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 change.

Why computers?

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 process.

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 for you.

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 would enjoy.

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. But I 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