Technically speaking

Erica Zendell
Jan 29, 2018 · 3 min read

Before going to college, it seemed as if everything about my future was going to be on the technical side. My favorite subjects were Chemistry and Calculus, my quant scores vastly eclipsed my verbal scores on every standardized test I’d ever taken, and my college admissions essay was about the joy of soldering circuit boards and building a metal detector.

Then I got to college, and after one unpleasant semester of core engineering curriculum, I left the program. Eventually, I decided to study Chinese and become a Comparative Literature major — both challenging in their own ways, but neither particularly technical.

Unfortunately, it’s far easier to market yourself if you’re coming from a technical than a liberal arts major in the job market. So after two years writing case studies and teaching notes at HBS, I headed to business school in hopes of building up some technical chops at arguably the most technical Top 10 MBA program in the country, MIT.

While in business school, as I witnessed classmates gravitating towards performing quantitative analyses in Excel and creating colorful charts in PowerPoint, I was reminded that my “Microsoft Office Spirit Animal,” as an old boss of mine called it, is definitely Word.

Luckily, for the purposes of getting hired, the technical reputation of MIT rubbed off on me and my resume. Still, it’s something of an illusion — I would not say I’m technical. I understand enough of the technical to get by on the job and occasionally spout a few organic phrases of technical jargon, but that’s as close as I get. I can only manage the basics in Excel. I’ve gotten by without learning R and SQL (so far, but who knows for how long). I’ve done some light coding before and don’t enjoy it, because staring at a screen all day troubleshooting bugs makes me want to cry.

In interviews, I get most insecure when asked about my “hard skills,” because the truth is I don’t have many relevant hard skills. Whatever “hard skills” I have for my job in Product come from learning the more approachable pieces of tech stack on the job. If a company is looking for a technical PM, I’m not the girl and probably never will be. The only thing that’s technical about me is my jiu-jitsu (and that’s because it has to be — trying to match the strength of men twice my size isn’t going to work).

That’s okay though. I’m not great with machines. I’m better with people. My proudest (non-writing) accomplishments aren’t about technical skill so much as people management and communication: launching a food business and a podcast; in business school, turning The Yarn, a casual monthly storytelling night, into a widely-attended, can’t-miss community event; launching a new website at Wayfair against all odds (an aggressive deadline, a skeleton crew, tons of work to complete, and countless people across the organization to coordinate).

Being open to feedback, really listening, developing relationships, finding common ground between people — that’s what I’m building my career on in tech, in part because being technical isn’t my strength, but also because no matter how good you are at talking to machines, nothing gets coded and no product gets launched without talking to people. I have to believe that if I’m still working in product, I’m more than decent at getting technical and nontechnical people to work together to make things happen. That’s not to say I’ll never have to run some numbers or query a database, but it’s more likely I’ll hire for the more technical skills that I lack.

And that’s technically a skill, too, right?

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