High-Tech Careers for Low-Tech Peopleby Bill Schaffer
It's no secret that the high-tech industry is one of the most vital segments of our economy. Now, is it fair that just because you preferred reading Shakespeare in college to studying microprocessors you should miss out on a high-paying job in this industry? Enter William Schaffer, a manager at Sun Microsystems and a self-confessed former technophobe who's convinced that even if you think Wintel is a glass cleaner, there's still hope. In clear, concise language, the author demystifies the industry for the uninitiated, discusses the jobs that are available to those without a background in technology, and details successful strategies for getting hired. Over 100 interviews from industry insiders round out the book, making this one-of-a-kind resource truly indispensable for anyone eager to take advantage of the limitless opportunities in technology.
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Read an Excerpt
CAN YOU HAVE A CAREER
IN HIGH TECH?
* * *
I think it must be one of the best-kept secrets in the country: The high-tech industry, the economic engine that's been driving the American economy, really needs low-tech people like you and me. Oh, I know it doesn't look that way. If you open the paper and take a quick look at the classified ads, as I'm doing right now, you find descriptions for lots of job openings, but they don't seem to have much to do with our backgrounds. For example, here's a quarter-page ad that must have cost the company placing it a bundle. It lists ten categories of jobs, including software engineers with "strong C++ on Windows 95/NT platform, NT internals, COM/DCOM, TCP/IP, Winsock, multithreaded application development, database with ODBC." Another ad seeks "high speed digital communication engineers" to develop "implementation approaches and perform tradeoffs and evaluations of technologies ... perform synthesis of DSP functions and algorithms into gate count, implementation technology and develop size, mass power estimates." And so on.
If you're hoping to make a career change, I can't think of anything more discouraging than turning to the help wanted pages. Yet, consider the educational backgrounds of a few friends of mine who are happily working in the high-tech industry in various places in the United States:
· Fine arts
· Art history
· Fashion design
· Urban planning
· English literature
· French literature
· High school diploma
· Broadcast journalism
I asked a young woman whose undergraduate degree was in English, who is now the director of human resources for a fast-growing start-up, what, if any, skills she had acquired in her undergraduate studies that were directly relevant to high tech. She replied:
I'm surprised to say there are more than I thought. One skill is writing. I end up doing a lot more writing than I ever thought I would have done. Obviously, I do offer letters; I do the job descriptions that get posted; I help managers write performance appraisals; and I've written biographies for our PR guy. I've written letters to our landlord, and I've written a lot of carefully crafted letters regarding employee issues. So the writing skills have been absolutely invaluable.
And communication skills are another asset. We have a sort of joke here. If you're dealing with engineers, you have to grade on a curve for communications skills. Communication is less significant for the technical fields than the nontechnical. My theory is that, as an engineer, your work results are very tangiblethey are either good or they're not. In other fields they're much less tangible, so the [communications] skills you have are much more important.
A young man who is in channels management at a very large computer company observed:
I started the job knowing very little about their products, other than knowing how to use a computer. I didn't understand anything about their distribution strategy or much about their product line. I was clueless, actually. I learned on the job, just picking it up on the fly, making it a point of doing some research every day. I made friends with the product people so I could understand when a product was coming out and what their strategies were.
Another liberal arts graduate who has been in the industry for six years said:
I'm fascinated with the high-tech industry. And if you find this industry fascinating ... that's enough to be in this industry and be successful.
And a woman whose Spanish language skills took her from work as a homemaker to an international high-tech job advised:
Definitely don't be afraid of high tech. It seems to be very daunting at first, when you don't know anything about it.... But if you can use a telephone, you can use a computer. If you can use a tape deck, you can use a computer. I don't think people should categorize themselves as high tech or low tech. We live with technology all around us, and we're all versed in it to some degree.
What kinds of jobs do such people manage to sneak into? How do they pull it off? Are there really career paths for people like them? What happens to them when things turn sour and there's a "downsizing"? Are they really doing important stuff, or are they just peripheral to the main activities of the high-tech company?
If there's one central theme to this book, it is that high tech offers career choices to a very wide spectrum of people, most of whom probably can't imagine that they could qualify for a position in the industry. I don't want to gild the lily too much. To get a job in high tech requires determination, organization, and persistence. If you've been in a different field for many years, the gap you'll have to bridge may be wide, but it can be overcome.
Sometimes everything just seems to fall into place, as it did for Jenny. She's about thirty-five years old, and until 1995 she was a waitress in restaurants in Santa Cruz, California. Here's her story, in her own words:
I have a bachelor of arts in finance and a minor in German. I started waiting on tables after graduation [in 1985] and just kept it up. I waited on tables, and I managed a gas station. At the last job I took a table for a friend of mine, who just did not want to take this last table. I struck up a conversation with this man, and he asked me for a resume. I said, "Yeah, sure," and of course I didn't do anything about it. Then a week later he came back to the restaurant. "Why didn't you send me your resume?" he asked So I did.
This man was with a tiny start-up, and the start-up was looking for people who did HTML for Web pages. HTML was still new at that point.
The day before the interview I got a book called HTML for Dummies and I stayed up all night, the night before I went in. I think the reason he asked me to apply was our reasonably intelligent conversation at the table, and that I tried doing even my menial waitressing job well. I worked hard at what I did.
I don't suggest that you drop what you're doing and rush off to apply for jobs in restaurants on the California coast. Waiting tables is not a sure ticket to high tech, but at the least, this story illustrates that opportunity can appear in many different forms. Jenny changed companies after a year and went with one of the Silicon Valley giants in a job that has her developing corporate presentations and working on the company's huge Web site. I asked her how the money compared to what she made as a waitress. Her reply:
I was doing pretty good waiting tables, but I'm doing a lot better now, making about three times as much.
Arthur has a somewhat different story. He's in his mid-forties and has been in high tech for about a year.
I felt like a fraud at some time or other in half the jobs I've done. I was a teacher for grade school kids. I taught dance lessons. I did theater technical work. The main thing I did was produce children's videos for about five years. I had studied biology and chemistry, and then I jumped around, did photography and all those other things. I found that I can land jobs for which I often don't feel qualified. When I got to [the high-tech company] I realized that nobody knows everything about this stuff. Almost everyone out there is in a similar state. It's like just getting over that feeling that you don't know, being able to deal with that and understanding that you don't need to know everything.
[My decision to try high tech] was motivated by a couple of things. It was financial, and I also felt like I'd missed something. A lot of fellow students went off in the mid-eighties and worked for Apple and some of the other high-tech companies. I thought, oh, well, they're doing corporate videos, and I'm doing educational stuff. Then the educational market died, and I thought, now I'm too old. I felt like I didn't have connections any more.
Then I was hired for a contracting job through someone I knew at Apple. I had an understanding of film and video, but I didn't understand networking very well. I guess it was just my life skills that got me through the job, my ability to talk well to people, to listen to people, and to be present. I did this contracting work less than a year.
Then I received a call from someone I'd met at Apple, and he invited me to apply at [present company]. There was plenty of work and opportunity for growth. I had done a lot of work at the university where everything was so traditional, so limited, with so little money or opportunity. And here was a place where I felt almost anything could happen.
This book is about career choices. It's written for people who want to make a career change and college students or new graduates who are wondering what to do with their lives. Some of you may have been in the workforce for only a couple of years, others for much longer, and still others not at all. However long you've been at it, if you are typical of the many people I've counseled over the last few years, you've started to question the choice or choices you've made up to now. In fact, if you've really given the matter some thought, you may be wondering whether life even really gave you any choices. You have plenty of company. After working for a while, many people start to have doubts and qualms. They start asking themselves how they ended up where they are and whether their daily routine is all they can expect to get out of a working life that can last thirty to forty years or more.
Concerns about money start people thinking, but often that's not it [Illegible] Instead, it's that elusive thing called job satisfaction. Most people I've met would gladly sacrifice some money (not a lot!) if they could only get a job they'd enjoy. How do we get into this sort of rut? Often, we've taken a career path that others "expected" of us. Or we had to start paying back those school loans somehow, so we blindly grabbed the first job that came along. Very often a concern for security (often foisted on us by others) dictated the field we chose to work in. Idealism, too, may have played an important rolethe desire to give something back to society or somehow make a difference in people's lives, rather than just grubbing for money.
Why do people stick with jobs they don't like? Why aren't they even aware of the choices that are out there? These questions have bothered me for years because I see a lot of unhappiness that I happen to think is completely unnecessary.
THE HIGH-TECH INDUSTRY
AS A CHOICE
In my experience, the hardest leap of faith for nontechnical people to make, be they recent college grads or people who have been in the workforce for a few years, is that they really are needed in the high-tech industry. So let's first address this concern.
High-tech companies have some really smart people who design their products, which for the moment we'll classify as either hardware or software. People who design hardware and software are the sorts of people high-tech companies advertise for. You're forgiven if you are one of the many hundreds of thousands of people who've been convinced by such ads that there's no place for them in high tech. Well, there's something you should know. Newspaper ads cost a lot of money. So high-tech companies will only advertise for the positions that are the hardest to fill. Feel bad that you don't qualify for such esoteric positions? Shake that negative feeling off right now. Few companies advertise for the nontechnical positions, but they are there. The truth is that good people are hard to find, even in times of economic downturn. The practice of not advertising for such positions plays squarely into the hands of people like us, who make a plan for getting into high tech and then execute that plan faithfully.
High-tech companies also resort to headhunters and recruiters when they want to find someone for a high-level job. For example, a software company might be looking for a very experienced director of product marketing. During the downsizing craze a few years ago, human resource departments were cut to the bone, and since then they've been kept pretty lean. So companies rely on outsiders to find upper-level managers; the companies just don't have the staff to advertise for and evaluate lots and lots of applicants. And you, looking for a position in high tech, usually can't exercise any influence on such outsiders: They either call you, or they don't.
But if you're after a job from the entry level to just below the top (say, a manager's position just below the director level), you can control a lot as you start your move toward a career in high tech. You'll learn about the job possibilities in chapter 3 and how to get a job in chapter 4.
The jobs you might fill are ones technical people can't do and are often just as important as the technical jobs. The designers and developers think up new technologies and products, but that's all they do. They do not examine the marketplace to determine what the needs are for such products, and a company that keeps making things for which there is no need is obviously doomed to fail. So how do companies determine what the marketplace needs? Well, they send people like you and me to go talk to other people, people in banking, for instance, or in education or transportation, entertainment, or oil drilling, or ... you get the idea. Sometimes technical people are given such assignments, and often such an arrangement doesn't work out. Why? Because what is called for, above all, is skill in communication. And as wonderful as technical people are, they generally aren't blessed with superb communication skills.
If you've reached the stage where you're thinking seriously about a career in high tech, you may find yourself facing some rather powerful psychological hurdles. You'll have to overcome these, and they can be as strong or stronger than the external hurdles. The first hurdle may be a sort of natural inertia that keeps steering you back into the same old rut you've been following for years. Your present work may not be satisfying, but it's what you know. It makes few demands on you, except stamina and a tolerance for boredom. Your job may not pay all that well, but you feel it offers security. It may have little status, but it contributes toward making the world a better place, perhaps by helping less fortunate people. And you may have been contributing for years to a retirement plan that would be at risk should you take the plunge and really swing into action to change careers.
Making a career move can be risky, and many people are quite risk-averse. What if you make the wrong move? What if you wake up a few months or years hence to the realization that the whole thing was an awful mistakeone that it is now too late to rectify?
Of course, you, and only you, are responsible for your life and what you choose to do with it. But to introduce a little perspective into the question of risk, I'd like to point out that job security in every field is far from certain. Teachers get fired. Actuaries get fired. So do salespeople, financial analysts, clerks, telephone linemen, and civil servants. Perhaps all of us should start thinking about alternatives to what we're doing today.
A man I interviewed for this book, who joined high tech at the age of forty-five, said to me:
When I look back, I see so clearly how I gave myself negative statements and how I held myself back. Yet I was still somehow able to get through that and find myself in the high-tech field ... where there is a tremendous amount of opportunity, where you can be rewarded for your tangible skills and your abstract abilities, and rapidly. You don't have to stay stuck. I don't think high tech is for everyone, but my experience with it after just under a year is that it's tremendously exciting.
I have a friend who used to work for a large East Coast architectural firm. He isn't an architect, but was involved in the marketing and sales side, as a writer of many successful proposals for large architectural and urban planning and design projects. He lost his job a few years ago when the economy went downhill, but the firm kept him on as a contractor at pretty much the same pay rate, only without any benefits.
After a year or so, the contract work had dwindled, and so had his income. He was able to get the occasional bit of work with other firms, but soon this, too, dried up. When he could no longer make the payments on his house, he woke up. Too bad he hadn't correctly assessed his situation and devoted some time to planning his next career. He ended up managing a health club.
Another phenomenon that starts people thinking about career alternatives is burnout. This condition can afflict persons in almost any field, from police work to psychology, from nursing to teaching, from investment banking to social work. Who doesn't know someone for whom the daily routine has become so oppressive that he or she is ready for a drastic change in work?
A great motivator for making a career change can be the prospect of making more moneyperhaps a lot more money. Social workers, for example, perform very important functions in our society, and society should honor and reward them accordingly. But it doesn't. It expects them to soldier on at $18,000 to $20,000 per year. At that rate, though, they're often better off than those we entrust with caring for our own children while we, the parents, are attending to our own lives. The turnover in children's day-care centers is over 40 percent each year, which is not surprising considering that salaries in that area are among the lowest tenth for all wage earners. Even when society accords respect to a profession, financial rewards don't necessarily follow. Just look at teachers' or university professors' salaries. Of course, one must really believe oneself worthy of making more money. A lack of self-confidence often keeps people from seriously exploring better-paid career alternatives.
I'm not suggesting that all underpaid social workers and college professors throw over their careers and try to move into the high-tech industry. All I'm suggesting is that they, and you, have choices. I'm suggesting that if you feel burned out or underpaid or undervalued or simply ready for a change, you haul yourself out of your rut and seriously consider making that change.
About a year ago I was on a flight from London to San Francisco. Sitting next to me was a businessman, an American. We introduced ourselves and started to chat. It turned out that we both had sons, and after a while he shared a deep concern with me. His son, whom we'll call Ben, had graduated from a small and not particularly distinguished college. Ben's love was jazz; he played several instruments very well and had organized a band that traveled around California playing gigs. That was what he'd done since graduation. It was a large band, toothirteen players.
The problem was that Ben was now twenty-nine years old, and he had never cleared more than $7,000 or $8,000 a year with his band. The only way he was able to survive was sharing a tiny room with his girlfriend, who also made only a few thousand dollars a year. Ben wanted to make a change, but he couldn't figure out what to do or who would want him. His father said, "I wish I could think of something for him to do."
I'd already given the father my card, so I said, "Well, if he's interested in looking into high tech, tell him to give me a call. The least he'll get out of it will be a free lunch."
To my surprise, Ben did call me a couple of days later. This was a good sign because the motivation to make a career change is the most important element in getting the process underway. When he showed up for the lunch meeting, he had (at my request) brought a resume he'd written some months before. It started out by giving his name and address at the top and then listing every position he'd had in his attempt to survivepositions such as busboy, waiter, and bartender. Every beginning and ending date of employment had been carefully noted. Way down at the bottom of the resume, under "Interests," was his band.
As I listened to Ben, prompting him with questions, I realized that this young man had a number of notable accomplishments. First, organizing the band was his idea. Second, he'd recruited all the musicians. Third, and even more important, he'd managed to keep them all together for several years. Next, he'd organized all the band's engagements, collected the money, booked rooms for the tours, paid all the expenses, did the public relations, and paid everybody their share of the revenues. In short, Ben was a manager. He just didn't know it.
I wasn't sure how successful Ben would be, and frankly, I thought it was a shame that he wanted to get a "real job" because I knew the band could not survive his departure. But he wanted to try a career somewhere, so we worked on his resume. We rearranged it to feature the creation and management of the band, in terms that I thought a hiring manager would relate to. As for the bartending jobs, we disposed of them in a single sentence, to put them into the proper minimal perspective. The strategy was to get him into high tech via a temp agency. I told him how to set up an appointment and asked him to be sure to let me know what happened.
A week later I got a note from Ben's mother (the parents were divorced). She wanted to thank me for working with Ben, who had landed a one-week temp job in a software company. It wasn't the new job that made her so happy; it was that someone had helped her son discover somecertainly not allof his skills and abilities. A week after that I got a call from Ben. He had been shifted from his initial one-week assignment to another company, where he was engaged for three weeks. He wasn't sure where all this was going to leadafter all, he was only doing somewhat menial kinds of workbut he was making more money than he had ever imagined possible. Furthermore, his co-workers were great guys, and he was intrigued by the environment.
A couple of weeks after that, Ben's father called. He told me that the manager in the first company, where Ben had only worked for a week, had called the temp agency and had told them that he had to get Ben back, no matter what. It wasn't just that Ben had done a great job during the week he was there. The manager happened to be a jazz fan and missed talking about it with Ben. Sounds like a great start to a new career.
You never know what may be waiting out there for you, so I encourage you to start exploring for yourself. The president of Sun Microsystems, Scott McNealy, who incidentally does not have a technical background, describes working in high tech in these terms:
You've got to have an intellectual curiosity. You've got to have a desire to make more than just money. You've got to want to improve the standard of living, the tools that we have, because that's what technology does. You're going to need some psychic income because it's hard work, but it's exciting. Sometimes I refer to it as too much chocolate cake.
Ready for some chocolate cake?
Meet the Author
A self-confessed former technophobe, author William Schaffer parlayed a B.A. from Columbia into a job in Silicon Valley, and he hasn't looked back since.
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I strongly recommend this book. I decided to make a career change into the high tech field three months ago, and the first and best thing I did was read Bill Schaffer¿s book. I¿m extremely grateful I did because he saved me time by bringing together information that I was only finding piecemeal spread over several career websites. His listings and descriptions of low-tech jobs available in high-tech companies is priceless as he details job in the computer industry without going over the head of a low-tech like myself. It¿s a book you can easily and quickly reap practical information from without having to read the whole book, which was great for a time-crunched, job-hunter like myself. This book helped me focus my job search into the technical writing field. I am successfully networking and doing informational interviews, just as Bill suggests in his book, and am positive the industry relationships I am building will help me land a job by this spring. I feel like I have a leg up on anyone who hasn¿t read this book.