Can a music teacher jump into tech? Carlos proves it’s totally possible. In this interview, he shares his pathway to his first tech job and talks about the challenges and advantages of a tech career.
Let’s start with your background. What did you do before you came to tech?
I’ve spent over 20 years in education as a music teacher and as a professional live and recording percussionist. My passion for music has always been a big part of my life and I still perform regularly. Since my teenage years, I've been heavily involved in different types of bands, stage-musicals and Broadway shows, touring nationally and internationally as well as collaborating with various artists. Eventually, I found myself working exclusively in live musical theater here in Chicago. Because of the short daily theater schedule, which was just 2 hrs per day 6 days a week, it allowed me the freedom to go back to college to earn my education degree and start teaching music in the public school system here. However, with the evolving landscape of education in the last 10 years, I felt it was time for a change around the pandemic in 2020. That's when another percussionist, teaching colleague and friend recommended the Careerist program to assist with my transition.
So it was a friend’s advice that convinced you to enroll in Careerist, right?
Absolutely, she's not only an amazing QA but also an exceptional percussionist and a fantastic teacher and mentor. She suggested Careerist as a perfect match for our expertise. Our backgrounds as professional musicians, our tendency to approach things creatively, intellectually and logically, coupled with the meticulous nature inherent in our skill set just seamlessly translate into roles like Quality Assurance. I then started Careerist in Jan of 2021.
Did you have any expectations about this profession? Did you still find them to be true after you started going deeper?
Well, I had a pretty good idea of what it was just from watching my friend, her job, and her trajectory, which really skyrocketed. That was pretty convincing. She’s got a great job, has an excellent salary, and is in a management position already, all within just a couple of years. She had always recommended this career path to me because she had also wanted to move on from her teaching career, so she understood the challenges of finding something that would utilize and capitalize on our existing skill sets.
Both of us made our way through Careerist, and I must say that there were never any surprises at any time. I felt very well prepared because of the support both Careerist and my colleague provided for me while I was progressing through the program. So yeah, I was very clear on everything, and the entire process from start to finish was exactly what Careerist said on their website and what my friend said I could expect.
Since you’re already in tech, do you have any plans for your next steps career-wise?
Well, I really like the place I'm at now. It's a not-for-profit, and it really corresponds with my own values. I really feel that they value someone like me with a fresh point of view and a varied background and lots of life experience to come in to give new perspectives to the job that we're doing in particular, which is a little QA, but it has elements of many other things in it. My general goal is to do the best I can here and to learn and contribute as much as I can at this job.
It seems like most of the people at this company have been there for a very long time, at least 10 years or more. So they do seem to be a company that values people and have a great mission. In my first weeks at the company, there appeared a “Wellness Week” from nowhere that I wasn’t aware of, so to my surprise I already had been given an extra week of paid vacation! They’re a keeper!
It sounds like a totally different level of care with paid time off initiated by the company. How do you like it?
It’s beneficial for sure. When looking at compensation rates, these things should be also considered. One should always take into account things like work-life balance and benefits. Indeed, you may make a compromise in some places—it was the starting salary in my case—but when you add in the benefits package and the time off, you find it really adds up and becomes a winning place to work.
Is it a remote job or an on-site one?
Well, starting off, the job posting said it was fully remote. I had a little trepidation because it was my first job, so I thought I wouldn't mind coming into the office at least a bit. It turned out that my manager likes to pop into the office twice a week. I haven’t switched to a full on-site role, but I actually enjoy being in the office a couple days per week.
It's a huge loft space in downtown Chicago for over 200 employees, but almost everybody’s remote now since the pandemic. There might be around a dozen people in the office at any one time. We have a little spot where we can sit down, commiserate, have meetings, etc. I have a triple-monitor set-up. I also have the exact same set-up at home that was sent to me so I have a mirror of my workspace at the facility and at home.
Some days, it's very important that we're in the office for meetings and things. I will say that I could probably do the job at this point 100 percent remotely with no problem, but I do value our connection. I'm the first QA they've hired, and they're looking to hire more because they do a lot. Being on site helps to communicate with the team faster, ask questions, get responses, and thus move tasks faster. It's been a perfect opportunity to utilize the skill sets I built at Careerist.
Let’s look back a bit and talk about your Careerist training experience. What are your personal highlights?
I particularly like to reinforce my learning. My attitude is, if I can't teach it to you, I haven't learned it. And so with every concept that we learned in each module of Careerist, the first thing I would usually do is watch the video again, and then sometimes I would play it in the car as I was driving, just letting it run in the background. This was also a technique given to me by my friend who went through Careerist. As musicians, we have this thing where we'll listen to music over and over again until we master it. So I listened to it so many times that I could almost recite what I was hearing in a lot of these things, and then I would reinforce it with my own additional learning. I went online, found tons of books and PDFs, and got into Reddit, which has a great QA subreddit, used Chat-GPT to break down concepts, and I would watch YouTube videos about issues I would need to study more. So that was my process: I watched each video twice or more and then reinforced it with other materials each time. Because of the sheer amount of little tests that you’ll end up taking when you're doing your job applications, it really helps so much to have all that background information that Careerist will provide.
You also had career coaching and support throughout your journey, didn’t you?
Well, throughout the process, the coaching team was in touch with me and everybody was always very receptive and responsive. I also had my mentor, who was great. Basically, she just touched base with me periodically while I was in the job search. The market is tough; it does take a lot of tenacity and patience. I had 531 applications that I put out there, and in the first email that I sent to my mentor, I was pretty upset and frustrated. I was so angry because it just felt like a dead end. By the time you finish the training a few months are gone and then you expect to get the job as soon as possible. I was really fortunate that it only took me a month and a half or 52 days in total, post-graduation when I actually landed the job and I know results can vary. But overall, the coaches, mentors, and teachers were awesome and happy to assist with any questions I had or support I needed.
Besides mentors and career coaches, how did you keep yourself motivated during your job search?
Again, my colleague was very supportive. I also have two other supportive friends who are longtime musicians I know from the scene. They have both been in IT since the late 80s–90s, so these guys are near retirement now. They were successful in the IT industry when computers were IBM 480s using Fortran and things like that. They were managers, owned software companies in the past, and have amazing insights now. They’ve had wonderful careers and are now lucky enough to be retiring relatively early and are just out there enjoying themselves jamming and playing music because they want to. Their stories of the ups and downs, successes and failures were and are still very inspiring for me. They’re just full of great advice overall.
There was that article that Max had presented about the QA being the happiest job in the world. That is definitely true. It's a pleasant job to be a part of because you feel you're a part of a team, the projects are great and your contribution definitely feels like you made a difference. The skill sets are sometimes tough; it's not always an easy job, and sometimes you've got to learn it as fast as you can. But I personally didn’t want a job that I could just step into and mindlessly go through. I needed stimulation, I have a strong desire to learn new things, and I need to always be growing. QA offered that.
You were in a very artistic field before. Some people think QA is something that is not creative at all. Is it technical/serious or does it still require some creativity in its own way?
Oh yeah definitely, there's a ton of creativity in it. Moreover, anybody going through the Careerist training will be given opportunities to build a great arsenal of creative approaches to address the issues that we face everyday. So take lots of notes! Normally we’re not given much except for a software build and are told “Go at it!”. Then, we get the fun and challenging task of finding creative ways to make it behave or not behave in the expected fashion.
So what does your daily routine look like?
When I'm working from home, I usually get up, shower, walk the dog, work out, eat, and then just sit down at my little office space. Basically, I start my day by logging in, checking my email, and checking Teams. We don't use Slack, which I was used to prior to this. At 10:00 a.m. I have a stand-up meeting with my manager and team. It's more of a check-in meeting but we're developing further into the Agile framework. Then, I sit down for the workday. I generally have all three screens open at any given time. I have Jira open, which will have my test cases that I need to be doing for the day and what their status is. Usually, I have Salesforce open, too, which is the CRM that we use, and that will be where my database material is for what we do. And then I'll have two other windows, one of which will be an Excel spreadsheet that will have my test cases, which is something that we did in Careerist, by the way. And then I'll have the actual software product.
Sounds like a busy routine. What is your project about?
We make forms for contractors in the not-for-profit clean-energy sector. It's for clean-energy, solar, lead abatement, and air quality improvement and mitigation for underserved communities of color. The contractors go into facilities and homes in environmental justice communities to improve their living spaces by replacing old lead pipes, installing solar energy, heat pumps, etc. The homeowner or resident pays nothing for the install or mitigation, it’s all paid for by state, federal and private funding. We create the forms and processes that they use when they go on-site. The customers or contractors generally have to fill out an online form of some type during the processes and so then those have to connect to our database in Salesforce. So what we're doing is testing these forms, making sure the forms connect to the database in the ways that they're supposed to.
I go through and create all the possible user test cases for these forms. I also have to do individual testbeds for each one of the positive or negative cases; the testbed is usually just some sort of unique pre-inputted data in the backend. If the test fails, all that data has to be re-imported again into the system. So the most stressful part is actually doing the test because once you pull that trigger, that bullet is gone. If it fails, you need a new bullet, and you have to make the bullet from scratch, which can take some time depending on the complexity of the project. I obviously like them to pass!
Sounds tricky but interesting. What tools do you use?
We use several. I use a software product called Miro, which is a flowchart software that we use for our logic pathways, and form mapping. Then we use Excel for spreadsheets and reports, Salesforce is our main CRM, and Jira is used for documentation. This is why I need three screens because I'm basically bouncing between them at all times.
Did you join an internship to gain a bit more hands-on experience? Was it useful for you?
I did and you know, I ended up using a lot of what we learned in the internship in lots of different ways. We know how to use Jira now, but Jira can be customized endlessly by companies. So, I had all kinds of neat little things and tricks in my internship and in the classes that I had come up with, but the Jira instance I’m currently using is totally different.
Building test cases in Excel was super helpful, and that paid off enormously because not everybody's going to use Excel or a spreadsheet for their test cases. Some people might use other software products, but overall breaking things down the way we did it in Careerist helps a lot. Knowing the processes of the entire QA methodology and how it relates to Agile is also super helpful. I have a notebook that's just packed with everything that we learned in there, and I still refer to it daily. A lot of what I'm doing is different in the sense that I'm not getting a build from a developer like we did in the internship or in the Careerist classes, where you are just given the requirements and the build, and you just test those areas. With the complexity that my new job has, if I hadn't really paid attention and worked hard in those classes at Careerist, I would have been sorely underprepared on my first day. Pretty much everything Careerist has taught us has really transferred into what I'm doing every day and made that transition so much easier!
How long have you been in the new role?
I’ve been there about 8 months, give or take.
Has your life changed a lot since you’ve started a new role?
I love my schedule. The number one positive aspect is the work-life balance for sure. I'm at the same salary I was at as a teacher with almost identical benefits.
Professionally there’s so much less stress. Even though sometimes stressful situations happen, they are stressful in a good way because we always team up and get the job done.
Teaching is extremely stressful and time-intensive. You're never off even in the summers. They say we get summers off, but you're taking classes, preparing for the next year, and doing other work-related stuff. As a musician, I was a band director. I used to do camp, performances, parades, and everything else. Quite often I wasn’t even paid for that. You just do it because you have to, because that's your job. I love the kids, and I love teaching, but I just didn't love the schedule. I was never able to be around my own kids or have any kind of social life.
Now I have so much time off at this job—you get five weeks paid vacation to start, plus “Wellness Week”. That's six weeks plus 15 PTO days, plus paid holidays—so there's another three weeks right there—plus sick days. I mean, I have more days off now than I had as a teacher, and the work-life balance is incredible. When the day is done, I shut the lid of my computer and have time to myself. Everybody respects everybody's time.
Indeed. If you had a chance to say something to a person who's still thinking about whether to go into QA or not, what would you say to them?
Well, I'd say that it always depends on your goal. It's a great field, and the salaries and benefits are amazing. It's a tough market, but there are still tons of jobs out there. I would just say all you need is perseverance and patience. In the end, this is worth it. If you're on the fence about it and you want a new career, Careerist has multiple paths. You don't have to go to QA, but QA is a great path. It is an excellent starting point for the other areas as well. I don't need automation in my job right now, but in the future, I might come back to Careerist to take the automation training.
I applied for 531 vacancies, which was quite a lot. There are companies who are hiring for sure. Not all of them called me back, but I was surprised at how quickly I found the job. It was just a matter of a few weeks, and that was following Careerist's recommendation of 30–40 applications a day. Once again, it's a numbers game, but eventually you get the call.
Frankly speaking, Careerist was what put me on the pathway and kept me going. When I was feeling down about the process, I wrote my mentor an email, when she wrote back her support definitely helped a lot. It eased up everything. She offered to have a phone call with me if I needed it, just super supportive. In the end, that was the only time that I had any sort of negative email. After that things started moving and the ball began rolling, I got an interview, and then another one and the situation started improving just as she said it would.
Do you remember your first interview? How did it feel?
The first one, I think, was a recruiter over the phone. And it was really positive and nice, but I got ghosted after. I don't think any of the interviews were disasters. I think the key to interviewing in any case is just to be yourself and be natural, since it's just a talk. You have just as much of a chance to get it as you don't, and you already don't have it. Just be honest about your experience, your skill sets, and who you are, and be relaxed—no one's there to attack you.
And a lot of times, they're just as nervous asking the questions as you are answering them. So it's just about going into it, being positive, presenting that positivity on your face, in your demeanor, and in the way that you're speaking to them, and being as professional, up front, honest, and straightforward as possible.
So, with that in mind, I didn't have any negative experiences. Out of all those, I think I had seven callbacks. And then I had three times where I was ghosted or where schedules didn't seem to work out. I did have two interviews that I attended, but there were no disasters or anything scary during the interviews. Like I said, just be yourself. Just talk like you're talking to friends, but professionally obviously, and understand that no one's out to get you. You'll be fine.
I suppose it’s a very effective approach. How would you define QA’s role?
I think as a QA specialist, your job is to make sure that the product goes out as consistently as possible. You're the final check of quality control for what's going to be put out there to the customer. It does put a lot of weight and responsibility on us, but at the same time, that's a good thing. If you're detail-oriented and technically inclined, this is definitely a great field to be in. We are the gatekeepers of the software product and it's important for us to take that job seriously. In the end, you're going to get blamed if you don't make sure that you're checking and are consistent with your approaches. We're the ones who make sure all the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed. That's what we do.
I'd say “gatekeepers” sounds very, very good, like a blockbuster movie title. The Careerist team wishes you the very best of luck in your tech career growth and hopes to hear back from you in a new role.