Succeeding in a Technology Career as a Liberal Arts Outsider
Breaking into a technology Profession with a degree in Latin American studies.
We like to pretend that we want something new and different, but when it comes down to it, society values “sameness.”
After eight years in the analytics industry, I’ve learned that being the same is more valuable than being different. Technology jobs are a club where only the credentialed look-a-likes get an invite.
Despite this, I was able to navigate a technology career in a coveted field, with zero academic credentials to my name outside of a few Coursera certifications and a couple of college courses.
All Over The Place
During college, I spent exactly zero time or effort to find a career in my field of study. I only had one goal — get a degree as fast as possible. I changed majors exactly once and graduated in about 3.5 years (August 2009 to April 2012). During that time I had several jobs with no focus. I worked for the Office of Information Technology and was an Assistant Events Manager for BYU Athletics. I also did game management and event marketing for the BYU Men’s soccer team. All this amounted to exactly one job prospect, an internship with a Digital Advertising Shop in San Francisco.
The internship led to my first job — an Assistant Media Planner at Optimedia, an agency of the Publicis Groupe. You might be thinking — this seems like a great start — the problem was, I hated that job. Commuting 1.5 hours each way from Puyallup, WA to North Seattle was soul-crushing. In the haste for change, I immediately trashed a potential career in Digital Marketing and went “back to my roots.” I sent out applications to several International Relations programs and was accepted to Denver University. Within twelve months of starting a marketing career, I quit and moved to Colorado.
I thought International Relations would by my calling — a job as a CIA analyst, or an FBI agent changing the world or defending it from terrorism. The problem was, no agency was hiring at the time (this was circa 2014–15). There were no internships I was willing or was able to get at Washington D.C. Thinktanks or in the government. To get the college credit to finish my degree, I “interned” at my parents Assisted Living corporation both summers doing office work. The DU administration office almost didn’t accept as it was unrelated to my degree but signed off anyway cause it was tough to get an internship at all.
In year two of my Masters — I recognized that I had to get a job, and prospects for an international career were looking thin. While working on publishing my Masters Thesis, From Colorado to Uruguay: Marijuana Legalization in Comparative Perspective, (yes, I really wrote that) I came upon an HBR article entitled, Data Scientist: The Sexiest Job of The 21st Century and thought to myself — “those types of jobs will probably have high demand.” Serendipity had it that a) my program had a 4-course statistics requirement and b) as a member of a Masters Program at DU, we were permitted to take courses from the business school to fulfill credit requirements. A year earlier, the DU MBA school had introduced a Business Analytics suite of courses — so I signed up for all of them.
A year later, I accepted a job as an Associate Consultant with a firm called Clarity Insights (now, Accenture AI).
If you can’t already tell, at the point of getting hired — my background was all over the place. I had no real specialization whatsoever — but I was taken on anyway by a Chicago consulting firm.
How was I able to get hired into a well-paying technology career with the most disorganized background imaginable? I followed the demand and crafted a unique story.
Follow the Demand
In 2015, the simple choice to take a few business analytics was enough. Analytics and data were not my passion — I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. But I recognized that people with PhDs were and still are the #1 least in-demand for jobs. The demand for people with data skills was so high between 2012 to 2017 that Clarity was hiring people without any STEM background required. Within 6 months from starting at Clarity, I was working on predictive models at a multi-billion dollar bank (talk about imposter syndrome). This has nothing to do with going to the right school or getting the right degree — it was a simple matter of figuring out: who’s hiring?
Was there some luck and serendipity in the process? Yes. But luck was able to strike because I followed the demand.
A few years later when I was interviewing for Data Science positions, the level of demand had weaned off. Despite working on big projects that proved that I could do the job and provide value, I was shrugged off in interview after interview. What was the common theme? Everyone I talked to was way different than me — they all had PhDs and Masters degrees in Applied Math, Science, or Physics. Many were incredulous that I had even been invited to interview — I wasn’t part of their club, so how could I succeed?
My resume was getting me into a lot of doors by recruiters, but I was immediately turned away when interviewers realized I wasn’t like them. So like in school when I figured out that PhDs weren’t getting hired, I pivoted my skillset. I thought about the most pressing problems I had faced in my career that I didn’t know how to solve. I realized it wasn’t machine learning, it was the integration of siloed or hard-to-get datasets from APIs and the web. I knew there was a demand for the skill of being able to get data and integrate it, so I changed directions and succeeded.
Craft Your Story
Following the demand would not have been enough to succeed without the ability to sell my background to skeptics. An International Studies major trying to get a job as an analytics consultant doesn’t really fit — but an International Studies major with a background in marketing data analysis, a clear understanding of statistics, and experience working with large brands is different. My first Tech employer bought the second story, they would not have bought the first.
I’ve adjusted and re-adjusted my unique story and background to every interview I’ve ever done and every job that I’ve ever landed. The advantage of being a generalist (Liberal Arts to Tech) is that you have more experiences to pull from to craft a narrative that fits the job that you want. I’ve made the mistake of trying to hide my background and focus on only what I thought was super relevant. That will only hurt you — the more diverse your background is the more you need to highlight why your unique story makes you the best and most interesting candidate for the job. A question I always ask myself when preparing for interviews is: “How does my unique set of experiences make me a uniquely qualified candidate for this position?” In the process of writing down the answer to this question, I’ve discovered that a compelling narrative almost always develops. When that narrative was compelling to both me and the hiring manager, I got hired.
Finding a Different Path
Navigating a world that values sameness was challenging, but I was able to find success by following the demand and crafting a unique story for the jobs that I wanted.
After eight years in analytics, one of my new goals is to help outsiders succeed in places they’re not supposed to. And, to convince insiders to think differently.
I’m posting my thoughts about this on Twitter, where you can follow me to read more.