Tech companies may hire their fair share of hoodie-wearing developers with shiny new computer science degrees, but you don’t have to give up on your dream of working in tech if that description doesn’t fit you. Chicago tech employees come from all kinds of backgrounds, and there are many avenues to pursue for those looking to get in. We asked employees at five Chicago tech companies how they ended up where they are today.
Through a developer apprenticeship program
Kelly Steensma, Full Stack Software Developer at UrbanBound
“I love the idea of building something from nothing,” said Kelly Steensma, Full Stack Software Developer at UrbanBound. “I get excited dreaming of the increased efficiencies one small piece of code can bring to a problem or task. It's an addicting energy that I haven't been able to find in any other industry.”
Prior to joining UrbanBound as a full-stack developer Steensma founded her own company and ran it for eight years. After pivoting her company and selling it in 2013, Steensma entered a software development apprenticeship at 8th Light — a software consulting company — to get deeper into the nuts and bolts of the industry.
“The eight years I spent building and growing a startup taught me that I had a lot to learn when it came to building stable software that could scale as a business grew,” said Steensma. “Building good software is hard, much harder than it looks on the surface. It can take years to feel the repercussions of a software decision. Experience, knowledge and best practices go a long way to helping make good decisions.”
She eventually grew to miss the sense of ownership she had had at her own company and started looking around for startup developer opportunities. Equipped with a laundry list of requirements for a potential employers, she wanted to work for a startup that had good software development practices, and that was at a stage where it was already clear that there was a market for its product.
In UrbanBound, she’s found everything she wanted from an employer.
“There is energy in the air every day I walk into the office. Each day brings new challenges, opportunities and ideas. People are invested. We celebrate each success no matter how small,” said Steensma. “It can be chaotic at times, but it's a good chaos. It's the smell of change. It makes work fun and exciting.”
From a web developer side gig
Nate Johnson, Front End Architect at Cars.com
Originally from rural North Dakota, Nate Johnson’s last job before entering the digital tech world was as an actor on Mamma Mia’s national Broadway tour, playing more than 100 locations throughout North America. After two and a half years on the road, Johnson’s first daughter was born, and he decided to make a career switch that would allow him to spend more time with his family.
Always fascinated by computers and technology, Johnson had long been doing web design work on the side to support his acting career.
“Anyone in the entertainment industry knows that you need to have a good backup job to offset the cost of being an actor while you’re finding your way,” said Johnson.
After working for a while as lead developer and department manager for a boutique web shop, Johnson was recruited by an external recruiter to join the Cars.com team in 2012 after talking with a range of tech companies. While the transition from professional stage actor to developer may seem like a major shift to some, Johnson sees a strong parallel between programming and artistic pursuits.
“As technologists, I think we’re all artists,” said Johnson. “We’re constantly creating beautiful solutions to complex problems and we make the music that delivers experience to our end-users.”
To Johnson, working as a developer at Cars.com is another way of surrounding himself with creative people who are given the opportunity to take risks, use their imaginations, look for solutions, and share their results with others.
"I’d tell anyone aspiring to join this workforce that focusing on technology will only give you half the skillset you need to succeed, and that having a well-rounded background will give a leg-up on your competition,” Johnson said.
David Gold, Customer Support Manager at SteelBrick
Having spent years as a commercial property manager for over 20 buildings in Evanston and Highland Park, David met SteelBrick CEO Godard Abel when G2 Crowd, another company founded by Abel, moved into a building he managed. Fascinated by the atmosphere at the review platform’s office, he stopped by their premises more often than those of his other tenants.
When Abel founded SteelBrick, he moved them into the same building. Observing the culture, and watching the newfound company rapidly growing out of the space, Gold set his sights on a job with soon-to-be the quote-and-billings giant.
“Steelbrick was only in my building for a few months, but I knew right away that I wanted to be a part of this special company,” said Gold. “I had a non-compete clause with my employer that I could not work for a tenant for at least 6 months, but if a tenant moved out that clause was no longer in effect. Steelbrick moved out of my building the last day of September 2014 — I wasted no time and emailed Ted the next day begging for a job!”
Despite high initial expectations, Gold said reality has surpassed what he was hoping for.
Moving clientside from an agency
Kristen Cho, Digital Marketing Director at SpotHero
Kristen Cho came to SpotHero by way of a number of Chicago’s digital marketing agencies — most recently DigitasLBi, where she led a performance media team. After 10 years at various agencies, she decided that she needed a change. On a whim she applied for the marketing director job at SpotHero, figuring that the world of fast-growing startups would offer great chances to learn and grow professionally.
“Working at SpotHero is half what I thought it would be, and half completely different,” said Cho. “Certain aspects of my job are very well defined and match the job description, but I’m also getting to dig into areas and follow interests that never came up in the interview or onboarding process. Figuring out those new things is a fun challenge. There are a lot of processes to be built too, but I like having a hand in building them.”
Cho was drawn to SpotHero for two reasons: the problem it solves and its approach to customer service. She had a bad first experience using the app, but became a loyal customer after sorting out the issue with a customer representative. She enjoys working at a startup because of the company’s agility, and her team’s positivity and belief in its mission.
“There’s a real sense that we can accomplish a lot and make a difference,” said Cho.
Through a coworker's referral
Carmen Bertucci, Director of Business Solutions at Productive Edge
Carmen Bertucci got started with computers at an early age, taking his computer apart and programming in BASIC in grade school. During the dot com boom, he left college and took on a job in tech.
“My parents gave me the, ‘If you’re not going to go to school you better get a job’ speech,” said Bertucci. “I needed a job, and this was the easiest route to employment for me. I think in the back of my mind I was always destined to work in technology in some capacity.”
After moving from role to role in various tech companies, Bertucci eventually ended up as a VP at JPMorganChase, where he was involved in the company’s agile transformation. He was also involved with recruiting and internship partnerships with local colleges.
A coworker at JPMorganChase referred Bertucci to a recruiter for Productive Edge — a consultancy. Drawn to the company’s vision, its leadership’s openness about needs for improvement and the opportunity to build a new business analytics department from scratch, he decided to return to the startup world. At Bertucci’s recommendation, Productive Edge hired his coworker too.
Bertucci is currently involved with hiring, mentoring, and process improvement for employees in the consumer facing and business side of the company. He also helps clients in working out the best solutions to fit their needs.
“This is one of the few roles where it’s been exactly what I hoped it would be,” said Bertucci. “It’s very challenging and fast-paced, but rewarding in many ways. I knew I was tired of the bureaucracy of the large financial world, and this was just my style. I had spent a good amount of time both in consulting and in a company of almost exactly this size, so the broad strokes felt just like home.”
Images via participating employees.
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