As a tech influencer, the single most frequently asked question I get is about how to transition into tech. People love the big salaries, cool products, and world-class perks bragged about on YouTube and TikTok. For underrepresented folks, getting into tech is about breaking into the greatest opportunity generator of our generation.
With this in mind, I want to give you some principles to help guide you on the path towards transitioning into tech. We’ll also discuss how to make moves between different areas of tech.
Let’s define some terminology
As with any journey, it’s essential for you to understand where you are right now. That may seem obvious, but many people don’t understand what it actually means to be “in tech.” So let me start out by defining some terminology.
First, when we talk about tech, we mean all things related to computer and internet technology. Software, websites, the cloud, computing devices like phones and other smart devices, virtual and augmented reality, gaming, cryptocurrencies and Web3, quantum computing, robotics, are all examples of stuff falling under the umbrella of the tech industry. A tech company is in the business of building or selling technology and related services.
Jobs in tech are broadly categorized as technical or non-technical. In a technical role, you either build the technology itself or use technology to manage data. Non-technical roles are the kind you find in any business such as marketers, project managers, lawyers, salespersons, accountants, and etc.
A roadmap for a successful tech transition
Now when we talk about being in tech, there are two main parameters to consider. The first is whether you work in a tech company or not. The second is whether you yourself are working in a technical role or not. Where you fall on these two things determine whether you may consider yourself in or out of tech.
Let’s take a look at the following diagram:
Now soak this in for a bit. There are several principles I want you to observe:
- Jobs in tech are often the same as jobs in non-tech. Every single job fits somewhere in one of the quadrants. Almost all the jobs that you would do at a non-tech company are the same kinds of jobs you can do at a tech company. The same is true in the other direction.
- Being technical at a tech company pays. Highly skilled jobs that are in high demand and low supply pay more. It’s basic economics. But there are also plenty of jobs in tech that are low-tech or no-tech and that pay exceedingly well. This is especially true of roles at big tech companies.
- Start your transition where you currently work. If you need to make a role change, it’s generally better to do it at the company where you’re currently employed. Lateral career moves are typically easier than vertical ones. Having a good manager helps here. They will prefer developing your skills in-house over losing you to another company. Manage upward by advising your boss on how they can help get the best out of you as an employee.
- Being technical at a non-tech company is hit or miss. Companies that don’t make money from the technology they build move differently from those that do. They often aren’t on the latest and greatest tech. They may also employ less engineering rigor than tech companies. That gives you less opportunities to use and hone your tech skills.
- Don’t sleep on non-tech companies though. Many non-tech companies are becoming more like tech companies. They may have strong tech products that generate revenue. Figure out how to move into the more technical parts of your organization before trying to jump ship. There are plenty of non-tech companies that have strong technology products. Look for companies in areas like finance (fintech), healthcare, online journalism, and entertainment.
- Trying to move from a non-tech company to a tech company? Try startups first. Going from a non-tech company to a big-tech company is not an easy process. It will depend on the strength of your experience. Startups, however, are usually more willing to take the risk on early talent.
Getting your mind right
Before jumping into some tips around making career moves, it’s important to address mindset. Many transitioning into tech encounter frustration because the journey isn’t what they hoped. You need to have accurate expectations if you’re going to succeed in any transition.
- You are not starting from zero. Think that tech companies only care about technical skills? Think again. You often need a stronger mastery of communication, problem solving ability, and creativity. Focusing on tech skills at the expense of soft skills is a losing strategy.
- You will probably have to work harder than you think. Think about it. You have the dual duty of learning new skills while trying to pay the bills in the job you already have. You are going to need to spend time off work hours and on weekends to get where you need to go. Let the lazy beware — there is going to be toil and sacrifice involved. There are no silver bullets.
- Failing to plan is planning to fail. The hardest part often isn’t going to be the actual learning or doing. It’s the process of planning that tends to be the most difficult. You have to understand where you are, where you need to be, and what’s going to help you get from one to the other. Everyone is going to have an opinion. Most folks are going to claim to be an expert. Finding reliable and trustworthy advice will be tougher than you realize unless you can connect with the right people.
- Your network is still your net worth, even in tech. Tech may look like it’s different from any other industry, but it’s not. Who you know matters. You need to be intentional about building genuine relationships with different types of people. Know people and let them get to know you. The tech world is still a small one.
- Referrals are a cheat code. One fruit of having a strong network is having people who will put in a good word for you with a prospective employer. This is especially important for opening doors at those big tech companies. Don’t lose track of people you’ve worked with. They might end up where you want to go.
- Get comfortable learning in public and showing your work. Tech isn’t concerned with what you know as much as with what you can do. The builders and risk-takers who get things done are the ones who get rewarded. Your education and your corporate title don’t matter much here. It’s all about what you build. That can work in your favor if you are action oriented and are willing to broadcast it. Keep your receipts and focus on measurable, quantifiable outcomes.
- Think months and years, not days and weeks. People quit pursuing tech careers for the same reason they quit the gym. It can take way too long for some people to see results if they are expecting a fast turnaround. The learning curves in tech tend to be pretty steep. It takes time to get results to appear on your resume when you’re building experience. You need tenacity and perseverance if you’re going to be successful.
- You don’t have to spend a lot of money (unless you’re trying to rush). Extending the gym analogy a bit, spending money doesn’t guarantee you’ll be stronger or skinnier. Plenty of people buy expensive treadmills and fancy weights they don’t use. Likewise, if you think that you can easily spend your way into a high-paying tech job, think again. Spending loads of cash on bootcamps and degrees is an easy way to end up frustrated and broke. Prefer to invest more in sweat equity and spend your money wisely
Transitioning from a non-technical role at a non-tech company
So what do you do if you want to transition into tech but don’t have much of a technical background? Let’s walk through some things that you can do to level up.
- Get a job at a tech company. The quickest pathway for you is to figure out how to do the job you’re already doing (or similar), but for a tech company. You become more attractive by sprinkling a little tech into your current skill set. Perhaps learn some basic data analytics. Become a power user of some tech tool you’re already using to do your job. Learn how to master digital content creation and social media as an influencer in your domain of expertise. Put it all on your resume.
- Learn some technical skills. If you don’t want to change companies, up-skill yourself and transition into a tech role. Bootcamps can be helpful for this purpose. Check if your employer offers education reimbursements or free training as a benefit. Some companies condition their assistance on whether it relates to your core role, so your mileage may vary.
- Automate your job tasks. A straightforward way for you to build your tech credentials is by figuring out how to use technology to automate your work. Don’t worry about automating yourself out of a job. That’s kind of the point! Learning how to automate the work you already know how to do is a great way to direct your learning journey. You will be able to focus more on how to apply the tech you’re learning in a useful way.
- Do personal projects & freelancing. Personal projects outside of work can help you to learn technical things at a speed that’s right for you. Explore freelancing to get some early paid experience while also building entrepreneurial muscle. There are plenty of folks and businesses willing to give you a shot on small projects and pay you for the time. Some of them are right in the community where you live. All done, you’ll have professional experience you can throw on your resume.
Now let me caution you against trying to jump from a non-tech position at a non-tech company directly into a tech role at a tech company. The bar is much higher than you think. Your efforts will demand a great deal of time and money. It will be much better for you to focus on one transition at a time. Changing roles and companies at the same time will likely lead to unneeded stress.
Some bootcamps will do their absolute best to sell you on the dream of jumping into tech with a 3-month program costing tens of thousands of dollars. They’ll make it look like it’s easy to learn a little coding and then land your dream six-figure job at a big tech company. Don’t believe the hype.
Transitioning from a non-technical role at a tech company
If you’re in a non-technical role at a tech company, you might feel like you’ve already got it pretty good. However, if you’re interested in snagging more lucrative tech roles, consider these tips:
- Learn on the company’s dime. You probably already have access to the internal learning resources that engineers use to keep their skills sharp. Use them. And don’t forget education reimbursement programs as well. They may be more flexible than they would be at a non-tech company. Also, consider looking into resources available through Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). You might find something that isn’t published company-wide.
- Build your internal network. Again, given that you’re at a tech company, you should have plenty of access to technologists doing the work you want to do. Use your networking skills to connect with people who can give you insight into the job. They’re more likely to be helpful to you as a colleague at the company than they are for someone externally.
- Talk to your manager. Lastly, make your intentions clear to your manager and/or human resources. If you are a good employee with a decent manager, they will ensure that your talents stay with the company. They can help you assemble a plan for finding a potential team willing to invest in your growth and give you a shot.
Keep in mind these recommendations also apply to people who want to transition to a non-technical role.
Transitioning from a technical role at a non-tech company.
If you’re looking to deepen your roots in tech, you probably have the easiest path forward. Making the transition to a tech company is likely the best play for you, but this might be harder than it sounds for two reasons.
For one, some non-tech companies rely on old, outdated tech practices or systems. This makes it harder for you to gain experience on the more marketable and modern tech. Secondly, the rigorous engineering practices used by tech companies aren’t often employed at non-tech companies. Non-tech companies don’t think they need them, or don’t have anyone to teach them any better. That makes it harder for you to translate your experience to a legit tech company.
Here are some tips to help you make the leap:
- Invest in interview prep. Even if you have all the right technical skills to do the job, that doesn’t mean you’re ready for the interview. Tech company interviews tend to be more difficult than at non-tech companies. You may need to learn or review college-level computer science fundamentals. Consider investing in online interview prep resources or coaching services.
- Consider roles that balance technical and non-technical skills. If you lack tech chops, consider roles that balance tech and non-tech responsibilities. Developer relations (DevRel) and developer advocacy jobs fit the bill. Other options include sales engineering, tech consulting, or technical product management. These roles provide opportunities for both your non-tech and tech skills to shine in a tech company environment.
- Automate your job tasks. Task automation is valuable as a technical person because you build for the builders. Developing your own engineering tools gives you the opportunity to grow your skills and hone your abilities.
- Bring more engineering rigor to your organization. Helping your team implement best practices like code reviews, unit testing, and agile methodologies demonstrates the technical leadership tech companies look for. Remember, tech leadership isn’t about titles. It’s about influence and owning solutions.
- Do tech meetups and foster relationships with other technologists. You have to learn to be a networker if you want to make moves in tech. Find opportunities to connect with others or make opportunities yourself. Show up at meetups and use online communities to expand your reach into the kinds of roles you want.
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