How do I get a job in tech?
I’ve been getting this question more often lately, having more conversations with folks looking to start a career in tech. Each conversation has parts that are unique to the job seeker, but I’m realizing each conversation follows a similar pattern.
Last weekend, Simple Thread sponsored Shift/Enter, which is a great career workshop for members of the local tech community, especially those planning a career transition into tech. I also personally volunteered to do mock interviews with candidates.
Having several conversations back-to-back brought the pattern of questions and advice into stark relief. I always start with trying to gain more clarity around the person’s goals and then focus my advice in a few areas.
What do we mean, “in tech”?
It can mean many different things. Here are some typical questions people are asking:
- How do I break into software development?
- How do I become a web designer?
- How do I build an app?
- How do I get hired as a project manager?
- How do I learn to code?
And about a hundred other variations. Or sometimes it doesn’t mean anything specific. People have just heard about all of the unfilled jobs in tech – and the starting salaries – and they’re interested, but they don’t even know where to start.
That’s okay. I wouldn’t know where to start if I wanted to break into TV production or finance or some of these other in-demand fields where you don’t need a specific license or set of credentials. Hot fields are often changing so rapidly that getting a foothold is the hardest part, but once you’re in, hard work can quickly make you an expert in an emerging niche.
How to Start
It turns out that regardless of where you’re coming from or where you’re trying to go, there’s a straightforward process for gaining employment in tech.
Three Components to Getting Hired:
- What You Know
- What You Can Do
- Who You Know
If you can achieve continuous improvement on each of those, it is a matter of when not if you will be hired.
While this approach can work for anyone, the unfortunate truth is that the more similar you are to the senior leadership in an industry, the easier this path will be. Base human instincts make us tend to favor people similar to us, and unconscious bias affects everyone.
The good news is that companies are starting to understand this problem and realize the value in a diverse talent pool. So once you have that first foothold, bringing a different viewpoint and mindset to solving problems can be a huge asset to help you stand out and advance in your career.
1. What You Know
What you know doesn’t actually matter as much as you might think, but it does facilitate two essential activities:
- Building things.
- Talking to people.
Building things and talking to people actually do matter, but before you can go very far down those paths, you need to have some baseline understanding of the concepts and vocabulary in an industry.
There’s an infinite amount of knowledge to pursue in the world of software development, and when you’re starting out, it’s impossible to know where to focus. Seeking knowledge can be an endless sinkhole – and an endless source of insecurity.
My advice is to find a cheap online course, where someone else has decided what matters.
Unless it is miserable, try to complete it. If it is miserable, it’s okay to try a few, but eventually you have to just rough it out and finish one. For example, if you want to understand what code is, this intro course with Python is probably a fine starting point.
Just finish something to gain some momentum.
And once you finish a course, you get to take a break from structured learning and focus on the other components.
2. What You Can Do
This is what actually matters for doing a job, and the best way to gain these skills is to practice doing them.
That’s why I advise doing the minimum structured coursework necessary to gain a bit of confidence and familiarity with concepts and then start practicing.
Put down the book on HTML and CSS. Start building a website.
You’ll learn so much faster troubleshooting your code than you would reading about code. Learning how to read error messages, how to look at browser dev tools, how to Google for an answer – these are all critical skills in modern web development that you can only really learn by fumbling about on real projects.
This also lets you start building out a portfolio, e.g., a portfolio of websites if you’re interested in design or a portfolio of code repositories on GitHub. If you’re interested in the less technical areas, say project management, your build activity might be writing case studies or defining the requirements of a system you imagine, using various tools like user stories or personas.
Your immediate goal is to learn how to learn and how to apply learned skills. The next step is to figure out what you need to learn to get a job.
3. Who You Know
In the tech industry, like every industry, getting a job is so much easier if you have a network in the industry – in two specific ways:
- Finding a mentor.
- Building personal relationships with hiring managers.
So how do you build a network before having a career?
First, you’re a beginner in this field. It’s okay to admit that, even if it’s not always comfortable.
I’ve recently had career-transition conversations with a pastry chef, a truck driver, a marketing coordinator, a firefighter, a director at a nonprofit, etc. They all had valuable skills in their current field that are portable to tech, e.g., conflict resolution or budget management.
We had great conversations, because they were confident in the real-world skills they bring but also realistic about starting from the bottom in a new career.
Most towns have multiple monthly events or meetups in the tech space. Some are super technical; some are more focused on community or entrepreneurship. It honestly doesn’t matter much. Just get out there and start meeting people. Be authentic, and you’ll eventually connect with people and find a good meetup for you.
People who go to community events tend to know about other events.
Eventually, you will meet someone who has recently made a career shift like you are trying to do. Congratulations, now you have a potential mentor! Or they can introduce you to one.
People tend to know other practitioners at the same point in their career.
A mentor can help in so many ways, e.g., helping you focus your precious energy on what skills to learn next or making introductions to their network.
And along the way, even if you don’t find a mentor, you’ll start seeing the same people at different events, building relationships with people working in the companies where you want to work, start understanding what skills are in demand in your area, etc.
Inspect and Adapt
This is not actually a three step process. It’s a cycle you repeat. You learn new ideas, practice those new ideas, meet new folks who introduce you to new ideas, think about what new ideas you should learn next, and so on.
The truth is that companies are rarely hiring for a specific set of skills. They are hiring for someone to help with a specific type of work, someone to help them achieve certain business goals. It’s not that skills are irrelevant. It’s that job requirements are often fungible, especially if you bring other skills.
Remember this as you look at job descriptions filled with skills you don’t have and acronyms you’ve never heard of. If you have none of the skills, move on to the next one. But if you have some of the skills, it might be worth having a conversation.
Maybe the web developer position that lists SQL as a requirement would actually accept someone who doesn’t know SQL but is great at talking to customers.
Or maybe not. But as long as you conduct yourself in a professional, respectful manner, it’s always valuable to build relationships, gain experience with interviews, etc. Interviewing and building a network are skills, and like any others, benefit from practice.
Three Simple Steps to Get Hired
- First, do some structured learning to gain a baseline understanding of the terminology and concepts, some elementary skills. Improve what you know.
- Second, as soon as you can, start using those concepts and practicing those skills, building a portfolio and gaining experience. Prove what you can do.
- Third, as soon as you’re comfortable, start building a network of practitioners who do what you want to do – and people who hire those practitioners. Expand who you know.
Then iterate. That’s it, simple but not easy and rarely quick.
Just Keep Improving
My last piece of advice is to not get discouraged. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and think everybody in tech seems so smart. Trust me: we’re not special. We just speak a different language, a language anyone can learn with time and effort.
If you have the courage to keep working on your skills and meeting new people, keep improving, you can get there eventually.
The surest way to lose at any endeavor is to quit.