4 tips for breaking into Tech as a non-tech person

I am extremely fortunate to have a well-paying job in the tech industry that allows me to work fully remotely as a customer support person. Being fully remote allows me to live a life that would otherwise be difficult and working in the tech industry allows me to have higher pay and better benefits than I would in any other industry. It is also one of the few customer-facing positions that allows me to deal with customers on my own terms and allows me to avoid a lot of the abuse that service industry folks tend to endure from both customers and employers.

Being that I am so privileged in my position, a lot of my service industry friends have asked me how to get started working in the tech industry. Some of them used to work in technology-related roles but haven’t for a long time, others have never worked in the tech industry before at all. Either way, this distance from those positions tend to make people a little overwhelmed, especially when a lot of people equate “working in tech” to “being an engineer.”

While I won’t be able to give you a complete roadmap to learning your first tech job and I won’t be able to guarantee a strategy that works 100% of the time, here’s a few tips that I give out to give people a leg up in this journey.

Don’t try to be a software developer

I understand why it’s really tempting for people to go to a coding bootcamp with no experience programming what-so-ever and try to land an engineering job. Engineering jobs pay extremely well and many bootcamps make ridiculous promises about what they can teach you in a short amount of time. Some of them even succeed more than I would expect.

However, if you don’t have interest in programming as a hobby and you’re coming in to a coding bootcamp completely cold, it is going to take a lot more effort and pain to go through a bootcamp and come out of it with usable software development skills. If you’re already tinkering with programming as a hobby, that’s an entirely different story – go for it. But if you’re not, I think that it’s a commitment of money, time, and effort that is better spent elsewhere. It doesn’t mean that you’ll never become a programmer or engineer but there’s a better way to get there with a whole lot less risk if that’s what you really want.

Remember that every tech company is also a business. While tech companies largely talk about their engineering resources, they also have to have other positions that support the business. Directly related to engineering, there are project managers to keep people aligned and on time, program managers that help build repeatable processes, UX/UI designers to build out a program’s interface and figure out how people use it, there’s quality assurance people how test out the code to make sure it doesn’t break, technical writers and content strategists to create documentation, and a host of other positions that directly contribute to the process of making software. Beyond that, there are also more traditional business roles like sales and marketing, HR, customer support, operations management, finance and payroll, talent and recruiting, legal counsel, data analysis, and everything else that any business needs to run smoothly.

So if I were trying to break into tech for the first time, I would look for a position that more directly relates to the experience that I already had. I was lucky enough to be involved with my dad’s technical support business enough to get me a technical support position as a student job and I’ve been leaning on that ever since. But even if you haven’t done technical support in the past, if you’ve worked with customers in a retail or food service setting, you can get a remote customer service position for a tech company and it will probably be a step up in pay and treatment even if you aren’t making as much as the engineers. If you have any special training such as payroll, you can use that experience instead. There are a ton of different options here, so don’t hyper-focus on becoming an engineer just because it pays the best.

Aim for an industry that you know

While the Tech industry is usually talked about as a single industry, it’s honestly a hyper-specialized industry that sits on top of other industries. As Watts S. Humphrey said a long time ago, “Every business is a software business,” which also means that every industry has a Tech industry layer that tends to pay better and treat people a little better than the rest of the industry in question.

If you are a teacher right now, check out what tech businesses exist in the educational technology space. You’re probably familiar with some of the companies that exist in that space and may have even used some of their software as an educator. If you’re an artist, that are businesses like Etsy and Big Cartel that target artists as customers. Same with healthcare, gaming, herbalism, finance, and pretty much anything else you can think of.

Starting with an industry that you know reduces the distance between where you are now and where you want to be. You may be familiar with some of the companies in the space or their product which means that it will be easier to talk about in interviews and easier to learn about when you’re onboarding. You already speak the lingo of the industry too, so even if the technical lingo loses you, you’ll have more context than you would if you’re unfamiliar with the industry. It also means that networking within the industry will be easier so you can get a better picture of companies to work for versus companies to avoid.

This doesn’t mean that you’ll be stuck in that industry though. If you want to move to a different industry, you can do that and it will be easier to do so once you’ve acclimated to working within tech in general. People often move around from company to company within tech so you aren’t expected to stick around forever.

Don’t treat positions as permanent

As much as I would like to say that it’s possible to go from what you’re doing right now to a dream job that you’ll want to be in forever, it’s probably not. Every time you enter a new industry, you’re probably going to have to hop around a bit before you find yourself really settled. The longest I’ve ever been at a company is 4 years.

This happens for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes the company isn’t as good as it seems at first or the company changes over time as it grows or becomes acquired by a different company. You might outgrow positions fairly quickly, especially entry level positions that don’t pay very well. You might decide that you want to do something else and have the opportunity to move to a different part of the company or to a different company doing a different thing.

It’s honestly a very good thing if you let it. Yes, the constant change is definitely stressful, I can’t deny that. However, if you expect it as normal, you can use that to your advantage. Each time you change positions or companies, you can negotiate for a raise or for better benefits. If you change teams or companies, you can aim to find one that is a better fit for you and your needs. You will also be growing and changing over time, so it is only natural that your needs and your understanding of your needs will change over time too.

The biggest piece of advice that I can give on this is to try to make every step you take a tangible positive step. That doesn’t always mean more money or better benefits – I’ve certainly taken a pay cut to work in a better environment. Only you will know what a positive step means for you.

Always be networking

People always seem to hate networking but I think that’s because they hear “networking” and immediately think of business people in bars awkwardly talking and everyone trying to get something from you. These experiences are physically painful for introverts such as myself, so I definitely relate.

But it doesn’t have to be that way! Networking just means creating professional friends and you can put the emphasis on the friendship.

The key to networking in my opinion is to hang out in the places where the people you want to work with hang out. This doesn’t necessarily mean in a physical space. Since I wanted to work remotely with deeply passionate customer support folks, I joined Support Driven, an online community of extremely passionate customer support folks. If you’re interested in technical writing, there’s Write the Docs, and if you’re interested in community-building, there’s CMX Hub. Online communities exist for just about every job title or industry segment imaginable. The company I currently work with even has an online community for Payments Industry professionals called PAYMENTSfn.

Some companies even have online communities of their own where you can start to meet the staff for that particular company. I used to help manage the GitHub Community Forum where a lot of GitHub users would hang out. Back when I was considering working for Automattic to support WordPress, I started hanging out on the WordPress support forum. Even Starbucks has their own online community for coffee enthusiasts called My Starbucks. I wouldn’t say these are the best places to network because the people managing the forums are usually just trying to do their job instead of hanging out, but if you’re really passionate about a company or a product, joining their forums is a great way to get to know them and their customers better.

If you’re a fan of social media, Twitter is also a great place to meet people in particular industries. You can usually do some hashtag searching to find people talking about hot topics in any industry, allowing you to ask questions and join in the conversation. You can even find people working for a particular industry or a particular company and see what they post about publicly to get an idea of what it might be like working along side them. Just do me a favor and don’t stalk or harass anyone. Social media is where a lot of people go to relax (for some reason) and they deserve to be able to do so.

I hope those tips are helpful if you’re looking to break into the Tech industry and I wish you lots of luck. If you read this and have additional questions, please let me know! I’d love to write more about my experiences, especially if it helps other people break out of service-industry jobs and into careers with better pay and benefits. Y’all deserve better than what you’re getting.

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