The Entrepreneur Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in America’s startup scene contribute answers to timely questions about entrepreneurship and careers. Today’s answer to the question, “How do you leverage a non-traditional background in a new role?” is written by Leah Belsky, vice president of global enterprise development at Coursera.
My first step toward a tech career was admitting that law was not for me. I was in law school, trudging through narrow, monotonous projects during a summer job with a Silicon Valley firm. All around me, up-and-coming tech companies were reshaping the world. But as much as I longed to join them, there was no obvious way for me to make the leap. I had no background in programming, product management, or any other skill these organizations seemed to need.
Fast-forward a few years, though, and I’m an executive at a top ed-tech company. I didn’t reinvent myself as a developer; instead, I leveraged a few core skills that are common to almost all industries.
Whether you’re moving from law to tech, finance to marketing, medicine to teaching, or between two other seemingly dissimilar fields, these four things will make the jump much easier:
Experience building from the ground up
No matter what industry you’ve been working in, chances are you have some experience with building new things. Knowing how to start from scratch and make things happen takes persistence and commitment, and is something every single career path requires.
Throughout my career in and prior to law, I formulated ideas, launched projects—some organizational, some creative—and collaborated with teams to iterate and build together. Now, I’m surrounded by people who build tech products through a similar process of research, design, and iteration.
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For me, I’ve found my niche in building teams. The first challenge I faced in my current role was building a sales and business development team from the ground up—and I approached it in the same way I would have approached launching any project. I took stock of the challenge we were trying to conquer, thought about the types of people, skills, and personalities we might need, and took steps to build a team culture that supported learning. Now, I’m constantly working with our team to refine our internal and external operations. We’ve come a long way in a very short time, and overall, we’re thriving.
The ability to learn constantly
If there’s one thing that’s common across professions today, it’s the value of learning (or, if you prefer the negative spin, the risks of not learning). New methods and standards emerge every day, precedents change, and tools are refined. We’re all constantly re-mastering the skills we need to do our jobs, and if you’re good at learning in one industry, you’ll be able to transfer that aptitude to any other.
In my case, for example, I’m coming back up to speed as a revenue team leader after a few years in other functions. Even in that short period, the tools I’m mastering have evolved significantly—especially in the areas of analytics and automation—but my approach embraces the same tried and true methods I used in law school: reading, asking questions, and testing my understanding against various use cases. Just as in other fields, it’s likely that some of what I’m learning will be obsolete in a year or less, but the important thing is that I can re-up my expertise anytime and be intentional about doing so.
Willingness to roll up your sleeves and do what it takes
After my first long, unhappy summer in law, I called a friend from Yale who had launched an open-source video startup. “I want to join your company,” I told him bluntly. “I’ll do anything you need. I need to get out of law.”
He brought me on part time as an unpaid intern, making calls to clients and relaying feedback to the development team. It was by no means a fancy gig, but it was a chance to get a foot in the door. I stuck it out, working hard and learning as much as I could. I ended up staying with the company for five years, and by the time I left, I was managing 160 people as part of the senior leadership team.
Any time you’re doing something new, regardless of the industry, there’s a good chance you’ll have to start at or near the bottom. But even seemingly monotonous tasks—editing briefs, making calls, digging through files—provide an opportunity to learn and prove your skills. If you demonstrate that you’re game to do what it takes to add value to the team, you’ll move up fast.
Is tech different from law? Yes, absolutely. For one thing, I enjoy it more. But if you look beneath the surface and consider the core skills and character traits that make you successful as a leader, you can usually find plenty of overlap. If you’re a talented builder, lifelong learner, and you’re willing to put in the hours, you can succeed in tech, law, or any other career.