Changing Careers from Clergy to Computers:
A semi-howto guide
In April of 1998 I decided to make a
huge change in career fields. I was a professionally-trained Lutheran
pastor, and wanted to move into the field of computers. I did not
expect the change from a nontechnical field to a technical field to be
easy, and I was not disappointed. It was tough. But within 15 months
I was doing the work I had set out to do--working as a Unix
administrator--and enjoying every minute of it. Here are my
experiences and tips for others who may be considering the same type of
One of the questions coworkers commonly
ask me is, "How did you decide to go into computers?" It wasn't a
tough decision. I'd loved working with computers ever since I started
college and began working with the original IBM PCs. All through my
college years I spent my spare time learning PC architecture, history,
and new programming languages. I even took a year off to pursue a
career in computers, learning C and x86 assembly programming in the
However, at 20 years old with no college degree, my chances at finding a
computer-related job were slim to none. I evaluated my skills and
interests and decided that returning to school to become a pastor was
the best thing for me to do. I continued to pursue my computer-related
interests, but they took a far distant second to Hebrew, Greek,
theology and history.
In 1995 while serving in the parish, a ham radio friend introduced me to
Linux. I'd always been interested in Unix but never had a chance to
use or run it. Now I could run a form of Unix on my home computer, and
I found a lot of enjoyment in it. The computing world of the early 90s
seemed to be a barren, Microsoft-only land. Learning Unix opened a new
world to explore and enjoy. You can read more about Unix at Unix for Theologians.
As the stress of the ministry took an increasing toll on my health, I started thinking about alternatives. I read the book, What Color is Your Parachute?
by Richard Bolles and then read it again. I recommend the book to
everyone. If you have any question about which career is right for
you, read the book. Even if you don't have any question, reading the
book can't hurt. The exercises in this book will help you evaluate
your own interests and skills, and determine which career path is right
Richard Bolles points out that work can encompass three
main areas: people, information and things. As a pastor, I was
primarily working with people and secondarily with information (Bible
study). As I worked through the Parachute book, I came to the
conclusion that a better career for me might be a career which focused
less on people and more on information. I'd always loved working with
computers and programming, and found renewed enjoyment working with
Unix. Early in 1998 when I decided to consider a career change, my new
career field was an obvious one. Later on, when I announced my career
change to family and friends, they knew what direction I would take
before I even told them. I wanted to work in computers. More
specifically, I wanted to work with Unix, and the ideal job for me
seemed to be Unix Administrator.
Why Unix Administrator?
I'm often asked this question
too. Why did I want to become a Unix administrator? This position
seems to be a long way from being a pastor, and a very specialized
choice besides. How did I happen to pick it?
I chose this job by following steps outlined in What Color is Your Parachute?: I took a look at what I enjoyed doing and looked for a job which would let me do those things:
I wanted a job which would let me do as many of these things
as possible, and Unix administrator seemed to be a good combination of
jobs I enjoyed. I talked to a few Linux users who were already doing
this work, and their insights seemed to confirm that this was a job I
- I enjoyed working with Unix, which really wasn't that big a jump from some of the work I did as a pastor. I read the article The Elements of Style: UNIX as Literature by Thomas Scoville, and found that Unix is a good match for those who enjoy working with words and text and languages.
- I enjoyed working with computer hardware, having built and
repaired all my own computers since 1988, and helped friends and
relatives buy and set up their own computers.
- I enjoyed writing new programs as well as maintaining the basic operation of my own computers.
- I enjoyed helping others resolve their computer problems.
First steps toward a new field
My destination was
obvious. The road to that destination was considerably less clear.
How was I going to move from clergy to computers, from a definitely
nontechnical field to a highly technical one? Having spent 9 years in
college and seminary, the obvious route seemed to be more education.
The Unix administrator jobs advertised in the newspaper all wanted or
required a BS in Computer Science and/or several years of experience.
My BA in classical languages and Master of Divinity degree weren't
going to get me the job. What was the quickest way to get there?
First I checked out my educational options. In the Minneapolis area, I
had several options. I could go back to school for a BS in computer
science. Since I hadn't focused on math or science in college, it
would be at least a 3-4 year hike, and probably longer because I'd have
to be working full time. Since I was interested in getting my desired
job as quickly as possible, this didn't appeal to me. Nor did an
alternative program for a "Bachelor of Information Networking" degree,
which would involve 3-4 years of part-time evening classes. I enjoy
learning and wouldn't have minded the classes, but it was still a long
haul. Moving from the ministry into the "real world", I had to get up
to speed as quickly as possible.
I finally settled on an alternative I had rejected at first: a Unix training course
offered by the University of Minnesota. The course covered a lot of
interesting territory, but the price tag seemed far too high. However,
a traditional degree took too long, and I refused to go to a technical
school--I'd taken a year of electronics at ITT Technical Inst. in
1987-88, and was severely underchallenged. I finally attended an
informational session at the University and found that the Unix course
provided what I was seeking: an accelerated course aimed at career
changers which would prepare me for Unix work as quickly as possible.
I saw an optimistic view of the job market in the Twin Cities in which
there was room for career changers, even pastors, to do well for
themselves. On the downside, I'd have to apply for another student
loan, but I was assured that those who completed the course had little
difficulty paying those loans back. My wife and I were both sold. I
applied for the part-time evening course which ran from September 1998
to April 1999.
Checking out the job options
In the meantime, I also
spent time during the spring of 1998 looking for a job. As a
soon-to-be-former-pastor, I would not have the luxury of taking time
off for school, but would have to be working and productive as soon as
possible. While What Color is Your Parachute?
suggests seeking the job you desire directly from the people who can
hire you, and while it's commonly acknowledged that Unix administrator
is a master/apprentice type job in which the apprentice is commonly
taught on the job, I held little hope of finding someone who'd be
willing to take a chance on me. I spent some time seeking a Unix
administrator position, but also broadened my search to include any
computer job I could get.
What about a resume?
A resume can be a tough issue for a
career changer. On your resume you have to reveal your past, and that
means revealing your lack of technical skills and technical experience.
Depending on how you craft it, your resume can either be an asset or a
liability in your job search.
Your resume can be a liability if it shows you as a person who only has
a few specific skills which don't have any room in your new career
field. If you want to move into computers from the ministry, you have
a few skills obstacles to overcome. You may not have a lot of
technical skills--certainly not as many as a prospective employer might
like. To make a big change in career fields, you need to promote every
asset you have. Sure, you may have a few specific technical skills,
such as experience using Windows. However, you probably won't have a
lot of success selling those few skills. Instead, you have to find a
way to sell your potential.
Following the advice in What Color is Your Parachute?
I put together a skills-based resume, focusing not on my work history or
educational history or specific skills like Greek and Latin, but
instead summarizing my skills in general form. As a pastor, I was
trainable and quick to learn, able to handle people skillfully, and
speak and write clearly. I had some technical skills like C, DOS and
Linux, and made the most of those skills as well. Although I didn't
have technical work experience or any technical training whatsoever, I
still managed to build a two page resume. It looked something like this--not pretty and too wordy, but it expressed what I thought was important.
First job nibblings
At a job fair in May of 1998, I heard
numerous choruses of the same old song: "Not Enough Experience, La La
La." At one company's booth I heard a different story, though: I could
take that company's training course in A+ (computer technician)
certification and they would find me a job for at least $12 per hour,
giving me a foot in the door. At last! Someone was finally willing to
take a chance on me! Hooray for Teksystems!
A week later I stopped at the Teksystems' office to get the details.
Ok, so the training course was actually for people with some computer
work experience. However, if I could pass a pretest, I could take the
course. The test was no problem--my background knowledge carried me
through. I'd take a week-long training course at the company's
expense, and in return I'd work at least 6 months for the company at
$12 per hour. Sure, it sounded like indentured servitude, but it was a
start, and that was what I needed most. I signed the contract.
Moving on. . .
With all the pieces in place--a job and an
education--my wife and I committed to the change by leasing an
apartment and setting a date for the move. Early in July I announced
to my congregation and denominational leaders that I was going to
pursue another career. I gave a month's notice. No one expected to
hear the news and all were s urprised. All my parishioners were
supportive and many of them tried to change my mind. It was good to
know that I was appreciated, but it was time to move on. We started
packing and preparing for the move. We'd move at the end of July. I'd
start A+ training the first week of August, and Unix training in
September. Within a year we'd be making far more money and would be
able to move wherever we wanted--maybe New Mexico, maybe Washington,
maybe back home to Michigan.
Don't count your chickens. . .
With two weeks to go
before our move, I called Teksystems to verify the training dates. Bad
news. The training course had been canceled due to lack of interest.
was interested! That wasn't convincing. I asked about getting a job
through Teksystems without having an A+ certificate. Sorry. Wasn't
going to happen. With 2 weeks to go before an unchangeable move, my
job plans were collapsing.
However, I had confidence in my own
learning abilities. I asked my contact at Teksystems if I could study
and take the A+ certification exam on my own. Sure, that was possible.
If I did, he could try to find me a job, and I wouldn't have to be
obligated to work for Teksystems. That was sounding better and better.
I thought that if I could manage A+, maybe I could manage other
certifications as well, increasing my value in the job market. I went
to the bookstore and spent far too much money on A+ and CNA (Certified
Novell Administrator) study guides, then signed up to take the exams
early in August. If no one would train me, I would train myself! And
maybe I could do better for myself than Teksystems could.
During this time I came to one of my most important realizations so far:
in the job world, in the technical world, you can become whatever you
make of yourself. Over the next year I'd meet many people who got into
computers expecting to receive large salaries just for being in the
field. I'd meet many who would expect that interesting and high-paying
jobs would simply fall into their hands. It doesn't work that way in
computers any more than in any other field. Instead, you need drive
and ambition, and I have plenty of both. I decided that if I wanted to
become a success in my new field (and I certainly wanted to do that),
I'd have to make myself a success by working hard and by constantly
learning new and valuable skills. Well, as a pastor I'd spent many
years as a student. If I could learn Greek, Hebrew, German and Latin,
I could certainly learn a few new programming languages. If I could
learn systematic theology, I could certainly learn operating systems.
Suddenly the technical world seemed wide open. I could become whatever
I wanted to make of myself. And I wanted to make myself a success.
I had 2 main goals for my new career: to support my family and to do so
by working with Unix. I didn't know exactly how I'd reach those goals.
The first was most important. As a career changer, I was willing to
explore any job possibility which would let me support my family. I
set out a self-study training course for myself which included Perl and
Java programming and even Windows NT. I would get a job in computers,
then get a well-paying job in computers, and finally seek a Unix job.
If Unix came earlier, great, but I needed to support my family first.
Next: My first computer job