What did you want to be when you grew up? Many are still figuring it out, and some may go through a career change or two before they hit on something that captures their interest, that elusive “passion” tech chief executives like to say gets them up in the morning. Most of us would settle for something that pays the bills.
That has been the focus for many of us in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic: keeping the lights on and a roof over our heads. Whole industries were shut down, with no concrete plans to reopen for months at a time, forcing workers to seek alternate employment or start refocusing their attention elsewhere.
That is often easier said than done. But if you have decided a career in tech is the way to go, there are ways to get on the right path without having to invest a lot of your own money.
With a number of training programmes – free of charge – now open to those interested in making a career change, there are more options open to people than ever before.
For Sitecore engineer Jonathan Cummins, his pre-pandemic career was a professional poker player. “When I finished school and I was thinking about what I wanted to do, I started playing poker on the side a bit. Then I realised I was good at it,” he says. There was already a family link, with Cummins’s cousin playing professionally too. “I decided to commit to it and see how it went. I did that for seven years – I didn’t expect to change from poker at any stage.”
Then the pandemic hit, and live poker games were put on hold. With the games moving online, much of the personal interaction Cummins had become used to stopped. He says he was making more money, however, due to an increase in recreational players, but the mental health toll wasn’t worth it.
“I realised I didn’t know how long Covid would last for. Could I last it out a year or two? That was the one time I really considered a change. I could do it now, or I could do it in five or 10 years. It made a lot more sense to do it now,” he says.
Again, he turned to family to guide his new career – this time to his brother, who has lectured in cybersecurity and programming for two decades – who steered him towards new technologies.
It was from there he found the AWS ReStart programme. “I thought I’d just apply and see what happens,” he says. Cummins won a place on the programme, and moved on to his role with Sitecore.
For Shannon Currivan, it was working on a TV project that triggered her interest in cloud technologies. Although she initially started out working in visual effects, she realised that her passion lay elsewhere. “I started early on the TV project so my work wasn’t ready just yet. But because of that I got exposed to what the cloud was, and the amazing things you can do with it,” she says. “Throughout my time there, I realised I was spending more time with the IT people and getting more information on the cloud. It was time to make a decision and move my path from the visual effects industry to the cloud.”
She had a very basic knowledge of Python and Linux before applying to AWS ReStart and being accepted on to the programme. It was the mentoring that played a large part in her success with the course, she says. “It wasn’t just the technical skills that helped me grow. It was also the soft skills that helped – mentoring, CV building, interview tactics – in the long run into getting into the job I’m in today.” She is currently a junior cloud engineer with Transact Solutions.
But Amazon isn't the only one offering to reskill and upskill people free of charge. Microsoft has also provided a path to learning through a number of initiatives, from its LinkedIn learning programmes to a partnership with FIT that offers a mentored approach to building a career in the tech industry. The StepIn2Tech programme was designed to support up to 10,000 people affected by the pandemic who wanted to switch career.
Everything in the courses is designed as an introduction to areas such as a cloud, coding and design, so you gain basic skills and can go on to study further and gain professional certification for your chosen career.
The scheme is designed to equip people with the digital skills needed for in-demand jobs in the tech sector, and will also support people who have either recently left school or college or are mid-career in an industry that is digitally transforming.
The latest initiative from Microsoft is the Skill Forward programme, which is designed to help people develop their cloud skills, achieve industry-recognised certifications and boost their employability.
It includes 11 webinars covering Azure, Security, Azure AI, Power Platform, and Data, which take place in October and November. Like the other initiatives, it is free of charge, with the potential to move on to a formal, industry-recognised certification in cloud skills.
“The past year has demonstrated in a very real way the power of cloud technologies. Put simply, without the cloud, we would not have been able to work or learn from home over the past 18 months nor would we be witnessing the pace of digital transformation that is underpinning our economic recovery,” says Kevin Marshall, Microsoft Ireland’s head of education. “Cloud technologies are now critical to every industry and permeate every part of our society and as such, we know that many of the in-demand jobs in both the technology sector, but also increasingly traditional sectors require cloud skills.”
There is a mutually-beneficial relationship here. Tech companies need certain skills, and people need a way to earn a living and are willing to put the time into doing it.
But while much of the focus in recent months has been on retraining and upskilling in the face of the pandemic, there is an argument for starting a lot younger when it comes to instilling an interest in technology. Europe Code Week runs until October 24th and offers participants a chance to dip their toes into coding and learning how to use technology to help them achieve their goals.
Apple has offered a more gentle path to learning to code through Swift Playgrounds, an app that introduces would-be app developers to its open-source programming language.
Its latest is a series of new resources aimed at primary-school learners and teachers,aimed at a younger age group, from five years old up to college. Everyone Can Code Early Learners is an activity guide that helps introduce coding to students in their early years, as they are first developing computational thinking skills. Activities are engaging and often off-screen, allowing children to discover coding basics through dance moves and discussions.
A key goal for the programme is more inclusive design for apps, encouraging children to think about how the apps they design could satisfy the needs of different parts of society. A one-hour Inclusive App Design activity introduces students to the world of coding and app development while also encouraging them to think about how app development can be more inclusive.
“Coding and app design are essential literacies. These skills help students think critically and creatively, regardless of whether they go on to be app developers,” says Susan Prescott, Apple’s vice-president of education and enterprise marketing. “Our resources and support for educators are designed to prepare students to be the innovators of tomorrow, whether they’re just getting started or ready to build their first apps.”
Microsoft, while offering ways for adults to train for careers in Stem, has also tried to foster an interest in technology among younger users. Its DreamSpace hub in Dublin shifted to digital while the pandemic lingers, offering virtual experiences to students from primary school and older to demonstrate the power of technology in shaping the future.
In September, the company unveiled its Ireland's Future is Mine programme, a digital-skills competition for primary schools that challenges students across the island of Ireland to use Minecraft: Education Edition to help shape Ireland's sustainable future. The idea is to use the software to promote creativity, collaboration and problem-solving.
Microsoft has teamed up with the national broadcaster’s child-focused channel RTÉJr for the project, offering a series of six-weekly lessons online at rte.ie/learn. Linked to the curriculum, the lessons will cover subjects including English, maths, science, geography and more.
“This inclusive competition will help ensure that young people across the country can experience how technology can shape their world and how the skills they develop can reshape Ireland’s future,” says James O’Connor, vice-president of Microsoft International Operations.
The schools will go head to head in the competition, with the final planned for April next year.