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Advice / Career Paths / Career Change

How I Became a Startup COO Without a Traditional Tech Background

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My life passions include helping people heal from trauma and “dancing it out.” My resume shows that I studied human services, religion, and sexuality in college and graduate school. I have worked as a chaplain, a sex educator, and a public health navigator.

Though I’ve done a lot, I have no tech experience. Which is why you might not have guessed that I currently work at a startup and talk about “enhancing user experience” all day long. (Did you know that’s what UX stood for? Because I didn’t.)

Fresh out of a Masters of Divinity program, I was pleasantly surprised when I was approached by a founder to join her fledgling sex ed startup. She asked me to help her build a community of badass educators for the platform. I wasn’t sure how my previous experiences would come together, but I had an interest in tech and this door seemed like a good one to walk through.

Eight months later, I find fulfillment in my role as the COO of that startup, We’re building a platform to bring shame-free, pleasure education to the world, which clearly aligns with my lifelong passions. (Note: If you're reading this article at work, just know that not all companies would be supportive of you viewing our site from your desk.)

Looking back, there are three things I’d share with anyone who doesn’t have a traditional background and is thinking about a job in tech:

1. Know Your Value

It’s not true that you have to be an engineer to add value at a startup. (Seriously, here are at least seven kinds of startup jobs that don’t require any coding skills.)

Non-tech employees can actually become the company’s secret weapon. After all, we non-techies don’t just live in a silo apart from the “technical side” of the business. We bring a different perspective to the team that can significantly impact the product.

For example, startup founders love to talk about “human-centered design,” a process in which you ask and imagine how your product will affect users in every way. My background work in human services made me an expert in this way of thinking without even knowing the term.

In one instance, I explained that that our user probably feels abandoned when we take part of the platform offline without warning or anything in its place. It’s more to them than fixing a bug. Despite not having the “right” background, I was able to weigh in on the conversation.

So, don’t hold yourself back because you don’t have a traditional tech background. Instead, focus on what you can add. Which brings me to…

2. Discuss Your Transferable Skills

When looking to break into the tech industry, you don’t always have to get more education or do something different to prepare for your new job. You just have to translate your existing skills into language that resonates with a startup founder.

First, you want to learn all you can about the role, and next you want to explain how your previous experience relates. (If you need more of a primer, this’ll walk you through transferable and additive skills.) For example, if a marketing role includes quantitative analysis, you can emphasize metrics-related accomplishments in your resume bullets.

When I was making the change, I reframed my chaplaincy skills of advocating for patients to explain how I could be an effective user advocate. I also pointed to my experiences recruiting and coordinating volunteers at a public health nonprofit as evidence that I would be great at talent acquisition.

If you’re unsure where to start, set up an informational interview with someone working in the industry, and ask the kinds of skills that would be particularly valuable for someone in the role you’re applying for.

3. Pick Work You’re Passionate About

As exciting as it is, switching industries involves a learning curve. I had to learn about everything from developing a sound business model to “net promoter scores” (basically, product ratings).

Adapting to not being the “expert” anymore was a challenge, and I slowly learned to value progress over perfection. But for me, working at a company focusing on issues I was already passionate about (pleasure education for gender-diverse folks), made the transition more smooth and let me feel as though I had expertise to share with the team right off the bat.

That’s why I recommend that the first company or job you go after when switching into the tech industry should be dealing with something you already care about or at least have some familiarity with.

If you’re not coming from a mission-driven background or haven’t found a cause you’re passionate about yet, this might look like focusing on a skill you’ve already honed. If you have a fundraising background, you would probably be good at business development in the private sector. If you have a background as a counselor, you have a lot of potential to be a successful HR manager, and so on.

Transitioning from more of a social work background into tech has been both very challenging and extremely rewarding. Working at a company using capitalism for social good has been inspiring and opened me up to new possibilities of how to make change in the world.

It has also literally changed the way I work. I am now more comfortable embracing creativity as a necessary skill, and one that can be developed over time.

If you’re excited by the prospect of making a career change to tech, remember that, while there’s always risk with breaking into something new, the opportunity for personal growth—and to discover a job you love—is high.