How to get involved in tech (from a non-traditional background)
Written by: Elaine Cheung
Thank you to Sara Long, Winnie Szeto, Carter Watkinson, Jackie Chen, Rachel Xu, Helen Wang, Faizaan Madhani, Angela Nguyen, and Jenny Chen for helping me come up with ideas and proofreading my blog! I appreciate you all :)
A special mention goes out to Kristine Clarin, Jing Yi Wang, Tailai Wang, and Winny Yang for taking the time to allow me to interview you so that I could share your insights on breaking into tech 💙
I’m a business student.
Unlike traditional pathways (i.e. finance, accounting, human resources, etc) out of business school, I’ve always been fascinated about working in tech.
Despite popular belief, you don’t need to have a degree in tech to break into tech. In fact, I spoke with current organizers and alumni from Hack the North that come from a variety of non-traditional tech backgrounds that have started their tech journey.
With the right determination and planning, here is how you can jump-start your career in tech:
- Finding your why 🕵️
- Leveraging your non-technical background 🚀
- Educating yourself about tech 📚
Finding your why 🕵️
Before diving deep into tech, ask yourself what your why is. Why do you want to break into tech? What are you in it for? What fuels your curiosity? Perhaps someone you look up to in your life works in tech. Perhaps you enjoy problem solving. Perhaps you’d like to build something truly impactful. Take a moment to reflect on what your why is!
One of my whys stemmed from my previous involvement on Startup Laurier: a club at Wilfrid Laurier University that aims to provide students with the necessary tools and opportunities to kickstart their entrepreneurial journey.
I have always been fascinated by the idea of starting my own venture someday, and speaking with entrepreneurs through this role inspired me even more. I listened to their stories about how they leveraged tech for their ventures.
For example, I met Lauren DeSouza, co-founder and CEO of ACE Interview Prep: an AI-based platform that aims to give users the resources to effectively and confidently prepare for an interview. I found it admirable how Lauren was using tech to help a community of people overcome a common issue: interview stress. After hearing her story, I was curious to learn more about tech and its many opportunities to help me build my own startup. This led me to where I am today: an organizer on Hack the North!
Your “why” may be different from others’ — and that’s okay.
Everyone’s why may look different and could change as time progresses. So, I chatted with several Hack the North organizers to hear what their whys are, their experiences in tech thus far, and how their why has changed.
“My aha moment breaking into tech happened progressively. Many of my friends were in engineering or computer science programs at uWaterloo, and it seemed like they were having a lot of fun and enjoying their co-ops. I was always passionate about social media marketing from running a food blog with my best friend, so I wanted to explore marketing opportunities within tech.” — Winny Yang (Marketing Lead, 2021)
“I was first inspired by my brother-in-law, who is a software engineer. My first big introduction to tech was at my high school hackathon, MasseyHacks, in grade 9. Today, my guiding principle to being in tech looks a bit different. My philosophy is, if I’m spending 30–50 years of my life working 40 hours a week, I’d rather be doing something that is useful and improving the quality of life of many people. I’d like to leave the world in a better place than how I found it.” — Tailai Wang (Logistics Lead, 2021)
No matter what it may be, finding out what your motivation is will help guide you along the way and motivate you when you encounter obstacles.
Leveraging your non-technical background 🚀
Even if you don’t have a technical background, you may already be more connected to tech than you know. Existing knowledge and experience is often transferable across many different tech opportunities.
Let’s explore some of these non-tech backgrounds:
Before university, Jing Yi (Sponsorship Director, 2022) had never written a line of code. Instead, her love for math and problem solving throughout high school inspired her to take the leap to pursue computer science. Since computing derives from many mathematical fundamentals, this helped Jing Yi to learn different programming languages. She also finds that understanding key metrics from an organization’s point of view is important when working in a tech-focused organization–which may come easier with a background in math. For example, determining targets for sponsorship raise or figuring out key statistics that companies want to see to evaluate a partnership.
Kristine (Marketing Lead, 2020++) and Winny (Marketing Lead, 2021) both emphasized the importance of being detail-oriented and bringing story-telling into tech. In their roles as Marketing Leads, the two stayed up-to-date with current marketing trends and tailored them to bring to life what Hack the North is today. By doing so, they not only saw increased engagement from our current followers, but reached a larger audience outside of tech as well. This shows that marketing skills, such as understanding how to build relationships and being attentive to relevant opportunities, are transferable across all organizations regardless of how tech-focused they may be.
With a business acumen, you will have a strong understanding of the market and its consumers. This particularly helped Tailai (Logistics Lead, 2022) in his internships and role on Hack the North, especially while speaking to his own team and other stakeholders. He sees the importance of analyzing an opportunity not only from a viability and feasibility standpoint, but from a consumer’s perspective too. Seeing the value a product provides from a consumer’s perspective will allow you to form decisions that address their pain points. This mindset will allow you to bring diversity of thought into an organization.
Don’t automatically discount your current expertise. Instead, use it to your advantage while pivoting into tech.
Educating yourself about tech 📚
Although you may not need a degree in tech or previous tech-based involvement, it’s important to identify the relevant skills currently needed in the industry. This may seem intimidating at first, but it can be very feasible to learn on your own. Think back on the why you identified earlier in this blog to keep you motivated along the way!
To help you get started, here are some resources:
Get byte-sized updates about tech and opportunities in tech through newsletters such as:
- TLDR is a daily newsletter with links and short descriptions of the most interesting stories about startups, tech, and programming.
- Emerging Tech Brew explores the latest in drones, artificial intelligence, robotics, mixed reality, automation, and everything in between.
- TechCrunch is an online magazine reporting on technology opinions, news, and analysis with a focus on high tech and startup companies. You can also sign up for their curated newsletters here!
- Ladder is a weekly newsletter highlighting internship and full-time opportunities at startups, tech companies, nonprofits, consulting/finance firms, and more.
Networking is a great way to learn more about tech and its opportunities. If you have a specific niche in tech or role in mind, you can find individuals on LinkedIn who are currently in these jobs or companies. Reach out to them and ask to set up a coffee chat. From these conversations, you can see what a day or week in their job looks like. People are usually very friendly and are happy to pay-it-forward!
Make sure to also leverage your existing network. See if you have any friends who are familiar with what interests you in tech–talk to them, hear their stories, learn from their mistakes, and share your own goals!
You can also learn about tech by collaborating with other like-minded individuals! Tech communities are great to get you started in your journey as people of various backgrounds and experiences are involved. So, when you share or talk about a problem you have, there will be others who are facing a similar situation or people who have experienced it in the past. Lean on them for support and encourage one another.
Here are some communities we recommend:
- Supports and empowers college, graduate and early career women in tech, through intersectional communities, mentorship, industry experience and educational resources, to become the next generation of engineers and tech leaders.
Women in Computer Science (WICS) at the University of Waterloo
- Dedicated to promoting gender equity in computing by advocating for and supporting women, trans, gender-fluid, gender-queer, and non-binary students enrolled in computer science and related computing programs at the University of Waterloo.
- An organization that aims to activate, connect, and mobilize the largest racial equity community in tech to break down structural barriers for the Black and Latine communities in the innovation economy. Offers programming specifically geared towards racial equity and inclusion in the tech sector, such as the Early Career Accelerator Program (ECAP) and Fellows Program.
- One of our Hack the North alums, Kouthar Waled, started a Slack community for Black people in tech — click the link to join!
- A charitable organization that runs regular free programming workshops for minority groups in tech.
You can also check out our full list of community resources here!
Tech personalities 🤳
- Mitchie Nguyen is a product marketing manager for VR hardware at Meta. She studied Sociology and Media Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. You might’ve seen one of her TikToks sharing her journey into tech from a non-technical background!
- Mayuko Inoue is a content creator and ex-software engineer based in San Diego who creates youtube videos about software engineering, tech career advice, and lifestyle. With over 350,000 subscribers on her Youtube channel, her content aims to help people find their way through the tech industry. She touches on topics such as resume building, imposter syndrome, and how recruiting works in the tech industry.
- Bukola Ayodele is a software engineer based in New York. She has over 290,000 subscribers on her Youtube channel, and films content such as work week vlog diaries and interviews with developers for a behind-the-scenes view of what working at a FAANG company is actually like! She also filmed a two-part video series (part 1 and part 2) discussing in-demand tech roles that don’t require programming skills.
Hackathons are a great way to spark your interest and to learn about different technologies. There are different hackathons around the world that focus on different topics, ranging from more general hackathons, to events focused on artificial intelligence, blockchain technology, and more. Try to find a hackathon that caters to your interests and the skills you want to develop.
A great place to start is at Hack the North, where we strive to foster an environment that encourages the growth and development of students of all levels of experience. You can block aside 36 hours to design, develop, and implement your own project. Additionally, you can learn from mentors and workshop leads, network with company representatives, and pitch your project to industry professionals!
That’s a wrap! ✨ Thank you so much for reading until the end. I hope this helps anyone who is looking to explore opportunities in tech, or just needs the boost of encouragement to get started.
“It’s never too late to take the leap.” — Winny Yang (Marketing Lead, 2021)
We’re back in person! Come spark your passion from September 16–18, 2022 as a hacker, workshop lead, mentor, or volunteer. Apply now at www.hackthenorth.com! ⚙️