After separating from her husband in June, single mom Shannon Lance found herself suddenly needing to earn enough to support four children.
“I have a teaching degree but (teaching) won’t pay the bills for a family of five – it’s just not an option,” she told CNBC. “I thought about nursing, but the biggest drawback was that it required going back to school for two years to get another degree – I didn’t have two years, I have kids and bills to pay.”
Despite being a self-confessed technophobe, Lance decided to learn computer coding after a suggestion from her brother-in-law, taking the plunge into an entirely new career path.
Lance began her job search after completing an intensive 14-week program with Washington-based Coding Dojo. Just six days after beginning her job hunt, Lance secured a six-figure offer from travel expenses firm SAP Concur.
In an interview with CNBC, she shared her tips on achieving success in a new career.
Value your ‘soft skills’
Although a career change can set you back in terms of direct industry experience, Lance urged others not to underestimate the value of basic core capabilities that appeal to employers — like strong communication or leadership skills.
“I was (previously) a teacher and had a bunch of professional experience that gave me soft skills which helped land the job,” she said. ”(That was) combined with having just coming out of a great program which gave me all the right tech skills.”
Be willing to learn
As well as considering how your skillset could be transferred to a new industry, Lance told CNBC that having the right attitude was a real asset when it came to landing a job with no direct experience.
She said she was upfront about what she could and couldn’t do, taking the approach: “I don’t know a lot about it, but I do know a little bit – and I’m willing to learn more.”
According to Lance, embracing those knowledge gaps and showcasing a desire for self-improvement could be just as valuable as experience to some employers.
“For the job I got, the company was starting a new team that would be using new technology, so we’d all be learning whether they hired somebody with experience or not,” she said. “They wanted people who were capable of learning quickly and who could work and learn under pressure. Going through Coding Dojo proved I had those capabilities and that desire to keep learning.”
Work your own way
Although Lance didn’t feel intellectually limited while learning to code, she said comparing her own pace of work to others’ sometimes led to unnecessary frustration and could impact her confidence.
“One challenge was the amount of time it took to get through everything. I don’t think I had trouble with the actual program, but I didn’t have any tech background, so every assignment would take me one and a half times as long as everyone else,” she told CNBC.
“Some of the people in my group had played on computers since they were 12 — so the assignments only took 20 to 30 minutes for them to complete.”
She said it was important to find your own way to get work done, rather than sticking to the chronological or seemingly “correct” method. Her coding program was organized into three sections, and when she initially attempted to do each assignment in order, Lance found herself falling behind.
“I’d have to skip forward and go back again – that’s not a good strategy,” she said. Instead, she got through all of the reading and learning materials for each topic before attempting to complete an assignment.
“Make sure you do the reading and homework way before you start struggling with (graded assignments and technical work),” she said. “And make sure you allow yourself enough time outside of class to get stuff done.”
Lance also advised those considering a career change not to overestimate their own academic ability.
“I was pretty good in school and didn’t have to study a lot,” she said. “I went into Coding Dojo thinking I could get it done quicker, underestimating how much time it would consume. (You have to let it) take as long as it takes.”
Seek support to switch career
”(Returning to study) was most definitely an investment in myself, it changed my life and my kids’ lives,” Lance told CNBC. “My grandpa left me some inheritance and I used that to support myself, and my sister did a lot of babysitting.”
But her financial investment amounted to more than expected, and she had to hire a nanny when her family became unable to take care of her children.
“It was a lot of work and a struggle; a lot of change was required to make this happen. I had to change my kids’ schools and we had to move,” she said. “They were used to seeing me all the time, but then they had someone else taking care of them – it was a big challenge but we all worked together.”
As well as turning to family for support, Lance said talking to people who shared her experience helped reduce work-related stress.
“It was a small group and we got pretty close. We did a lot of study groups and got to know each other, it helped make it easier to have that companionship – we had a sense that we were all struggling, but we were going to make it,” she said.