My transition from chemical engineering to techFeatured

Contrary to what the majority of my family and friends in India expected, I did not pursue a degree in IT or Computer Science. As a high schooler, I particularly enjoyed math and chemistry. So eventually, I pursued chemistry and chemical engineering (an intersection of chemistry and math).

After graduation, I joined a renowned automotive company where I was able to leverage my skills as a chemical engineer and in statistical analysis. I was happy about the company and growth but not the velocity of the work.

Along this journey I also realized that being an engineer did not give me a big picture of the work I was doing, for example, I was building a model without much insight into what steps were taken to use that to make a design decision.

So, after much thought on what I should do to be able to take my career to the next level and be able to drive a larger strategy in companies rather than own a small piece of the puzzle, I decided to move to the US in 2015 for an MBA.

During my course, I serendipitously landed a role as a Product Management intern at a company that built software for automotive firms and I thoroughly enjoyed this experience.

Post MBA, I landed a PM kind of job at a chemical company in 2017 and I took it as it encompassed all aspects of a traditional PM role. I enjoyed the complexity of my job and also the diverse functions I was exposed to in this tenure but once again I was not happy with the pace of work within this industry.

Hence I started looking for new roles in technology firms. At these companies I learned about the pace of innovation in high-tech and also increased my pay – I 1.5x’d my salary in 2 years in 2019.

This pivot was no easy task but here are some ways I was able to land a new role in a new industry:

  • Transferable skills: I worked on clearly articulating how I could add value to the role I was applying to by drawing on experiences from both tech and non-tech roles. I did not hesitate to talk about an experience that happened 5 years back while I was doing statistical analysis, especially if that experience was relevant to the current role.
  • Networking genuinely: Surprisingly, I received help from people I barely knew or did not expect to get help from. At times, genuine interest or my awareness of the larger problem the company was solving helped fetch a strong referral for me. In other cases, I was able to leverage some groups or Slack channels to find interview partners - once again I genuinely offered to help others while also receiving help from others.
  • Being ambitious: Each time I changed my role, I pivoted an industry or focus area in an attempt to upskill myself or create a greater impact or increase my salary. One thing that made this possible is - my belief that one should never ever shy away from an opportunity that interests them just because roles and responsibilities aren’t a 100% match with their own skillset.

Other skills that helped me excel at my job and increase my impact at work:

  • Be curious and continuously learn: I think learning is the only constant in any or most jobs these days. For example, a PM’s responsibilities or processes in every company I worked for have been different and therefore willingness to learn has turned out to be helpful. I spent time knowing not just the company, team and domain but also the art of stakeholder management and influencing without authority all of which depend on the company culture. In this context, I am thankful to all those who ever told me “It is okay to be vulnerable”, as it helps me ask questions without hesitation.
  • Influence without authority: in any job, one has to learn to influence which is “ the ability to affect an idea or action”. It is definitely an art and helpful both when in a position of authority or not. Some powerful techniques to influence include (i) building relationships and trust (ii) being data-driven so that facts can be put before feelings (iii) managing emotions better so people see you as someone easy to work with (iv) understanding people’s values and needs. There is no one way to achieve the above but what helped me most in this journey was being cognizant of the triggers that would lead me to behave in a non-collaborative way so that I can course correct myself.
Thank you so much for sharing your journey with us, Nikhita! Congrats on everything you've been able to accomplish.Do you think the MBA was crucial in helping you transition? For context I just finished mine like 5 months ago and I had a tons of classmates originally from India who have a similar background as yours and they work " traditional engineering" jobs back in India and they came to the US to do their MBAs in the hope to transition out: some went into consulting at some the household names, others went into banking, and a large number went into tech as PMs!
Hi Iynna- MBA did help but I saw a ton of people in India and Aboard who transition from one field to another without an MBA or formal background. I believe some transitions are easier early on in your career
That's a really good point! Like the MBA is a nice enhancer but it's not a requirement especially when you're younger and thought to be more "agile" easier to context switch!