Conversations tend to begin with the question “What do you do?” To most people, your response puts you in one of a few categories: you’re a people person, an organizer, a hacker, or a numbers dude. When the question is posed by employers, the categories become broader – you’re either a technical or a non-technical person.
I studied physics in undergrad, and HATED this question. I am not quite a software developer. I am not a super wizard with statistics. But I do see myself as technical, even if my response to this question casts me as a slightly technical, more organizer type! Can I grow into a technical role, or does my past experience determine a non-technical career trajectory?
I bet you have experienced a conversation like this as well. In fact, a lot of social commentators have documented the evolving priorities in the workforce for us new graduates (or Millenials, if you feel like generalizing a cohort to a generation :D). This crop of college graduates, including myself, want more from the workplace than pay and perks – a promise from work that their cubicle or their main work function will not define them. Our personal and career development (they go hand-in-hand as lines between work and life are sometimes blurred) is as much a responsibility of our chosen company as it is our own.
We are hired to do our present jobs based on our past experience. If our present responsibilities do not point us towards the future that we want, we need to start learning outside of our job description. How does someone categorized as non-technical, by the job market, acquire technical skill?
Most people think of graduate school as the opportunity to gain employable skills that we cannot learn in the workforce. But I believe a good employer will give employees opportunities to grow in ways that are not tied directly to their current role. Last month, my co-worker Emily and I hosted a lunchtime seminar on the Communication Application Platform – Bandwidth’s telecom APIs for software developers. Some of the audience included coworkers who had never coded before and we walked them through utilizing the platform and writing scripts with the API. By the end of the seminar, these non-coders had written a Python script to send texts and make calls! Our co-workers might have come in not knowing much about data structures or algorithms, but they left understanding the basics of software, the cloud, and how to use an API. Now, if they have caught the coding bug and want to dive into learning Python rigorously, they have a great place to start!
I am lucky to work at a company that prioritizes learning, teaching, and skill-sharing. At Bandwidth, at least, the answer to “What do you do?” is really “anything!” Ask your co-workers to host a coding classroom. Work with your co-worker on a technical project outside of work. Start-ups need marketing, sales, and people management, as much as they need programmers! So, don’t let your job define you. Technical and non-technical workers are everywhere, but those with both skills will rock their jobs, their company, and their industry. Ask more from your company, your co-workers, and yourself, and ignore that ubiquitous bulletin – “technical skills required.”