Career Advice, Executive Feature

How College Students Can Set Themselves Up for a Successful Tech Career

The tech industry is white-hot, with loads of fresh graduates competing every year for jobs at companies like Facebook and Google. But the path to Silicon Valley isn’t always clear — especially if a student isn’t studying a field that’s directly related to tech.

But those who aspire to work in tech can take steps in college to make themselves stand out, says Glassdoor’s own Chief Product Officer, Heather Friedland. She should know: She spent nearly 17 years at top tech companies, and frequently scoured students’ résumés for internship and job placements.

Friedland began her career in 1999 at Microsoft, after the company acquired a startup she’d been working for during her senior year at Cornell University. While at Microsoft, she returned to her alma mater to help recruit on campus for product management. She later went to eBay, where she built an internship program from scratch, before joining Glassdoor in December 2015.

In an interview with colleague and Editorial Director Amy Elisa Jackson, Friedland explains exactly what she looks for in an applicant (hint: it doesn’t have to be an Ivy League diploma), how to highlight soft skills on a resume, and the best way for non-STEM majors to get their foot in the door.

Glassdoor: What’s the one thing students should do while in college to best position themselves for a career in tech? 17 5 2 Glassdoor Huddle 0046

Heather Friedland: Back in the 1990s, when I was in school, there wasn’t really a way to build real-world experience. I had to join a startup to do that. But opportunities are available at every college campus now. You can find a job or join an entrepreneurial club or a tech group. You can volunteer to help at your department level or become a teaching assistant. There are pockets where you can look, but if you don’t know to go pick up those rocks you wouldn’t even know what is underneath them.

If you want to go to some hot tech company like Google or Facebook, you’ll have to fight for it. You’ve got to know to be savvy. You need to take on extracurricular hobbies when you’re in school to acquire these skills, the same way that a high school student is going to try and do that for college. It’s the same thing for your career. The savvier students are the ones who feel like they’re capable of more than just their academic degree.

Glassdoor: What advice would you give college students who want to break into tech but aren’t computer science majors?

Heather Friedland: To be credible with engineers and within the industry overall, you need to have a personal passion around tech. It doesn’t mean that you need to have an engineering degree where all you do is code, but I think you need to understand it — be able to reason your way through it and understand how it works well enough that you can make good decisions. 

I do think it’s important to take coursework in tech — light programming classes, like the intro to whatever coding language they offer at your engineering school. Learn how to do the beginning of that [language] even, if you’re never going to be great at it and you get a C in the class. Because it’s important for you to [walk] in those shoes and see what that feels like. When you want to have a conversation with an engineer you need to be able to think about it the way that they would. If you don’t really understand that [language] at all, you’re going to be less credible.

Understand what makes sense to them, how they’re going to take the problem that you’re presenting – whether it’s a design, a concept, or a feature idea, they’re going to try to break that down into a system of logic. If you’ve never had to code yourself you’re not going to be able to empathize with the challenges. As a product manager, it’s really important for you to understand the level of detail they need to be successful because it’s your job to enable them and to use their time as efficiently as possible.

You can do that in two ways. One, spend a lot of time hanging out with engineers, just seeing the way they tick. Take on project and coursework alongside them. The second is just trying to do it yourself. So many online programs allow beginners to create a very simple website. Go build a blog, something very simple where you can talk about your hobbies. It forces you to be able to do it, and then you can try to customize pieces of it and see what that feels like. It’s a baby step, but it will give you a credible way of thinking. 

Glassdoor: What are some of the skills that students need to hone – that you look for when hiring?

Heather Friedland: When I’m looking at somebody coming straight out of school there are things that we can teach people, but some things I think are innate. I want to see high motivation, strong leadership potential, strong collaboration and communication skills. I find those [skills] are harder to teach.

Leadership is number one, especially in product. You need to influence people not because they report to you but because they want to work with you. It’s a hard skill to acquire, but it’s critical. You can exhibit leadership through teamwork, through clubs and organizations where maybe you get elected to a role, or it could be an event that you’re organizing. It can come in hard ways, like “these people report to me,” or soft ways: “I’m excited about this idea and I’m going to go create momentum around it. I’m going to create an event, I’m going to be elected president of my club.”

Demonstrating that you can lead people towards successful outcomes is important, even if it’s not necessarily in a business setting. Just showing that you have done that before – that you know how to get through the problem solving of teamwork and collaboration – to lead people toward a successful outcome is critical. 

And I want to see clear communication skills, both written and verbal. Can you articulate to me why I should hire you? Acquire the confidence that you can navigate a situation successfully, land your argument, and listen effectively — but still get what you need to get. These are also skillsets that I think are harder for me to train once you’re here.

I can teach you how to look at a website, how to do competitive analysis. But I think it’s much harder to teach empathy or collaboration. Frankly, the one thing that I find the hardest to teach is motivation.

Glassdoor: What makes an applicant stand out?

Heather Friedland: I honestly don’t care if you went to a fancy school. What I’m looking for is somebody smart and how they think about a problem. Are they clear and articulate? Do they have a good, strong self-awareness where they understand their strengths but recognize their weaknesses? That last one is a personality piece, but it’s a very critical one, especially here at Glassdoor.

These are the softer things. I can’t teach you how to keep working until it feels perfect. Either you care about making this thing shine or you don’t. I’ve seen a lot of mediocre in my career. But I want to work with a rockstar because I want that rockstar to make me smarter, to make our product better, to push the team forward. That is motivation.

Specifically, in product, you have to have a certain amount of smarts, intuitiveness, good customer intuition, base level understanding of the business, and basic analytic sense. But these are your hard skills. The soft skills are how you utilize them and package them in a way that the right outcomes happen.

Glassdoor: Everyone says, “I’m awesome when you get me in a room, face-to-face.” But how can college students convey those softer skills in a résumé or initial conversation, in a way that makes them competitive?

Heather Friedland: Yes, I think the challenge becomes, how do you say this without saying it? Part of it is how you engage, which depends on the setting. If you’re meeting somebody at a career fair and you have this phenomenal communication skill it will come through because you’re standing there talking to them.

With email, if you write just the right crafted note — short and sweet but with enough personality that represents you — you can convey this. On a résumé, if you show me that you consistently are president and vice president of everything you touch, that is a very soft way of saying, “I shine.”

I encourage students to work with their college career departments to figure out what those methods look like for them. Another way for them is to be recognized by your peers or professors. I’ve participated in programs where professors nominate a TA who is a phenomenal student to be a leader and help them teach a class. A professor who is an academic expert is recognizing you as somebody who can help them do their job better.

So, it really depends on the setting. But I think there are always ways you can be savvy, no matter what the situation.

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