Tech companies should hire more non-techies…

… and techies should start looking for jobs in politics.

John A. Paz
Jan 8, 2019 · 13 min read
NBC NewsWire/Getty

Tech companies are at risk of becoming (more) out of touch with their users because of their (typically) affluent homogenous workforce of rotating familiar faces and referrals. But I’m not talking about how the industry is mostly straight white middle-class men, that story is already being told (🙌🏾). The kind of bias I’m talking about, I actually benefit from… and it’s no accident.

I work in tech now, but I didn’t start here, not really. I do have a college degree, but it’s in English. I work with code everyday, but I didn’t take more than an introductory HTML course in school. Before I got my break at a software company, I was on the outside looking in. I applied for jobs with companies I admired all the time, and I essentially had no chance. I didn’t even get “no’s” via email, and it was tough to stay motivated.

Today, that’s all changed. And I can’t put it better than Mr. Mike Jones (who? Mike Jones), when he said “back then they didn’t want me, now I’m hot they all on me!” It’s an embarrassment of riches honestly, in that half a dozen recruiters contact me about openings any given week. And I’m talking heavy-hitters too — Amazon, Apple, Google, Tesla — all about jobs I’m actually qualified for and interested in. But, I’m cuffed at the moment by Atlassian, and I love my job. So I say “thanks, but no thanks,” to all but the most interesting opportunities to apply.

What’s different now? Two things:

  1. My experience working in software, and
  2. I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area last year.
* I have to say “San Francisco” and include a pic because I grew up in Florida… “Bay” to them means Tampa…

In a way it kind of makes sense, right? Software companies want to hire me because of my experience in software. But, I’m not entirely sure it does when you look at how I got here.

My first software job I had to use Jira and Confluence (Atlassian products) everyday. I volunteered to help configure them and maintain them with no idea of what I was doing. At my next job, that experience led me to become de facto Atlassian administrator to help out an overworked IT team. I leveraged that experience into an offer to move my entire family to Sydney, Australia to work for Atlassian.

You can make a direct connection from my first job in software and what I do now. But my career in software started with one HR manager taking a chance on me, and then my ability to sell my skills in specific ways to get the job I wanted. All along the way I was just reading the documentation on how to do things, asking lots of questions, and just trying not to mess things up. The way I remember it, anyone could have done it. I’m not naive about my privilege, but after living in The Bay for a year, it’s clear I’m not like the other techies. I’ve experienced poverty, lived in some place other that SF or The Valley, didn’t study Comp Sci in school, and have had (and enjoyed) full-time blue-collar jobs. Living in a city as immersed in technology as San Francisco has opened my eyes to the appeal of places like these. It’s exciting to be in such close proximity to the companies and people that are behind the apps and programs so many of us use everyday.

Not many people know of the small army of non-technical people that work at tech companies, but I assure you, we out here. Some may scoff at the “non-technical” label, because to anyone not us this “non-technical” stuff sure looks hella technical. But, thus is the designation for anyone without “engineer” in their title, for better or worse. I don’t mind at all really. It’s an important distinction, actually, and one I wear with pride around Atlassian.

You see, Atlassian continues to inch toward an increasingly less-technical audience. Where our flagship product, Jira, started as a way to track bugs in software, it quickly became an invaluable tool for tracking… anything. Everything? All the things. What started as a tool for the IT nerds and programmers has morphed into this wonderful Swiss Army Knife of productivity and project management (when done right). This scenario created some challenges for Atlassian initially, in that before we had all our product experts sitting right next to us. Jira’s well-documented origin story revolves around Mike and Scott just creating stuff they needed to do their jobs. They found something special, and the benefit was clear. So the stuff practically sold itself (and still does).

The value proposition was easy to determine, because they were their own users. But now, with our company’s ambition growing, and our product permeating virtually all departments within most modern companies, we don’t exactly mirror our customers so much any more. Or, at least we didn’t, before I came along (don’t get caught up, I’m a metaphor yo…).

How could a developer or designer possibly know what the day-to-day life of someone that works in finance looks like? They can’t. So, they need to ask. And they do, in the form of extensive user testing of their products. That’s great!

Techie wannabe’s

Two recent experiences of friends of mine brought to my attention the odd bias against hiring people without traditional backgrounds in tech for non-technical roles. These aren’t recent grads or fresh-faced whippersnappers looking to make a name for themselves. These are established professionals looking for a company to give them what was given to me once upon a time, a chance. But each is curiously met with resistance and hesitance about their lack of “pure tech experience.”

Those were words one recruiter used to describe why they weren’t high on a friend’s application.

Here’s how the exchange went down:

Recruiter: from an experience POV, they have not worked in a pure tech house before which would be extremely challenging for them. As you have said, their experience is quite limited to the Florida market (healthcare and govt) — while we have previously hired people from outside the industry, [your friend’s] experience is not strong enough to compete with the other candidates we have in the mix.

I was initially heated during the exchange, but I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, and was appreciative of the honesty. I did not let it slide without contesting the recruiters points with my own, though:

Me: That’s interesting. I came from the same exact markets. I think coming from outside the typical industries creates a more diverse workforce. [My friend] is coming from the very industries we’re trying to pivot to target. They literally are the target audience. That’s a wealth of experience a candidate from The Valley couldn’t provide. And one with which I use extensively at my role in the product team…

… I’m just trying to ensure they get a fair look, and that they’re able to demonstrate the potential I saw in them, to you.

I realized the recruiter was only trying to find candidates that met the descriptions of the requirements they were given. But the conversation inspired this post, and more importantly, led me to reassuring myself of this notion:

I add valuable perspective to the teams I work with every day, not just as a tech worker, but as a tech user.

We missed the boat on hiring them, as they got a offer for a promotion, and didn’t bother to apply again after having his credentials questioned. I don’t blame them.

I’m mentoring someone that’s looking to transition to become a Technical Writer from a more traditional writing/editing background. Think journalism and copywriting. I met them at a Tech Writing meetup, as they were there looking to figure out if this was the right next step for their career.

I didn’t even enjoy that meetup very much, the topics were kind of rushed and a bit boring. But after I met them I found a new spark for my trade. Here was someone that thought what I did was so interesting they wanted to ask me questions! I mean, usually when I tell people I’m a Tech Writer it’s when I want them to stop talking to me. Very rarely is anyone outside of theTech Writing community interested in talking about Tech Writing, and rightfully so.

I was impressed with their attitude, aptitude (they were taking notes while I spoke!), and industriousness. They showed tenacity, curiosity, and an inherent ability to suss out answers. All wonderful traits for a Tech Writer! I went out on a limb and offered to mentor them, and it was the first time I’d ever done so. It was risky, as we’re roughly the same age, and we’d only met once. But I knew I could help them make this leap I’d done successfully only a few years prior.

After lots of tutorials, preparation, applications, mock interviews, and several times going deeeep into the interview process with the likes of Google, Apple, LinkedIn, and other impressive companies that don’t interview just anybody (and certainly don’t interview just anybody a second, third, and fourth time), they still get beat out by other candidates with more “industry experience.”

It baffles me a bit. All the talk about diversity in tech, and here was another example of multiple companies passing up on the opportunity to take a chance on a candidate from a non-traditional background, and yet they get beat out by established techies (who can be easily swayed, it seems, to bail on their current employers more easily than you’d imagine).

I’m fortunate they are optimistic and have a good support circle to keep them motivated. Because, they should feel strongly about their application. I do, and I started doing the same job (actually more technical) with similar amounts of tech company experience.

For what it’s worth, I should note, within arm’s reach at my tech job is a woman from a rural town, a former teacher, a former nurse, and several other techie-stereotype-busting characters. That includes myself, a Blatino guy that had kids way too early.

I wish all teams in tech looked like my Bitbucket team in San Francisco. Our team was painstakingly built through tireless and thoughtful hours of interviewing and testing wonderful candidates. We give each candidate the kind of consideration we’d hope to get ourselves.

But of course there’s still a long way to go to combat the implicit bias of hiring from the echo chamber of The Valley.

You said something about politics? The splash image at the top of AOC? What was that about? Just click-bait then, John?

Easy, killer. I’m getting there. Always the moderator, I think my brothers and sisters in tech — techies I’ve been calling you— have an opportunity not dissimilar to that of my non-techie friends looking to break into pure tech companies (whatever the hell that means anyway).

And, this time I am talking to you, Mr./Mrs. Double-Income-No-Kids-Techie. Yeah, I know, pretty much every article about you or mentioning you and your kind bashes your well-earned affluence. And I won’t pretend it’s not awkward for you to sit through diversity initiatives that kind of feel like you’re the problem. Well, you’re not. Not really. Giving people more opportunities doesn’t mean taking them away from you, or your referrals. There are enough tech jobs to go around, a few times over, actually.

The majority of the tech-bros I know don’t trip over diversity. I use the term “tech-bro” with endearment here. You absolutely earned all the affluence you’ve acquired. You do hard, necessary jobs that are super-specialized. You’re on the cutting edge of technology, and our computer processing and network bandwidth speeds thank you. Just be wary of unintentional gatekeeping. And, try once in a while to go out of your way to mentor someone different than you. I won’t bring it up again, as you’ll be doing enough of your part.

However, it’s come to our attention that the folks that write our laws, in particular the ones around governing the use of technology, typically do not understand how modern technology works. Let’s repeat that for emphasis: some of those responsible for creating policy around technology use are probably still using their original AOL email addresses and don’t know the difference between an operating system and a web browser. That is terrifying to think about, but you need not look too far to find examples of this running amok in all kinds of ways in governments all over the world. For example, Australia passed an insane law that essentially requires companies, by law, to make backdoors that only the government can use as it sees fit. That’s just weird, and scary, and any techie worth his or her salt knows plenty of reasons why that’s a bad idea.

And, in no small part, take all that affluence we experience everyday and find a way to make it common place for the rest of the country. Tech companies are second to only the ancient Romans and Egyptians in how these skilled oligarchs are treated at the workplace. Where in Rome they were fed grapes, in The Valley we’re served cold brew coffee on tap and kombucha, with massage chairs and rooftop terraces overlooking beautiful city skylines.

To those that don’t work it tech it looks like excess akin to that of the finance companies of the 90s, exemplified by the infamous Wolf on Wall Street type hustlers bamboozling people into investing in companies that produced nothing. While it’s still excessive for every one of us to have an automatic standing/sitting desk that can transform in seconds with the push of a button, there’s method to the madness, and, it works. Tech companies spend all this money on employees only in part for retention, but in just a large a part it’s to enable us to do our best work. You can call bullshit all you want, but the team that runs the employee experience at Atlassian takes their jobs very seriously, and their jobs are making us happy and comfortable so we can do the best work of our lives.

Now, the bar has been set for tech companies. Google, Apple, and Facebook (among others) are now well-known for their sprawling campuses and luxurious employee perks.

All of us that come from non-tech backgrounds that now work in tech suffer from survivor’s guilt a bit. Because damnit if there aren’t so many other professions out there doing much more demanding, admirable work that could probably benefit from a standing desk and yoga classes at lunch. Nurses deserve massage chairs in the break rooms, not people that sit at desk jobs so long they need to be encouraged to stand up from time to time.

You know it, I know it, and so does everyone else: we’ve got it good.

Crazy right? But you know as well as me how great it is to be able to go up to your own espresso machine instead of walking outside to get one (bad example). But seriously, think about it.

Ok, that’s a hard sell, because doing that would be hella difficult. Not impossible, mind you, just hard.

But here are a bunch of other reasons you pure techies should seriously be considering a run for political office as soon as humanly possible:

  1. You’re different. Just like with non-techies in tech, techies in politics shakes things up and unleashes a brand new perspective in a place that’s traditionally resistant to new ideas (sound familiar?). Much how Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become a fresh voice because she’s come from common people, so too can your voice represent the real experiences of everyday people. And your perspective is important, especially in this hyperpartisan world where ideology trumps logic more often than any of us would like.
  2. You can’t be bought. Most of y’all are already pretty affluent, so I’d bet it’ll be more difficult to buy your votes. And so many techies tend to be altruistic at heart, and I like to believe can be depended on to be programmatic about policy decisions, to do the most good and least harm for the most people.
  3. You’re smart. I know you know. And I know you know I know you’re smart. Smart people are susceptible to being duped as much as the rest of us normies, but, I like to think mental capacity and an affinity for solving hard problems might prepare you for addressing the hard problems like homelessness and planning for natural disasters.
  4. The tech thing gets old. I’ve seen it. Many of my colleagues have gone off and “retired” before they’re 50 because they get “burned out” (please…). Really what it was is that you did the math, and after your employer went IPO you can afford that cheap house on a beach somewhere with favorable tax laws forever on what you probably earned already. But, what are you building now? Do you love it? Would you do it for free? For how long? What’s next? Why not retire and become a legislator and use your power and influence to make long-lasting change we desperately need. Or, you know, just keep coding stuff forever… I’m sure that’ll be fine too.

So how about it, techies? Feeling like you could do it? Would you try to fit in if you were Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her freshman year as a politician? Or would you want people to embrace your differences, celebrate them even? After all, that’s where you provide the most value, by being you. Bringing your perspective to the table. Having your voice heard so that you can build something better for everyone. Contributing.

It’s just like that for non-techies trying to break into tech. Give the next candidate you interview that has a non-traditional background some extra questions. Get to know them and the projects they worked on. They’re trying to change the world, just like you. All they need is a chance.

John Paz is a Senior Content Designer at Atlassian. His views here are his own and not necessarily that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter, where his ramblings are much shorter, @TechWriterNinja.

If you liked this post, be sure to applaud. Makes me feel good =)

Tale of a Tech Writer: The portfolio of John A. Paz

Tech writer, father, husband, social activist, soccer…

Tale of a Tech Writer: The portfolio of John A. Paz

Tech writer, father, husband, social activist, soccer enthusiast, and dabbler in technology. A collection of my writing. The views expressed here are my own.

John A. Paz

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Señor Content Designer, Tech Writer, technology enthusiast, sports nut, and unwavering optimist. My thoughts here are my own.

Tale of a Tech Writer: The portfolio of John A. Paz

Tech writer, father, husband, social activist, soccer enthusiast, and dabbler in technology. A collection of my writing. The views expressed here are my own.

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