Breaking into Tech without Coding
Broadening the conversation about careers in tech beyond software engineering builds an inclusive space and encourages more people to find fulfillment and acceptance in the community.
I did not have an “aha!” moment after taking my first (or second, or third) CS class. However, I have always had a strong appreciation for technology. With each subsequent class, I developed a deeper understanding for technology’s power and potential. I also wondered if one day, I would have to write code for the majority of my work day in order to stay in tech.
Software engineering is the most visible career path in tech. For a long time, I thought that it was the only entry-level option. However, I was fortunate to find strong role models who showed me that diverse backgrounds in design, marketing, and finance all have their place in tech. Absent these mentors, I may have quit and resigned myself to another industry, or pursued a career path that was a suboptimal fit. Without exposure to tech or a reason to be interested in the first place, many don’t have opportunities to even consider other career paths in technology.
Working in tech is incredibly important to me. I feel empowered to understand users and their needs, and to use this understanding to build products that will change users’ lives for the better. Technical products have a uniquely rapid and tangible impact.
The takeaway: software engineering is not the only route to enjoy a tech career or contribute to tech. Below is a non-exhaustive list of other roles in tech outside of software engineering, with varying amounts of technical experience required.
- Product Design
- User Experience Research
- Interaction Design
- Product Marketing
- Business Analytics
- Product Management
- Data Science
Frontrunners like Susan Wojcicki (CEO of YouTube), Katrina Lake (Stitchfix Founder), April Underwood (VP Product at Slack), and Amy Hood (CFO of Microsoft) cut their teeth in investment banking, consulting, marketing, and product management before emerging as strong leaders in tech. They set the precedent that software engineering is not the only entry point to succeed as a leader in tech. These women have undoubtedly developed technical expertise along the way, but expertise wasn’t a prerequisite to getting started.
What do non-coders do?
Reading and writing have a symbiotic relationship. To learn to write, we read work from other writers, hypothesizing about the intent behind their words and analyzing their strategies for conveying these messages. What are their motivations, visions, insecurities, and vulnerabilities? Who are they writing for? Armed with this understanding, we develop strategies for conveying our own thoughts and ideas intended for our own audiences.
Through their own mediums, designers, product managers, and UX researchers do an analogous kind of analyzing and synthesizing every day. At a high level, we analyze existing products that have shaped the world’s digital landscape. We ask ourselves what problems these products solve, who has these problems, and how the products address these problems. When we’ve developed our own flavor of skills and understanding, we build new products that will satisfy our own set of users and their needs.
The idea that to work in tech, you must sit behind screens writing code all day is still pervasive among people outside the discipline. For some, this lifestyle can be an attractive proposition. For others, it can be daunting. In reality, careers in tech (both in and outside of engineering) are much more than that.
Clearly, technology is shaping the future. There is infinite literature describing how a lack of diversity in tech (and in general) diminishes the quality of teams and subsequently the products they develop. Our lives are not defined by the perspective of only a few subsets of people; the technology shaping our lives should not be either. Diversity requires not only having people of every color or gender represented in the workplace, but also people with different beliefs, talents, and skills.
Making it happen
If you are considering a career in tech but feel unsure about finding a good fit, here are some steps to get started:
- Research various career paths in tech. Understand the role that someone in a position of interest plays on a team. Additionally, consult resources like LinkedIn to understand the backgrounds and trajectory of people in these disciplines. Review sites like Glassdoor to understand the interview process for these positions; interview questions are a great indicator of the skills expected from candidates.
- When you have narrowed down potential career paths, explicitly define why pursuing this career path is a good decision for you. Write this down. Above all, it is important to know yourself throughout the job-hunt process. You will need a compelling reason that motivates your decision that you can always reference if you feel discouraged. You will inevitably need to persuade others to take a chance on you; convincing yourself of your decision is the first step in convincing others.
- Identify parallels between the skills required for this position and your existing experiences in order to better position yourself as a candidate.
- Connect with people in your network who have your ideal career. Ask them how they got in, if they have any advice on breaking in, and if they would feel comfortable critiquing your resume or portfolio.
- Make note of the skills and experiences you are still missing. Develop a plan to fill in these gaps. This may include learning computer science, even if you will not have to write code on the job. Yes, computer science is hard. But so is writing a dissertation or delivering a speech — difficulty is not an impenetrable barrier to achieving your goals.
- Actualize your plan. Start taking small, tangible steps to realize your goal, and track your progress along the way.
A major step in the process is identifying the career path you want. Next, assure yourself that you can do this, and find the conviction to commit and take the steps you need to make it happen.