Uncover the transferable skills and unexpected challenges during the transition from Science to Tech
I wrote about how I got my first job outside of the lab and subsequently broke into tech.
In this article, I want to share how the skills I developed in academia helped me advance my career in tech — from Customer Success Manager (a customer-facing role) to Product Manager (a liaison between business and engineers).
Transferable skills from Biology to Tech
1. Curiosity leads to knowledge
I was drawn to science because I’m fascinated by how things work.
I have the same drive to understand the company’s products. I would read through all the documentation I can find. Even if there was none, I could reverse engineer what the system intends to behave by running “experiments”. What would be the output if I enter this data?
Most people would find this laborious and painful. For me, that’s what I was trained for as a scientist.
Having deep product knowledge is a requirement for any tech job. How this has helped me as a Customer Success Manager was being able to support customers with complex use cases. They were typically the highest paying accounts.
In my current role as a Product Manager, it is a must-have to understand how the data flows and how systems interact — even if you don’t know how to code. The ability to look under the hood with my developers satisfies my curiosity and is one of the favorite parts of my job.
2. Fast learners who can teach themselves
Tech is an ever-changing industry. There are new tools and frameworks that you have to learn quickly to do your job. However, the amount of information available online is overwhelming for most to know where to start.
The training I got as a graduate student has been valuable. We had to teach our classmates a topic that we are completely new to. This involves searching for resources, synthesizing all that data ,and extracting the key learnings.
How does this help me stand out? Any organization would value employees who can self-taught and don’t need hand-holding.
I took this to another level by teaching others. Giving them the summary — just enough that’s relevant to their jobs.
3. Deconstruct a problem with ambiguous scope
Troubleshooting a bug in software or a scientific experiment both requires analytical skills. When users said “the feature didn’t work”, I was able to make educated guesses and validate my hypothesis with the limited clues users provide. With clear conditions and steps that led to the bug, the developers can quickly reproduce and address the issue as a result.
I was able to spot patterns even when the bugs appeared to happen randomly. As scientists, small details in your experiments often led to accidental, more groundbreaking discoveries.
Antibiotics were discovered unexpectedly when Alex Fleming was sorting through piles of Petri dishes. He noticed on one specific Petri dish, some bacteria couldn’t around the mold. It turned out the mold was secreting “antibiotics” that kill the bacteria. The keen observation skills I sharpened in the lab have given me an edge in tech.
Unanticipated challenges during the transition
1. Self-fulfilling prophecy about my “weakness”
This term means individuals act in ways that confirm their own beliefs. You explain phenomena using what you think is true.
How did this manifest as I moved outside of the lab? Compared to my colleagues who have been in the business world longer, I “thought” I couldn’t do the small talks, tell jokes or carry on conversations as well as they could. Every time I thought I was being “awkward”, I would attribute it to “I worked in the lab for too long where I didn’t get to develop the social skills”. I was practically convincing myself that I have this weakness.
Becoming more aware of when those “self-fulfilling” thoughts appear was the first step. Even if they are true, they would only make it harder for me to connect with others. Using the scientific method, I looked for evidence that proved my conclusion wrong.
2. Balance a healthy obsession with data and people
Research trained me to get “buy-in” from my fellow scientists by running flawless experiments with rock-solid data. In business, having the most convincing data alone is not enough to get people on your side. The higher up you go, the more important it is to master stakeholder management. You have to influence cross-functional teams with different backgrounds and needs.
In my current role as a Product Manager, I learned to switch between using my left (logical) and right (emotional) brain, depending on the context. Data and facts are appealing to engineers. But it can be overwhelming for some. Most people make decisions based on opinions of people they trust. So take time to network and build that rapport.
It can be uncomfortable to work with people who hold a contrarian view. It doesn’t mean disagreement. Taking it personally will cloud you from seeking to understand why they have those perspectives.
Regardless of what role you choose to take in tech, it is a must to work with cross-functional teams with diverse views. This includes the product team (designers and engineers), client-facing team (support) to sales and marketing. Traveling and volunteering at organizations to work with people outside of my regular circle have broadened my views.
Most things are more of an art than science. Science is full of black and white or true and false. But in the business world, there are a lot of gray areas with variables you can’t control.
Focus on your strength and the transferable skills you gained from research and academia that set you apart in the business world. It will take time for the right opportunity to come your way. A few years of soul searching is minimal relative to the grand scheme of your career journey.