How to “Get into Tech” If You’re Not an Obvious Fit
Everyone wants in on tech, not just engineers. Here’s how to “break in”—and stay in
I’m in my 60s. I don’t code. In college exams, I was one of those high-verbal, low-math scorers. So I might not seem like an obvious person to be giving advice on getting into tech. Yet in the last year alone I’ve had more than 50 meetings with people who want my guidance on how to do it.
Many of these coffee dates have been with individuals in more traditional jobs who think they want to work at Twitter or Google, the two companies where I’ve spent the last 15 years. Journalists and editors, too, approach me in large number. So do numerous over-40 types who wonder how to move into the tech world, famous (or infamous) for its orientation to a younger crowd. And some advice-seekers have been bright-eyed new grads, typically with social science or liberal arts backgrounds, pinning their hopes on getting into the storied Bay Area tech scene in some capacity or other.
Sure, I’m interested in coffee. But I think one big reason I’m sought after for these conversations is that despite my liberal arts background, I’ve lasted in the tech world for 30 years. If I can do it, you probably can, too. I say “probably” because there are some characteristics of the space that have nothing to do with coding or technical preparation — and everything to do with attitude, EQ and flexibility.
All these meetups have led me to develop a bit of a stump speech on what it means, and how it is, to work in tech. It’s not for everyone, to be sure. I learned that myself when I got into Google — at age 51.
Constitutionally, I am an observer, not a joiner. About half of my years around technology businesses were working for the magazines, books and sites that covered all manner of software and hardware. I wrote for tech companies like Mathematica, Sun, AvantGo and Apple and consulted for interactive agencies whose clients were tech businesses.
But after suffering through the dot-com bubble and bust, the time came to move beyond observing — to get inside a company that made something that mattered. By 2002 it was clear Google was well on its way to doing that, and I could certainly get behind its mission. But I was far from an obvious fit. It took some 15 months for me to go from being a contractor, as a marketing writer, to becoming a full-time employee on the communications team.
I had to learn how to fit in at an already established four-year-old culture that prized qualities I hadn’t had to think much about before. When you join a company like Google or Twitter or fill-in-the-blank, there’s no glide path once you’re inside. Your work is just beginning.
But that proviso shouldn’t stop you. The appeal, and the rewards, are great—and I’m not talking about stock options. You will be working on something that millions of people use every day, that makes some part of life or work easier, that advances some human effort or knowledge.
For you indomitable spirits keen to get into the game, here are a few hard-won conclusions and pointers from me. If nothing else, my years in tech businesses (and now my gray hair!) might lend an air of authority to what follows. But as the saying goes, YMMV.
The working definition of “tech” most eager supplicants use is pretty much any consumer software service, platform, app or device that is widely adopted by regular people. Tech doesn’t as often mean the bigger, older “plumbing” companies, such as Cisco or Intel, or the array of enterprise service businesses that include Oracle, SAP or IBM, even though they, too, are built on software. Wall Street might lump us all together, but we don’t. And let’s face it, the draw of a name-brand company is strong. It’s fun to utter the name of your employer and have people nod in instant recognition (and with luck, confer extra cred on you). I’m very lucky indeed to name-drop two iconic companies.
I should add that the tech world also includes scads of service businesses—the agencies that develop mobile apps or manage social channels or build back-ends—that are dynamic and challenging and full of smart people. These days you can’t turn around without finding companies that might describe themselves as being in logistics, payments or healthcare and are all powered by technology. There are only so many jobs at the biggest companies; it’s worth thinking more broadly about what “tech” can offer.
Now on to what you have to bring to the party. Some of these came easily to me, but some were hard-won.
As a dyed-in-the-wool art/English/history type, I would never have considered myself “curious” about the unfolding world of binary bits and terabytes and all they could deliver. But my early love for all that the Internet brought my way (in 1995 I wrote one of the very first consumer guides to the web) helped me understand that math and science could lead even me to a magnificent new world. And then I couldn’t stay away.
Don’t bother with tech if you’re not truly animated by the unknown, the possible and the improbable. I don’t just mean curious about solving problems “at scale,” as technologists like to say. I mean your curiosity about big data or building a useful service for millions of people must also extend to being curious about the people you work with, how your executives make decisions, how the company culture works (and how it came to be), what the competitors are up to, and even how you yourself use, and view, technology. You have to be curious enough to undo received wisdom and knotty processes to break new paths and recognize their value.
At the risk of denigrating the insurance or banking industry, it’s not a given that workers in those businesses must be fired up over actuarials or amortization. But in tech, if you’re not all-in on what the company is building, shipping and selling, it’s not likely to go well for you. If you don’t follow “your” tech’s line of business or use its product, you can’t help inform its development, evangelize about it, or be as engaged on the job. I can’t imagine, for example, working at Twitter but not using it. My love for and early use of Twitter contributed greatly to my being hired there.
In my earlier days, I wasn’t initially drawn to, say, companies that made hard drives or routers (though some people might be, and more power to them). But in my liberal-arts way I was very drawn to what good search, and the promise of finding information, might offer. And 15 years ago, who among us could have dreamed where search would lead? I’m just glad I was aware of Google in 1998, and had a friend who already worked there.
That friend and I had worked together at two previous companies and kept in touch. In a fast-moving sector such as tech, it’s common that people move around fairly often, and often make those moves via their network. If you’re lucky and diligent—if you keep up in a more-than-transactional fashion with colleagues as they fan out—your network becomes gold.
I’ve found it to be more true in the Bay Area than elsewhere that your ability to put your network to work on behalf of your friends (and even your weak ties) is considered both good karma and a real value. Depending on the role you seek, it’s not unusual to be graded up or down in part on the strength of your network. Having an ecosystem of people you can tap is what fuels the vast engine of tech recruiting (and venture capital), informs your own sense about people seeking openings, and keeps you up to speed on your area.
At Google the ethos was very much about aptitude, not experience. Your past accomplishments do not weigh more in your favor than the qualities you can demonstrate in the moment: curiosity, problem solving, critical thinking, intellectual range. Your experience counts in so far as you have proven skills for the level of job you seek. But today, in a tech company, you are expected to refresh and upgrade those skills, and to call on them in new ways. Don’t regale us with how you did it back then; show us how you approach our situation here and now.
Related: Some in my age cohort are uneasy about having a younger manager. My only advice is, get over it. It’s inevitable. Honestly, I wouldn’t want to work somewhere that didn’t have founders or principals who are younger. At Google, my seven managers (in nine years, by the way) were all younger, by as much as 20 to 30 years. If you’re lucky, those higher up the chain know how to recognize your skills and when to leave you alone. In my case, some had talents I don’t possess, and we’ve complemented one another. The key to the younger/older dynamic is to appreciate what everyone brings to the party.
As a seasoned word wrangler, my edits on a lot of corporate content (company web copy, blog posts, even Tweets) goes unquestioned. But that’s not because my colleagues revere my decades of editing and writing experience; it’s because I’m good at what I do — I’m fast, not precious about my efforts and don’t make the good the enemy of the best. Even so, I can’t always assume that my word goes. Because I work with subject-matter experts across the company, I often need to introduce myself to someone new in order to make a case about phrasing or tone or even to discuss why we’re saying what we’re saying. I don’t always win. Earlier in my career, having to do that really rankled. But communicating is subjective, and I’ve learned to consider a bunch of factors beyond style when I edit.
I’m no athlete, but the nature of these sports is the closest I can come to explaining how in the tech world you must forever anticipate the swells, currents, rocks, hills and other impediments and go into them or around them as the situation requires. Your prize, always, is staying upright or getting upright again, quickly. I’ve experienced scores of instances where a well-conceived plan was blown up at the last minute in favor of some other action — or none. Sometimes there’s a fire drill or a quick ‘war room’ setup that ends up with “nothing to share at this time,” in PR parlance.
In the beginning of 2014, for example, I had a team of 10 at Twitter across several categories: editorial, internal communications, web design and social media. We started off doing our various jobs according to plans we’d developed and shared. Twelve months later, eight of the 10 people in my team were different — and their groupings and tasks had changed, too. If I was hell-bent on fulfilling some mission we had put forth in January, by December I would have been beyond irritated.
But working in tech, I know never to view my charter or responsibilities as absolutes. As the company’s needs change, my role evolves. You have more value if you roll with whatever comes along.
A simple example of this nimbleness is with respect to your physical work space. At Google, I sat in six buildings over nine years. At Twitter, I’ve had six seats in two buildings in three years — and I hear we’re moving in a few months. The tech office setup tends to be open plan (cubicles are passé), so your most constant tools are a laptop and a mobile phone. Some years back, Google quit providing desk phones for employees, as no one used them. These days, land lines (or at least non-mobile phone units) tend to appear only in conference rooms, which you can reserve. If this nearly nomadic arrangement doesn’t appeal, think twice about pursuing a company whose business encompasses technology. The last time I inhabited a dedicated, closed-door office was in 1989.
In order to successfully ski, surf or sail your way through an ever-changing work environment, it’s also imperative to keep a bit of personal distance from your projects. A company can ditch a product strategy you’ve been inhaling for months or years. People you’ve worked side by side with may get jettisoned simply because the need for certain skills or the focus area changes. (You yourself might be one of these individuals.) There are key values or messages you’ve sweated over in product development, marketing or sales that get killed overnight in favor of a new notion.
Sometimes it’s worth fighting for your work, but often you’re going to need to go along with the new new thing or come up with a different idea. People who can’t easily detach from the previous plan aren’t going to like working in tech. Real-world situations, whether technical, political or competitive, will inevitably override some well-crafted game plans.
When I got to Twitter in 2011, I experienced a detachment challenge right away. I was hired as the company’s first editorial director in a nascent marketing function, to develop Twitter’s voice on corporate material. I’d prepared a detailed plan, did competitive research, and had begun an audit of materials. Two weeks later, the company parted ways with the head of the PR team and asked me to fill in there. So of course I put my original job spec aside and managed that team for the next six months as I worked to bring in my successor. Only then could I return to the assignment I came for.
More regularly since then, I’ve worked on projects and drafted plenty of verbiage that has never seen the light of day. It happens.
But there’s always another wave — and here it comes, now.
Reporters, writers and editors work in a setting where the scoop, byline and masthead are the main prizes. It’s not like that in tech. Most everything requires cross-team collaboration, and virtually everyone gets to kibitz and weigh in regardless of seniority. Furthermore, not everyone (or even the ones who did the most) will get the credit. Pride of ownership takes a back seat to the joint effort. Of course, not everyone’s contributions are equal, and more often than not one or two people end up on top of the recognition heap. Unless you’re an engineer or product manager, you are unlikely to be one of them.
These days, because collaboration is paramount in the development of ideas, most young (or so-called modern) companies use Google Apps or similar collaborative tools that let invited parties edit, strike through, comment, raise questions and individually sign off, so that the thing ends up being created by committee. It’s absolutely messy — but far preferable to the thankless business of managing version control in Word docs. That approach reflects a hierarchical sensibility and slowness that tech companies can’t tolerate.
Google’s famous 20 percent time (no longer an established practice, but the spirit remains), Twitter’s scheduled Hackweeks and Facebook’s Hackathons are the basis for developing new ideas for products, typically by ad hoc teams coming together to work something out quickly. Everyone pitches in, and it’s typically a team that wins for its effort — not an individual. Those who crave public recognition won’t like this approach, but it’s at the heart of getting things done in tech. Teamwork is hugely prized, even to the extent that someone hired for his or her extraordinary solo skills may not last.
One more note on collaboration. Because of the real-time nature of so much of technology, and the huge appetite for news about what tech companies are doing, it’s not uncommon to be quietly tapped for something that is very hot, very sudden, or very confidential, if not all three.
One Saturday while at Google I got a call from a colleague: could I be at the office at 4 am Monday morning? Of course. I knew better than to ask what was up. He would never tell, and I didn’t need to know before I got there. I just appreciated that I’d be part of something big. With hot coffee in hand, I rolled up at 3:30 am — to learn that Google was buying Motorola. The “war room” where the main characters assembled was ready to go, and we all jumped into place. You do your part, and catch up on sleep later.
Day in and day out, good humor wins over extreme drive, intensity or obsessive focus. These qualities have their place, but the people who exhibit them often move on quickly or stay insulated from the rest of us. People who tend to succeed in tech are able to see the funny bits even as corporate tensions grow. On many teams over the years, the colleagues I’ve valued the most (and coincidentally those who last, and advance) are those with whom I could share an aside or a wry observation. People who can mentally step back a bit to appreciate the comical (or absurd!) aspects of the scene are the ones you want to be around. And it’s the way you want to be yourself in order to survive.
The pace of change can be messy and chaotic for those who crave order, but perhaps if you’ve read this far you’re up for it. Make no mistake: I’m a technology optimist. On the whole, we’re way better off with all that’s emerged over the last 50 years than not. To experience it in the making from close up is fantastic, with new developments in the life sciences and energy as well as search and entertainment and publishing, among others, that will change the world and improve life for millions. This notion keeps me coming back for more, as I hope it will for you.