5 career lessons for people starting out in the tech industry
We recently invited tech interns from around Seattle to come and join us at Qualtrics for our Women in Tech event. It was fun to share my experiences with interns from Qualtrics, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and many more of the city’s tech giants.
It’s an exciting time being an intern, but it can feel overwhelming as you look to turn an internship into a career.
I’ve had the opportunity to watch many young graduates go on to build successful careers in the industry and it was rewarding to be able to share some of the lessons I’ve learned with the group in our Seattle office.
Here are some of my top tips for those looking to build a career in the tech industry:
1. DON’T WAIT FOR YOUR OPPORTUNITY
If you don’t know something, learn it. If someone says ‘no’, look for another opportunity. If a door closes, find another one. Use grit and perseverance to get what you want.
Not all career paths are the same. Take mine for example— I always wanted to build a career in tech. I wrote in my high school yearbook that I wanted to get a master’s degree in Computer Science and work at a “computer” company. I’d never even touched a computer at that point! I was just excited by the idea of using your creativity to make things.
When I attended college, a Computer Sciences degree was the most obvious route for me. However, I learned the computer labs were only open to undergrads at night. This created a serious problem for me because I worked full-time waitressing in the evenings to pay my way through college. Sadly, I simply couldn’t take the classes I needed for a Computer Science degree because I couldn’t get access to the computer labs. So I graduated with a degree in Business Administration instead. But that didn’t kill my dream— it just meant I needed to find a different route to my goal.
I knew I needed to hone my skills and get some experience in the tech industry. I looked for an opportunity in customer support because I had plenty of customer service experience from waitressing. I applied to many large tech companies but was continually rejected until I found one desktop publishing software company who was willing to take a chance. I was able to get industry experience there, but I still needed to get the correct education and qualifications to have the impact I wanted to have in a technology company. While working in support, I enrolled at Seattle University and graduated with a Masters degree in Software Engineering. After that, companies came knocking at MY door!
The tech sector is more competitive than ever, so waiting for an opportunity to fall into your lap is unlikely to prove successful. If you know what you want to do, set your goal and do whatever it takes to get the experience and qualifications you need to have them come knocking on your door (it can help to knock on theirs occasionally too!).
2. NEVER STOP LEARNING – LOOK FOR MENTORS EVERYWHERE
Even the most experienced people still have a lot to learn. Wherever I go, I have unofficial mentors all around me. I look to learn as much as I can from the diverse people I interact with. The more people and types of people you interact with, the more you can learn.
Find as many mentors as you can. Asking for help on a problem is one thing, but in my experience, the most valuable mentors are those who observe you in your natural habitat. If they can’t observe you, they are limited to your side of the story. If they see the bigger picture, they can provide better insights into opportunities and challenges. A senior person in your organization — who you respect but is not in your managerial chain, can be the most effective mentor.
3. BE CURIOUS AND KNOW THAT GOOD IDEAS CAN COME FROM ANYWHERE
Be curious about different products and about different behaviors people exhibit. Always be open to the unexpected – whether you are reading something or going into a meeting, people will have ideas that never occurred to you that can dramatically improve what you are working on.
I always recommend that people try new products whenever possible and I constantly do the same. I have an Android phone and an iPhone to stay up-to-date on the UX of both operating systems. I often look for and purchase kickstarter products. They are a great source of innovation and it is fun to try them out and see what they’re like and the problems they can solve. I use the same strategy for new apps and all sorts of new kinds of services. It’s all about being curious and staying on top of new tech developments — across industries.
A big part of learning is to stay open, not shut down ideas or thoughts and always encourage exploration. Technology and the way people use it is constantly evolving. Happily, I have a natural desire to wonder “why?” and my questions often stem from noticing a connection between unrelated things. For example, I was trying a new personal emoji maker and that sparked a design idea for our dashboards that I want to explore.
4. UNDERSTAND WHAT’S HOLDING YOU BACK
One thing that held me back when I first started my career was I had the tendency to hide in the crowd and at times it could be difficult to get my ideas in front of the right people. I knew I had good ideas, I just lacked the confidence in communicating them. Being aware of why you keep ideas to yourself and working to find your voice is as important as having the ideas in the first place.
I decided to take an improv class at Bellevue College to overcome what was holding me back. It was intimidating and scary but I knew it would help me be more quick on my feet and confident in pitching ideas. And it worked!
It’s important to understand what’s holding you back and take steps to address it. Also realize you’re not going to be able to get it all done, so do what’s right for you. It’s important to stop for a moment and assess whether or not you should be doing something. If it’s the right thing for you to do then do it. If not, let someone else do it. Not every opportunity is the right opportunity.
A mentor can be a really useful observer in these cases to help identify what might be holding you back or what you should be focusing on. Almost anything can be overcome if you are open to feedback, take the right steps and put the right processes in place to address it and improve.
5. KNOW WHAT MAKES YOU UNIQUE AND DON’T TRY TO BE SOMETHING YOU’RE NOT
No one has the exact same set of experiences and understanding that you do. That’s why you are a valuable asset to your company.
Someone once gave me a good piece of advice that I now give people today: “Sugar cookie, be yourself. Don’t try be a Christmas cookie this time and a Valentine cookie the next, just be proud of who you are.” You might get asked to talk about something that others will think sounds great and promotes their agenda, but isn’t 100% true to you. I learned the hard way that I won’t do a good job pretending, so I focus on my perspective, stay authentic and do the topic justice in my own way so that it is still well received.
When looking for your first role in the industry, it’s important to realize that you are unique and have good perspectives that others don’t which will add to the company’s value. Ask yourself:
- What are you good at?
- Where can you make an impact?
- Who will you be working with?
It’s all a part of finding your fit. The work a company does will often change, but there are two constants through it all – the people and the values the company is founded on. So figure out the right fit for you and, once you have, make it known – employers are more likely to offer the job to someone who has researched the ins and outs of a company and knows and can express why they want to be there.