Here's how to parlay your existing skills into tech gold.

Janelle Harris
Nov, 06, 2015

Technology is pervasive, insistent and, without a doubt, necessary. As reported by U.S. News & World Report, by 2020, there will be some 10 million STEM job openings. Even if you don’t want to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering or math, you’ll likely need to stay ahead of the STEM curve in your own industry. Here’s our guide to exploring.

TRANSFORMING INTO A MID-CAREER TECH MASTER
There’s a myth born of Silicon Valley’s invention-rich culture that innovation is the exclusive property of young people. But the hero in every success story isn’t a twentysomething who created a million-dollar Web business right out of college. In fact, a recent study concluded that twice as many tech company founders are older than 50 than are younger than 25.

As the projected retirement age for Americans continues to rise, from 60 in 1995 to 66 in 2014, experienced Black women are setting new goals and ascending to greater professional accomplishment. Some are launching businesses, while others are pushing for corporate achievement, but for both groups, trepidation about technology is no longer an option, says 43-year-old Darlene Gillard, partner and partnership director at digitalundivided, a social enterprise committed to helping entrepreneurs of color build scalable and investable companies.

Gillard started in fashion editorial, later established her own PR company (Gillard Jones Agency) and is now in her new role as a techie. Her first assignment in the field was baptism by fire: She had to produce Focus100, a conference for Black female thought leaders in the industry she was just learning. After a job well done, she cofounded digital undivided in 2013. “My business partner was already in tech and helped guide me through the transition period. She was my entry point [to the field],” she says. “Finding affinity groups and becoming part of the tech community is ideal for women of color in particular. They could also go to a colleague, friend, business associate or relative who’s in the field for advice.”

DETERMINE WHAT’S EASIEST TO UNDERSTAND, AND BUILD ON IT.

“Whether it’s exploring the cloud, trying a new app or building a Web site for your business, figure out what’s most comfortable for you, and start there,” says Gillard.

TAKE ADVANTAGE OF ONLINE RESOURCES.

Free sites like khanacademy.com and codeschool.org and the low-cost udemy.com are assets to students of all ages. The self-paced tutorials take the intimidation out of the learning process. For a more intensive education, Hackbright Academy for women offers full and part-time tech and engineering programs. And organizations like Metis and Opportunity Fund earmark scholarships for women and minorities interested in their coding boot camps.

NARROW YOUR FOCUS, THEN CONQUER YOUR GOAL.

Adding tech training to your arsenal can make your credentials shine even brighter. When Kimm D. Lett, 38, a former paralegal and research associate, left the legal field to follow her passion for digital media and advocacy, she also upgraded her tech savvy. “I knew learning HTML was necessary,” she says. So she took a webinar at Women Impacting Public Policy and attended classes at New Organizing Institute in Washington, D.C. “Plus, I wanted to expand my résumé, since most positions in advocacy require at least basic knowledge.” Now a digital media strategist and consultant, Lett is using her tech skills to look for a position at an advocacy organization.

BECOMING AN ENTERPRISING MILLENNIAL

The largest generation in the work force, millennials are tech literate and perpetually plugged in. Jewel Burks, 26, cofounder and CEO of Partpic, which produces an application that allows users to identify the replacement parts for machines by snapping a photo, agrees that millennials’ solution-driven approach to business brings a fresh perspective.

Burks believes that any career can be enhanced with tech knowledge. “Just like you’d be able to communicate with more people if you took the time to learn a new spoken language, coding can help you communicate with developers and engineers,” she explains. “I learned the basics of HTML and CSS so I could better under- stand the front-end developers I’d have to hire and be able to make simple fixes to our Web site without having to pay someone for every little change.”

MAX OUT ON MEETUPS.

The value of networking cannot be overstated. Meetup.com is a hotbed of tech activity, from local Women Who Code meetings to HBCU hackathons that bring programmers and designers together. Gatherings like Tech808, a hip-hop-inspired entrepreneurship conference, and Platform Summit, which unifies thinkers and doers from underrepresented groups in the industry, are other platforms that foster critical relationships.

BE SELF-SERVING WITH YOUR ONLINE TIME.

The cool thing about social media is that it’s easier than ever to establish yourself as a thought leader in your field, says Burks. Use live broadcasting apps Periscope or Medium (a blog publishing platform) to create a central hub for your postings. “Given that the content is appropriate, you can add links to your résumé to display this work to potential employers,” Burks adds. That is especially helpful if you don’t have a portfolio yet.

TAP INTO THE RIGHT RESOURCES.
Organizations such as Code2040 assist young Black and Latino folks in getting into the tech game. The fellowship program helps students find summer jobs in Silicon Valley and San Francisco and partners with tech companies to assist them in hiring diverse talent. You can also find grants for work that incorporates tech via databases like Foundation Grants to Individuals Online.

RAISING A STEM-SAVVY STUDENT

Students who regularly participate in STEM-focused after-school programs demonstrate heightened critical thinking, methodical problem-solving and excellent comprehension, according to a Noyce Foundation study.

“What’s great about STEM is that it’s rooted in discovery. Mistakes are promoted as part of the learning process,” explains Felecia Hatcher, founder of Black Tech Week and Code Fever, a nonprofit that intersects technology and business to serve minority students in South Florida.

NURTURE KIDS’ ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRITS EARLY.

“There is a saying that kids can legally start a business before they can legally work for someone, but there’s not enough conversation about kids and teens monetizing the skills they’re learning while they’re still young,” Hatcher says. Encourage your child to dream up inventions, make app purchases, or enter youth tech and entrepreneurship competitions to give them a business platform (and a chance to make some money).

PUSH EXPLORATION AT HOME

Learning software programming languages like Scratch, Go and Alice isperfectforyoungbeginners.“Ilove bubble.is, too,” Hatcher says of the Web andmobileapplicationframework.“It’sa bit more robust, but it’s great for building apps around kids’ interests.”

CUSTOMIZE YOUR CHILD’S STEM EXPERIENCE

Community and nonprofit organizations provide youth with informed experiences in tech, social entrepreneurism and philanthropy. Hack the Hood, for example, hires and trains young people of color to create Web sites for small businesses in their communities. Others like Black Girls Code, Techbridge and Girl Scouts’ Imagine STEM are dedicated to cultivating and diversifying girls’ participation in the field.

Janelle Harris is a writer, editor and entrepreneur in Washington, D.C.

This article was originally published in the November issue of ESSENCE, on newsstands now!

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