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How to break into tech, whether you’re a coder or not

How to find the right role, impress the recruiter, and ace the interview.

Tech continues to be an in-demand industry, but how do you get one of the coveted spots? Tech and digital culture reporter Jules Terpak hosted a Handshake event with recruiters from Google, Hubspot, and Handshake, as well as a recent grad heading into a product marketing role at Google. Here is their advice for current students, recent grads, career changers, and job seekers with both technical and non-technical backgrounds.

Our experts:

  • Jules Kochis, Campus Recruiter, Google
  • Alyssa Cole, Emerging Talent Recruiter, Hubspot
  • Megan Malcolm, Early Career Recruiter, Handshake
  • Lillian Zhang, Incoming Associate PMM at Google

The first question everyone has is about finding the right fit. What are some of the most flexible entry level positions?

Jules: My campus recruitment team recruits software engineers, technical program managers, user experience designers, associate product managers, and data center technicians. Most of our entry-level software engineering roles are full-stack, meaning you don’t specialize in front-end, back-end, or other types of engineering until you’ve had time to develop your skills and can decide which direction to pursue.

Alyssa: The business development rep (BDR) position is a role that can help you transition into other sales roles, or beyond. The Inbound Success Coach role is a blend of sales and support. Hubspot offers MBA internships as well as an MBA accelerator. (You can read more about entry-level roles at Hubspot here).

Lillian, you’re going to be starting as a product marketing manager. How did you know that this was the role you wanted at Google, and what resources helped you apply?

Lillian: I did a lot of extracurriculars at college, and realized marketing was something I wanted to pursue as a career. I joined several marketing consulting clubs. I grew up in the Bay Area, so I was always interested in tech. This role was the right fit that allowed me to combine those interests.

Beyond chosen major and coursework, what can applicants do to stand out?

Alyssa: For both technical and non-technical roles, personal projects count for a lot. It can be in or out of school, volunteer work, internships, anything that shows hands-on experience.

Jules: Being deeply involved in 1-2 projects or organizations looks better than having 10 extracurriculars. We want to see you thinking about what expertise you want to excel in, and how you can demonstrate impact.

Lillian: I think it helped that I joined and held leadership roles in marketing consulting clubs in college. On my resume, I also talked about my small business selling handmade crafts—that came up a lot in interviews. Also I had 2 internships, in a tech startup and a small consulting firm. They weren't big name brands, but they showed working experience.

If you don’t have exact experience, but want to get into tech, how can you show proof of transferable skills?

Megan: In my personal experience, I had to prove my skills on the job. I took a part-time role as office manager, which was open to people with very different backgrounds. Then, I got into operations and recruiting.

But I want to remind you: you know what you’ve done, so take the guesswork out of it for recruiters. Make sure all that info is seen: your portfolio, writing samples, Github. And if you have the chance, try to get an internship. Keep an open mind about where you can get experience. I interned at a carpet factory and I learned more there than I ever did in school!

Are there any universal qualifications needed for a tech company?

Alyssa: We are always looking for soft skills like strong communication, being a team player, taking initiative, and willingness to learn.

Jules: A great rule of thumb is, don’t just focus on the company or role, but on skills. Companies may call the same position different things, so read the minimum requirements carefully and see if you need to fill the gap with a class or a project. Most companies know that major and GPA don’t tell the full story.

Biggest tip to get past the initial screening?

Alyssa: At Hubspot, we still go through resumes manually. Give the recruiter a clear look at your qualifications: make sure the minimum requirements are there up front. Recruiters don’t have a lot of time, so make it easy for them to see you’re qualified.

Megan: I like cover letters! Keep it short and sweet (2-3 paragraphs), but a personal anecdote really can show your personality and show why you’re excited to apply for the job.

Interviews: what's the best way to prep to impress the recruiter?

Megan: Before the interview, prep: read key words in the job description, anticipate the questions, and do basic research on the person who will be interviewing you.

During the interview, ask specific questions that show you’ve done careful research. For example, “Hey Megan, how long have you worked here?” is not a good question, because it’s so easy to find out. It’s much better to ask, “I see you’ve worked at Handshake for 1.5 years, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen?” Keep answers to 2-3 mins, max, and be sure to ask for clarification if you don’t understand the question.

After the interview, write a thank you note (and send it within 24 hours)! Very few people take the time to do this. Try to mention something specific you learned or are excited about. If you forgot to mention something in the interview, put it into the thank you note.

Alyssa: We love to see personality. We love to hear your questions. We have a Youtube video about how to best prepare for our coding test.

Jules: I prep 4-5 solid examples of work I'm proud of. That way, no matter what the behavioral question is (how I give feedback, how I work on a team, etc), I can draw from these examples of my achievements and control the narrative.

For technical interviews, remember that they are about seeing how you think. So explain what you’re thinking and narrate your problem-solving, even if you’re stuck.

Lillian: I created Google docs for every company I interviewed with, with insights and notes. I made a behavioral questions doc, with the top 20 questions and my potential answers. I watched a lot of YouTube videos on prepping for product marketing interviews, and read case interview questions online. It also helped to talk to alumni and upperclassmen about their interview experiences.

You land the internship or you get the job. How do you stand out and advance once you’re employed?

Alyssa: Showing that you're ready to learn, and asking questions, and being open to feedback.

Megan: Don’t hope you’ll just get noticed. Keep a running list of your achievements. Share that with your boss at 1-on-1s. Be aware of how your work impacts the company - not just what you did, but how it helps the company’s goals.

Also, advocate for yourself, and express interest in what you want to do—don’t assume people will know. And lean into what scares you.

Jules: Humility and knowing how to celebrate your work are not mutually exclusive. Take on projects that ideally tie into your future direction and help you gain the skills you want to learn. Seeking out feedback can help you get a mentor, which will also help you level up.

Words of encouragement for your search

Megan: I want to normalize that there’s no one pathway to where you want to go. Some of you will hop on the train and go straight to upper leadership or start your own company. Some will take the scenic route like I did. That journey is yours and yours alone. Open yourself up to the unexpected—you’ll be surprised by who you meet and what you learn.

Jules: “Grow where you’re planted.” A career can be like a hockey stick: it might seem flat, but you just don’t know when it’ll take off. Seek out projects and people that make you feel motivated, and excited, no matter where that leads.

Image courtesy of Proxyclick Visitor Management System via Unsplash

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