Why these Colorado startup employees left their old industries to join tech

by Jess Ryan
October 14, 2016

With the advent of new technologies, globalization and changing societal values, gone are the days where someone would get a job and then stay at the same company in the same industry for decades upon decades.

These days, people jump from job to job — and sometimes even take the leap from one industry to another. We caught up with three members of Colorado’s tech community who’ve made that very leap, to learn about why they chose tech and what their previous roles taught them.

 

Jaron Jackson, Creative Director

What did you do before coming into tech?

Associate Creative Director and worked as a senior designer and art director, leading a client team of seven UX/UI designers. My role also included helping with team resource allocation, client relations and communication and design discovery session facilitation.

What do you do now?

Currently working as the Creative Director designing and managing a team for product, marketing and operations.

When did you make the switch?

I started working with Useful as a contractor in November of 2014 and they hired me on full-time as the Creative Director in December of 2015.

Why did you choose to leave the agency world?

I just got burnt out on it. I wanted to achieve more as a creative. I started to see things in the agency world that didn’t align with my career goals and growth.

What drew you to tech?

I’ve always been a tech nerd. I started off as a systems engineer but found my passion for design in the process. It’s been great to combine the two in the startup world.

How are the two industries different? How are they similar?

There are many similarities. The differences would be focus. In tech there’s a singular point of focus that provides diversity of work and approaches. With agency work, proving out your ideas and concepts happens across multiple clients and projects. To me, there are high growth points but also lows. Since I’ve been working in tech, it’s been constant growth and very aggressive. I know that things may plateau at some point, but I’d be in a much more rewarding place.

What lessons did agency life teach you that you're applying now?

How to have fun in the midst of late nights and tight deadlines, selling and presenting my design concepts, refining my strategic thinking skills, managing and coaching a diverse team and concept development.

 

Jeff Wahl, Director of Real Estate Solutions

What did you do before coming into tech?

My previous career path was more aligned with the nonprofit industry than technology. After undergrad, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic for two years, then transitioned into a number of nonprofit business and consulting roles. I’ve worked for companies like the Colorado Nonprofit Development Center to Newton Running Company, and each role I’ve had has been characterized by the ability to make some sort of impact larger than just my day-to-day tasks.

What do you do now?

I work for Tendril as a part of their New Markets initiatives, specifically on the Business Development team. We look at the core technology and resources of the business to assess strategic initiatives and markets for Tendril to enter in order to extend their impact — financially, socially and environmentally.

When did you make the switch?

After completing my MBA at the University of Colorado, I expanded my internship with Tendril into a full-time role. The ability to build my network and experience with Tendril’s products, solutions and culture was integral in choosing to work here after completing my degree.

Why did you choose to leave the nonprofit world?

I left the nonprofit world because I was hungry to make an impact on a larger scale and at a more rapid pace.

What drew you to tech?

I felt like my passions for business and social impact could be better served at the intersection of business and technology. The ability to affect change across a wide swath of people and places was exciting to me, and tech was a channel that I hadn’t yet experienced. The potential for creating positive disruption to our current way of operation was intriguing and tech seemed like the best way to accelerate those changes.

How are the two industries different? How are they similar?

The nonprofit industry is not too dissimilar from tech. Most nonprofits are working in an agile way because they are resource constrained and effectively a lot like a startup, adapting to achieve the best outcomes and adjusting to access the resources needed to complete their task. The tech industry has a bit more glamor and press at the end of the day, but I think both industries are working toward creating change.

What lessons did nonprofit life teach you that you're applying now?

Definitely to not get too attached to any one way or process — things are not static in the nonprofit industry, and you need to be somewhat entrepreneurial to adjust your path and find new ways to make progress toward your objectives. There’s always a balance to be struck between patience and aggressiveness that allows you to come out on top and in front of your objectives; riding the edge of that line is something the nonprofit industry taught me to do very well.

Anything else you'd like to add?

Colorado has an incredible environment for both tech and social impact organizations. I love to see more companies and individuals working toward meshing these two together — solving some of our biggest issues through business as a force for good!

 

Carter Woolsey, Manager of Business Intelligence

What did you do before coming into tech?

After graduating college I taught English and Public Speaking at the Changchun University of Technology in Northeast China.

What do you do now?

I'm Manager of Business Intelligence at Evolve Vacation Rental Network, which means that I handle the analytics needs of the company, whether that be for front line teams or for management.

When did you make the switch?

I joined Evolve in early 2012 when I moved to Denver.

Why did you choose to leave the education world?

Well, in my case, I was never in the education world for the long haul — I saw the move as a great chance to experience a vastly different culture and to challenge myself. It is definitely an uphill battle, though, teaching a language in China. The education system there focuses heavily on rote memorization, which doesn't lend itself well to picking up a new tongue. My students had seven years worth of English vocabulary under their belts but very little experience actually generating speech off the cuff.

What drew you to tech?

I was interested in joining a very early stage startup because I saw it as an incredible learning opportunity. I graduated with a degree in philosophy and a very vague notion of what I'd like to do, so I benefited greatly from the chance to try my hand at a number of roles at Evolve. I've gone from sales to account management to operations and finally landed in business intelligence, which is definitely where my interests and talents align best. It's the flexible and ever-changing nature of a startup that allowed me to find and move towards my passion.

How are the two industries — and cultures — different? How are they similar?

There are a great many differences, of course, but one of the biggest is the startup world's heavy focus on innovation and embracing change. Chinese classrooms, as I experienced them, were very traditional and consistent in the sense that you would generally see a professor up front giving a lecture and students silently taking notes. I remember taking my students outside one day for a lesson I had planned and the professor who was my handler for the university ran into us and was genuinely shocked that I was holding class outside. The flip-side of that coin, and something of a similarity, is that as an international teacher I had more leeway to act non-traditionally. I tried to use that leeway to disrupt my students' notions of the classroom in order to make them feel more comfortable speaking up and interacting. Startups, similarly, get to create their own rules as they enter into an undeveloped (or disrupt an established) market.

What lessons did life in China teach you that you're applying now?

This will sound incredibly cliche, but my time teaching taught me to be comfortable with failure. I had almost no guidance in terms of my lesson planning so I had to learn to make a plan, execute it, and try to learn from the results. Coming in with no real teaching experience and teaching students from a vastly different background than my own, you can believe that I had a number of days early on where my lesson plans flopped miserably. Learning to pick myself back up, adapt and try again was invaluable. It's a useful skill set to have when you're the first person on a new team in a young company, learning as you go.

 

Photos via featured individuals. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Did you or someone you know change industries to join the tech world? We want to hear about it.

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