How to Get an Awesome Job in Tech When You’re Not Technical

I get asked at least a few times a month for advice on making the transition to tech (from the public sector, from Wall Street, from the corporate legal world…). After finessing my spiel for the past several years, I finally decided to capture some general thoughts in writing.

First: Change The Framework

Indeed it is an incredibly exciting time to work in Silicon Valley, but first and foremost, I would reconsider the framing from an ambition to ‘work in tech’. Technology is a means to solve a problem, not an end in of itself. Every company is using and/or producing technology in some way, and thus I would dismiss the very notion of working in ‘tech’. As Jeff Immult, CEO of GE recently said in an interview, “…every industrial company in the coming age is also going to have to be a software and analytics company.”

Regardless of the industry, improvements in software and hardware are upending status quos and behavioral norms. For example, it’s obvious that technology is changing a wide range of industries, from auto (Tesla) to energy (Solar City) to taxi/transportation (Uber, Lyft) to health insurance (Oscar, Collective Health) to shopping (Amazon, Instacart) — and heck, even the door-lock industry (August Locks, Latch). In my personal journey, I came to Palantir from the White House because I saw firsthand how software could dramatically improve our intelligence and national security while still maintaining our privacy and civil liberties.

Thus, Step 1 in making the transition to a technology company is figuring out what problems are important to you and that you are passionate about solving.

Regardless of what your answer is, it will not take long to find companies that are using technology and innovation to dramatically improve that industry.

Step 2: Determine what role you want to play at the company

Once you’ve identified an industry/problem you think will be important and are passionate about, determine the role(s) you would like to play at a company. At a high level, there more or less six non-technical types of roles at technology companies:

  • Business Development — This can include everything from product partnerships between your company and other entities to help your product launch (e.g. integration partnerships, like the option to call an Uber form within the Facebook Messenger App) or traditional sales (e.g. Ad Sales team at Google).
  • Operations — These are broad roles that require strong project management skills, the ability to work cross functionally, and a willingness to just get things done when needed. These jobs are often about improving supply chains, enabling engineers and business counterparts to do their job better, and making sure things get executed.
  • Communications — This category can include everything from dealing with the press to internal and executive communications.
  • Marketing — This can mean many things, but lately the focus has been on growth hacking — i.e. converting customers and acquiring users. In some companies, ‘product marketing’ has a specific meaning at the nexus of product design and growth.
  • Policy — Policy gigs are becoming more common among companies, especially ones that are breaking into heavily regulated industries. Winning policy battles are often existential moments for companies. AirBnB and Uber are only two of the many that rely heavily on their policy teams.
  • Legal -. Having IP experience is often helpful to becoming in-house counsel, but companies also need employment expertise, experience negotiating commercial contracts, understanding equity rules, regulation and more.
  • Start-Up Generalist — You will do a little of everything and you are okay knowing most likely your company will fail, and it will be painful.

Important Side Note: Don’t worry about titles. If you do your job well, titles will take care of themselves. And if you are making a career change — know that even if you were a giant amongst your peers in another industry, you will have to prove yourself again in this new world. Moreover, if a start-up is willing to give you a top title despite you having little to no experience in the particular field — I’d be dubious of that start-up. An important point in Silicon Valley is that people care a lot less about what you’ve done, and are more focused on what you can/are doing right now.

Step 3: Construct a list of target companies you are interested in

Once you’ve thought deeply about the industry you want to work in and the role you want to play, the next step is to research and target a few companies that you are interested in. I would divide these categories into three primary categories:

1) Big and established (e.g. Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc.);

2) Medium sized but looking to grow (helpful list here); and

3) Early stage startups (roughly less than 50 employees and most likely before Series B)

Step 4: A Few Helpful Strategies to help you get a job on your list

  • Make sure your LinkedIn profile is up to date. Especially in SV, your LinkedIn profile is as important as — if not more than — your resume. Some tips here
  • To the extent you can prevent it — never apply to a company online via their website on your own. Leverage your network and do your best to get someone at that company to submit a resume for you. This will usually at least ensure your resume is prioritized in the review pile and will expedite an initial phone screen. Moreover, if the person who submits your resume online knows your work capabilities well, they are often incentivized to advocate for you in the hopes of getting a ‘referral bonus’.
  • If you are interested in applying to a start-up — one good strategy is go through a venture capital firm’s website and comb through their portfolio companies. You can usually reach out to start-ups directly from there. Here is a good starting point to explore good venture capital firms.
  • Another important resource is Angel List, which lets you find great start-ups + examine their funding. (Again at high level, lower funding = more risk, more reward/more funding = less risk, less reward).
  • Consider the two most important points you want to be able to articulate:
  1. Why do you want to transition to X Company?

2. What do you bring to the table that is going to help company X succeed?

An Incredibly Incomplete List of Good Background Reading

Why Software is Eating the World

Good Primer on Big companies vs Start-ups

Breaking into Startups

My Transition from personal Trainer to software developer

Can Silicon Valley Save the American Dream

Making a career change and finding a job is never easy but remember — ultimately you only need one.

With the proliferation of smart-phones and number of people online around the world, there has never been a better time to leverage technology to solve important problems. I hope the best and brightest continue to get attracted to work at innovative companies and I hope this post was useful.

Mehdi Alhassani lives and works in Silicon Valley. His views are his own.

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