Software developer career advice: How to make cross-industry moves

In a tight talent market, a software developer career can make cross-industry move -- even though employers prefer domain-specific expertise. Here's how.

Hiring companies looking for IT professionals typically prefer software developers with industry-specific experience. But in a tight talent market, they are willing to bet on developers outside their business domain -- provided the developer comes armed with the right attitude.

That sums up what hiring experts said when asked to what extent industry-specific skills matter in a software developer’s career move. Job listings for software developers specify, "industry experience preferred," noted John Shiple, head of FreelanceCTO, a consultancy that staffs development teams for startup companies, among other services. "[Hiring companies] would love to say 'industry experience required.' But they can't because software developer skills are in high demand right now," he said.

As a developer, you can overcome the barrier to switching industries, but you cannot overcome it accidentally.

Luke Melia,
co-founder, Yapp Inc.

In some business sectors, domain-specific experience is crucial, and that's as it should be, said Shiple. "In banking, you want developers with security experience, people who understand PCI, the compliance mandate that governs the payment card industry. Developers who bring industry experience to the job are typically rewarded with salaries that are 10% to 20% higher, depending on their negotiating skills, Shiple said.

Luke Melia, co-founder of NYC startup Yapp Inc., which provides software for consumers building their own mobile apps, agreed that regulated industries like finance present "a pretty steep learning curve" for developers outside that domain. But when hiring developers for Yapp, he does not insist on candidates with consumer mobile app experience. Instead, he looks for certain traits in potential hires: passion, the right attitude and the willingness to master new skills -- both technical and business.

Melia noted that software developers have always operated in two domains. "The first is the technology platform and the skills they bring to that. The second is the domain of the problem you are solving." Conventional wisdom says the best job candidates have both the technology skills and the industry experience. But that's not always true, said Melia. "As a developer, you can overcome the barrier to switching industries," he said. "But you cannot overcome it accidentally."

Hiring experts offer advice for those on the software developer career path and those making cross-industry career moves.

Approach potential employers honestly -- and make your case

When Melia began recruiting software developers for Yapp, he received a resume from a colleague he had worked with 10 years back. "He had led teams at major insurance companies and his experience was impressive," recalled Melia. "The candidate asked 'hey, would Yapp be interested in me?'"

For Melia, the answer was no -- but not because the candidate lacked industry-specific experience. He was just too passive, Melia said of his former colleague. "He didn't express any excitement about Yapp, about the market for consumer mobile apps." Instead, he just sat back and assumed his insurance industry experience would translate well.

"If he had said 'Look, I'm burned out on the insurance industry. I am really excited about what you're doing. I want to work in an industry people care about.' I would have been interested," said Melia. But the candidate didn't seem passionate about anything. There was no sense of excitement, no sense of how his considerable skills might apply to the startup his former colleague had co-founded, Melia said.

Ask potential employers what problems they are trying to solve

Johanna Rothman, author of Hiring Geeks That Fit, isn't big on industry-specific experience when it comes to hiring software developers. In fact, she steers clear of candidates who have it. "The more industry-specific experience a developer has, the more the developer is mired in the 'we've always done it this way' mindset," said Rothman, who consults with companies on staffing and managing technical teams. "That's okay if you want [software] products that are the same as everyone else's. When you want to break through, you need other ideas."

Software developer candidates that impress her ask what problems the potential employer is trying to solve, and then focus on how their skills and experience apply to that problem, said Rothman. "Technical people … are not just the sum of their technical knowledge; they are the sum of both what they know and how they apply that knowledge to the product," she said, in the preface to Hiring Geeks That Fit.

Demonstrate your business savvy

Even if you lack experience in a potential employer's business sector, let hiring managers know you can interact effectively with business stakeholders around the application development process, said Shiple. "There is no room for developers who don't listen to business people -- who go back and build the application the way they want," said Shiple. That is an old stereotype, but developers can't get away with that anymore, no matter how good their technical skills, he said. "I have no respect for software engineers who think they know better what the business wants."

Melia looks for that trait in potential hires, too. "It's a huge motivator," he said. "You want developers who are aligned with the business and with the users of the application." He rules out candidates that appear to have a tendency to isolate themselves.

Learn new technologies -- off the job

Another thing that helps software developers make cross-industry career moves is investing in new technology skills on their own time. Melia's team uses Ember, an open source tool for creating Web applications, and the group has worked hard to establish a reputation as one of the best Ember teams in NYC. The technology does not have a big following yet, so Melia encourages developers working with it to come by Yapp's offices for help when they run up against challenges. "The visits can be distracting," he said. But the time invested pays off for Melia and his team. "We get to see who the up and coming Ember developers are -- people who are willing to learn the technology on their own time," he said. "And that's a great recruitment strategy for us."

This was first published in December 2012

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