In the fall of 2011, Hannah Aldine began teaching writing and composition in the English Department at Colorado State University.
And in September of 2022, she became one of the many non-tenure track faculty instructors who – fed up with the low pay, long hours and increasingly pervasive view that “colleges and universities absolutely need to treat their students like customers” – are exiting higher education and entering the tech world.
Following is an asynchronous conversation that Hannah and I had over the course of a couple months as she onboarded to her new role as a Solutions Architect at Pluralsight. We hope that the details of Hannah’s exit from higher education help inspire and instruct teachers who are considering making the move into tech, but are not entirely sure how or where to begin.
Kristen: Hello, Hannah, and thank you for having this conversation with me!
Hannah: Thanks for reaching out! I’m excited to reflect and chat about this transition.
Kristen: Me too – I think a lot of folks are going to benefit from hearing about your experience.
So, one doesn’t have to spend too much time on The Socials to see that there’s a growing community of teachers both in higher education and K-12 who are rejecting exploitative work environments.
When did you know that you wanted to transition away from your career as a writing instructor at Colorado State University? Why did you decide to make this move?
Hannah: It honestly felt like a huge decision at first because being a teacher was such a huge part of my identity. And in talking to other teachers, I think a lot of us feel the same way. It’s also a huge leap because for many of us, we’ve spent our whole lives in academia. We went from being students for 17-20+ years to teachers, so we’ve spent our lives in that campus environment.
But, I began to seriously think about leaving when I realized that I’d essentially hit the ceiling for what I could do at the university. I went into teaching knowing that I’d essentially stay in the same type of role my whole career, and I didn’t think that would bother me. But, it turned out that it did. I wanted new challenges and new problems to solve, and I just couldn’t do that as a non-tenure track faculty member. I’d taught writing courses for 11 years, and there just wasn’t much variety or many opportunities to teach other subjects. Professional development had kept me sane through this lack of career mobility – I always looked forward to the studies I’d conduct for my own gratification and teaching practices. The problem was that except for one semester when I got funding, I was doing this research on my own time which put me well over my 40-hour work week.
That, and my salary as a senior university instructor was less than the average CSU graduate with a Bachelor’s degree, so I couldn’t afford to learn as much as I’d like, especially since I almost always had a second or third job. This always seemed ironic to me – I was working in education but my own learning wasn’t valued enough to be a paid part of my job.
Kristen: I hear that, sister. It took me a solid five years in the tech world to unlearn what I’d learned in academia and finally internalize the idea that learning and professional development happens on the job – not outside of it, during our “free” time.
I remember early on that you pretty specifically wanted to move into the private tech world. What drew you to the technology space?
Hannah: I think part of what drew me to a career in private tech is that I saw how companies often encourage and celebrate (and pay for!) their employees’ learning. Leaders know that tech changes quickly and their employees have to be lifelong learners for both the individuals and the company to be successful, and so they give time during the work week for people to learn. And I love that.
The evolving nature of tech also means there are always new problems to solve, so teams are agile and open to change, which is an environment I also wanted to be a part of.
Kristen: Once you decided to exit academia, what were the first steps you took to initiate the transition?
Hannah: Well, as it happens – I started learning! I knew I wanted a career in something tangentially related to education, whether that be going into training employees or working at a company centered on learning. At first, I didn’t know enough to know what I didn’t know, so I tried a bunch of searches on LinkedIn to learn about different roles (and the million titles associated with a given job function). When a role sounded interesting, I paid attention to what skills the job required. I couldn’t necessarily gain a ton of experience quickly, but I could learn new skills that would help me transition.
I also started reaching out to people in my network who had a role I was interested in to hear about what they actually do on a day-to-day basis, how they got into that role, and any tools/skills that are important for their job.
I started upskilling in a few areas based on what I learned. I knew Salesforce was used across most industries, so I hopped on the Salesforce Trailhead for free training on that platform. I also learned that a lot of companies, especially in tech, use an agile approach, so I completed Pluralsight courses and Skill IQs in becoming a Scrum Master. Overall, I focused on training that provided badges/certifications/assessment/results that I could put on a resume to show that I didn’t just watch videos – I could actually apply what I’d learned.
Kristen: So much good advice there, Hannah. I love the emphasis you placed on learning about all of the different things people get paid to do at a company. It’s actually kind of mind-boggling to see the diversity of roles that exist at large companies, especially coming out of academia, where the types of roles are very few. I’ve often given folks the advice, “Don’t worry about that first tech role being your dream job, or even one that you feel uniquely qualified for – just get your foot in the door, and figure out your next move once you’re in the building!”
As you started sending out cover letters and interviewing for jobs, which of your teaching skills did you find were most interesting or impressive to your interviewers? And now that you’re in your new role, which of your skills and experience from your 10+ years in academia are you using the most?
Hannah: It seemed like my experience in needs analysis transferred to many roles that I applied for. As teachers, I think we often take for granted how often we do this in our jobs. We’re constantly collecting formal and informal feedback on what students need, and navigating how to meet those needs alongside our own curriculum requirements, state standards, department/college/university initiatives, etc. I’m learning that knowing how to ask good questions, listen, and gather pragmatic feedback is so useful in a wide range of industries and roles. I’m using these skills extensively in my new role as a solutions architect.
I’m also leaning heavily on my experience in argumentation. I’ve found that discovery and demos in a sales context mirror argumentation in an academic context: you conduct an audience analysis, research the audience and current context, tailor the claim and reasoning to the audience’s values and needs, and address counterarguments.
I’m also finding that my experience in standing in front of a classroom for twelve years has set me up well for being in front of customers. I’m used to presenting to diverse audiences, objection-handling, and being conscious of making content relevant, engaging, and meaningful to my audience.
Kristen: It’s funny you mention needs analysis, Hannah – I’m conducting one right now in my role as a Technical Lead in Pluralsight’s Technology Center of Excellence. And I agree with you, that knowing how to do this is highly valuable – I mean, even knowing that a needs analysis is something that should be done is valuable!
Well, I suppose it’s time we wrapped up this conversation. Is there any parting advice that you’d like to give to teachers who are on the fence about moving out of teaching and into tech?
Hannah: Sure! I'd say to keep two things in mind. One is that public education is not the only space where we can work in the context of education. I didn't fully realize this until I started job searching and really understanding the roles out there. There are so many industries, companies, and roles that focus on teaching and training. So, if you're like me and want to stay in a learning and teaching space, you can absolutely do that outside of the traditional teaching context (training, enablement, pre-sales, CSM - the list goes on).
The second is to not sell yourself short. We have so many widely applicable skills as teachers, and so if you can translate those skills into the lingo of the industry to which you're applying, it will help immensely in the job interview process. Not every interviewer will see these connections on their own, and they may still default to wanting industry experience, but there are also plenty of people in the hiring process who see the value we can bring to a role and company.
Kristen: Fantastic advice! Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts, experience and advice around transitioning out of teaching and into tech, Hannah. I personally am super excited to watch your second career unfold!