UBC iSchool Career Talk Series: Journey from LibTech to Tech

The UBC iSchool reached out to me recently asking me to talk about my path from getting my library degree to ending up working in a tech company. Below is the script for my portion of the talk, along with a transcription of the questions I answered.

Context

To provide a bit of context (and what students would have gotten as part of my bio), I graduated from the MLIS program in 2012 (though I finished classes at the end of 2011). I’ve worked in all major types of libraries (public, academic, special), though I currently work at a tech startup. My roles have primarily focused on technology for better user experience and services, with emphasis on documentation, and accessibility.

Talk

Hi everyone, as mentioned, my name is Cynthia, though I’m known as Arty online and in the tech space, and I graduated from the MLIS program, but to explain how I ended up where I am today, we’ll have to start a bit further back than my time at SLAIS.

Deciding to go to library school

Before even thinking about library school, I had graduated from the Education program at UBC and started working as a secondary teacher. During those years, I often got asked to solve technology problems even though I was an English teacher. Eventually, one of my friends suggested I consider becoming an academic systems librarian, where I could combine and make use of both my teaching and technology skills.

So, then, that’s what I set out to do. I applied to UBC and was accepted into the MLIS program.

Making full use of library school opportunities

Honestly, my one piece of advice I give all students is to take advantage of the opportunities you have. Regardless of your focus, having experience in the field at what is essentially the professional level will put you much closer to the top of the hiring pool. And while the co-op program will give you more work experience for hiring, short placements, like the practicum, can give you a sense of what it’s like to work in positions or organizations you’re not familiar with, to see whether you would want to work in a similar position.

If you’re interested in a specific area, consider taking courses in other departments. You can also consider auditing classes if you can fit it into your schedule. Personally, I audited the survey of children’s literature class in case I ever ended up on-call at a public library, and it gave me a newfound appreciation for what’s being published now, compared to when I was a child myself.

While in the program, I took a mix of classes to make sure I could work as a generalist as well as a specialist, because especially in smaller institutions, you do a lot more than just what your position title says.

Technology also touches basically every area of librarianship now, so having a breath of knowledge allows you to understand how technology plays a role in each part of the organization, and how you can help. Classes, like user experience or design, can also give you a broader view of this.

For systems librarianship specifically, any of the classes that focused on the most common systems used and how these systems work, I found to be the most useful, including systems, digital collections, search algorithms, and cataloguing.

Getting work

I admit that I entered library school with a decent amount of technology knowledge and skill. I had taken a year and a half of a Computer Science program at the beginning of my university years, and though self-taught, I could hand code basic webpages.

Ultimately though, it was my experience in my first co-op position working with the web services team in the UBC Library IT department that got me my first full-time contract position right after I finished my classes.

After that, I did a couple more contracts focused on technology and accessibility before becoming the Manager of Technology and Technical Services at New Westminster Public Library.

Leaving libraries and going into tech

After less than 2 years, I made the difficult decision to resign from the library. Due to the unaffordability of Vancouver-area housing, we moved to Vancouver Island, where I still live today.

Knowing that technology positions in libraries would be scarce and that the commuting time may be too much, I purposely looked for a remote position. Naturally, remote positions are more common in the tech industry, and I applied to support positions knowing that my customer service oriented work, especially with technology in libraries, would put me in a good position to be successful.

After a few interviews, I was offered and accepted a support position at GitLab.

Making the move to tech

When I started at GitLab, the team I joined was fairly new and small, so there was a lot to help with. Much of my everyday work is based on my experience as a teacher and librarian, including things like being able to constantly reprioritize work based on user and organizational need, improving training, working on documentation, and putting together and improving processes and workflows. I’ve also been able to think about my work at a larger scale than just solving the immediate problem.

Changing industries comes with challenges of course. For one, it was a huge culture shock, partially due to GitLab’s way of doing things and being a fully remote company. It was a positive change, but it still took me months to fully adopt a new way of working.

The other major challenge has been the technology. GitLab is a large product, and our support team members are expected to be able to handle any inquiry, so not only did I have to learn about most of the existing features, but also a significant number of the new ones that are constantly added, along with a certain amount of the infrastructure that supports it. Much of these technologies I had barely heard of while working in library-related organizations.

Nevertheless, if you can rise to those challenges, then you can be recognized for them. One of the advantages of working for a private company is that you can be promoted based on your results and whether you’re ready, not only when there is an opening.

So, while there are obvious challenges, working for a private organization can provide a lot of flexibility and be incredibly rewarding.

Take away

I’ve known people to move from libraries to tech and back, or work for library-related organizations, such as service provides or vendors. Regardless of whether you want to focus on technology in libraries or not, I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that the skills and knowledge you gain while in library school can give you opportunities outside of libraries.

Recommendations from others

  • get a mentor
  • project management skills
  • coding skills
  • teaching course/skills
  • writing, especially academic vs. professional writing
  • research skills/projects
  • data analytic skills

Q&A

How much expectation of your dreams matched what what happened after graduation?

  • Others: has shifted, the more you work, the more you see opportunities, and there are new things all the time; having an open mind, what you want to spend your time doing
  • my first contract was very much close to what I wanted to do, but I certainly didn’t expect to be where I am today. The more you keep your ears open, the more you’ll hear about positions in organizations that are not libraries or archives, or non-library positions

How did you land your first job? Any preparation?

  • Others: being open to contracts, relocating for 1-2 years if possible
  • Other: practice interviews, share questions
  • Other: apply early, because it can take time
  • get feedback from interviewers to improve
  • applying and interviewing simply provides more experience

Do you have any comments on whether employer expect you to come on board with high level tech skills, or are they generally supportive to on-the-job learning?

  • it partly depends. A lot of larger organizations are more specialized so expect more, but smaller organizations tend to expect you to be more of a generalist, where your position title might only reflect half the work you do
  • you should apply even if you have 50-70% of the requirements, then make the case of learning some of the things you don’t have
  • Other: the job posting often reflects what an organization wants someone to be doing in 1-2 years, especially for new positions
  • Other: one thing to ask about in interviews is opportunities for professional development

My question is has anyone come across a checklist/matrix that allows one to fill in any and all applicable information and then maybe ends up providing some kind of guide/map into/through the field, maybe by creating a “profile” of the “kind” of info professional you might be.

  • Other: consider something like: https://osf.io/uycax/
  • Other: consider finding conferences presentations on desired and required skills for certain fields
  • Not specifically, but definitely find a way to put your work online in a public way. Employers certainly expect a LinkedIn profile now, and even if they don’t look at a lot of it, having content somewhere that showcases your work and strengths shows you’re keen

Thank you

Thanks for reading, and thanks GitLab for provide me the opportunity to really grow.

a jellyfish at sunrise

Author: Cynthia

Technologist, Librarian, Metadata and Technical Services expert, Educator, Mentor, Web Developer, UXer, Accessibility Advocate, Documentarian

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