“Sailing New Seas: My Mid-Career Jump from Law to Tech”: Melissa Blades, Engineering Manager at Ads.com (Video + Transcript)

September 21, 2023

Her journey began aboard the USS John F Kennedy, where she served as an electronics repair technician. After law school and a Manhattan law firm for seven years, life interrupted, and following a personal hiatus, she found herself at a crossroads and wondering if it was possible to leave behind the field she spent so much time and money to enter, and start anew? Spoiler alert: It was. By leveraging her technical roots, Melissa Blades began anew in tier 1 tech support at a startup. Within seven years, she climbed the ranks to a engineering manager position in software engineering. Her story offers a roadmap for those who feel stuck in their current positions, illuminating the possibilities and practicalities of drastic career shifts.


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Sukrutha Bhadouria: I have Melissa Blades. Melissa is a software engineering manager at Ads, and she’s going to be giving us an amazing talk today about a mid-career jump from law to tech. Welcome, Melissa.

Melissa Blades: Thank you so much. I’m really excited to connect with everyone today and share with you a personal journey that took me from repairing electronics on the USS John F. Kennedy, to practicing law in Manhattan, and into the world of software engineering.

Melissa Blades: The title of my talk – Sailing New Seas – is a metaphor that’s close to my heart. It’s about finding your way through the unknown, weathering life storms, and discovering your own direction. Just like many of you, I’ve had to change course a few times and figure out where I really wanted to go.

Melissa Blades: Seven years ago, I decided to leave the practice of law and found myself at the starting point of a new adventure, working in Tier 1 tech support. Today, I’m a happy and fulfilled software engineering manager. I’m eager to share the lessons that I’ve learned and some principles that guided my journey. I didn’t have a perfect map laid out for my journey. It’s been filled with surprises and my fair share of rough seas. I won’t tell you that I have all the answers or that there’s only one way to achieve success.

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Melissa Blades: What I’ve found though, and will share with you today are some principles that have guided me: resilience, discipline, initiative, and purpose. I’m sharing these with you today not as absolute rules, but as thoughts that might ring true for you. If they spark a little inspiration or give you the nudge to take on something new, then our time today will have been well worth it. So let’s set sail and dive into the first principle, resilience.

Melissa Blades: Resilience is not just bouncing back. It’s learning from your failures and forging ahead even when things get foggy. I started my first career in the Navy working as an electronics repair technician on the USS John F. Kennedy. After my service, I continued in electronics while working on my undergraduate degree in information systems. Toward the end of school, the dot com bubble had burst and tech opportunities had become scarce.

Melissa Blades: Facing this new reality, I had my first career shift and decided to start law school. After law school, I found myself in the midst of Manhattan’s bustling law firms. It was intense, demanding, and often overwhelming. While the work was intellectually stimulating, the environment was unpleasant. I was once told I needed to use the bathroom less often and even reprimanded for not responding to an email while I was in the shower. As time went on, I became increasingly uneasy with the demands of some clients. The hours were grueling and the work itself was no longer engaging for me. The only things that I liked doing were making spreadsheets.

Melissa Blades: Faced with this growing sense of disconnection from my career, I found myself in a crisis of identity and purpose. I was working in a prestigious law firm making a lot of money. I was objectively successful and should have been happy, but I wasn’t. Sunday nights found me deep in a dark pit of despair as I thought about having to go to work the next day. I wasn’t performing my best at work, but I didn’t care. I was jealous of anyone who wasn’t an attorney because their jobs all looked so much better than mine.

Melissa Blades: The turning point came for me when I found this book, The Unhappy Lawyer [inaudible] book. I was struck by these words, “Maybe I could get hit by a bus and end up in a coma. I don’t want to be permanently injured, just incapacitated.” I just sat there staring at the page in shock and recognition this letter could have been for me.

Melissa Blades: Realizing that I wasn’t alone though was huge for me. It helped me realized that my unhappiness wasn’t a personal failing. There wasn’t something wrong with me. I just wasn’t in the right career for me. This helped me gain the critical skill of recognizing that if my career was no longer fulfilling for me, I had the agency to make a meaningful change.

Melissa Blades: While I had realized that law wasn’t the right career for me, the weight of student loans left me feeling trapped. I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. The joy that I had always found in solving technical problems helped guide me back toward my roots in technology. But the notion of changing fields was daunting, but it was here that resilience really became a cornerstone for me.

Melissa Blades: It wasn’t merely about overcoming obstacles. It was fully acknowledging that if my career wasn’t working for me any longer, I was not just capable but I was compelled to steer it in a new direction. Resilience is key, but it’s only one part of the equation. I needed to be ready to make hard calls and really stick to my goals. It was tough and scary at times for sure, but it helped me forge a career that feels right for me.

Melissa Blades: Let’s explore how discipline shaped my path. Discipline helps play a vital role when making a career change. Financial discipline gives you the space to explore new paths, and the discipline of hard work helps you learn and grow in a new role. Together, these helped make my transition successful.

Melissa Blades: Switching to a career in technology is probably going to mean taking an initial pay cut. When I left corporate law for Tier 1 tech support, I had some savings to fall back on, but I was making one sixth of my prior salary and had to make up for that reduction by living frugally, which wasn’t easy for me. I’m a person who has a budget category for sparkles, and I must admit I’m often over budget in that category, and if we’re being honest in a few other categories as well. I struggled to practice financial responsibility without feeling deprived, but I knew that for me to flourish, I had to avoid getting into that deprivation state of mind.

Melissa Blades: In the end, it was two years and three promotions before I could pay my bills without relying on savings. During that time, I found ways to embrace the positive aspects of my situation, like the flexibility to make home improvements in a tiny studio apartment without breaking the bank. With only three doorknobs in my entire home, I could splurge on the sparkliest ones.

Melissa Blades: If you can approach change as an enriching part of your experience, you can see these changes as opportunities to explore what brings you joy. Financial discipline requires thoughtful planning. Accept that you will earn less for a while and prepare for that, but embrace that sacrifice as part of the journey towards a life you love.

Melissa Blades: Once you’ve got the financial part down, what comes next is developing a thirst for learning and growing. My own learning adventure began with a CompTIA A+ certification that helped me land my first role in Tier 1 tech support. Once there, I took a class at a local college, applied what I learned at work and got my first promotion. This success led to another class and another, each one building momentum.

Melissa Blades: Learning led to practical use and growth, and that took me through promotions to sales engineer, QA engineer, software engineer, and eventually software engineering manager.

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Melissa Blades: On this slide, you can see some milestones from my seven-year educational journey. If you’re thinking this is excessive, you might be right. But for me, learning on my own is like wandering around without even a compass to guide you. Whereas taking a class is for me like using GPS to navigate.

Melissa Blades: It’s not the certificates though that matter. What counts are the things that you learn along the way. I don’t show you this to intimidate you at all, but just to give you a real look at what it took for me to transition into a career in tech. This dedication continues to shape my career, pushing me from one role to the next.

Melissa Blades: As with financial discipline, a commitment to learning isn’t about sacrificing everything. It’s about balance and staying focused on your goals while still enjoying life. Yes, I definitely made sacrifices, but they have led to a much more rewarding career.

Melissa Blades: Along the way, I was able to connect with others on similar paths. I started a study group with some women at work, and within my engineering team I shared what I was learning. I’ve met weekly with other people in my degree program and even joined a meditation group for some students.

Melissa Blades: With a sound financial plan and a hunger for learning, you’ve got the discipline to grow. What’s next? Here’s where initiative steps in where you hoist the sales and start turning plans into action. Initiative is not just waiting for opportunities to come along, but actually actively seeking them out. Initiative often means spotting chances where you can make a real impact.

Melissa Blades: In my early tech support days, I noticed a way to improve customer onboarding. I drafted a plan. It was implemented, and suddenly I became the go-to person for that procedure. It was great. There were many more such opportunities over time that not only allowed me to prove myself, but also to experiment with the direction I wanted to take my career.

Melissa Blades: Startups and smaller organizations can be an ideal match for people rich in life experience but still growing their technical qualifications. At a startup, I was promoted to software engineer with no coding experience or formal computer science education. I didn’t even have an interview. This was possible because the team that hired me had worked with me before. They knew I could learn quickly and they were willing to take a chance on me. And they don’t think this opportunity would’ve been possible at a larger, more established organization.

Melissa Blades: Initiative isn’t just about stepping up in your current role though. It’s about reaching out and grabbing what you want from your career., but you do have to do more than show interest, you have to put in consistent efforts. Research to find roles that interest you and ask to shadow someone in one of these roles. I am always thrilled when someone asks to shadow me or sets up an informational meeting, ut do this with purpose and intention to follow through, not just because someone told you it was a good thing to do.

Melissa Blades: As an example when I was a QA engineering manager, someone in tech support had regularly connected with me and just as importantly had followed up on advice I’d given. When I had a role to fill, then I chose to hire internally at the junior level, even though it would mean more work. Because it meant I could hire a candidate than I knew had demonstrated genuine interest and dedication.

Melissa Blades: Look for other opportunities for engagement within and without your organization that can lead to growth and connection. I’ve done things like start a professional book club or hosted a discussion group for a podcast we all listen to. These activities weren’t just fun, they helped shape company culture and help support my colleagues growth.

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Melissa Blades: Don’t just stick to your organization though. Venture outside and expand your network. Attend conferences, join local meetups, and dive into tech events. Like many of us, I am an introvert and networking doesn’t come naturally to me. I even bribe myself with a bonus in my sparkles budget for doing things like speaking today.

Melissa Blades: I remember feeling envious of a woman in the Navy who would go anywhere by herself. I was terrified at the thought. But a friend of mine helped me overcome this fear by attending a movie with me and sitting on the opposite side of the theater. We survived. And while I still prefer the safety net of a friend, I’m much more comfortable doing things myself.

Melissa Blades: We talked about seizing opportunities, connecting with others, and being an active part of our community, but what’s the underlying thread that ties all these efforts together? It’s the story that you’re building, the narrative of your professional journey, your purpose. Purpose is not just about what you do, but why you do it and how every action, every choice feeds into the unique story you’re telling.

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Melissa Blades: Let’s dive into how to craft that story, make it resonate, and ensure everything you do aligns with your story. Your narrative isn’t just a reflection of your past. It’s a guiding light for your future and can help you make sure that everything aligns with your purpose. It’s more than just job titles and responsibilities. It’s a coherent story that will make decision-makers say, “Yes, this is the perfect person for this role.”

Melissa Blades: When I was on a cybersecurity scholarship committee, I valued candidates whose applications revealed a clear, consistent interest in the field. A candidate with a history of attending hackathons and red team events and pursuing relevant coursework made it easy to see why being awarded the scholarship was the next logical step in her journey.

Melissa Blades: To discover your purpose, identify recurring themes in your life, and connect the dots between the things that you naturally gravitate towards and what brings you joy and fulfillment. Start by looking at the patterns in your life. What are the favorite parts of your job? What things do you find yourself going back to over and over again?

Melissa Blades: These can be clues to your underlying themes to define your purpose. As an example, growth and solving technical problems are some of my essential themes. Whether pursuing classes and certifications or tackling coding challenges, I am happiest when I’m on the steep part of the learning curve. Even when working as an attorney, the things I enjoyed most were the more technical tasks like transiting the Internal Revenue Code into a spreadsheet formula.

Melissa Blades: Embracing this challenge and consistently leveling up my technical skills has been a defining narrative in my career.

Melissa Blades: Always keep your life story at the forefront of your mind.

Melissa Blades: When faced with a decision, see how it fits with your ongoing journey. Is it a logical next step or does it feel out of place? If it doesn’t fit, you might want to reshape your story, or think hard about whether this new element belongs at all.

Melissa Blades: Your life’s purpose isn’t set in stone. It is a living narrative shaped by your values, interests, and aspirations. Use it as a guide and let it stir your path. I didn’t begin this journey knowing that engineering management was where I’d end up. At first I didn’t even see how it fit into my story.

Melissa Blades: When I realized that technical expertise and leadership could go hand in hand, and discovered how rewarding it could be to build up a team, it became a vital part of my story. And trust me, learning to manage an engineering team placed me right back in my happy place on the steep part of the learning curve. It is a challenge, but it lets me leverage my technical expertise to empower an entire team making this a pivotal chapter in my career story.

Melissa Blades: Your journey like mine is a unique story and should be marked by a purpose that connects all the dots. Recognize and embrace these themes, and you’ll find yourself on a path that’s not only fulfilling, but feels like the most natural and logical next step in your life’s adventure.

Melissa Blades: It took me many years to find my North Star. In the seven years since earning my first certification, I’ve been guided by a clear sense of purpose, that is my ongoing commitment to growth and enthusiasm for solving technical challenges.

Melissa Blades: Initiative was my engine propelling me forward.

Melissa Blades: Discipline is my navigational system constantly recalibrating to keep me on the most direct path to my purpose.

Melissa Blades: And resilience was the sturdy hull of my ship, keeping me afloat amidst turbulences and challenges.

Melissa Blades: Every leg of my voyage has been charted by these guiding principles, and it’s my hope that they can serve you as you sail through the waters of your personal journey. Whether you’re at the beginning of your journey, contemplating a career shift, or seeking renewed inspiration, I hope that the story of my career transition will help you strive for new horizons and be brave enough to set sail.

Melissa Blades: Thank you so much for joining me today, and I wish all fair winds and following seas on your unique journeys.

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