6 steps to getting hired at a tech startup without any engineering skills

no jobs for non-engineersEveryone’s hiring engineers (shameless plug: so are we at Abine), and I’m not one. Odds are, neither are you. Nor was I about 2 years ago when I was perusing Craigslist Boston’s legal services section for an alternative way to use my law degree. It’s pretty dejecting to spend your entire life getting straight A’s in honors classes, doing everything you’re supposed to be doing, going to good schools, getting a freaking law degree in my case, and then finding out that no one’s hiring…unless you’re an engineer. Well, I have 6 tips for you to get hired at a tech startup anyway.

Despite having a J.D. and sitting on an academic lifetime of great grades and extracurricular activities like track and field, the jobs that were supposed to be raining out of the sky just didn’t exist. I wanted to do something that mattered, something that used my skills—which I’d always thought were more than decent—and not endure a soul-crushing work/life balance in the process (I’m looking at you, first year law firm associates).  And there was that small matter of the $90,000 debt I’d acquired from law school.

That’s how I ended up scrolling through Craigslist in a Barnes & Noble café in December 2010. I needed a change, and Boston seemed like it had more opportunity than the suburbs of Connecticut. I found a posting for a “legal technology type” who was passionate about online privacy rights, and it sounded perfect. I wrote the best cover letter of my life, got an interview, and got the job. It was Abine.

Rocko, the Abine office dog.

Rocko, the Abine office dog.

I was the fourth person at the company. The two co-founders, one engineer, and I sat in a tiny room above the Tavern in the Square in Cambridge, sometimes with a dog, sometimes on exercise balls, sometimes in sweatpants, trying to make this online privacy company succeed. I quickly learned that you do a lot of things at a startup: there isn’t a designated person to handle most things, so you have to just do them and do them fast. You have to have good instincts and be willing to implement them, then fight for them. You have to take risks. You have to adapt.

I was writing blog posts about privacy news and laws, running our DeleteMe service, answering the phones, pitching journalists about our products, writing copy for our software UI, grammar-proofing pretty much every written thing, managing our Twitter and Facebook accounts…the list goes on. And that was right out the gate. It was great—it was exactly the kind of responsibility I wanted after all that education. It was strangely unlike most law firms, which sequester you from actual responsibility for as long as they can despite your credentials.

The company got its A-round of funding in June 2010, seven months after I’d joined, and then everything blew up: we quintupled our employees, moved to a new office (with more than one room; hooray!) in the Innovation District in downtown Boston, and moved super fast on developing and shaping our products and services. My role shifted, too. Although I’d been scrappily handling a wide variety of things without a main area of responsibility, I moved toward content and communications: public relations strategy and media management, continuing to blog, and acting as a company spokesperson.

The wall by my desk at Abine

The wall by my desk at Abine

At Abine and at most startups, you’re usually in the engineering camp or the marketing camp. I know I’m oversimplifying, but bear with me. Going back to our high school days for a moment, it’s like the engineers are the kids who are good at math and building things, and the marketers are the kids who are good at writing and creative things. At bottom, you always need an engineer to make whatever it is you need. That’s why they’re so highly sought: you need them, and there aren’t a lot of them.  But just because there’s so much emphasis on engineering and coding and building doesn’t mean that startups don’t need us creative types. Quite the contrary.

Marketing/communications types make sure that users understand the thing that engineers make, how it works, and why you should use it. We can get it out to the public and the press. We can help people discover it, then work with them when they need help using it. We can speak publicly about what it all means and why it matters. We can translate between customers and engineers, two groups who—let’s be honest—don’t always speak the same language. Marketing/writing people and engineering/math people together make extraordinary teams.

So, yes, you can be an integral part of a tech startup even without engineering skills. Here are 6 tips to get started:

1. Take a position you wouldn’t ordinarily consider.

You just have to get your foot in the door—that can mean doing customer service, guest posting on their blog, being an administrative assistant, anything you can do—and chances are there will be so much work that you can help absorb some of it and demonstrate your talents. Startups are crazy. There’s always way more work to do than people to do it, so chances are really good that your role will expand quickly.

2. Look for a super early-stage startup.

The less established a startup is, the more flexibility there is for you to fit in. The startup is probably trying out a lot of different products and services in the beginning to see what works, and they’re less set in their needs and ways of doing things. If you’re adaptable, you’re valuable.

3. Network your face off.

I know: “networking” brings to mind awkward, forced conversations with people you don’t know in suits. It doesn’t have to be that way. You’ll be better at networking if you just be yourself. Be professional, sure, but be witty and sarcastic and whatever else makes you real and not a cardboard cutout. Think of it like making friends (but maintain appropriate boundaries, of course). If you make a legitimate bond with someone, that’ll go a lot further in helping your career than stiffly handing out business cards and only having conversations about your work skills.

career networking

It’s simple, really.

Go to MITX events—they’re fun and not stuffy–and search LinkedIn for people with connections to companies you’re interested in. Message people with jobs you’d love to have and ask if they’d be willing to spill how they ended up there. Just asking questions and learning about someone else’s experience can give you extremely good info, plus you’ll build a relationship with that person. And who knows? Maybe they’re hiring.

4. Write an awesome cover letter.

Make it clear that you’ve done your homework and you know a lot about the startup to which you’re applying. Let your personality shine through; now’s not the time for a form cover letter where you swap out the name of one startup for another. And one more thing: grammar and spelling matter. They matter in all applications, but even more so for non-engineers who are selling themselves on their communication abilities. Their =/= they’re =/= there.

5. Work for cheap at first.

Most startups are strapped for cash, so your desired pay will be a big factor in whether your resume makes it into the “consider” pile. If lowering your standards by $5/hour is enough to get in the door, it’s worth it. You can always renegotiate your salary later.

6. Look for opportunities to be valuable.

Don’t wait around for someone to come to you with a task you might excel at. Be proactive: ask the other people in the startup where you can help. Do the product FAQs need a rewrite? Would it be helpful to have well-written answer templates for common customer questions? If you see something that could be improved, just do it. If it’s good, odds are your co-workers will make it your responsibility from then on.


Boston Innovation District

Outside the Abine office in Boston’s Innovation District

To sum up: get your foot in the door however you can, then make yourself an indispensible part of the company by being adaptable and self-motivated.

The best startups don’t just make awesome products; they’re great at communicating about those products to the world. And if you’ve been a great communicator throughout your academic career and with the people in your life, it’s likely you’ll thrive in a startup, too.

Now go check out Craigslist or BostInno’s careers or VentureFizz, and try not to feel bad about all the postings for jobs with skills you don’t have. Focus instead on getting into an early-stage startup however you can, even if you work for a little less than you’d like or accept a job that you feel overqualified for. Prove you’re valuable, and you’ll be treated as valuable. If my experience at Abine is any indication, it’s worth it.




12 comments shared on this article:

  • David Robinson says:

    There is one point you may need to cover and that is age of the applicant.
    I am a retired teacher and find myself in a real bind. It may be that I should not have retired ten years ago.
    I find myself needing to get back into the workforce. but I have reached the seventh decade of life, and I am still functional. However there is a problem with age in getting into any position.
    Do you have an answer?

    • Sarah Downey says:

      Hi David (and Robert)-

      You’re right that age can be a big factor in getting hired. When I wrote this post, I meant it as a general how-to guide and wasn’t considering differences in candidates, like age, gender, or nationality. The tips I outlined will be selling points for any person of any age or group. If you’re a good fit at a startup, you’re a good fit regardless of these things. There are lots of startups out there with very different cultures, and although most of them skew towards hiring younger people, it ultimately comes down to whether you have what they’re looking for. Startups need things done. If you can do those things and you aren’t prohibitively expensive, you’re a strong candidate.

      This isn’t my area of expertise–I’m not a hiring manager–but I quickly searched for the topic and founds some tips here: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505125_162-44942654/are-you-too-old-to-get-hired/

      Good luck!

  • Mark Oberg says:

    I liked this article because it describes pretty much every job I have ever done well with, since I first entered the workforce.

    Looking back, I can’t think of a single thing I have ever done that I was “qualified” for. Of course, I don’t mind that feeling of being in way over my head for the first few months.

    Another tip I’ll add is that there are a lot of opportunities in smaller companies which are still run by the founders. They don’t have to be technology companies or even startups. Many smaller organizations will hire people for what they can do; not what the title says you do. Plus, you usually have direct access to the top. Personally, I like the idea of sitting down with the company President over coffee and discussing a new idea that came to me while commuting that morning. If you have good ideas that are implemented, your advancement opportunities will grow.

    My advice to anyone entering the job market or wanting to make a change: Be flexible and keep an open mind. If it’s that bad, you can always look for something else. When you do hit the right combination of your strengths and skill set with their need for people who can adapt and think on their feet, you will be glad you aren’t locked up in a cubicle farm somewhere up in an office tower. Your work will be meaningful and you will have found a rewarding career path.

  • robert moore says:

    Sarah , I was wondering can you comment on what David said. it is pretty important to us older geeks and job changers

  • Lauren Eva says:

    Hi Sarah I recently had a interview with a start-up company in San Francisco, I’m still a college student and I work for a bank I’m looking to work for a start up so when I get out of school the transition will be less harder for me. I actually thought I had the job until the lady sent me a email saying that I didn’t get it. Any advice for the next interview?

    • Sarah Downey says:

      Sorry you didn’t get it. There’s really no way to know why unless you speak to them about it. If you’re comfortable emailing your contact there, thanking her again for the interview, and politely asking what you could have done better, she may tell you. On the other hand, it’s somewhat awkward and she might not feel okay telling you the truth. It’s sort of a crapshoot.

      The reality is that people go through dozens of interviews until something works out, and most of the time they’ll never know exactly what didn’t work. It could have been something totally outside your control, like the next person who came in after you was just a better personality match with the existing employees. Or it could have been something you did, which you won’t know unless someone tells you. Mock interviews can be great to give you practice and honest feedback about what’s working for you (and what isn’t), so see if you can arrange a few of those. Keep at it, be open to constructive criticism, and don’t get down on yourself just because one interview didn’t go the way you wanted. It’s a process, but it’s worth it.

  • M Dee says:

    Solid article. Coming from a first year law grad, interested in jumping into something new (while working for a law firm), it really gave me a great perspective on what I need to do!

  • John Sullivan says:

    Nice article Sarah, its a good read! Fair play for making the jump!

    I’m a law grad who decided to diversify with a Masters in Electronic Commerce this year.. and now I’m interning in a social music start-up in Dublin while I finish off the Masters – so I can relate to most of what you said!

    Also spent a summer in Boston 2 years ago, and wouldn’t mind heading back sometime. Whats the start-up scene like over there?.. specifically in areas that the old law degree could be relevant like privacy/data protection/IT risk & security… Any other good resources you could recommend? Cheers

    • Thanks, and glad you liked the post. I’m pretty focused on what we’re doing here, so I don’t get out to general startup events *too* often, but I know that there are a lot of companies springing up and this area’s evolving really quickly. Real estate is booming. Virtually all companies, startups included, deal with data on some level, which means they deal with privacy. It seems like your skills could fit in anywhere, which is nice. Plus e-commerce is a useful area in which to have skills, too–there’s a lot of e-commerce in Boston. Unfortunately I don’t have specific company recommendations for you, but this area is definitely a great place to be right now. It’s either here or Silicon Valley, really. Good luck!

  • Mark says:

    Who’s hiring engineers? I have EE and CS degrees, have submitted my resume to hundreds of firms, and receive very little in the way of any sort of reply or further inquiry. I am fairly young, went to a top-20 school, and am not too picky in terms of what I’d like to do. But just not seeing any mad dash to hire people, that’s for sure, which tells me that there’s no shortage of engineers out there. When I talk to the HR reps, they tell me that they receive hundreds of applications and they simply don’t need to screen many of them to find excellent candidates.

  • carlo says:

    I have been applying for office manager /administrator positions at a lot of startups. I only apply for the postings
    in which I have every single aspects they are looking for ( I am qualified) my resume is impeccable,
    yet I keep getting the “Thank you for applying… BUT” email! I have a very diverse background with tons of experience. I am beginning to think they just don’t want anyone who does not fit that hipster, T-shirt & hoodie look. I even have in my CV that I have no problem cleaning their kitchen, rolling up my sleeves etc., etc.
    What are your thoughts? I am only 38 and I am an agency director at a very well known PR Firm.

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