History, art, English, the humanities: These are the backgrounds of approximately half the people I’ve worked with at both Etsy and Slack.
My co-workers have been creators, analytical thinkers and researchers. They look at complex problems and find novel solutions, taking products to a whole new level. Even Stewart Butterfield, Slack’s founder, was a philosophy major with aspirations to one day become a professor.
But something has changed. Only 5 percent of college graduates earned liberal arts degrees in 2018, according to PBS. It’s clear why: Young people want a degree that will lead to a high-paying job, and nowadays, everyone tells them that you can’t make money or build a future with a liberal arts degree.
It’s a shame, too, because there are many of us who have done just that. We make the tech industry so much richer, and you can too.
How to bridge your non-stem background into a job in tech
- Seek out new knowledge
- Work with smart people
- Align yourself with quality
- Advocate for yourself
- Find allies
My pivot from liberal arts to tech
I arrived in New York City in September 2008, freshly graduated with an honors degree from Wesleyan University. I majored in English literature and, like Stewart, was sure I was destined to eventually become a professor. Knowing the professorial life had its own drawbacks, I looked to publishing and media companies for my first real job out of school.
The Great Recession was in full swing, and paid entry-level jobs were becoming unpaid internships. I landed myself one of these illustrious positions at a small circular where I was responsible for finding the best nightlife in NYC and writing regular listicles. I worked at a coffee shop in Cobble Hill to pay the bills.
By November, writers for Slate and Condé Nast were covering their morning coffees with unemployment cards and joking that they’d be happy to take my job. The economic fallout accelerated huge shifts in the publishing industry, and my stop-gap plan was no longer viable. I spent the next year applying to graduate programs and slinging lattes — completely unsure of what the future held.
Then a dear friend pitched me on applying for a job at Etsy, a small tech company chock-full of creative people with full-time benefits.
From barista to product manager
I was Etsy’s 120th employee. We were a small team — roughly half customer support and half engineering — working to scale a website and a business that was rapidly outgrowing our existing systems. As a customer service representative, I dealt with all parts of the business that didn’t yet have a software solution: legal, billing, policy enforcement, and even closing accounts. I knew how to serve customers from my restaurant days, but instead of running tables, I was now fielding an endless queue of emails and chats, helping people deal with software that I didn’t fully understand.
I have always been deeply uncomfortable in situations where I don’t understand what’s happening around me and unreasonably confident in my ability to learn even the most complex things. So I started taking online computer science classes, listened to business, design, and stats books on my walks, spoke with engineers and designers and started to build a mental map of how everything around me actually worked.
It became clear to me that there was one particular job that fit both my skills and interests: product management. Product managers perform in-depth research, pull ideas together into a coherent narrative and influence the people around them to see the same way forward. Thanks to my years of writing essays and research papers, these were things I was uniquely adept at.
As my career grew, I found a second love: search and machine learning. This, too, was deeply connected to my collegiate years. I have always been fascinated by how language works (and doesn’t work) to communicate, translate meaning, and develop new ideas. Building a good search product is rooted in resolving all of the same linguistic and semiotic challenges — just at a much larger scale.
It was this last skill that helped me transition into my first role at Slack as the product lead for search and machine learning.
Tech needs more than STEM majors
The technology industry requires many of the skills the STEM fields teach us: analytical thinking, quantitative reasoning, attention to detail and the drive to find clear, repeatable answers. But it also requires people who are fascinated by how we look at the world and why we see it that way.
Liberal arts students learn how to approach problems from many different perspectives — whether that’s a sociological point of view, a historical view or a more nebulous human perspective. By considering these different lenses, you gain a much rounder understanding of a problem and can find solutions that take into account the various needs of all your constituents. The tech industry benefits from the inclusion of people from all academic, professional, and life backgrounds, so lean into what you already know and consider getting your foot in the door with a non-technical role first.
If you are looking for a bigger shift than just changing your place of work, consider finding a role that leverages the subjects that you already carry considerable expertise in. Technology exists to solve challenges, and challenges exist in every imaginable field. Whether it’s community management, education, healthcare or marketing, you probably understand a specific subject that someone, somewhere is trying to build a technical solution around.
They would be elated to find you. Find a company you admire, show them what you have to offer, and then get serious about learning the technical side of things.
Build a tech career that lights you up
In order to grow that first gig in tech into a successful career, here’s my best advice:
- Seek out new knowledge. Become friends with the people who know what you don’t, learn the language, take courses. Lean into the things that feel foreign to you so that you can speak intelligently about the work your company does.
- Work with smart people. Seek out teams who are smarter than you are and work with the people you have the most to learn from. If you ever feel like you’re the smartest person in the room at the beginning of your career, find a new room to be in.
- Align yourself to the quality of your product and the quality of your business outcomes. Your career, if you do it well, will be defined by the quality of the products you ship.
- Advocate for yourself. Get really comfortable standing up for yourself and the career you want to build. You can’t show up for your team if you don’t have the resources you need.
- Find allies. As someone who builds software, the work you do will require help or approval from nearly every other team at some point, whether it’s legal or customer experience. The earlier you get their input, the smoother the development process will be. An excellent byproduct of demonstrating that you understand people’s value is that they value you as well, and they’ll be in your corner as you build your career.
Just like in 2008 when the economy’s bottom suddenly fell out, the pandemic has reshuffled our priorities. Many people are switching jobs and career paths, and “non-tech” people are considering a career in tech.
Forbes recently shared my own story and those of other women who have successfully and happily pivoted to careers in tech. I’m celebrating this. I’m certainly technical now (though I still don’t write code), and I’ve seen how this diversity of thought contributes to the tech industry’s advancement.
This is all to say: If turn-of-the-century literature enthrals you and you want to spend your college years doing extensive research and writing essays, do it! You will find your way — even if it’s completely unpredictable to you now.
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