Find Your Dream Job, Episode 193:
How to Break into Tech if You’re Not Techie, with Lida Tohidi
Airdate: May 29, 2019
This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.
I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps professionals find fulfilling careers.
Every week on Find Your Dream Job, I interview a different career expert. We discuss the tools and tactics you need to find the work you want.
This week, I’m talking to Lida Tohidi about how to break into tech if you’re not a techie.
Look at a job board today and you’ll see lots of open positions with technology companies. And it’s no wonder why; tech is hiring everywhere and for all kinds of jobs.
You’re not a techie, but you send off a resume. And another. And another. And you get no response. What’s the problem?
Our guest today says tech offers lots of opportunities for people without tech backgrounds.
But to get a job, you need to pay attention to relationships, do your homework, and stress how you can add to a company’s bottom line.
Want to learn more? Listen in now at the Mac’s List studio as I interview Lida Tohidi about how to break into tech if you’re not a techie.
Lida Tohidi is an experienced digital marketer, program manager, and strategic planner. She’s passionate about promoting diversity and inclusion in technology companies.
Lida speaks regularly at technology conferences and runs a mastermind program for women in tech.
She joins us today from San Francisco’s Bay Area.
Welcome to the show, Lida.
Thank you, Mac, happy to be here.
Yeah, it’s a pleasure to have you.
Our topic today is how non-techies can break into tech companies and often, Lida, people think you need to be an engineer or a coder to work in tech. Why isn’t that true?
Tech as a whole is pretty new as an industry. Having said that, it’s probably the fastest growing industry; so we have $4 trillion in revenue in tech, just this year alone, and it’s an industry that’s growing 5% a year. I mention all of that just to say that there is definitely room for growth and there’s definitely room for a lot of folks with different backgrounds within the tech industry.
So, it’s booming, there are a lot of different kinds of occupations, tell us more, Lida. What kind of jobs in tech don’t require engineering degrees or coding skills?
If you can think of many companies in tech, there are similar roles for the same type of function. So, in many companies, there are obviously marketing, design roles, sales, customer service, HR, legal, operations; so within tech, and within startups, there would be all of these same roles as well and for all of those roles, actually having a non-tech background is fine and I would say none of these roles require engineering degrees or coding skills.
Once you get into, obviously, software development, product management, those are the types of roles where it would actually definitely help and it’s required to have coding skills but for a lot of roles within tech, you definitely don’t need to have that background.
What about educational requirements? Do you need a degree from a university or maybe an associates degree from a community college to work in most tech occupations?
What is really great, and what I’ve noticed having worked in tech for over 6 years and having been a hiring manager for all that time is that most people that have come through our doors have had various experiences before coming in. Some people, of course, have had a university degree, some have come with a community college degree or associate’s degree, and other people I know had just graduated from high school.
In that sense, working in tech is based a lot on what you can do at the company and not so much where you studied. Of course, it’s taking some time to shift those perspectives and not everyone thinks in that way but I would say that it is the industry where you can actually have the most opportunities at your disposal even without an advanced degree.
What about people who perhaps don’t have a college degree or even an associate’s degree, should they be looking at training programs? I’m thinking, for example, often local universities might offer a certificate program where you attend a certain number of college classes and you have this hands-on training in the technology world.
Is that helpful, in your experience as a hiring manager?
I definitely think so and I would say that even an intensive program, like a boot camp, that fits your schedule and that will help you to get to the point in your career that you need and that you want to enter the tech field, that it will really help you.
Busy lifestyle and you’re transitioning from a full-time role elsewhere into tech? You can actually do so at your convenience, as a lot of these certificate programs are offered in the evening or even on weekends, as well. I would definitely say you should search around and see what is a good fit for your needs.
What are the benefits of those programs, when you’re a hiring manager in technology and you’re looking at a candidate who has perhaps done a boot camp at a coding academy or a certificate program at a university for digital marketing? Why does that credential help a candidate stand out?
I find that credential helps the candidate stand out because it shows me that this person knows what they want and also has gone after it. At the same time, they have the skills and the ability to handle a fast-paced work style.
For all tech environments I’ve worked in, it’s been quite fast-paced and there’s almost never been an occasion where there’s been a training program or even a day of training, like, you pretty much hit the ground running and I would say when someone graduates from a certificate program or a boot camp program I know how intense that curriculum is because I’m teaching it. And so if someone has successfully graduated from that and can show me that their skills are on par with someone else with a degree, then, I already know that they have the work ethic that it takes to be very successful in a fast-paced environment.
So that’s, for me personally, as a hiring manager, what makes me look at these candidates in a very good light even if they may not have the advanced degree that someone else has.
What do you recommend for listeners who might be considering applying for a certificate program or coding academy? What should they look for and what should they watch out for, Lida?
One thing that I’d say that they should look for is obviously whether this program caters to their needs. Some people really enjoy the on-campus and in-person element, which I definitely do, and that’s why all of the courses I have taught have been in person.
There are some people who prefer learning online, but I would just say, a red flag for me right there would be if you have never managed to complete an online course on your own, then don’t assume that this will be a different situation.
Online courses are great but they tend to have a lot higher attrition rates and a lot fewer people who actually complete the program just because of so many factors. It’s a lot easier to get distracted online, there’s not the social proof that you would have with folks in the classroom, there’s not the one on one attention that you get from the instructor. So for me it’s a red flag just because I know that a lot of people who have done online coding courses and they’d be happy to talk to you and there’s no obligation to ever sign up for a course.
Okay, so I think often when people think about jobs in the technology sector, they imagine some open space lofts with a workplace filled with people early in their career, perhaps just in their 20s, who are coders and engineers and that’s it. What I’m hearing you say is, the workplace is actually very different.
Can you tell our listeners what a typical tech workplace might be and the different roles and skills and points at their career people might be at?
Sure, so it very much depends. So I’ve tended to work in small startups because that’s where I thrive. One of my top 5 values is impact and I can make a lot of impact as a team lead and a director at a company that has a few hundred employees vs. a few hundred thousand.
Of course, I wouldn’t be the fit to go work at Amazon, for example. The top 10 technology companies in the world, they’re going to have a much more hierarchical system and even the scenarios in which you can work tend to be that you work very closely within your team because everyone is specialized at something because the products that you’re working on are reaching millions and sometimes even hundreds of millions of people if you’re in a very important role within one of those top 10 companies.
And then if you are on the other side of the spectrum of tech, which is small startups, then it does tend to be open office spaces and though I would say, personally for me that is sometimes a little bit distracting to work for the full day. That’s why the office tends to be open, so that you feel free to walk around and work with people in different teams.
Okay, well, that’s terrific, Lida.
We’re going to take a break, but when we come back I want to talk about searching for work in tech itself, particularly for non-techies.
When we come back Lida and I will continue to talk about how to break into tech if you’re not a techie.
One of the best ways to build relationships and get the introductions that Lida recommends is through informational interviews.
And good networkers walk into every informational interview with a set of questions.
But don’t forget. When you’re ready to interview for a job, an employer will have a set of questions you need to answer, too.
And you can count on every hiring manager you meet to ask what are called behavioral interview questions.
Here’s an example of one:
“Tell me about a time when you found a mistake made by a colleague.”
What would you say?
Managers don’t ask this question to embarrass you. Instead, employers want to hear examples of past experience.
To give your best answer you need a plan. And I’ve got a new guide that can help. It’s called 100 Behavioral Interview Questions You Need to Know.
Get your free copy today. Go to macslist.org/questions.
In this 12-page publication, I give you a four-step process for expertly answering any behavioral question. And I include a list of the 100 most common behavioral interview questions.
Go to macslist.org/questions.
Don’t go to your next job interview unprepared. Get your copy today of 100 Behavioral Interview Questions You Need to Know.
Go to macslist.org/questions.
Now, let’s get back to the show.
We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Lida Tohidi. She’s an experienced technology executive who runs a mastermind program for women in tech.
She’s joining us today from San Francisco’s Bay Area.
Lida, before our break we were talking about the technology world and you made some great points.
One is that, there are lots of opportunities for people with non-tech backgrounds, that training, particularly with coding academies or certificate programs can give candidates an advantage, that the popular conception about the tech workplace is some loft in a 19th century building with some open space and lots of people in their 20s just isn’t true for the technology world in general.
Let’s talk about the job search itself; for listeners who have non-tech backgrounds want to break into tech, how do you recommend they get started?
I would say this is where your preferred search engine of choice is your best friend.
Google, Yahoo,???, wherever you are in the world, and you spend most of your living time at work so you definitely want to make sure that the tech industry and the types of companies that you are going to target are going to be a fit for you. Because we tend to spend over 2,000 hours of our lives a year at work and over a 100,000 years of our lives…sorry let me redo that.
I meant to say, you tend to spend over 2,000 hours of your life at work and over 100,000 hours of your life over the course of your career. These are very rough estimates based on 40-hour work weeks and I would definitely tell you that the tech industry is known for having longer than 40-hour work weeks.
That’s how I recommend everyone to start, is to search around, look for articles based on the types of companies that they feel they would be a fit for, and that’s something that only you can know.
There are some people who would excel really well at a giant company because they really like to specialize and they really like to be at a place that has a lot of other benefits to their work. For people like me, who want to have a lot of personal impact and change a lot of things on a product or a service and have a lot of personal growth as well, then it might be better that you’re targeting a smaller company.
These are areas that I would say to definitely get to know better because the tech industry is quite large as I mentioned before, and it’s tens of thousands of companies just in the US alone. Definitely getting a sense of where you would fit would be really helpful before you start submitting even a single job application.
What other research do you recommend people do besides exploring online? When they step away from the computer and they want to figure out the companies where they might work, what are good ways of doing that, Lida?
I find that it’s quite helpful to connect with people, so you can definitely do this in person. It’s really helpful if you go to networking events or even hackathons.
I know that that’s how I started getting into the tech industry and I would say, start going to those because you will then meet people who are working in tech day in and day out and they will be the best source of real information as to what the work is like, and you would get a sense of whether you enjoy doing this work or not by going to these types of events. That’s something I definitely recommend.
I’m glad you brought up startup weekends. While I’ve never taken part in one myself, I have friends and colleagues who have and the teams mirror your earlier point, Lida, about how they’re going to ones that aren’t just all coders but, again, bringing together people from throughout the tech community.
Sure, so it definitely depends on what you’re interested in and I can tell you the 2 main sources that I go for events also have their own algorithms, which means that if you search for certain keywords, the things that will pop up on top are based on how relevant it is to your search and how close it is to your physical location. Of course, because these are 2 tech companies as well, they try to serve you very relevant and timely information.
I’m teaching a course in Vancouver and I’m very new to Vancouver so I wanted to get to meet people who are in a similar industry as me and, to your point, not necessarily go to the same old places I would otherwise. A woman who was hosting a workshop for other women, and it was that same evening, so it was last night, and I signed up. I was on a waitlist but I managed to get off the waitlist and go in person and that was really great and it was something that took probably 5 to 10 minutes of searching time, but it really depends on your particular interest.
As a marketer, writing is something that’s very important to my daily work, so that’s something that I really enjoy doing even outside of working hours. For someone it might be design; they might want to look for a very specific design meetup that’s going to be happening somewhere. I’ve seen quite a lot of range of great tech meetups for non-techies on both of those websites.
Let’s talk about the job search itself. How important, Lida, are relationships, when you want to break into tech?
I would say that it’s one of the most important things in the job search so I’m going to give you a statistic that I found out about today that is not meant to be difficult to process or to turn you off in any way, but if you’re looking at one of those companies that is like, the world leader. I mentioned Google a couple of times so let’s talk about Google.
They get over 3 million applications per year for the jobs that they have so you can be sure that that it’s definitely a numbers game and for the large majority of people who are applying at these very large tech companies, their application will get a few seconds of someone looking at it, at best.
It’s not that there’s any malintent on behalf of tech companies you’re applying to. It’s just that, if you have a relationship of any kind where the person can refer you for the role, then your application will definitely get viewed.
Whereas if you’re fighting amongst a sea of other applicants, all of whom are applying cold, then it will be much less likely that your application will be given a full minute’s worth of time.
That’s something that I would really recommend, is getting to know people in the industry, not just to get referrals, of course, but to get a sense of what you would actually be doing in the roles that you’d be applying for, and of course, if you can possibly get them to put in a good word for the role that you’re applying to, or even refer you, that’s the best thing you could do for a job hunt.
Especially if you’re new to the tech industry.
What’s your number 1 tip, Lida, for both building and maintaining those relationships? Because I think our listeners understand how important relationships are during a job search, whatever the sector, but many of us may struggle with both identifying the right people to reach out to and knowing what to ask.
What’s your counsel there?
Sure, so I actually have lived and worked abroad on all continents, so I’ve managed to make my life a lot more difficult because I wanted to travel and work. So what I did is, I just decided to move around every couple of years, starting to build connections with people online and my favorite platform to do that on is LinkedIn.
Of course, it’s difficult to do that at the beginning when you’re very new to online networking, but just getting a foot in the door and just sharing something that you have similar with that person; maybe it’s your Alma Mater, maybe it’s an article that you read that they posted, maybe it’s that you have the same role in the company. It can be anything and I’ve noticed that people are generally quite open.
Of course, you wouldn’t have a LinkedIn profile if you didn’t want people to reach out to you so that’s someplace that I would say you can definitely feel like you don’t have to get anxious at all in sending people a request. And then once you build up that confidence and you connect with people and you keep in touch with them, you can also go to events and try similarly to build your network that way.
That’s something that I would say you definitely need to keep building throughout your life, even if you don’t move around as I have, because at the end of the day, it’s a relationships business and I would say relationships are the true currency. I would say it’s definitely very important to know and quantify your impact.
The reason for this is that when you’re applying for roles, any time you see that you have a very senior person that you are interviewing with, or even to just talking to on the phone for a short time, it’s almost always their job to ask what your impact will be.
It depends, sometimes they will ask you what is your impact going to be in the first quarter, or what you think you will do at the company, but it’s always really important that you also transfer the accomplishments that you have had in the past into what you would do for this company going forward.
That’s something that I would very much recommend that you prepare for before any interviews.
One thing is, it’s really important to know what business problems you will be solving at the company. Even if you are a designer, you are still solving business problems. Regardless of what role you will be doing, you are working at a business which means that you are directly going to be impacting some problems that they’re solving.
It’s been a great conversation, Lida. Tell us, what’s next for you?
Yeah, so I have organized a few mastermind groups. We’ve started out doing so for women in tech and it’s been really successful. Sometimes people ask, “What is a mastermind group?” And actually, this is a topic that’s been around since the early 1920s and it was a way for, usually quite successful businessmen to get together and solve their problems through this mastermind.
We’re expanding it to people looking to break into the tech industry and advance their careers in tech.
That’s something that I’m working on now.
Great, well, I know people can learn more about that and your other services by visiting your website, pidaar.com.
Now, Lida, given all the tips you’ve shared today, what’s the one thing you want our audience to remember when they think about how a non-techie can break into tech?
I would say…it’s really hard to pick just one thing, so I’ll give 2 things.
One thing that I’ve already mentioned is to establish connections in the industry and definitely grow those relationships, but I would say, even beyond that, it’s really important to always be learning. The tech industry is quite fast-paced, as I mentioned, and even entire industries change quite a lot.
So when children are asked these days what jobs they want to have in the future, and that’s something that I personally love, is always learning the next marketing skill and the newest platform because there is always something new out there. That’s something that I would say is definitely the case, regardless of what you do in the tech industry.
Always be learning.
Great, well, thank you for joining us today, Lida.
Yeah, thank you, Mac, for having me.
Well, I enjoyed that conversation with Lida Tohidi, I hope you did as well.
Lida came back to a point you hear a lot on this show and that’s the importance of relationships, whether you’re creating them by going to meetups or events you find on Eventbrite or in other ways, or you’re maintaining and growing them through a network you might have created and documented on your LinkedIn account.
However you’re approaching relationships, they make a big difference, whether you’re working in tech or want to move into tech or are occupied in another field. When you’re paying attention to relationships or you’re going to events, you’re going to have conversations about your career and what you’ve done in the past.
While a conversation at a meetup about your past accomplishments isn’t a job interview, you will get questions about your past experience and you will get what are called behavioral interview questions in actual job interviews.
That’s why you need to know how behavioral interview questions work. We’ve got a guide that can help.
It’s called 100 Behavioral Interview Questions You Need to Know.
You can get your copy today by going to macslist.org/questions.
Don’t be surprised by a tough behavioral interview question at your next job interview.
Go to macslist.org/questions.
Well, thanks for listening to this week’s episode of Find Your Dream Job.
Please join us next Wednesday. Our guest expert will be Minda Harts. She’ll explain how to transfer your job skills to a new industry.
Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.