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Ask HN: How can I move away from engineering?
44 points by nomy99 on May 19, 2021 | hide | past | favorite | 41 comments
I want to switch careers but I'm not sure what I can possibly do. I have been in the field for 11 years. Anyone changed fields? How did you do it? Was it worth it?

After 22 years coding, in 2001 the dotcom bust ejected me into finding an alternate income/career. I explored various options sequentially from getting my used car salesman and real estate licenses without any success - qualified to be a mortgage broker just as the subprime crisis hit. I also worked on trying to set up web commerce trading mostly in used gear from the dotcom bust which just about paid the mortgage for a couple of years. Also gave $20/hr golf lessons via Craigslist and developed some sudoku websites that still earn a modest income from adsense today. Eventually in 2007 I dusted off my resume and got a coding job again and this was a huge relief to have a regular income and health benefits again etc. SO maybe the coding job isn't so bad after all, but you won't see that until you find out how hard it is to make a living in other ways. If you want to move into management it seems to me in retrospect that that is all about getting things done so maybe try and optimize that.

If you want to stay in the technology sector...

* Technical Trainer (usually requires travel)

* Sales Engineer

* Project/Product Manager

These would assume you're reasonably good at public speaking and/or have solid interpersonal skills.

I've been in IT for 15 years and recently started learning to repair and shine leather shoes, as in my city there are only 2 places that do this and they don't speak English (Europe), so they're missing out on the expat population. I'm not sure if this will be my long-term plan, but I'm making money on the side and it's something I don't need a storefront for. Hoping to retire from full-time IT in another 5 years or so, so maybe this will be one of the ways I generate income.

Are you okay with staying in the same field so you can still leverage all your experience?

I recently (Dec. 2020) switched to Engineering Manager from Engineering Lead, and it's been a pretty welcome change over all. I was pretty weary about stepping away from code (it's been my life's work for 20 years), but it has opened the door to learn a whole host of interpersonal skills that I had not previously valued that much. It has also put me in a position to help mentor and guide my direct reports (all devs) in our 1:1 meetings that I have not previously had as much of a chance to do even as lead. It's been very rewarding, and if you're looking for a way out of the day to day code itself (but still in the ecosystem), it's a great option to try.

What kind of Engineering do you do? Depending on your degree, a legal career might be possible.

When I'd started college a long time ago, I couldn't decide between Computer Science or pursuing a legal career. I went with CS, I didn't love the CS program, so I switched to Electrical Engineering and eventually got my masters.

As it turns out, I ended up in a software career, but about 5 years in, I wondered about the road not taken, so I looked at what it would take to get into a legal career. Many law firms hire Engineers to do patent work and will pay your salary AND pay for you to attend law school, so I applied for roles and got one at a big law firm. I ended up not pursuing it all the way for personal reasons, but it was definitely a possible path to switch from Engineering.

I'm a software engineer. I have an Electrical Engineering degree from an ivy league school (if that matters. Personally I think it doesn't).

I am VERY interested in your comment regarding law. Thank you. Can you give me any references on some firms I can contact?

The job title is generally called Technology Specialist, Patent Technology Specialist, or something similar. Here's an overview from one firm: https://www.wolfgreenfield.com/careers/technology-specialist...

My experience was a while ago, but having actual work experience and an EE degree made me VERY employable. My firm had about 25 people in this role, and only two of us had work experience, and I was the ONLY one with a degree in something other than bio or chem. The world has changed a bit since then, so YMMV.

With an Engineering degree (CS doesn't count), you'd also be eligible to sit for the Patent Bar and become a registered Patent Agent as well. As for the job itself, it's helping the patent attorneys understand inventions, search for prior art, draft the patents and claims, etc.

It's not a very team oriented job, which is why I left. I did have my own office with a great view and a secretary (patent secretary is a well-paid, specialized job), which was nice.

It's been discussed a few times on here, but one way is through technical sales. For me it was that or management. I was a coder for 25 years. At some point, it doesn't matter if you are still getting better at code. There's a ceiling there that doesn't seem to budge. Sales has given me a lot of money and free time for my family.

Make more in sales than engineering?

What do you sell?

Closed-source software for aerospace and industrial.

That's a very specific market, and I suppose your 25 years of experience in the field helps you market it. I don't think I can sell anything (other than my skills), which I don't want to do anymore.

"I don't think I can sell anything (other than my skills)"

That's my problem, I don't want to sell my time, I want to sell a product/service, but do not sell my time as a consultant.

Read the book Inspired by Marty Cagan. If that doesn't get you excited about Product Management I don't know what will. Having 11 years of experience in tech will help tremendously but you'll need to have some awesome soft skills too.

Product Management always seems like a logical step for technical people on the surface but the reality is different for your average engineer and their skill set/personality type.

This is a great read on switching.


'Product Owner' is, to me, a much easier role to step into from being a dev -- just a much lower barrier to entry, imo.

whereas 'Product Manager' would generally require more experience/expertise, imo -- tho there are 'Junior Product Manager' roles out there.

imo, if you know how to run a standup, and can talk semi-intelligently about how to prioritize user stories, can use Jira, etc., you can get hired as a product owner, esp in a contract-to-hire situation.

There's plenty you can do, but you have to figure out what appeals to you, the tradeoffs, path, etc. I found that the book "Designing your life" really helped me. It encourages talking to people who are already in different fields / roles that interest you. When I did this, sometimes I found myself saying, "yes that sounds amazing." Other times I found myself saying, "ugh that's not what I thought it was at all." Eventually I decided that the best move for me was to sales engineering. It's engineering-adjacent so I can make use of my years of experience, but it's people-oriented and has tons of variety. You'll probably have a different final answer, but I highly recommend the techniques in the book. You may even find yourself a job you're excited about through the process of talking to people about what they do. https://www.amazon.com/Designing-Your-Life-Well-Lived-Joyful...

Sales engineering always sounded great to me as well, and the few times I got a chance to participate in the sales process as a SWE it was always very interesting: meet new people, do work that is challenging but not mentally as draining as being torn apart in a code review, hang out after work with energizing and fun sales folks, ...

Just to collect one random datapoint, do you work for an enterprise-focused tech company? And how much travel do you do outside the pandemic? What would be the “FAANGs” for a SWE turning into a sales engineer?

> do you work for an enterprise-focused tech company?

I work as a sales engineer for Databricks. As a SWE I had built cloud infrastructure like the equivalent of AWS S3 for the companies I worked for. So the technical nature of the product and customers appealed to me and made my skillset valuable to the role.

> how much travel do you do outside the pandemic?

I have not had this job outside the pandemic. I'm NYC-based, and my understanding is that I would have traveled by subway to meet clients quite often, but plane travel would have been only a few times a quarter.

> What would be the “FAANGs” for a SWE turning into a sales engineer?

When figuring out who you want to work for, I would suggest selling a product that you like to customers you would like to work with. If you like the product and the customers the job can be a joy. If not, it can be a slog. You have a huge leg up if you already have experience with the product or came from the industry that will be using the product. Another important thing to look at is the sales culture of the organization. Some organizations have aggressive sales cultures where the "win" is what matters regardless of all else. Other sales organizations are more focused on making their customers successful. As a former SWE, the customer success sales culture appeals far more to me.

One thing I really like about working for Databricks is that, while we do make commission, it's a pooled commission. So I get compensated on the performance of the team, not just myself. So it fosters a very collaborative atmosphere. We're always jumping in to help each other out. Individual commissions can make for a cut-throat sales culture. I probably make less money than I would with individual commissions, but I'm much happier. So that's another thing to look at: how people are compensated.

I've done some sales engineering work -- a day or couple weeks at a time usually -- if someone is out of office, if I might be able to speak to some particulary tech/stack that the prospect had, etc.

I got bored pretty quickly, mainly with doing demos.

I continue to look at Sales Engineer-type roles because part of me likes the idea of SELLING LIKE A * FIEND, but I can't seem to get past the idea of becoming a 'demo monkey' again.

Even if there was plenty of stuff to do that was not demos, a single demo each day felt like, 'Why am I doing this and not the sales rep?'

It kind of made me think of the infamous Adam Smith quote -- doing the same one or few tasks over and over would lead you to become "as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become."

Some stuff was very technically sophisticated/nuanced, but most was not. I wonder if the orgs I worked for had just not optimized things, but I didn't see any obvious flaws in the process. POCs were all well-qualified, etc. Maybe the 'problem' was just that I might really only be needed to answer one or two questions during a sales presentation/demo, but you had to be there for the whole 30/60 minutes, paying attention, doing the demo, etc.

If a sales rep was late to a call I'd think, "Well I'm just gonna do the whole call because at least then i won't be just a demo monkey."

It just seemed like you had to be ok with saying the same thing over and over, even if you had customized demos/POCs, etc.

I think my ideal role would be split between at least 4 functional areas -- e.g. 2 hours of my day to sales, 2 to sales engineer, 2 to devrel, 2 to customer success -- something like that.

To OP: I've switched to Project/Product Manager/Owner, and that was great-ish, back to tech support and such, and currently about to start doing a TAM role.

One option that never really appealed to me, but which seems to be a viable option if you've got some cash/equity, is doing the whole 'investor' thing. You can start buying/flipping houses, do the Airbnb thing, or find folks to invest with -- e.g. you can put $50k into a real estate/atm/etc-type fund, get ~20% return per year, paid out monthly, 7 year limit, etc.

There's also the idea of buying some existing business and running it. Small coffee shop. Small online shop. etc.

For another data point..

> Just to collect one random datapoint, do you work for an enterprise-focused tech company?

Yes, B2B company in the enterprise space primarily.

> And how much travel do you do outside the pandemic?

My team's role is a bit odd. Think it as a super technical / strategic overlay team. Rather than being assigned to a set of sales reps or to a region, we're attached to the entire US. As a consequence, we're brought in to help with high-end use cases where an individual sales engineer might see the use case once a quarter at max. We also moonlight on strategic discussions around product strategy.

That being said, pre-pandemic, we'd generally travel on-site with customers 5-10 times a year. Travel for more normal sales engineers is a bit more. Maybe, on average, 1.5 full days every 2 weeks. It'll vary by geography. New York / New Jersey focused folks 'travel' more since there's a higher density of customers. For example, pre-pandemic, I traveled down to NY a few hours by train and stopped by 4 customers 6 hours. This is the first software company that I've worked for but based on chatting with departed colleagues, this varies wildly. Some sales reps are, for lack of a better term, abusive of their engineers' time. Think being told on Monday that you need to fly for 3 hours for a meeting on-site on Wednesday with a marginally qualified prospect (aka it's not clear they want our software or have the budget to purchase it).

Feel free to ask if you have other questions.

Thanks a bunch!

Would it be hard to transition from that type of role back into a more product-engineering type position? Do you perceive there as being any stigma of engineering-adjacent roles?

If you're selling to engineers, it would be an easy transition. In fact, I could probably pretty easily find a job with one of my clients since they see me as an expert in the field. If you're selling to non-engineers it might be trickier. Just like with engineering, the next job you get can depend a lot on what you were doing previously. If you're coding or architecting as a sales engineer, you are set up well to do that in your next position. If you're selling a less technical product and are never really coding or architecting, then you will have to climb your way back if you want to return to SWE.

What type of engineering?

A few years back I got a job at a university cancer center doing bioinformatics. It required a massive paycut (I had savings), but was super fun to be on the steep part of a learning curve again learning a new domain and being a key part of a good team (I brought a decade+ of software engineering experience to a team of mostly biologists). 100% worth it. But did require saving a lot beforehand.

There are a lot of tangential career paths you can take with a background in engineering.

As a case study of one, I transitioned from engineer to being a technical writer last year. I now run a small agency, but I could have stayed employed in the field just as easily.

The money isn't quite as lucrative as in software engineering, but it's very livable, unlike many forms of writing.

You also don't have to limit yourself to dry documentation. Companies hire technical writers to do blog posts, case studies, and even marketing copy for technical products.

I've also had friends transition into fields like product management and network security, which might also be a nice change of pace. I wrote more about this here: https://www.freecodecamp.org/news/alternative-career-paths/

I'm in the same boat as you (9 years in). I hate my job.

I am basically just trying to suck it up until I can "retire" in 19 years, or get fired. Moving to a different role in the same company can help temporarily.

My recommendation is to slide into either networking or security. In both of those your software experience will be a useful advantage.

On the network side study for the CCNA to easily slide into jobs. You might take a temporary pay cut for that move but should be back to normal once you become a senior with a CCNP. Once you can write automation to configure switches or write automation improve routing table you will be worth far more than your peers.

Using your software experience to forensic tools, footprint automation, and better reports is huge and takes more experience than you would think from the outside looking in.

I think moving away completely from engineering is very hard, you've likely invested the best years for your professional development in that engineering skill. You can do it, but you will suck and likely will make a very bad compensation and regret it in the end.

I'd look into jobs that allows you to either work less or make engineering some sort of side activity, like in finance they need people that can write python, technical writing, law, biotech, product management etc. I believe in those areas you can even attain a similar compensation.

You give us very little information. Why do you want to change? What are you doing right now? What are your interests? What hobbies do you have? What directions are you thinking of?

I did move away from IT after a burnout. I did volunteer work during that time, and since a while I'm working there. It's not IT related, but of course I'm the IT guy there now. No problem btw. It's a small part of the job and I like doing it.

Was it worth it? I don't know, it's too early to tell. I'm considering going back to IT, but in another role, one with more human interaction.

Switched a couple of times. Its hard, initially. Switching fields feels like pulling tooth and and learning how to ride a bike at the same time. Good news is that its over before you know it. It helps if you can believe in your ability to get through the first few months. Definitely talk to someone who has made a similar switch. Just to prepare yourself mentally more than anything else. If you could share which field you are going to, maybe I can connect you with someone who went through the same journey.

I haven't decided which field I want to go to, but someone here mentioned law. That sounds fascinating to me, and a complete different thing. I am hoping my analytical skills can be used at a firm.

Ah I dont anyone who moved to law from tech. Sorry I wish I could help!

If you have a BS in electrical engineer/comp sci/compE or PhD in biochem, patent law is a field you can get into and have job opportunities either as a prosecutor (writing patents) or as a litigator (trial lawyer arguing in front of a jury and judge). Both have their pluses and minuses. Note, you can get a job in patent law in other engineering/science/non-science fields, but the job opportunities are a harder to find or get the opportunity.

Are you already working or can get a job at a large/growing company? Such companies have a need to fill very specific roles that are adjacent to engineering (for example: project/program manager, people/business manager, architect, writer, etc) and often make it easy for strong performers to make a lateral move. The advantage is the you can gain experience and refocus your career without having to start from scratch.

To what?

If you want to remain in the industry, but just switch job to something non-Engineering, like management, an MBA could work.

If you want to try something completely different, you may need to re-educate yourself, if it's a different professional job / licensed profession (nursing, medicine, accounting, etc.)

If you want to try something that doesn't need a new degree, well, try reaching out to your employer of choice, and explain your situation.

To be honest I think about moving to psychology/counselling but the irony is that it's so difficult to get into and the pay isn't as good even though one is helping people. I'm stuck in dev until I can figure another way out, apart from the sales/management route.

I'm going through a switch to (hopefully) research. I left my job and started a PhD. I'm not sure I'd recommend it, as it depends on what you're looking for; it's a sharp pay cut during the PhD, and not necessarily with more pay afterwards.

Has anyone moved to teaching? I'd be curious to know what your experience was like switching

I have not, but I can tell you that there are seemingly more than a few 'devrel' developer relations-oriented (aka developer evangelist) roles out there (sometimes in the Marketing Department, sometimes under Engineering), and the toughest ones to fill -- i suspect -- are ones that require live classroom teaching -- as opposed to just recording screencasts, etc.

and maybe that would actually require being in a physical corporate classroom-type setting at some point post-covid.

down here in Phoenix, a lot of (high?) schools seem to be hiring. i suspect it might be due to a mix of factors -- covid and charter schools being the leading two.

I did a master's degree in a subject that really interested me (info security). I was very lucky; my employer helped pay for the course, and didn't have to pay them back as long as I didn't leave for three years afterwards. Then I did a succession of contracts to gain wider experience.

Took a long time I guess to fully transition over, but was totally worth it as far as I'm concerned, and I was learning and growing over the whole period. Probably could have done it faster, but wasn't an issue for me.

The main thing I think is to figure out what really interests you or what kind of change you want in your work.

I think I am looking to move away from engineering as well. For me, I have moved passed building products and more interested in product development and business strategy.

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