This article was originally posted in Tech in Asia.
The tech industry in Asia is currently experiencing exponential growth that gives no indication of slowing down anytime soon. With its seemingly limitless possibilities and boundless potential, many are getting restless in their corporate jobs in favour of striking entrepreneurial gold.
But what if you didn’t start out in tech and want to make the switch? I had a chat with Jonathan Lau, who recently quit his law career to join a tech startup. Based in Hong Kong, Jon currently works for Delivery Republic as a product manager and software engineer. His anecdotal insights might help inspire others looking to make the switch.
Jon’s story: from law to tech
Jon grew up in a household of lawyers, bankers, doctors and accountants. It seemed pretty intuitive to him that he should apply for law school. Following his graduation, he spent his next five years providing legal advice on IPOs and commercial transactions.
During that time, he seemed to always be looking for opportunities and hobbies outside of law.
He signed up one day with a team at Startup Weekend in Hong Kong with no idea what to expect. Although his team didn’t win, he enjoyed the company of the many like-minded, passionate people there. He was hooked. This fuelled his desire to make a career switch.
He worked up the courage to quit law, fly to New York, and complete an intense coding bootcamp. It was there that he won his first hackathon. By the end of it, his passion and tenacity helped land him several job offers from startups in New York.
Nobody said it’d be easy
Before Jon quit law to focus on his startup ambitions, he joined a prominent Hong Kong startup as a cofounder with the intention to juggle his interest and his career. It turned out to be a very costly mistake.
“I wasn’t fully equipped for the job,” Jon admits, “nor did I have sufficient time to devote to the startup, which sometimes made me feel like I was putting in the hours of several people.”
After a few months, Jon and the startup cofounders parted ways. Jon recounts this as a sobering experience and invaluable reminder that one needs to know his own value proposition, regardless of industry. For Jon, he realised that he needed to really focus his energy on coding, above all else.
Nothing in your resume is a “wasted” stint
Your previous “unrelated” jobs can provide you with the lateral knowledge and skills that put you in a position of advantage.
Regardless of your career or education, many companies encourage lateral thinking and offer novel skills or a fresh perspective that could be your ticket into the next hot tech company. Google recruits its candidates from a full spectrum of individuals and bright minds, including everyone from athletes to models. Slack Technology’s CEO Stuart Butterfield famously said that his philosophy degree provided him the business acumen that helped him start two groundbreaking, multimillion dollar companies.
Jon believes that the extremely competitive mindset he picked up from his law background translated well with his switch into the tech industry. His rigorous law training that emphasised foreseeing problems and potential situations before they occurred, as well as professionalism in a client facing position was also very much welcomed in the tech industry.
“As much as I’d like to think of myself as a full blooded tech hipster,” Jon notes, “a large part of my day-to-day value comes from laying the proper ground work with my freelance clients, such as making sure we’re comfortable with our terms of service and agreeing on the fine print, as well as translating business needs into technical requirements for other engineers on my team.”
Coding, though not essential, can come in handy in the tech industry
Compared to just five years ago, learning to code as a complete beginner has become much easier and far more accessible, thanks to online resources such as codecademy and Code School. These are great ways to get a broad understanding of development tools and languages while discovering where your interests lie.
Jon believes that coding for a living can be extremely rewarding, but can also be extremely painful if you don’t enjoy it on a fundamental level. “One way to be sure is to pick up enough knowledge to build a simple app of your own,” Jon says, “if you find yourself enjoying the process, then coding might just be your kind of thing.”
Just like learning a language (technically you are), you’ll do best when put in a position where you’re focused and immersed. Jon decided to join Fullstack Academy, which he says turned out to be one of the best decisions he’s ever made.
For those on the edge of making the switch, Jon offers a final bit of advice.
“My first failed start up taught me a very a valuable lesson. If you are not currently in tech and are looking to make the jump, put in the hours outside of your day job to become knowledgeable in some area of technology; be it learning to code, digital marketing, design or anything else that you find interesting.
Due to the fact that there is such a shortage of talent everywhere in the world, gaining some basic skills that are immediately relevant to startups will go a long way in helping you get your foot in the door. It also demonstrates to potential employers or co-founders that you’ve got grit and passion, qualities that are essential to success in the startup world.”
Is your startup itch coming from a particular problem dear to your heart that you’re passionate about solving? Or is it just because tech startups are grabbing headlines at the moment? Come up with a clear answer, but it should be a warning sign if your soul searching leads you to a conclusion that you’re looking simply to chase the next unicorn.