Nicole Fenton is the coauthor of Nicely Said. They design with words.

Working in Technology

When people learn that I’ve worked at Apple and Facebook, they often ask me how I got here.

  • “You’re so young! How did you get into the tech industry?”
  • “How did you know what you wanted to do?”
  • “Can you give me some career advice?”

As these kinds of questions overlap, I wanted to try to summarize my responses here.

Getting into semantics

First thing’s first: “tech” isn’t an exclusive club. We are all part of technology. We work on it and it works on us.

The word “technology” is kind of broad and loaded. There are a bunch of different definitions. Kevin Kelly says: “a technology is a thought expressed.”

Bernard Stiegler says:

“It is organized inorganic matter that transforms itself in time as living matter transforms itself in its interaction with the milieu.”

Woah, yeah. Slightly terrifying in scope. Let’s narrow it down. For the purpose of this post, when I say technology, I mean systems, including websites, apps, software, and hardware.

A million ways in

As for career advice, there’s no universal answer. I can tell you what I did. I can tell you that I’m still learning and looking and stumbling along. And I can tell you what I find to be true, but it’s really up to you.

I’m in the middle of Sheryl Sandberg’s book right now, and this line sticks out for me: “It’s not a ladder. It’s a jungle gym.” There are a million ways to find a job or make a career for yourself. I know that kind of sucks as an answer, because we want a path with guaranteed results. We want a checklist or a procedure. We want answers. Give us a top ten, for the love of humanity! But we’re all just figuring it out as we go.

“The secret is there is no secret – just doing the best you can with what you’ve got.” — Mary C. Curtis

What if we tried enjoying that instead of dreading it? Eep. As for me, I didn’t plan to “work in technology” and I don’t really think of it that way. I love solving problems and humanizing what otherwise becomes lifeless and awkward.

Perhaps the fastest way to work on the web is to start now. Pay attention to things around you and play with them. Make a site or sketch an app on paper. Write down what bothers you about things you use. Do you have a mobile device? What feels unfinished about it?

Have computers changed your life in a memorable way? Everything we use was designed. What feels broken? What leaves you with questions?

Find a way or make one

When I finished college, I didn’t have a plan. I knew I wanted to be a writer and decided that Apple was the place. I loved their products. I believed in the company. I wanted to be a part of Steve’s magical machine that thinks different and just works.

The problem was my resume. I started working at a young age. My first job was making sandwiches at a deli. I moved on to be a hostess, a smoothie girl, a stocker, a bookkeeper, an opener and closer, a book buyer, and an inventory manager. Everything I had done was related to people and service. I had no formal writing experience, unless you count school papers and music reviews. I applied for a couple of positions at Apple, but they wouldn’t call me back.

I decided to be persistent and get in a different way. I knew I liked helping people and wanted to start there. Who knows where that could take me? So in 2005, I quit my bookstore job of four years and started working at Apple’s call center as a contractor. I learned how the company worked and got used to the systems it runs on. I answered questions, processed returns, and made templates for myself to make my job easier. I was measured on how long I talked and how happy I made my customers. That taught me to be concise and attentive to patterns.

After a month, they asked me to answer emails. After three months, they hired me and asked me what I wanted to work on. We didn’t have good training materials or documentation, so I wanted to fix that. I started writing documentation and training other reps full time. Two years later, we had global training and templates for every kind of channel. Five years later, we had launched iPhone and iPad, along with a bunch of other things. I started as an agent and left as a communications lead. If I hadn’t been open to starting at the bottom, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do any of that.

As we say at Facebook, find a way or make one. If you’re open to jumping around or working in roles that seem tangential to what you want to do, you can learn a lot really quickly, especially if you’re at a place that grows exponentially each year.

To code or not to code

I get this one every now and then:

“I’m not a programmer, but I want to work at a technology company in sales or communications. Is there any advice you can give me?”

I’m not a programmer either. You don’t have to know how to code, but you need to understand how the web works.

I’ve taken classes and workshops, but programming is less interesting to me than solving communication problems. I wanted to be a writer; I happen to be interested in technology. Since people who write code often need help on the interface side, I get the best of both worlds. I understand markup (HTML and CSS), write in Markdown, and read a bit of PHP and Ruby. For me, that’s been enough so far.

Learn together

If you want to better understand the web, find people you respect and try to work with them. Take friends out for coffee or invite them over for a meal.

“Anyone who really wants to learn without school has to find other people to learn with and from. That’s the open secret of learning outside school. It’s a social act. Learning is something we do together.” — Kio Stark

Find conferences and videos that interest you. There are hundreds of videos from older conferences online (ex: Build, Do Lectures, SXSW, XOXO, CS Forum, An Event Apart).

Some people like paid internships. I like to work on personal projects, as they help me keep learning and give me the chance to make things with fewer constraints. You might think about making something with a friend, whether for love or money. If you like your company but want to switch jobs, find a mentor or start a mentoring circle with peers on different teams.

Pick a direction

Take some time to think about what you like doing.

  • What gets you excited about the web and technology? Do you like the speed, openness, or maybe how people can talk to each other across miles?
  • Do you have any hobbies or skills that get you up each day?
  • Are you a data nerd or do you like archives? What kind of person do you think of yourself as? Where do you like hanging out? Do you play video games or care about movies?
  • Do you want to work with other people closely in a messy, iterative way? Or do you prefer working alone and then coming back with a big contribution or set of insights?
  • Do you like asking questions, summarizing, or interviewing people? Or do you prefer to sketch things out visually?
  • If you could work for any company, which one would it be? Why?
  • Have you ever worked in the food industry or retail? If not, client work might not be for you.

These are just a few ideas of things to think about. Like I said before, get to know your friends who work on the web and ask them about their experience too. See if they’ll show you things they make before they push the publish button or commit their code.

Find a field (or two or three)

There are a lot of fields in the tech industry and most of them overlap with each other. You can read about these things for free on Wikipedia:

  • Engineering
  • Front-end development
  • Product design
  • Product management
  • Web design
  • User experience design
  • Communication design
  • User research (ex: qualitative and quantitative research)
  • Information architecture
  • Content strategy
  • Web writing
  • Web marketing
  • Web standards
  • Accessibility

The list goes on… You’ll probably see overlap and I’m definitely forgetting some things. Try to narrow it down to a few topics that interest you. The questions in the last section should help you a little bit. Another thing you might try is to look at companies you like, see what they’re hiring for, and read about the skills or responsibilities they mention.

If you’re not super technical and don’t want to learn to code, testing (sometimes called QA or QE) or user research might be good options for you. You may notice a bunch of terms for design (IXD, UEX, ID, UXD, yadda yadda). Don’t let the jargon distract you.

Books to read

If you have time to read a few short books, I would recommend these no matter what you do:

The next three are all from A Book Apart, which you can purchase as a series or individually. I’d start with these if you want specific, quick primers.

Sites to follow

Here are a few cross-disciplinary sites that I like:

  • A List Apart is a great resource for people who make websites, covering research, code, content, design, web standards, and working with clients.
  • Contents Magazine explores the future of publishing and online content.
  • Frank Chimero has several great essays in his archives about the design process.
  • Trent Walton talks about designing for the web with a focus on mobile sites.

There are lots more blogs, so take a look around.

I hope something here pushes you in the right direction! Feel free to send me questions.