending the time to learn the process for getting an app on the App Store  was very important.  Accomplishing this shows potential employers that you have gone through the entire process (and it is a process!), and that you took the time to polish your app to get it through Apple’s review. It really serves as a great conversation  starter during the job hunt, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a link to your app on the App Store on your resume and online profiles!  If you are debating whether to do it, stop debating and do it!

What would you say is your greatest takeaway from having completed the Nanodegree Plus program?

My greatest takeaway is the value of the career projects. For anyone who is thinking about a career change, devote the time to complete to the best of your ability every career project. Remember that you only have one chance to make a first impression!  I would recommend having a complete and aligned online presence before really getting into the career search.  Hit every mark and make sure there are no holes in your application materials.  And take advantage of the Career services one-on-ones!  Set up time to get feedback on specific career-related materials.  Looking back, it was critically helpful for me to have had Udacity’s career guidance, and a checklist  for what’s important in the industry!

More amazing insights! Mike, thank you so much for sharing your story, and congratulations on successfully switching careers, and pursuing your dream of being an iOS developer!

Mike’s story is an inspiring one, to say the least. His mindset throughout the process of switching careers was always positive, and he embraced every experience as a learning opportunity. He offers so many sage pieces of advice, but this one really stands out:

“Ask lots of questions, and never stop learning.”

Does that sound familiar? It should! It’s no coincidence that so many Student Success stories close on this kind of sentiment. This passion for lifelong is what sets Udacity students and alumni apart, and it’s what enabled Mike Miller to achieve his dream!


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