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Top 3 Skills for breaking into "Tech" as non-technical
It's a *little* easier than you might think...
Granted, there are many ways to break into “tech” (the definition seems to expand daily) and especially tech startups that do not have the more sophisticated recruiting mechanisms— not to mention brand appeal— of larger companies. Yet even now I suspect you have an asymmetric advantage pursuing startups because most of your peers are still playing it safe chasing FAANG and good ol’ fashioned consulting shops like Deloitte, PwC, and McKinsey.
However, even if tech startups are a little more starved for talent than their larger cousins, each hire they do make does need to pass a certain bar, even if that bar for junior non-technical employees is chiefly “can they learn what they need to on the job,” and I think these are the top 3 skills that if you can learn and demonstrate, will propel you into the top 95 percentile, especially for entry and even mid-level roles.
I was inspired by Bryant’s recent tweet on the subject, specifically how someone with a non-technical background could get into tech, and tech’s most (apparently) sought after role no less:
My quick response was this:
The great news is that you’re probably conceptually familiar with at least two of these items already, and if you’re not, you can quickly pick them up with a bit of practice.
Let’s get into the what and why next.
The 3 Skills
Even if you’re not in a direct data analyst role, Spreadsheet software will likely be your single most opened application in any organization you might join. The reason for this is because in any org (and especially a startup), you’re going to start out using spreadsheets to track metrics across any series of funnels and pipelines.
Why this helps you
Because spreadsheets in one form or another are the most common form of data transport and presentation across all company sizes and stages in life, your ability to demonstrate deeper working knowledge on how to manipulate the data within those spreadsheets will get you noticed…even now.
In simple terms, a VLOOKUP is a function in any spreadsheet program (Excel, Google Sheets) that you can use to “lookup” a column in one spreadsheet tab using a specific value you expect that both spreadsheet tabs share and then display that desired column’s values where there is a match on the “lookup” value row by row.
Mastering VLOOKUP will save you a lot of time when evaluating multiple marketing funnels, user behavior data, or even just combining different datasets together for further analysis and visualization.
how to practice
Check out the Excel/VLOOKUP section of the “technical exercises” doc I created both as a companion to this post and something that I send to non/less-technical people looking to start somewhere in their tech/startup journey.
Flowcharting with BPMN
BPMN is definitely easy to get dogmatic about, but the key here is that this tool is fantastic for:
Breaking a process down into a series of steps for your own mind and then
Visualizing your proposal to the rest of the team
Said another way:
Why this helps
Even young comp sci professionals fresh out of university might find it useful to brush up on their BPMN familiarity, although I suspect this skill is largely picked up through osmosis since programming itself requires taking the mental exercise of decomposing a process (no matter how simple) into a series of steps.
For the rest of us, creating a BPMN flowchart largely consists of using four different shapes that represent different points in the process we are trying to visualize.
While BPMN flowcharts can include a broader variety of shapes, these four shapes are the most common you will need:
When starting out, you may be tempted to:
Over decompose your process to the point where you have excessive action and decision shapes. Unless your aim is to completely bewilder your intended audience, (sometimes a valid strategy btw!) focus on a visualizing a distilled view of the process that summarizes the details that matter
Obsess over the “right” BPMN shapes or icons to express a process. Remember, these diagrams are ideally meant to visually communicate how a process should work across different actors, both human and machine. Make the tool work for you and if in doubt, just stick to the basic shapes described above
Here’s an example of a simple process diagram for deciding if you should get more technical skills to “break out” driven by which career paths you’re pursuing:
In this example, you can see all four shapes used as a way to summarize the process described in this article.
You’ll also notice this flowchart breaks some conventions, including the first decision diamond posing a question that doesn’t imply a “Yes/No” answer.
Keep in mind, the ultimate goal of these diagrams is to visually describe the core process in a summarized way and acknowledge — but descope—followup processes (eg '“Keep applying!”) into their own chart for unpacking separately.
How to practice
Is there a process either at work or in your personal life that you feel is demanding unnecessary amounts of time? The first step to solving that problem is to identify it, draw it out, and then share that diagram with the rest of the team.
You can also reference some of my favorite process diagrams— they’re not all “BPMN compliant” but that’s the point. The authors focused on using the tool to visually describe the process they believed best solved the problem at hand.
Slack process flow for sending notifications - link
Atlassian’s project management tool Jira includes workflow process visualization as part of the product - link
As usual, XKCD has a cartoon for everything - link
SQL lets you wrangle data yourself
Why this helps
As software becomes an even larger part of every industry, the software itself becomes a larger and larger collector of data that can be repurposed by the company in all sorts of ways. Companies increasingly lean on “data literate” (I didn’t make that term up!) employees to help each business unit and team use this data to make more informed decisions about which products are working, and ideally start to ask more interesting questions like:
Why is this product X selling more in this quarter and not the others?
We are seeing traction with this product, but it’s still struggling, what segment of our customers does this product really resonate with?
These are of course hypothetical questions, and if you think they’re basic, you’d be surprised at the amount of questions in most enterprises that are still “where is that spreadsheet?!” or “where is our data even stored??”
There is still a lot of low hanging fruit for organizations to benefit from data literate team members, and that is your opportunity.
How to practice
I have also created a customized SQL exercise that involves the “full stack” of installing your own local (Postgres) database server, connecting via DB client Arctype, and then running thru a hypothetical use-case of designing your own database for a social media application.
If this is interesting, you can check out the exercise here.
**Bonus: Interacting with web APIs
As a technical concept, APIs are not new. They became a really hot topic within the ecosystem of tech/product thought leaders maybe 7 years ago, especially with the rise of API connector services (now re-branding and participating in the “no code” boom) like Zapier and IFTTT which have grown into juggernauts in their own right.
Understanding web API basics and being able to confidently communicate about and interact with them will definitely make you stand out— and help you automate a good chunk of your own job’s mundane tasks too!
Candidly, this is a concept I recall struggling with a little longer than necessary, and I wrote a draft with more explanation and some exercises that you can preview (and critique) here
**A Bonus’s bonus: JSON
JSON is worth understanding not just because it deepens your understanding of how most application data is sent around the internet and loaded into your browser, but also because it deepens your understanding how software product development teams think about data itself, regardless of format.
How to practice
Check out the exercise on Web APIs for a breakout including a JSON intro
Cast a wide net
Of course, even if you’re equipped with all these skills, nothing is guaranteed, least of all at a tech startup. I am convinced that being comfortable speaking to and demonstrating proficiency in at least two of the three skills proposed here will you certainly increase your chances and impress your interviewers as someone already familiar with technical concepts critical to developing and analyzing products even without formal technical training.
Your chances are further helped by:
Casting a wide net: reach out to a lot of different companies! At this point, I’ve seen some people I’ve worked with reach out to 40-50 different companies before getting a strong reply, but when they did, it manifested into really interesting opportunities
Reaching out directly: you may have heard this before, but avoid reaching out through recruiter portals. Your mileage may vary here, but recruiters are generally focused on filtering you out, not finding you a role. Reach out to the hiring manager, or even the team/division’s Director/VP, and for <40 employee startups, a brief but strong message about why you’re interested in the company and the role you’re interested in directly to CEO can be very effective
Thinking asymmetrically & strategically: You may want a role but don’t have all the skills— is there another role listed or even a role you could pitch to the company that fast tracks you on that path? You’d be surprised how often companies will make a role for a candidate that there was not an otherwise obvious fit for if they can demonstrate that unicorn medley of passion and aptitude
Tell me I’m wrong!
Those are my top 3 skillsets+ bonus. Part of me wonders if these skills aren’t already table stakes, but after interacting with, hiring, and coaching people at various levels of skill and career track within the tech ecosystem, my anecdata suggests that being able to adeptly demonstrate familiarity with these skills will even now push you ahead of the crowds competing with you for these tech roles.
What do you think? Are these the wrong technical skills for someone to prioritize who is looking to break into the biz?
Let me know in the comments or send your complains directly, I’ll read them!
P.S. Buyer Beware
I shared an initial draft with a few people and among the pieces of helpful feedback I received was a (very contrarian!) take that people should be advised to stay away from pursing a tech job altogether.
The reason being is that a “tech job” suggests lucrative wages and a lottery payout just at the end of the rainbow, when in fact the company failing and employees losing their jobs is the statistically most frequent outcome.
While I’d argue (and have!) on several levels why this is not sufficient deterrent, I certainly agree that early stage startups are a very uncertain lottery ticket, and most frequently, an unlucky one. You should go in with your eyes open about what and how you’re getting paid, do as much research on the startup founders and existing team as you can, and ask those questions to whomever is hiring you. (it’s not inappropriate!!)
This is a great tweet thread drilling into ideal thought process here:
If you haven’t already, you can also read Kyle Tibbit’s now classic ode to startups as the way to jump-start your rate of learning.
This was inspired by spontaneous conversations with a few people, including:
Bryant Jefferson’s afore mentioned open question about key technical skills to pick up for a Product Manager role - you can also subscribe to his newsletter on the gaming and related media space, Touchpoint
Various related discussions with Sagar about applying academic knowledge into a “tech” role
Chris Messina’s post on the Full Stack Employee
The Breakout List on whether to join a startup or not, although you should probably just read the whole thing
Conversations with incredibly talented and ambitious people striving to figure it out and make something happen— thank you all!