Standing out, especially in the tech industry, can be tough. You’re competing with people with similar skillsets, so setting yourself apart can be difficult. Went to a good school? Check. Attended a coding camp? Awesome. You can beat the Oregon Trail in less than 10 minutes? Join the club.
OK, that last one probably isn’t as relevant as say, building an app, but you get the idea. Whether you’ve recently graduated with a computer science degree, or you’re a 20-year veteran of the tech industry trying to advance, how do you make your skills, both technical and soft, stick out?
We spoke with three Asana employees at different stages of their careers for their best advice on setting yourself apart and growing your career in tech.
Find a Mentor
Finding a mentor is one of the most important things you can do in any stage of your career. If you want to work at a high level, technically speaking, then your work has to pass muster. And there’s no better way to find out if you're a strong performer than to get honest feedback.
“If you don’t have direct opportunities at work, try to create those opportunities and find mentors who will actually review your code and dig deep,” says Scott Carleton, Site Lead at Asana's New York City office. Make the effort to join online tech forums, search your LinkedIn network, and reach out to people in your social circle.
“If you reach out to one person in engineering,” says Scott Lee, Head of Technical Recruiting at Asana, “they might not get back to you. If you reach out to 20, I wouldn’t be shocked if at least a few got back to you.”
And make sure that you’re getting unfiltered, honest feedback on your work. “If you just say 'I built this,' people will say, 'Oh cool, congratulations,'” explains Scott C. “You built something, but that’s measuring yourself at a low level. You want to be measured at the aspirational level.”
But mentors don’t just grow on office trees. Start to build your professional network with people you can gain valuable insight from and who will provide candid and sincere criticism.
Build Technical Skills
There’s something to be said for beefing up your skills and furthering your education, whether through coding challenges or classes, particularly if you’re trying to make a pivot in your career. It also has the added benefit of saying to your employer that you’re serious about making a change and you want to grow.
Plus, there are tons of ways to build new skills. Check with HR to find out whether your employer offers or pays for continuing education classes. Contact your alma mater to see if they hold conferences or classes you can attend. And don’t forget the good old internet. Many tech classes are offered for free online.
“It’s up to you to deliver on that,” says Scott L. If you put work into expanding your skillset, your employer should take notice. "If it doesn’t work out, now you have the skills and ammunition to go to a recruiter,” says Scott L.
A movie isn’t made by just one director, there are writers, actors, and crew galore. Similar to any tech product, there’s a whole team working in perfect harmony to deliver the goods. And in order to do that, you have to be able to communicate and work closely with a team.
“We tend to think of engineering as a solo endeavor,” says Scott C., “the lone, brilliant coder or the TEDx engineer, but in reality, that’s not how things get done in a sustainable win-win manner.”
Collaboration and communication have a compounding effect on an individual's growth. If you can show an aptitude for that, the sky’s the limit.
“Don’t be shy,” says Megan Daly, Product Engineer at Asana. “Your job is going to entail a lot of communication. Even with software engineering, you can build a smart tool, but if it doesn't meet the needs of the people using it, or you’re not on the same page as the people who are helping you build it, it’s not going to be worthwhile. Communication is essential as a software engineer. It’s the strongest skill you have. Yes, you have to have tech skills and know how to write good code, but if you’re writing code that’s wrong, that’s not helpful.”
“Don’t sit in the corner of the office,” she adds. “Talk to people who work on other teams and learn what they do. The more knowledge you have of the organization, the more flexible you’ll be and the more you’ll understand how your work fits into other people’s work.”
You can teach technical aptitude, but soft skills are another story entirely.
“It’s much harder to get feedback on your soft skills,” says Scott C. “If I’m prepping for an interview, I will film myself on my computer working on hard problems. When I watch it, I can see how I explain what I’m doing, or how I’m approaching the problem, and whether I need to work on communicating those things better.”
And that’s something you should be doing as a recent graduate or an industry veteran. How do you look when you’re prioritizing things? How do you sound? Even if you set the bar pretty high for yourself and can really critique your skills, don’t hesitate to show a colleague and get their advice.
“For tech interviews, you should always practice,” says Megan. “If you’re thinking about going on interviews, don’t jump into it without studying data structures or algorithms. It’s hard to use data structures and walk through algorithms on your own, but it’s harder to do when you’re away from a computer and trying to explain what you’re doing to another person,” she adds. “Get a friend to ask you interview questions and whiteboard stuff with them. The first time you do it, it’s hard, but you’ll get better at it.”
Even with interview practice and finding a mentor, it’s critical to know who you are and what you want. It’s not about posturing or talking up skills you might be lacking. “Do some soul searching,” says Scott C. “Answer the questions, what do I most enjoy doing and where do I get the most energy in my work?”
“If you can answer those questions directly and be really authentic about what you’re looking for,” he adds, “as a hiring manager, it’s a much easier decision.”
So while it might be difficult to stand out in the tech space, it’s not impossible. Follow this advice, and you’ll be well on your way to be differentiating yourself in no time.