The Accidental Tech Career…or what I learned to do with a liberal arts degree

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before...”Well, I never really thought I’d work in tech — I fell into a technology career by accident, really…”

Uh huh. When I hear that (and more importantly, when hear myself saying that), I can’t shake the vision of someone falling into an open manhole on a side street in a Silicon Valley city.

“I was just walking along University Avenue on my way to Peet’s, just minding my own business  and – boom!!  I fell in…and now I’m in a tech career! I have NO idea how it all happened!!”

But back to my story. I didn’t exactly fall into a high-tech manhole and I didn’t really end up in my current career by accident. Unless you define “accident” as…

  • attending a Bay Area university  where many, many, many of the graduates go on to high tech careers (HINT: it’s the college that doesn’t have that dirty golden bear as a mascot)
  • deciding that my BA at said university in International Relations with a focus on Eastern European history and politics was NOT going to pay my Bay Area rent; AND
  • living in a house in Palo Alto after graduation with two roommates who were employed by Oracle and who talked about their workdays as if every day at the office was something iike Disneyland-meets-Vegas-but with geeks and free feminine products in the bathrooms (okay, this was Oracle in the 1990s).

FLASHBACK [insert woo-woo sound effect here]

I remember with fondness and only mild stomach churning the day I told my chemical engineer father that I was going to major in International Relations AND  that I was learning that oh-so-practical and widely-used language, Polish, so I could spend my tuition and time documenting the 1980s Solidarity revolution’s impact on the post-Berlin Wall generation (you can stop dozing now).  After what seemed like a ridiculously long and very uncomfortable silence, my dad cleared his throat over the long-distance line from Wisconsin and said, “Oh, so that major is going to help you get into law school, right?”

“Uh, sure, Dad. It’s a great pre-law major. ” (It’s not like I wanted or needed to go into details for him at that point about the two summers I spent clerking for an attorney, which essentially drove me to realize that while I loved the law, my affections did not extend to the actual lawyers.)

And, let’s be honest about why I didn’t level with Dad:  I needed the beer book money.

FLASHFORWARD [insert more woo-woo sound effects here]

It’s about a year after graduation. Many of my friends and classmates have taken jobs in the high tech industry, as the Valley was starting the frenzied ramp-up to what was to be later called rather derisively, “The Dot-Com Bubble.” I was fascinated and even a little envious – as my friends racked up stock options and free snacks at work, I was careening through unsatisfying attempts at a career in what someone cleverly called “boutique” management consulting. (Any one out there remember Business Process Re-engineering for Healthcare? Don’t bother Googling it – it’s better left as a relic of the 1990s, like the Clinton administration or scrunchies.)

But the doors to the magical kingdom that was Silicon Valley seemed closed to me, a liberal arts major with the ability to drop in random Polish words into 50-page papers on post-WWII Eastern Europe. And then one of my roommates explained to me that there was even room in tech for those of us who weren’t gifted programmers. There was this profession called Technical Writing, and it required people who had an ability to both write and communicate with other people.

And I got so excited – I could write (even without weird Polish terminology) AND I could communicate with other people. (My mom told me i was good at that.)

Technical Writing. It sounded so…technical. And writing-y.

I knew I could make this tech writing thing work even though I had no idea how on earth I would get a job doing it.

But serendipity was on my side. I managed to find a technical writing manager at a startup company who wanted to hire young liberal arts majors who could write and who had a lot of enthusiasm but hadn’t been tainted by what she called “Big company bad writing habits.” Whatever that meant. I was in – I had my Golden Ticket and I was now part of the official Tech culture, and at a startup even.

I had no idea what a ride I’d signed up for..the subsequent years were filled with stock options and snacks (yay!), and layoffs, market crashes, re-orgs, and acquisitions (not yay). All within the first 3 years of my career.

I also had fantastic mentors and managers who encouraged me to branch out from my original focus area of technical writing into the field of user interface design and user experience. See, after about 4 months of working as a technical writer, I learned that about 75% of the work I was doing was documenting systems that weren’t designed intuitively. My job was to explain to normal people how to get their work done using software and web sites that perhaps could have been made a leetle beet easier to use if there was more focus on how normal people would use it before it was coded.

It turned out there was a entire field already in existence: usability, human factors, user interface design, user experience. The dot-com boom just brought it to the fore faster as more and more people starting using the internet and Web to do all sorts of things. There was a need to design “stuff” right from the beginning, rather than expecting a user to read a manual first.

And so, long accidental story short:  Turns out after all that, I actually had a knack for designing digital products so that normal people could use them successfully. I honed my skills in the field, went back to school to learn even more, and ultimately started my own consulting agency, and have spent a number of years helping many other Silicon Valley companies design really great products that people can use.

And now I’m also working on my own products as a tech entrepreneur…but more on that another day. And I swear I won’t even try to tell you that it’s by accident…

A Stroke of Luck with Big Data

I’ve been a data-driven marketer since the days it was known as market research. For any of you that may be one of my lucky 83 followers on Twitter, that first line may sound familiar. With a medium that allows me more than 140 characters, I thought I’d elaborate on my history with data a bit.

I elected for the safe route in undergrad (Go Tribe!) and decided to do a business major after a failed attempt at computer science. I took all of the basic required courses: accounting, finance and—let’s not forget about one of the most useful courses I’ve ever taken—one completely focused on proficiency in the Microsoft Office Suite. Believe it or not, the learnings from that course have done me quite well.

Of those required courses, two immediately clicked for me: Business Statistics (shout out to Professor O’Connell!) and Marketing 101. Statistics just made sense— the way data could tell a story; the concept that you could find relationships and make predictions just from a set of numbers; that by drawing three parallel lines you’ve conveyed not just a relationship between data sets, but also a confidence interval into which any predicted next point may fall.

I’m romanticizing a bit. . .but, for the record, the best story told by data to this day is . I’m getting burned out on “infographics” as of late mostly because a majority of them aren’t data visualtizations at all. Anyone agree?


I digress. . .when it came to marketing, I was first attracted to the idea of advertising. In particular, it was one ad from Columbia Sportswear that attracted my attention years ago. I thought it was genius.

I then took my first market research course—mind you there were a total of twelve people in the class—and a light bulb went off. I could make a career out of statistics and marketing. I did what any person would have likely done 15 years ago and researched all of the top market research firms. Soon after graduation, I found myself working at none other than The Nielsen Company.

I lasted there for seven years, which in Bay Area terms seems to be a lifetime.   I started off in Chicago and took a job transfer out to San Francisco. I could not have made a better move. Something started happening in the industry over that time. Data was showing up everywhere and marketing was becoming one of the most influential departments in organizations. I’d hit the jackpot.

There was even an published several years ago saying that data analysts/statisticians were the new sexy career. While I’ll take the compliment, I couldn’t agree more because I also ended up .

So I now find myself in a very hot career having bopped around a number of analytics and data software companies. I’m going to ride this wave while I can, but the industry is ever changing so I don’t want to have too much hubris. Who knows what the next sexy new career might be? Any guesses?

Searching for meaning and a job in Silicon Valley (in no particular order)

By Arwa Kaddoura

 Everyone remembers his or her answer to the age old question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Few of us can actually tie our current careers back to that hopeful answer. And let’s face it, that’s probably a good thing. None of us imagined careers beyond Doctor, Lawyer or Firefighter. The words venture capitalist didn’t yet enter our vocabulary, and neither did entrepreneurship, analytics or marketing. Our view of the world was limited to people who wore nice looking uniforms.

As I find myself navigating the world of recruiting again I remember two things. First, I hate sharing facts about myself multiple times in a short sitting of back-to-back interviews. Secondly, I really despise interviews. I love conversations, connecting and brainstorming but absolutely hate twenty questions. I certainly can’t be alone in this.

My current career search has sent me down a fun path of many interesting conversations. I categorize them as follows:

Desperate Headhunter trying to make quota:  These are the conversations with the recruiter at an agency who is desperately trying to tell you what a fantastic fit you are for the position they probably don’t yet have. You will get excited, tell them your salary range and potentially even land a screening. But many of your expectation will fizzle as you find out you were the wrong fit with the wrong salary expectation.

Busy Bee Hiring Manager: These are the Hiring managers who are in desperate need of help but somehow are too disorganized to keep the details about your interview straight. You wait for the interview phone call, ten minutes pass so you assume it’s cancelled, but when you least expect it, your phone rings. They start the conversation by asking, “Is this still a good time”. Now you are standing at a Starbucks ordering your latte and have to think of some clever to say that also accomplishes ordering your beverage.

Talent & Culture Royalty:  These are the internal HR coordinators who want to sniff out any chance that you might not be hip enough for their joint. They naturally call this ‘cultural fit’ and can expertly detect it by asking you questions such as “What’s your favorite food” and “What do you do with your free time”, both questions that I still haven’t found perfect answers to.

Surprised Colleagues: These are the colleagues who were barely briefed on the position or what they should be asking you. They may be used as fillers to kill the six hours they asked you to come in for. Most will not know what the role or job description entails, so to make the time pass they ask open ended questions like “Tell me about yourself”. This is your chance to dominate the conversation and get the scoop on what this company is really like.

To get through these conversations I find it helpful to inject myself with a healthy dose of humor and a slight bit of optimism. I have to admit though; I have been very fortunate to have had some great conversations and connections during my search.  The business leaders I have most enjoyed meeting understand the value of hiring good talent and building great teams (not just individual contributors). They disrupt internally what has become comfortable/safe/familiar and externally what has become conventional wisdom in their industry. These leaders share a strong dose of optimism and are far more likely to achieve disruptive results as compared with leaders who call themselves “realists”. Further, this optimism is executed with discipline that leaves enough room for creative teams to execute with flexibility. It is that leader I feel fortunate enough to be working with next. Wish me luck in my new endeavor! Maybe I’ll share some stereotypical first day experiences with you next. Who loves orientations?

Congratulations! It’s a technology marketer!

by Julie Zisman

I grew up in Silicon Valley in a town called San Carlos. If you live here now, you might be surprised. It seems that it’s quite unusual to be a native these days.

Most of my earliest memories feel like they fell out of small town, 1950s USA. I used to get french fries at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. I saw Snow White for the first time in one of the two movie theaters that used to be downtown (and cried because it was so scary). I used to play outside all day long without seeing an adult until dark. My older brother used to walk me to elementary school (I was 7 and he was 10).

In 1979 my father brought home a Radio Shack TRS80 — one of the original desktop computers. Who knew, at the time, that this signified a cultural phenomenon that would impact the rest of my life.

Let’s look at my personal history with technology:

1982: (Sun Microsystems was founded)
There’s this kind of crazy math teacher called Mr. Shoots who picked on the kids but kept a bank of computers in his classroom so we could  play a game called “Worm.”   Everyone got to play but first we had to learn how to code the game in  ++.

1987:  (PeopleSoft was founded)
My very first, part-time job was at a company that developed proprietary software for ATMs.  I sent DOS-prompted “electronic mail” to my co-workers in order to request their timecards and expenses.

1991:  (The debut of the World Wide Web)
I started to work on my Bachelor of Arts degree at San Diego State University with an emphasis in graphic design. My first classes largely focused on skills having to do with an X-Acto Knife. Within one quarter the curriculum completely changed and all my classes moved to the computer lab. The students excelling were clearly those people who had their own desktop Apple computers.  How was I supposed to afford $1,000 for my own Macintosh Classic when I had to buy beer?

1996: (The launch of Hotmail)
I land a junior marketing role at VeriFone.  One of the first technology business disruptors, VeriFone changed the way consumers and banks looked at credit card payments. My general appetite for technology was fully seeded and my climb as a technology marketer started.

For a long time, I held a skewed view of how my career choices were based on my proximity to Silicon Valley. Then I started meeting other amazing women from all parts of the nation who were drawn to technology and the “start-up” culture.  I’m pretty sure we all like the same thing: complex problem solving.  We all bring unique approaches and have different flavors of life.  As such, I’ve invited a bunch of them to partner with me in discussing their histories and stories.

This blog is dedicated to celebrating the crazy, weird ways that technology shapes our lives and why things are just a little bit different here in Silicon Valley.