Making the Jump: 7 Lessons Learned moving from Non-Profit to IT

I am a recovering job seeker who over a 10-month period found a better way to land the job than the standard comb ads, submit applications and hope. During this latest career transition, with few leads and feeling lost, I decided to abandon the passive submit & pray approach to take control of the hunt, learning a few lessons that may help others in a similar situation.

This time last year, I sat down with a mentor who sensed as I did that my time with Past Employer was coming to an end. I loved directing this organization, my team, and our mission. However, with no room for growth, a difficult relationship with the board president, and weekly migraines, clearly it was time for a new chapter.

It was also clear that on paper I would not be the most appealing candidate for the IT and business consulting space where I wanted to move. Naturally, no direct experience has a way of making the transition to a new field a difficult task. During the submit & pray stage of my search, the only interviews I booked were for positions much like the one I planned to leave.

Following my mentor’s advice, I began having coffee meetings with connections to explain my desire to work in the tech sector and asking them to make further introductions. We discussed changing career fields, roles my experience would be a fit for, translating my skills and experiences effectively for an audience not fluent in non-profit, and reviewing the appearance, content, and layout of my resume.

The many helpful conversations confirmed I could succeed in this space, but provided few leads. After five months of meetings, applying for positions through the normal listings, attending career fairs, and a growing hopelessness (and more migraines), I decided to, as Forbes contributor Liz Ryan states, “ignore the formal, prescribed job-search protocol” and go “through the side entrance.”

I started by thinking of the ideal placement…if I could go anywhere where would that be? There was a consulting company we used at Past Employer, Summa Technologies, with whom I always had positive experiences and had made good personal connections. Conveniently, they were hosting a customer outing at a local sports event in the coming weeks. I remember telling my very pregnant wife (who gave birth the day after), that we needed to go; it would be a great chance to connect with the right people.

Not wanting to waste the opportunity, I approached one of first Summa employees I had worked with and a few minutes into our conversation said, “So I am ready to leave Past Employer and would like to work here.” It was a pretty direct course that led to a few great conversations and a series of interviews that went well, but there were no openings. Keeping sight of the goal, I continued to attend their events and created a Summa-related product user group to make sure my face would not be forgotten.

At the same time I took another shot in the dark, sending an email to the CEO of a software service I had used for five years. I shared my admiration for their platform while noting that customer adoption and implementation seemed like a pain point, stating I would like to work with them to address those areas. This led to many good conversations and a promise to be in touch when they were ready to hire.

I also began attending more professional events where I met a consultant who had started his own non-profit and needed help setting up its infrastructure…my foil in many ways. I offered to help, we met, and after I laid out tools and strategies for his organization, he asked, “Have you ever considered doing this for a living?” Well…funny you should ask, yes.

This was quickly followed by a series of interviews and job offer from his employer. I let my Summa contacts know I had accepted this new position and though I hoped it would be Summa, I was ready to move on. It produced a flurry of activity and a competing offer within days. I accepted without hesitation.

Fast forward a few months, I am completely satisfied with my decision. I love my position, coworkers, and company (and have been migraine free). Recently the CEO from my earlier shot in the dark emailed to say, “We are finally ready to add someone and you were the first person I thought of, interested?” I politely declined but it offered more evidence that the approach had merit. In the end, I received three offers that all fit the financial and professional goals I had set. Not one came from submitting a resume through job-listings or an introduction. All were a result of taking control of my search and creating opportunities.

The submit & pray approach to job searching is a remnant from a past age. Employers once wielded the control but as that power has shifted between companies and customers, so too has it shifted between companies and employees. As one expert notes in this NPR story on mobile recruiting, “The candidate experience is now of paramount consideration for employers because it’s a candidate-driven market. There’s a real war for talent.” Imagine that in 2010.

I leave you with the following lessons gleaned from these experiences over the last year. Far from a how-to, must-do or definitive guide, they may offer help to those who know they have merit, but are stuck in their searches.

  1. Being direct and taking control pays off. Feeling helpless and lost in your search is a choice, which took me months to discover. Don’t ask if positions are open. Just say, “I want to work here.” Keeping your goal in mind, take risks and be bold. It may not result in an offer, but you will spare yourself the time and agony of blindly submitting a resume and hoping for a response.
  2. Browsing listings is a passive approach that forces your skills and experience into a small and narrowly defined box. Chances are slim that an HR specialist has typed up your dream job description. Think of listings as a reference and tool in any job seeking strategy, but not as the center of your effort.
  3. Networking through coffee and lunch meetings gives you honest, professional feedback on your resume, how you present, and insight into how managers look at applicants in their respective fields (Tip: I always ask for their first impression and probe for honest feedback). Even though those meetings did not produce an offer, the advice and experience were of immeasurable benefit; set a goal to schedule two a month.
  4. Identify the goal and work tirelessly to pursue it. Where is your ideal job? What would you like to be doing? Don’t limit yourself to your degrees, certifications, and experience. Realistically look at your education, job history, and skills and think of where and how they translate into that ideal position. Once you’ve defined your goal, companies will not do the work for you. It’s up to you to explain how you can help them, which is where those networking meetings come in handy.
  5. Treat your career search like it is a second full-time job. Schedule meetings regularly, send semi-weekly status updates to your mentor, develop multiple versions of your resume, find and attend networking events, and don’t be dissuaded. It is easy to set things aside in lieu of concrete deadlines and daily obligations, but before you know it a month or two has past and you are still trying to find your way off the hamster wheel.
  6. Having a mentor is the single best thing you can do for your career. There is no downside to having a professional confidant to offer advice and be a sounding board.
  7. Be willing to invest in yourself for the long-term. Moving from the top to the bottom to pursue this new career path, I accepted that while not willing to take a step-down in compensation, I was ready to start at the first rung and bet on myself to climb to the top.

Knowing that every career transition is different I look forward to reading your experiences in the comments.


  1. Kathleen Brown says:

    Tom thanks so very, very much for this post. I’m not completely sure exactly how I landed here but it’s the perfect thing for me to read all the same. I am so unbelievably stuck in my job s4earch, most of the way through Liz Ryan’s book but the ideas are a bit slow in coming. My mojo is too low!!!

    At any rate I’m assuming you’re a Salesforce admin? I was in IT (network administration) for many years but am having trouble finding work right now. I’d like to work for nonprofits or a government. Do you know, if I became Salesforce certified is this a good way to work in IT for these types of organizations?

    Again thanks for your article. I see it’s a couple of years old but I’m hoping someone sees my comment.

    • Tom says:

      Getting Salesforce certified is definitely not going to do your career aspirations any harm. Consider it an investment in your future and go after it.

      However, a certification alone will not get you the job, need to have some seat time as well (check out Lucas’s story re: moving from electrician to SF admin).

      The Salesforce world is full of stories of people like all of us here at the AA’s, we all found our own unique ways into this world. It’s this magical recipe of effort, skill, knowledge, networking, luck, timing, and perseverance; it’s bit like rice & beans in Puerto Rico, my grandmother makes it different then everyone else’s, but its all arroz con habichuelas and no one way is better than the other 🙂

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