If you’re a professional in another field who’s interested in a career as a technologist, we have good news for you: It’s very possible to plunge into learning the technology specialization of your choice without any previous tech experience. For example, you might have a background as a marketer or political scientist, and realize you need to build up your programming or data-science skills to further your career—don’t be intimidated about jumping in.
The term for this is a “non-tech” or “non-computing” background. That means a working knowledge of tech but little working experience when it comes to programming, data algorithms and data structures, according to Tiffani L. Williams, teaching professor and director of onramp programs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
In June, the University of Illinois launched the Illinois Computing Accelerator for Non-Specialists (iCAN), a one-year certificate program for people with a bachelor’s degree in a program other than computer science.
Williams considers coding a key component of an introduction to technology learning. She says this skill “moves you from being a consumer of technology or consumer of computing to being a producer of computing.”
From Tax Consulting to Computing
Nicole Jackson, a student in the iCAN program, has worked in tax consulting for more than 15 years. She also has a background in fitness and nutrition. At her last job in the tax field, she learned that data analytics would be an important skill to add to tax consulting, so she joined the iCAN program to explore this area (and also a potential career change). She’ll be taking courses such as Fundamentals of Computer Science, Fundamentals of Algorithms, and Excursions in Computing.
Jackson is studying Python. She was unfamiliar with the language before taking her first iCAN class. “My biggest goal for myself right now is just to learn Python and feel comfortable that I can make decisions in creating coding that executes,” she said.
Meeting with clients over Zoom as the pandemic hit led Jackson to recognize the importance of technology skills, and that inspired conversations around data analysis and the safety of that data in her work.
“We wanted the clients to feel as comfortable as possible with what they were sharing if they didn't have face-to-face contact,” Jackson said. “And that just made me more aware that technology is so critical to our job, but also how can we make our job easier and better. I think that really spurred an interest in exploring the iCAN program or just computer science in general.”
Becoming a Tech CEO Without Coding
Not everyone needs to be a programmer to be successful in technology, noted Sophia Matveeva, CEO and co-founder of retail tech company Enty, as well as host and founder of Tech for Non-Techies, an online learning and training company.
“The image of the programmer turned successful tech CEO is so prevalent, given the success of Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, that many professionals are put off even entering the tech sector if they do not have a technical education,” Matveeva said.
Matveeva started Enty without a tech background. She formed Tech for Non-Techies to show that all employees, not only developers and data scientists, have value within tech companies. She started holding workshops on what people with a non-tech background need to know about tech. Demand grew for this knowledge, and Tech for Non-Techies became an official company in March. As part of the program, Matveeva teaches a class called “What Non-Technical Founders Really Need to Know About Tech.”
As an alternative to taking a coding class, Matveeva advises people who want to acquire tech skills to learn the process for developing apps, sites and algorithms. She recommends courses in user experience design and product management. Learning how a digital product is created is valuable experience for people coming from backgrounds other than tech.
“If your talent is in sales, marketing or strategy, or if you're a lawyer working with a tech client, then learn how tech products are made and who does what on a product team,” Matveeva said. “This will be enough for you to become a useful co-creator.”