Back in college, Luke Friang never expected to become CIO of Zulily — or to work in engineering at all. He studied business at the local junior college, focusing more on snowboarding than his studies. Why not hit the slopes rather than the books, when he figured he’d own a ski shop someday?
But then Friang and his roommates bought some of the earliest computers in the early ‘90s, and everything changed: “I switched to a two-year programming course in North Seattle, and everything just made sense to me. C++ and Q Basic connected with me way better than the economics stuff ever did.”
Friang never obtained a four-year engineering degree yet he went on to serve in technical leadership roles at Eddie Bauer, Costco, and Drugstore.com, and today he leads an engineering team of hundreds at e-commerce giant Zulily.
And Friang says it’s easier than ever to start an engineering career, even without the traditional degree. Here’s what you need to know.
Dip your toe in with a low-cost course to see if a tech gig is really for you.
“Like any job, a tech career might sound great to you in theory but isn’t enjoyable for you once you try it,” Friang says. “There are so many more low- or even no-cost resources these days, like Code.org, Khan Academy, or possibly your local library. I didn’t have that option, so you had to go enroll at a local school.
But today there are so many businesses that are dedicated to people who have another career and want to try out tech, or who know that they want to do this but don’t have the engineering degree. You can take one course online or you can go full-time. It’s still a serious commitment when you jump into it fully, and you need to recognize that, but you can start slow to test it out.”
Choose the right program – and be prepared for a 12-24-month commitment.
“I’ve seen six-month programs out there, but I just don’t think that’s reasonable for obtaining all the knowledge and experience you really need,” Friang warns. “A lot of programs will hook you up with fellowships and internships, and you just can’t beat that on-the-job training, which adds time. Many people focus on tech as a lucrative field – and it absolutely can be– but you have to realize you’re starting from square one in a new career. So it’s important to mentally prepare yourself for the fact that you might have to take a couple of steps back before moving forward.
“When you’re learning all of these new skills, it’s also important to understand the ‘why.’ Technology is now suffused through the organization — it’s in marketing and merchandising and operations — so you need to understand and demonstrate how your work is contributing to the larger business. When that concept works most effectively it’s magic. I always say that if you were here at Zulily and sat in on a meeting with a software engineer, an analyst, and someone in acquisitions, you shouldn’t be able to tell who holds which title. It’s that notion of business impact, of understanding that the business objective is always what comes first no matter your job title. If you don’t understand the why, you won’t go too far. That’s what we screen for, and what we work hard to develop even further.”
Don’t eschew learning computer-science basics.
“Everyone needs the core fundamentals, period,” Friang explains. “If you jump right into programming you might be able to make it work, but you won’t be as successful. It’s tempting to say, oh, I know I want to work on iOS apps so I’m just going to start there. But whether it’s app creation, web development, or whatever else you choose, those computer science lessons are foundational across every language. If you skip that step you could potentially hurt or slow your development in the future; a lot of the time I find you can tell who has the computer science down and who doesn’t. As with anything, you want to start from a solid base and build on that.”
When applying for new jobs, know that your non-engineering resume can be surprisingly powerful.
“Tech is not the back office anymore – we need people who have a willingness and desire to make a real impact, and you can demonstrate that from your prior career,” Friang points out. “Regardless of whether you’ve come from a technical background you can highlight where you’ve created something new, demonstrated curiosity, launched transformations, or taken risk. Tell that story through your resume and your interview, and that will catch attention no matter which job it was in.
“Because to a certain extent, programming is a skill that you can help people learn, train for, and get better at. We can’t teach someone how to be curious. If you’re a technologist who’s 10 out of 10 on engineering but 2 out of 10 on curiosity and core business problem solving, that will affect you long-term.
“Instead we’re looking for talented people who want to disrupt, and that’s much different from ‘Hi, I now love tech and here’s my coding test.’ Creative problem-solving and solid business acumen will take you just as far if not farther than the coding skills you’ve learned – and when those aspects are combined, you become that much more powerful.”