How to break into tech

TL;DR: A career shift into tech can be a great move from a personal and financial perspective. Making this jump from other backgrounds is definitely possible, but requires a big investment to make it happen. There are some things you can do to prep for this transition, but ultimately persistence will be your best friend. Keep trying until something clicks.

Over the last few years I’ve seen more and more people shift to a career in tech. People looking to breakaway from the ridiculous demands, and soul-crushing work of consulting and finance. Recent MBA grads who want to be the next Steve Jobs. People who read the winds of change and realize how big the next 20 years will be for tech. I was a prime example of this – back in 2009 I abandoned a career in consulting and finance to start out as a Product Manager with Intuit. I took a 50% pay cut, and moved out of my plush corner office to an ‘open concept floor-plan’. At the time, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Looking back on it, I’m not even sure I would have hired myself. Luckily I managed to convince a few people that I might do a half decent job.

Making that move was the best career decision I’ve ever made on a lifestyle-financially-adjusted basis. It wasn’t easy, but it can be done. I was raised on the teat of corporate America, and the world of tech was a foreign place. It took a while to figure things out. I can’t speak for everyone, but if you’re coming from a background in consulting or finance, and you want to break into product management (or corp dev, strategy, general management), below is what you need to know:

Congratulations, you’re 80% of the way there

The good news is that the majority of skills you need are transferable from your previous experience. These include:

  • Learning fast – tech moves fast, you need to learn new industries and technologies constantly
  • Communicating – written and oral, critical to success
  • Talking business – being able to talk about business strategy, business plans, financials etc.
  • Engaging with customers – ability to speak with people, perform primary research, synthesize and share learnings
  • Working in a team – working with and managing others, leading without direct authority

Yes, you should learn to code

You don’t need to become a developer yourself, but you should understand how the entire technology stack works (high level). You should be able to hack together basic prototypes yourself. Not because anyone will ever use your code to do anything. You need this because it will make you a fully functioning member of a technology organization. Without this understanding, you lose credibility. You’re an outsider. It’s like being an executive of a major car company who has never opened up the hood of a vehicle. I’ve seen too many situations where senior leaders with no technical background make terrible strategic and operational decisions – and not because they weren’t bright, successful people in other careers. They just didn’t ‘get it’. They didn’t understand how software is built. They didn’t understand how engineers work best. They couldn’t tell good design from bad, let alone come up with something on their own. Pulling from a James Cameron analogy, the director needs to know every role on his team – sometimes to get the exact shot he needs he’ll get down in the trenches and work the camera himself. He can do this because he has worked as every role on a film shoot at some time in his life. He might not be the best at every role, but he understands it and could step in himself if need be. You need to be like this, but for tech.

The good news is that it’s the easiest time in history to learn tech. Here’s a simple playbook:

  • Read Hacker News – make this your source of news in the world. It has great content (usually) and you’ll begin to understand the tech world ‘hive mind’ and lingo
  • Learn a few languages / frameworks – I started with Ruby on Rails back in 2010. There are a few excellent (free) resources out there that will literally teach you the entire technology stack to have a functioning web application. Check out Michael Hartl’s Ruby on Rails Tutorial. If you finish with rails, check out Angular JS next, it’s an awesome new front-end framework that will teach you about Javascript and the power of client-side applications… but given it’s 2018, you might just dive right into mobile development. Swift is a great language, and worth checking out.
  • Read a few books on tech – check out my books page for some suggestions
  • Read the essays of Paul Graham – just read them all. They’re that good. They cover generally interesting thoughts on life, but also some very specific, insightful analysis of technology dating back to the mid 90’s

Doing the above will get you down the learning curve in a few months. You’ll start to think and feel like you’re ‘plugged in’ to tech if you make each of the above part of your daily routine in some way.

Sometimes you go back to go forward

I alluded to this above, but prepare to become a nobody. Your previous experience will be worthless. In some cases, it will actually be worse than worthless, it will be a liability. There are countless articles on how an MBA is sometimes a negative hiring factor for tech and startup companies. Experience from the world of consulting or finance has no currency in the world of tech. Nobody cares that you helped some faceless corporation save $200M, or that you helped some financial services giant chart their strategy for the next five years. They only care about what you’ve done in the past (in tech) and what you can do right now. Software and tech is big on meritocracy. This is a double edge sword. It will kick your ass for the first few years while you’re learning the ropes, but eventually it should work to your advantage. It means that if you’re smart and motivated, you’ll move up fast and make waves.

Also, if you’re still using a Windows machine, invest in a Macbook. Get over the learning curve, you’ll thank me later.

Getting a job

There’s no clear path to a job in tech. The mega companies are always hiring, so it’s more about finding the right department and role. Smaller startups are always growing too, so if there isn’t an opening today, there should be one soon if they’re a company worth joining. Personal introductions will go a long way to getting you in the door somewhere, but to be perfectly frank,the best thing you can do is find a company / role you want, find out who the hiring manager is, read up about them and the role, then write a killer cover letter to them explaining why you want to get into tech and why you’ll be an awesome addition to their team. Nobody does this. I’m completely serious, most applicants send in a resume and form cover letter. That’s bullshit. If you want to stand out, write a compelling cover letter explaining yourself and why you’re awesome. It’s super hard to find good talent these days, so if you can show you’re star talent from the start, people will want to speak to you. I am telling you this as someone who has hired dozens of people over the years – the hardest thing is finding people with raw intelligence and a genuine interest in what we’re doing. I would hire as many of those type of people as I can find. It’s hard.

Also, don’t worry about rejection. Not every tech company will be right for you, each has a unique culture and style. Furthermore, not every application you send in will get to the right people or get the right amount of attention. Shit happens. Move on. Just keep trying – the entire world of startups and technology is about breaking through barriers and resistance. The key ingredient to doing this is persistence. Think of this whole ‘getting hired’ thing as just the first test in what will be a much longer journey in the world of tech. It’s not meant to be easy. If it were, everyone would do it.

Give it a shot, and enjoy the journey!

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