Standing out in a tech world when you’re non-technicalFeatured

An economic downturn, layoffs, and uncertainty – sound familiar? I’m not talking about current times. I graduated college in 2006, right as we were entering The Great Recession (when the subprime mortgage market collapsed). To top it off, I majored in journalism, an industry that was seeing record-low readership and advertising revenue. There were no jobs for me.

Little did I know a consumer technology revolution was around the corner. It would bring not only opportunities for engineers but also for writers, designers, marketers, and more.

In 2006, people listened to music on iPods and talked on Blackberry phones. The iPhone was still about a year away. Twitter had just launched, and Facebook – the website we used in college - was opening up to the world. It was the start of a new era, promising that online connections would improve our lives.

These startups evolved into platforms and economies, changing the world forever. I needed to find a way in.

However, I wasn’t the poster child for a tech worker. My education consisted of two years of community college and two years at a state school studying journalism— worlds away from the Ivy League and technically-educated and well-connected new grads joining the top startups.

What have I learned through it all?

Tech companies need non-technical employees — the very type of people who typically represent their user base.

No AI in the world has life experiences. Bring those viewpoints and skills to your role. Identify your source of energy, and use your skills to contribute to the growth of yourself and the company.

How did a journalism student find herself at a tech startup called Facebook in 2008?

I did freelance work to build my portfolio, but I wasn't a strong or bold enough journalist to secure one of the few available jobs. I challenged myself to leverage my writing skills and be a part of the tech boom.

I landed an internship at a tech PR agency. I cold-called reporters and walked around San Francisco getting newspaper clips framed. Within a few months, our agency won the business of Facebook.

My internship turned into a full-time position, and that led to working with the three-person Facebook PR team. I said yes to everything. After a year, I interviewed for a role at Facebook, and moved in-house to the Facebook offices in downtown Palo Alto, with 500 employees.

After about five years, I joined Pinterest as it was reaching 100 people, and led Product Communications.

The startup bug is real. Writing blog posts and working on features that will be used by millions, working alongside the smartest people in tech, the bell-ringing of IPOs that statistically were never supposed to happen — these are serotonin boosts I’ll probably chase for the rest of my career.

Here are some lessons I learned along the way:

  1. Become the expert: Find your niche. Say "yes" more than you say "no" in this area. Look for gaps and seize the opportunities. Read and listen to everything. Be prepared to present solutions and recommendations specific to your area of expertise. This could involve writing for customers, understanding internal culture, or analyzing competition. Learn how to digest and reframe content for different audiences, as this will enhance your own comprehension.
  2. Have an exit strategy: This applies to projects, roles, jobs, meetings, and events. Know when to move on. Just as important as becoming an expert is the ability to delegate and grow. Holding onto tasks for too long can turn you into the historian, archivist, or long-standing expert in too many areas.
  3. Embrace bursts of work: When you feel particularly inspired and energized, dedicate focused periods of time to accomplish tasks. These bursts of energy will be your source of motivation. Working at a startup is like riding a rollercoaster. You can't be "on" all the time. Be kind to yourself, take breaks, but also make the most of those bursts of productivity.
  4. Save kudos: No one will care about your self-review as much as you, nor will anyone spend as much time on it as you should. Save positive feedback, kind Slack messages, and notable achievements to look back on. These reminders not only boost your self-esteem but also come in handy when advocating for yourself during performance reviews.
  5. Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know. I love this quote: "Embarrassment is the price of admission." Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you, and don't be afraid of making mistakes or being wrong. Seek mentors both within and outside of your company. Read and listen to technical content until you've absorbed enough to engage in high-level discussions. When making recommendations, create a framework to get things moving and collaborate with others to get the job done. Make decisions when you're 70% sure instead of waiting for 100% certainty.

This isn’t a perfect list. And now that tech is facing massive layoffs, there’s never a guarantee that a job or company will be for the long term. However, these skills are absolutely transferrable, inside and outside tech.

As you build your career, tap into your unique skills. Your creativity and passion are needed.

Thank you for your insights! This was a motivating read.