How to Kickstart Your Tech Career in 2021
For breaking into tech or getting that promotion.
Happy New Year, everyone! 💥
We made it! And while we don’t want to overhype another year, it is still important to set goals and strive to achieve them. After all we’ve been through, nothing should stop us from doing our best to get into tech, upskill or get that promotion we more than deserve.
Join Sefunmi and Helen, co-founders of Co.Lab, for a Live Info Session and AMA. Come along with your questions as you learn more about the upcoming Winter 2021 cohort and hear Co.Lab alumni success stories.
Remember, you belong in tech.
Allow me to share this story out of Steve Jobs’ biography that inspires me every time I think about it: A graphic designer, Bas Ording, sat in the lobby at Apple after he had completed an interview, which didn’t go well for him. Steve Jobs bumped into him later that day, and with whatever hope he had left, Bas showed him one of his ideas.
“Jobs looked over his shoulder and saw a little demo, using Adobe Director, of a way to fit more icons in the dock at the bottom of a screen.
When the guy moved the cursor over the icons crammed into the dock, the cursor mimicked a magnifying glass and made each icon balloon bigger. “I said, ‘My God,’ and hired him on the spot,” Jobs recalled.” - Page 363, Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography by Walter Isaacson.
The biggest lessons I got from that interaction are:
- Interviews are not the best way to showcase your strengths, and
- Showing something functional goes further than any resume.
I mean, if Steve Jobs could be impressed by a demo, every other hiring manager would at least appreciate any efforts to showcase something valuable.
I do agree that the design Bas showed was quite exceptional. It is still used in today’s Mac OS and was the stepping stone for other designs like inertial scrolling for multi-touch screens. And while we might feel like Bas is in a league of his own (which he is), we should take one major component from his gesture— his initiative.
Showing rather than telling
If you want a promotion
Just performing your assigned tasks and fulfilling the basic job requirements aren’t enough if you want that senior role or a promotion. If you are trying to switch jobs entirely because you haven’t gotten your promotion, just talking about the experience you gained through doing what you were told from your old job will not make you stand out.
Hiring managers love self-starters; folks who take the initiative to develop creative solutions to the different problems around them. It is no surprise that those who typically get promotions have already been performing in that capacity before giving them the title. They’ve proven to their superiors that they are fit for the next step in their career, and their transition is typically smoother.
Now, this isn’t me saying, work longer hours and grind until someone notices you. You must work smart by identifying areas of value to your company and focusing on the things you can improve. You don’t have to invent something new or build a completely unique product. For example, specific process improvements can go a long way to maximize resources or make entire departments more productive. Anything you can use to quantify customer value or dollar saved accurately will dramatically improve your standing in your company. Again though, be sure to also get credit for what you do by talking about it to the right people in the company who are the decision-makers and can influence your ascent to your desired position.
If you want to get into tech
Over the years, the tech industry has become more competitive. Knowing how to code, design or manage teams isn’t enough these days, especially if you have little practical experience in development, design and product.
While a particular degree, taking a course, or completing a Bootcamp is helpful in learning the theory, this alone won't improve your standing either. At its core, a career in tech is about solving problems. And to overcome your current challenge of landing your desired role, you’ll have to find creative ways to distinguish yourself.
I’ve always been a big fan of candidates who work on projects. It shows they can put all their theory into practice independently and not just because someone told them to, but rather due to the excitement to use their newly acquired skills to take a stab at solving an interesting problem. It shows initiative. While hiring for entry-level roles previously, I have never selected a candidate for an interview who didn’t have projects or a portfolio on their resume or website. If you don’t have a website, this is a sign you should probably make one. You can check out mine and Helen’s.
Other hiring managers and recruiters I’ve spoken to all speak highly of candidates who take the initiative to build side projects and talk about them with passion. Just like Steve Jobs did, we all marvel at the effort and initiative to create something. It doesn’t have to be an entirely new idea. Just focus on it being good enough to demo. Anything that you care enough to have done something about it will give you enough points to discuss in your interview.
Collaborating rather than working in isolation
If you want a promotion
As you work through figuring out areas of value to influence in your company, it is best to involve others in your quest. Getting a promotion doesn’t have to be a one-person effort. Working in solidarity with others can get you to your goal quicker and more efficiently. Be vocal about the questions you need to be answered and reach out to those who can point you in the right direction. Frame everything you want to achieve from the angle of its benefit to your organizations or your customers. It will help influence others to go out of their way and provide additional time and resources to support the cause you are leading. The output of the valuable work you do as a team will ultimately lead to your promotion.
While your role as an individual contributor is valuable, hiring managers pay attention to candidates who say “we” while talking about experiences and achievements vs those who say “I.” It shows that you keep the success of the team in mind while explaining your involvement in projects. Be sure to recognize the role each member played and speak highly of their contributions. The higher you go within your company, the more important teamwork becomes.
If you want to get into tech
Products have become more complicated these days. It takes entire product teams to build successful apps and multiple departments to keep services running smoothly. No one expects you to do it all. You are most valuable when you can seamlessly integrate into a team by using your specific skills to contribute to building the company’s product or service.
It is no surprise that in any product, design or engineering interview, there are behavioural questions that ask how you work with others. No matter how exceptional you are at what you do, if you can’t work well with people, it’ll be more challenging for you to transition into tech since it is very collaborative.
If you want to work on any side project, try to work with someone else to provide you with accountability and consistency. It will go a long way to improve the other soft skills you require to be successful in tech. You’ll get tremendous value by working with someone from a different discipline than yours. As you work through the challenges together and ultimately complete your project, it will provide an invaluable experience of how you’ve solved problems in a real-life capacity.
Hiring managers are looking for clues on what it’ll be like working with you, and there’s no better way of doing so than by understanding how you’ve worked with previous teammates. They are also interested in what transferable skills you have that can ensure you’ll succeed when placed in a real work environment. By collaborating with others across other disciplines, you’ll be armed with multiple stories to tell that will showcase your initiative, passion and commitment to problem-solving.
The main take away is to choose the path where you’ll learn the most. By challenging yourself to work on personal or internal projects, you also invite the rewards that come with all the experience from solving valuable problems.
While you can do all those things on your own, it's not that straight forward. You need to be plugged in with the right network, you need to set everything up, and most importantly, you need to be held accountable. But you have to admit that it works. That’s why Helen and I are building Co.Lab: a multi-week learning program where we group product managers, designers, and developers to work collaboratively to ship real products.
Our goal is to build confidence for future technologists through learning by doing. It's based on the mutual benefit of giving folks the community, practical experience, and connections they need to upgrade their skills, work on something fun, or further their careers in tech.