From Jobless Opera Singer to Six-Figure Tech Director in GermanyFeatured

Our new Salary Paths series aims to give fellow Elphas a reference point for salary negotiations and encourage more women to talk about compensation. We hope that opening up the conversation will contribute to more pay transparency and equitable pay.

Interested in sharing your Salary Path with us? Please fill out this form here and we will get back to you (can be posted anonymously, too! 😉 ).

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I arrived in Germany from Australia in October 2015, with no idea what the future would hold for me. I had a one-year working holiday visa, and the plan was to use that time to audition as much as possible. In the meantime, my savings and my high-interest AUD$12,000 (USD$8,105) loan were my only means of subsistence.

In the 8 months that followed, my time was spent learning German, applying to Young Artist Programs, opera houses and agents, and catching trains all around the country. It might sound glamorous, but it was not.

Opera auditions are grueling and demand an extremely high level of preparation, on top of all the paperwork and travel booking needed to arrive in a city, sing for 10 minutes, and then get straight back on the train to somewhere else.

The responses were sometimes positive, sometimes neutral, but the answer was the same: we don’t want you.

On top of that, I needed work.

Having a background in marketing, and residing in Nuremberg where Adidas is based and operates in English, I applied three times to their marketing positions, only to receive automated rejections mere minutes after sending my CV.

The message was clear: we don’t want you.

Desperate and already eating into my loan, I applied to teach English. Finally, I received responses: a few online platforms, some school tutoring programs, and an English-speaking summer camp for German kids. I also found work in a cafe and a craft beer bar, both run by Americans.

My mornings were at the cafe, my afternoons were online teaching English, and my nights were at the bar talking to soldiers. All of these operated at minimum wage.

This persisted for 8 months, until finally I got my break: a part-time chorus position covering maternity leave at Hessen State Theatre. It wasn’t (quite) my voice type, but luckily they loved my audition and I got offered the job on the phone literally as I was walking out the stage door.

Being paid €1100 (USD$1107) a month to sing felt like a dream come true!

However, to pay off my loans I still needed to supplement it with freelance English teaching and German-to-English translation. I would often be translating Amazon ads on my laptop in the dressing rooms, waiting for my call onto stage!

After a year, a full-time position in my actual voice type opened up and I was earning €40,000 (USD$40,173) a year before tax.

Discovering JavaScript

By the time I got pregnant and moved to the other side of the country, I had been singing for seven years. As I mentioned earlier, I had originally been working in project management and marketing, so this in itself was already a huge achievement. Finding full-time work as a classical musician is no joke, and I was very proud of all I’d done.

However, going on maternity leave and having time to reflect, I realised it was time for a change.

As a kid, I’d already explored HTML and, to a lesser extent, some Visual Basic, and I’d even won a school award for it. Deciding on a new career path, I knew there was demand for software engineers, and that they could often work in English, meaning my imperfect German wouldn’t be a major hindrance as it would be in marketing, for example. I decided to try out JavaScript to see if it was still something I enjoyed, and it was like a light went off!

In Germany, there’s a retraining scheme called a “Bildungsgutschein” (“Educational voucher”) in which jobless people can be trained in in-demand skills. Thanks to the German government’s investment in me, I was able to sign up for a full-time, one-year web development course, plus still receive my jobless benefits and have the cost of childcare covered. Before that course was finished, I had been snapped up by Novatec Consulting GmbH as a Junior Software Engineer.

With only one year of retraining, I was already earning more than what 7 years of singing opera had gotten me.

It was eye-opening.

Breaking into software engineering as a junior

I’d like to pause to talk about how I got this job, since it is notoriously difficult for juniors to find their first positions. I’ve written an entire book on how to do this and talk about it constantly with people on LinkedIn and Twitter.

The short version is that I leveraged my existing skills: I wrote blog articles about what I was learning, I tweeted regularly, I had a YouTube channel, and I used my portfolio website to feature a “video cover letter”. By tweeting out this video cover letter, I got twelve job leads overnight.

If you’re someone who is good at public speaking or who doesn’t mind seeing themselves on camera, I highly recommend recording something similar: who are you, what is your tech stack, what are you looking for, why are you confident you can do it. In short, you bring the first ‘get to know you’ interview to them, before they even look at your CV.

A full-circle moment

One mistake I did make early on, was to underestimate the ways in which my other career/s actually gave me an edge. Rather than emphasise what they taught me, and why they made me a great colleague, I focused far more on trying to fit the mould of what I knew German companies wanted.

I didn’t make this mistake again.

Just one year after starting as a software engineer, I got an offer to become Director, Product and Engineering (Projects and Organisation) at Axel Springer National Media and Tech, the tech subsidiary of Germany’s biggest media company. Customarily known as a publishing house for tabloids, and having previously been a real ‘boys club’ as a result, the company was in the process of transforming into a digital enterprise, including scaling up its investment in startups and digital brands both in Germany and internationally.

They needed someone passionate about technology but sublimely confident on a stage. Someone who would enjoy going out and meeting other engineers and techies, and ‘geeking out’ about all the cool tech stuff they’re achieving, while also being passionate enough to promote the needs of historically excluded groups internally for the other engineers now that their global culture was changing to one of multiculturalism, diversity, and inclusion.

In short, they needed me.

I was headhunted for this position, and since I was happy in my current workplace I felt no pressure to project a certain image just for their benefit. I was totally open about my mixed work history, about my strengths and weaknesses, and about what I wanted from a workplace.

Suddenly, my “wasted” Bachelor of Arts in Media and Communications was relevant domain knowledge. My “irrelevant” years as an opera singer were now a huge selling point. The weirdest add-on was the fact that all my years in uni dancing in pride parades were also relevant! All of the things I had tried to bury at the bottom of my previous CV were suddenly things I could highlight and of which I could be proud.

This job not only doubled my software engineering salary, but also launched me into six-figure territory, something which is not as standard in Germany as in the USA, for example. It is a figure I thought I might be able to reach in 5-10 years, certainly not with less than 1 year in tech.

The reason I was able to make this kind of money so much earlier was because I was falsely viewing myself and my value as beginning with my first tech job. Instead, I found a position which leveraged all of my work experience. Rather than negotiating with one year of experience, I was negotiating with 13 years of experience.

Overall, the credit has to be given to the headhunter who found me and saw the value in what is an extremely weird CV. However, I do believe that my active participation on LinkedIn, even (or especially!) when not looking for a job had a lot to do with it. I was often speaking on podcasts, Twitter spaces, and YouTube lives about my career change and my advice for other engineers, and eventually that advocacy (both for them and for my story in general) truly paid off.

ebonyrharding's profile thumbnail
@annajmcdougall Thanks for sharing your story! It's very inspiring and has given me some food for thought since I am pivoting into tech after working many years in the creative industry.
annajmcdougall's profile thumbnail
Amazing! Definitely feel free to message me if you have any specific questions. I'd be happy to help however I can.
annieli's profile thumbnail
Wow, thank you for sharing you story Anna! I'm also based in Germany, currently coaching and giving talks to many career changers entering tech from a different professional background. I see them making the same mistakes you described, fitting into a certain mould they think companies expected of them. I find that most career changes just need to land this first tech role and then the path becomes a lot easier. Would you mind sharing how you landed the Junior Software Engineer role? I'd love to share your story with my coachees.
annajmcdougall's profile thumbnail
Hi hi! I think in this case it might be easier for me to refer you to a YouTube video and a blog post. I go into lots of detail there! I also have a book which was published just two weeks ago, called "You Belong in Tech: How to Go From Zero Programming Knowledge to Hired" that you might like to read - maybe you find some crossover advice you can use for your clients? Or maybe the book itself could act as supplementary material for your coaching?Here are the links:- Book page on my website, currently available via Amazon and other local distributors: http://www.annamcdougall.com/book/- Blog post "How I Became a Junior Software Engineer in Under a Year": https://blog.annamcdougall.com/how-i-became-a-junior-software-engineer-in-under-a-year-ckkmhiv9204kia6s10eb62ecd- Video "How I Became a Software Engineer Without a Computer Science Degree": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjkdWV_g36k
annieli's profile thumbnail
Thank you so much Anna!
clare's profile thumbnail
Thanks @annajmcdougall for sharing such personal and motivational insights. I am an American living near Aachen for the last 4 years and about to start my first job in tech - a product management position - when my kids go back to school in August. I am coming to the role after having done a weird combination of other things including academic research on biological route to sustainable chemicals and trying to start a company of my own. It does really seem like everyone benefits when non-traditional backgrounds are added to the tech community. Where in Germany are you now?
annajmcdougall's profile thumbnail
Hi Clare! I live in Leipzig and work mostly remotely with around 1 day per week in our office in Berlin :) " It does really seem like everyone benefits when non-traditional backgrounds are added to the tech community." TOTALLY!
mirshak's profile thumbnail
@annajmcdougall Hi Anna. Thank you for sharing your story. I am a former opera singer as well and transitioned into design research about 1.5 years ago. Haha spot on… It has been eye opening to experience how fast I could make so much money in this industry after being in that crazy opera world.
annajmcdougall's profile thumbnail
Yes exactly! It is a gruelling job for very little pay and very few opportunities. It feels nice to be 'wanted' in tech and to get paid more at the same time. I often say switching to tech was the best decision of my life.
munabond's profile thumbnail
I love your story @annajmcdougall. Thanks for sharing it with us. Like you, I have a weird rΓ©sumΓ©, having switched from one sector to another totally unrelated sector. Before now, I always viewed this as a disadvantage but after reading your story, I'm having a change of view and feel braver and more confident. Thank you for the inspiration.
annajmcdougall's profile thumbnail
You're so welcome! I'm not here specifically to plug my book but I really do recommend it if you're looking for practical guidelines on how to best leverage your former career to get into tech. If you ever have any specific questions feel free to message me (or connect on LinkedIn!).
lydiastepanek's profile thumbnail
This is so inspiring!
caleighdrane's profile thumbnail
What a great story! I also have a background in classical music and have recently discovered the rewarding pivot to tech. Recognizing my applicable skills in my background even though they seemed disparate was a huge breakthrough as well. Thank you so much for sharing!
shelleyfarmer's profile thumbnail
Wow, thank you for sharing your story! I trained in classical singing for many years and am currently finishing my Mst in Creative Writing at Oxford. I have been thinking a lot about how I can parlay my creative skills in my professional career, so it is inspiring to read about the journey of someone who has done just that!
Nyaima's profile thumbnail
@annajmcdougall Brilliant and absolutely inspiring. I learned so much from your post. I already have an eclectic background and been considering retooling my skills by 'mastering' a programming language (enough that I can add value to a project). I will think about you and your story as I move forward. Thank you for sharing. And a big CONGRATULATIONS to You!
Ardelis's profile thumbnail
Incredibly inspired. Thank you for sharing, and for your strategy of bringing your mixed skillset to the table
pipallen's profile thumbnail
Thank you! so much! I'm making all the mistakes that you mentioned as I'm looking for my first engineering role. You've given me a lot to work on. Thanks again.
JessieNelson's profile thumbnail
I'm a professional drummer and hustling for ui / ux / web design work , very ready for paid work after two years. My portfolio is here: www.jessienelsonux.com and would love to connect with you re the whole pro musician into tech experience if that's alright with you:)