This is how I transitioned from a career in classical music to one in tech
Exploring new passions, embracing the unknown, and ending up in an improved version of life
On a Saturday afternoon in late September 2019, I felt the urge to turn on Brahms’ Fourth Symphony while cleaning my apartment. I hadn’t listened to orchestral music recreationally in a while. I listened to the stormy first movement while attending to my chores somewhat listlessly, all the while feeling an ache developing deep in my gut. Eventually, I stopped moving, no longer able to ignore the ache. I listened closely to the music. In that moment, I realized that I would never play that piece again. My career as a musician was over.
It’s not that my career was actually over at that time — I was still making a career as a freelance musician. But it was over in the sense that my career simply wasn’t giving me what I needed, and I knew it. It was coming with little to no reward — intellectual, financial, or in improving the general quality of my life. Nothing in me wanted to do it anymore. I fought for years to open up the career paths I thought made sense for me, but the universe continually pushed back. I could no longer deny it was time to move on.
Earlier this year, I wrote an article about why I ended my career in classical music and started working in tech. I subsequently got a lot of questions about how I did it. This article is about my process of making the shift, from developing an interest in another field of work to actually working in that field.
Phase 1: Explore
When I graduated from music school, I was obviously setting out to build my music career, but I finally had some space to learn about other things in the world besides music. I listened to many, many TED talks. It was through these talks, and through subsequent conversations with music colleagues about how we might innovate the field of classical music, that I discovered a new passion: the discipline of design.
I found myself reading books like Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things. I started messing around with Photoshop. I watched and was captivated by the first season of Netflix’s Abstract. I learned more about what many call “UX design” by taking Udemy courses on the subject and reading books like Don’t Make Me Think. I learned to use software like Sketch and Figma and took design thinking courses through IDEO U. These were all things I did with no agenda; I just found myself drawn to them.
I realized had been “designing” performance experiences for audiences of all kinds over the years, even back in high school, and design was the discipline I had been looking for — it gave structure to making better experiences for humans. I began applying design thinking principles to my work in the creation of performance experiences while I was at New World Symphony and made professional opportunities out of my new skillset, teaching design thinking workshops to organizations in Miami and beyond.
Through all of this, I realized how much I genuinely cared about fixing user experience problems with many products and services in my day-to-day: poorly designed door handles, confusing kitchen appliance controls, disorganized airport security experiences, bad customer service interactions with many, many companies, and more.
So, as I had my moment of realizing that my music career was coming to an end, design became the obvious choice for my next career move. I didn’t feel that being a designer was necessarily my life’s purpose, but the combination of my passion for it and the seemingly plentiful design job opportunities in tech formed my decision to pursue it more seriously.
Phase 2: Question
I started to look at the paths to becoming a designer, and they were super unclear. People in design came from all sorts of backgrounds (although seemingly none of them came from classical music). There was evidently no one right way to make the switch, and I didn’t really know any designers.
The lack of clarity felt absolutely overwhelming for me. So, for a time, I set design to the side and surveyed any other options that stuck out to me. One that intrigued me, partially because I had musician friends who had pursued it, was software development (i.e. coding). I knew a couple of people from the music world who had gone to coding bootcamps and secured good jobs as developers in tech companies. So, I turned my attention to learning to code, thinking that it would be the clear path to at least get me into the tech industry, and perhaps my passion for design would help me in some tangential capacity.
Phase 3: Commit
After I realized software development wasn’t going to be my path, I came back to design and accepted that it was the best bet for me. Despite the lack of clarity on how I would enter the field, I cared enough about the craft to figure out a way.
At this point, I sought advice from a college friend who had majored in violin and went to work for a tech company immediately after graduation. He gave me advice upon which I built my career strategy:
“Just start with A job at a reputable company.”
His point was that it didn’t matter so much what the position was, more that you found your way into a good company that was similar to one you might want to work for and start to learn about the field. This was his career strategy early on, and he’s since built a career in data science at some of the most reputable tech companies in the world, so I decided I would go for it.
I found listings for jobs on LinkedIn that I seemed qualified for, most of which were for customer support roles, and shared them with my friend. He had a connection to a recruiter at one of the companies, Airtable, which was still a very small company at the time, and offered to pass along my resume. The connection led to a series of interviews, and within a month, I had a job offer.
For landing a customer support position, my sense is that a word-of-mouth recommendation can speak just as powerfully as a resume (if not more), particularly because the core skills of the job are widely applied in other fields, so one’s professional background doesn’t have to be too specific. There were some people from very interesting backgrounds on my team, including two former national park rangers, and everyone was fun and supportive. My days were filled with answering emails and live chats, all the while learning Airtable’s software so that I could answer some of the trickiest questions from customers. To be honest, I didn’t particularly like the role itself, but I loved many of the people I worked with and valued learning about how a tech company works on the inside.
My manager was super open to me taking on work outside of my role, as long as I was keeping up with my regular duties, so I began to work closely with a data analyst on our team who guided me through learning SQL (a database querying language) and generating and designing quantitative reports (charts) on customer support analytics. I also made opportunities for myself to project manage improvements to support processes on our team.
All of this to say, I didn’t get to my first job and coast. I committed to my vision to become a designer and created my own opportunities. I explored everything I could in that first role to inform my future self, even though none of it was obviously related to design. After about 6 months, I began to feel I was outgrowing the role and decided it was time to think about what was next.
Phase 4: Leap
I had to consider what would be my next step, and I saw two possibilities: stay at Airtable and find a way to move into another role or move into a role at another company.
The reason I call this the “leap” phase is because I didn’t feel I had to make such a big leap until this point. Getting my support job was actually quite straightforward once I was able to secure an interview. Landing a design role would require me to prove I had the specialized skills and mindset to be a good designer.
I poked around at my options at Airtable and discovered that trying to move up there was not a good option for me at the time. I began to look outside the company and got an interview for a service design position at GoDaddy. I first found the job posting on LinkedIn and then found a connection to someone who worked at the company through my music network. This person worked closely with the team that was hiring for the position, and that connection landed me the interview. (Side note: If it hasn’t already been made clear, I leveraged my music network in a big way to facilitate my career transition.)
Because the position was for a role that practiced the emerging field of service design (focused widely on all types interactions that customers/users have with a brand) and not UX/product design (focused on digital interfaces that users see), there wasn’t an industry-standard interview process that required a formal design portfolio. However, it did require responding to a case study in which I had to analyze a service and make recommendations about how to improve it.
I went through several interviews for that job and found out I wasn’t offered it, which was a bit crushing because I’d put a lot into the process. I kept on searching for jobs while I was continuing to do support at Airtable, but I ended up hearing from GoDaddy a few months later that they were hiring for another new job on the service design team. Shortly thereafter, I was in my first design job.
Phase 5: Build
I spent about a year at GoDaddy before I decided again that it was time to move on to another role. The opportunity for advancement I was seeking wasn’t available at the time within the company, so I started to keep an eye on job postings on LinkedIn for anything related to service design at other companies, just to get a feel for what was out there. I would submit my resume for jobs on LinkedIn every once in a while. Eventually, the LinkedIn submissions succeeded, and I was contacted to interview with Mailchimp, which is where I ended up.
When I was offered the job at Mailchimp, I was actually also in the running for a similar role at another company. I had no personal connection to Mailchimp or this other company; both were initiated through a LinkedIn application.
Over three years after my decision to change careers, I’m finally starting to see how what I was missing in my music career is finally materializing in my life. The role I’m in, the responsibilities I’m tasked with, and the people I’m working around are pretty much exactly what I envisioned wanting for myself when I first looked at making this transition. I’m now on a path to growth as a designer and in my career in tech, and I feel quite confident that the toughest parts of this transition are behind me.
While this transition has been a challenge, I believe it’s very possible to accomplish for classically-trained musicians. Nothing about the process was anywhere near as hard as what it took to become a musician. The most difficult part of the transition has been the emotional journey. Moving away from my identity as a musician and establishing an identity that doesn’t gravitate around my professional role has been very hard. I learned from a young age to define myself by what I do, so I’m now doing a lot of unlearning.
As with everything I share here, I hope that my story can help other musicians consider how they might make a similar transition. My path is just one example, and it’s by no means the right way to do it. I hope that at the very least, it can provide some hope that it’s possible to move into another career path and create a better life for yourself, as long as you’re true to yourself all along the way.
Zach Manzi is a service designer at Mailchimp and career coach for classically-trained musicians transitioning into careers in tech. Zach is an alum of Juilliard and New World Symphony, and a former Knight Foundation Fellow.
If you’re a US-based musician looking at transitioning into tech and are interested in career coaching opportunities, please contact Zach here.