Confessions of a non-techie

Andrea Villalba
Photo by Giammarco Boscaro on Unsplash

Non-techies are defined by what they lack: programming experience. I, for one, have none. In the little corner of the planet we call the ‘tech startup scene’, this can make you stand out like a sore thumb. When I decided to intern at Klydo, an AI-powered innovation research assistant, I definitely felt apprehensive. Why hire a philosophy graduate for the job? I read Plato, not code.

It didn’t take long to realise that my fears were unfounded. Online you will find a heap of advice on how to nail your internship. Network, network, network. Ask questions. Be professional. Whatever you do, do not spill the coffee! However, I found that much of this simply did not apply to the 9 weeks I spent at Klydo. Below is a short guide for non-techies considering a jump into the startup industry.

Lesson 1. Tech startups need ‘social alchemists’.

I’ve been asked this question so many times it may well be printed on my forehead: what is philosophy good for? In the decade to 2017, the proportion of philosophy undergraduates fell by 21% in the UK. The tendency to select degrees that pave a direct career path- the so-called “plug and play” approach to higher education- has left the humanities in crisis mode.

Philosophy famously gets a bad rap. In 2015, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz claimed that the Federal Reserve system was run by a “series of philosopher kings”. In other words, philosophers have their heads in the clouds and are yet to produce anything of value in the real world. Nevertheless, this is far from the truth. The pointless ‘liberal arts’ education yields an unexpected power: you can do anything. What no one tells you at graduation is that:

- Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield graduated with a philosophy degree.

- Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, has a degree in English.

- Airbnb Co-Founder Brian Chesky opted for an education in fine arts…

In the general use of the word, these people are ‘job creators’. Mark Cuban similarly reflects on this idea. He predicts that advances in automation will gradually place an increasing demand for arts and humanities students. As a result, “what looks like a great job graduating from college today may not be a great job graduating from college 5 to 10 years from now.” This bursts the bubble on ‘safe’ degrees: there is no such thing.

Throughout my degree, I asked questions about many large-scale human problems tech startups like Klydo face. In his book Sensemaking, Madsbjerg calls companies out for failing to make sense of the human beings represented in their data sets. Often, this requires a humanities-driven approach. People do not exist in a vacuum hence their culture, stories and morals form a big part of their decision-making processes. In order to decipher their customers’ needs and motivations, tech companies need ‘social alchemists’ in their midst. I saw this dynamic play out in Klydo. The engineering team uses their skills to build a tool for the ‘average’ user, that may likely be non-technical. As one of two non-techies in the office, we are the liaison between these two groups. If we cannot understand the product, chances are our customers will not either.

Each day on the job brings a different set of questions. Does Klydo have a viable business model? How do we build an employer brand? To the more mundane: what should we be tweeting about? In all cases, I found that knowing how to write clearly and follow an argument to its logical conclusion, skills I acquired during my degree, to be incredibly useful. The non-technical perspective should not be underestimated.

Lesson 2. No man is an island

At a startup, full time employees will take extra care about your work being done properly. This is especially the case if they have to take over once you are back at university. Although this may sound like standard practice, the right intentions easily get lost in internship schemes at large corporations. Finding the right person to talk to is more difficult as employee numbers grow. It’s awkward to walk up to people who you do not know and annoyingly tap them on the shoulder for an explanation. In most cases, you will have to settle for email- the lowest form of communication. At Klydo, flat hierarchy, hazy team boundaries and (ultimately) close proximity made my experience starkly different. I am grateful to have received highly personalised feedback and mentorship. It’s taken place knowingly over hot chocolate in Borough Market and, unknowingly, in the conversations had during long afternoons in the office. This self-awareness contributes enormously to team dynamics. Klydo operates with an us against the world attitude. It’s a group of people trying its hardest to accomplish something rare and that makes it a very special organisation to be a part of.

Lesson 3. It’s all about value add

You do what exactly?! When interning at a startup, more often than not you’ll find yourself explaining to your friends and family what you do. This summer, we’ve asked questions like how would you pitch Klydo to your mum. Trust me, it’s not that easy. I’ve learned that what matters most in early stage startups is getting your positioning right from the very start. That means discerning your company’s unique value add.

This extends to the individual. In a team of 9 there is nowhere to hide when someone doesn’t pull their weight. On day one I was thrown right into the fire by starting work on a competitor review that would take up much of my first month in the company. This required learning the basics of business design from scratch with the help of a team-member. Unlike more established summer internship schemes, where interns are split between sectors, I was able to figure out my likes and dislikes along the way. Being part of a team that supported and encouraged this learning process was invaluable.

My 9 week internship is sadly drawing to a close. Here at Klydo we have a small office. People talk about medieval jousting and tomatoes. People guzzle coffee every morning and limoncello on special occasions. People write their PhD theses and go to circus school in their spare time. Klydo is no club. Put simply, it’s a bunch of people getting excited about helping others innovate. I will miss you.

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