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…