Is it possible to apply for (and land) a job in the tech industry when you don't have the right experience or qualifications?
Taryn Pratt was always sure about her dream job: she wanted to be a web developer. The problem was—she was unqualified for it. Did that stop her? No way! Taryn has landed almost all of her jobs without having "the right" experience. How did she do it?
Watch the video to find out!
Taryn is a Database Reliability Engineer at Stack Overflow, where she has been solely managing all of the SQL Servers for about four years.
"Finding the right career path can be daunting, confusing, and for some, an ongoing journey. I started my journey wanting to be a lawyer, and after many twists and turns, envisioned a goal, and stopped at nothing to work in technology (specifically at Stack Overflow). Throughout my career, I've stepped out of my comfort zone, and embraced the opportunity to learn on the job, applying for positions where I didn't necessarily meet the required criteria."
Taylor Thompson isn't afraid to try new things. Two of them led her to her current role as a senior software engineer at SevenFifty, a supply chain and communications platform in the alcohol industry.
The first new thing was ice hockey. Taylor had always wanted to play, but her parents weren't big fans of that idea, so she waited until she was in college at Columbia to try out for the club team. She faced a tough learning curve, especially because she hadn't been playing for years and years like her teammates.
"I got to the first practice, and it was bad; I wanted to quit," remembers Taylor. "But here we are, eight years later."
The second new thing was coding. Taylor says that computer science wasn't something she'd really heard about growing up in St. Louis. "There are some more tech companies coming here now, but 15, 20 years ago, that did not exist," she explains.
"CS was not on my radar," she says. It wasn't until she decided against being a doctor and to pursue applied math instead that she took her first CS course, which was a prerequisite for that major, and liked it so much that she changed her major to CS.
Fast forward to two years ago: Taylor was still playing ice hockey in her spare time, and she had a full-time role as a data engineer, but she was ready for a new challenge. When her hockey team went out one night after a game, she found herself chatting with her teammate Gianfranco, who also happens to be the CoFounder of SevenFifty. "He told me about the industry and the problems they were solving, and I thought it sounded really interesting. He was like, 'Are you looking for a job?'" she recalls, and shortly thereafter she found herself interviewing for and ultimately accepting a role.
We sat down with Taylor to learn more about her path to SevenFifty and the opportunity she's had to make an impact in a startup environment.
Defining her own career
Taylor wasn't sure what a CS career looked like when she started in the field. "I was in classes with people who went to coding camp, whose dads worked at Facebook, who had been coding since they were 12. And I'd been coding since three months ago," she says.
Her first professional experience was an internship with the Columbia IT department. It went well, and prepared her for a later role at a boutique consulting agency focused on consumer reports about companies' digital presence. There, she was a data engineer focused on building up the company's database of social and ecomm data.
When she got to SevenFifty, her first projects played off of that experience. As a pipeline engineer, she coordinated with the company's vendors to get their data loaded. "It involved writing custom code to read whatever files they sent us, because every distributor sends a totally different file. Some of them are really high tech and have IT departments we can liaise with, and other times they're sending us an Excel file from 1999 and we have to get it into our system and make it look the same," explains Taylor.
Just like she got more comfortable with hockey the longer she played it, Taylor found herself coming into her own at work, ready to share her experience.
But she quickly realized that not every work environment was ready to hear it.
Realizing where she could make an impact
At the boutique firm Taylor first worked at, she quickly recognized an imbalance in the work she was expected to do and the opinions she was allowed to have.
"It's tricky at smaller companies, because sometimes junior engineers do have outsized responsibilities placed on them, but depending on how the management structure works, your voice still might not be heard," says Taylor. "They're asking a lot of you, but they're not listening to your feedback on it."
She knew she wanted to grow her career at a place where her expertise would be valued and listened to, and she joined SevenFifty because it seemed like that kind of environment. As it turns out, her initial impression was right.
"Within the first six months, I felt a major difference in how senior leadership paid attention to everyone," she says. "I always immediately felt heard and like my input was always listened to."
Even in her two years there, as the company has grown from 50 people to over 100, Taylor says that the culture hasn't shifted away from that focus on individual impact. "We're more rigid about what goes in certain channels on Slack, for instance, and our processes have gotten better, but the culture hasn't become too corporate," she reflects.
Taylor is especially excited about the opportunity to make design choices for the products she's working on, instead of them just being handed down to her from on high. Of late she's been working on product search and ordering APIs, collaborating with the product team on prioritization.
Two pieces of advice for people at small companies looking to make an impact
Taylor has two key pieces of wisdom to pass on to anyone else wanting to make the best of their responsibility set at a growing company: learn to say no, and trust your instincts. Both things have served her well as she's built her own career (and life!).
- Get comfortable saying no. Just like she once assumed her parents knew what was best for her, Taylor started her career assuming that her boss was always right—that they knew her capabilities, the company's priorities, and how best to match them. "As you grow and you're working with other teams, sometimes you really are the only person in the room who is qualified to say, 'Actually, I don't think this will work' or 'I don't think this timeline or budget is feasible,'" she says. "Knowing when to say no is a skill in and of itself, and becoming able to say no is difficult, but also an essential skill for growing in this industry."
- Trust your own judgement. Part of being comfortable saying no, even to superiors, is having a strong sense of what is right. Taylor says she's felt that from her early days of being in CS classes where she was the least experienced one in the room, but still found ways to share her thoughts. Starting with that humility, she adds, makes it easier to speak up firmly but also constructively. "Now, when I speak up with a technical opinion, even if I'm afraid to say it, later on my boss is happy I raised it," she says.
It does help when the people you're saying no to and sharing your instincts with are people that you like and respect, which Taylor says is definitely the case at SevenFifty.
"SevenFifty is filled with people who really like their jobs, are passionate about their jobs, and have a ton of industry knowledge," she says. "I just feel like on top of wanting to do the work, I don't want to disappoint any of those people; I want to help all of them succeed in their goals."
Rockstar Games' Amanda Crane on the Technical and Team Skills Needed to Succeed
When you get your friends together, you probably think about how to create a community that everyone can enjoy.
That's exactly what Amanda Crane does every day at work—only she does it for 100,000,000 people, all at the same time.
As the Associate Director of Social Club Development at video game developer Rockstar Games, Amanda's role includes developing the Rockstar Games Social Club website, where players of Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto, and other Rockstar titles can earn bonuses, connect with other players to join "crews" and play together, and track performance.
"Gaming is commonly portrayed as an isolated individual pursuit, but that cannot be further from the truth," says Amanda. "The applications we build are focused on making gaming a truly socially inclusive activity, and the art of creating our games and all the infrastructure required to support them is highly collaborative."
We sat down with Amanda to learn more about her path into gaming, how her team does their work, and what kind of people she's looking to hire.
London to Edinburgh to New York: leaning into love for development and travel
As a resident of New York City and a student of archaeology, Amanda can, in normal times, be found spending weekends wandering around all of the art and history museums the city has to offer. Her passion for art has always been a part of her life, though her first jobs in software didn't quite highlight it.
She started her career in London, writing accounting software and developing a range of coding skills, then worked freelance for a while and relocated to Edinburgh for a long-term project with a global energy company. She worked on designing, building, and managing an online system that enabled remote engineers to share their knowledge—and gained experience that she uses daily in her current role at Rockstar.
Amanda knew she was ready for her next career move to involve more art and creativity and had been thinking about Rockstar for a while. "I was familiar with Rockstar's games and really appreciated their artistry and just knew that was where I wanted to be," says Amanda.
Amanda applied for a role at Rockstar and was offered a position on the Social Club team, based in New York City, where she could use her experience with web technologies and help grow Social Club from a social platform to a cutting-edge way to manage and improve player interactions with Rockstar's online services.
And that's exactly what she's spent the last ten years doing.
Driving engagement requires collaboration
Along with running the development of the Social Club, Amanda partners with all of Rockstar's business departments to realize their goal of providing a reliable, engaging, and safe online community to their entire player base. That requires her to collaborate on company-wide processes, especially with Rockstar's Player Insight and Analytics, Online Operations, and Marketing teams.
"There are so many opportunities for working with different people, technologies, and applications," says Amanda. "Rockstar encourages collaboration across teams and studios, everyone is super passionate about the product and works really hard to ensure every detail of what we produce is top quality. Passion, collaboration, and love for the product really is at the heart of all we do."
She also oversees a team of nine developers who report directly to her. She makes sure they're getting the training and development they need to be successful at Rockstar and over the course of their careers, and that the environment they're working in is a positive one.
"We need to ensure our environment is able to evolve constantly, but we also need to keep it safe and inclusive," says Amanda.
What you need to succeed on Rockstar's Social Club team
Rockstar is constantly on the lookout for new hires for the Social Club, so if being a part of creating a safe, engaging community for other game lovers sounds like something of interest, take notes on what they are looking for:
Technical skills needed:
- Front end web development (with strong UI/UX skills)
- .NET development
- Database development (including SQL)
- Build and Release engineering
- Test Automation engineering
Soft skills needed:
- Collaboration. "Our team spans multiple time-zones so a lot of that collaboration occurs remotely. This can bring unique challenges and requires a highly communicative and collaborative nature," says Amanda.
- A flexible approach. "New projects can often be presented to our team in early stages of design and frequently require research into new technologies/methodologies and lots of discussion, documentation and planning before development work can begin," she adds.
- A growth mindset. "Demonstrating that you have a passion for technology and continued learning is important," says Amanda.
- Developing websites with a strong design emphasis, strong security protocols, and a high concurrency rate in order to create the best possible user experience of public-facing applications
- Working directly with product owners and end users and communicating across different audiences
- An appreciation and understanding of the factors that can impact performance, much like data manipulation and presentation in the financial sector ("it's a close parallel to much of the work," explains Amanda, "especially that which involves the analysis of game telemetry")
4 tips to stand out in a technical Rockstar interview
Whether you've long dreamed of a career at Rockstar or Amanda's story has convinced you to apply, keep these tips of hers in mind as you go through the interview process:
- You don't have to be a huge gamer, but make sure you do your research. "[Get some] insight into the wide technological infrastructure supporting online games, and the many roles available beyond actual game development," says Amanda—which would include roles on her team! "It also helps to invest the time to familiarize yourself with our online games and the Social Club platform. I love when people I'm interviewing make a reference to a feature on the Social Club website and can discuss it in the context of their own experience."
- Connect the gaming industry to other tech sectors. Many of the technical difficulties faced in gaming are found in other places, like an awareness and vigilance of around security, performance, and maintaining the infrastructure behind tens of millions of user accounts. Highlight your understanding of those problems, even if you haven't come across them in a gaming scenario, says Amanda.
- Show your work. Amanda loves to see candidates that keep up to date with recent frameworks and innovations on their own time. "If you can demonstrate with a personal project that you have familiarity with the latest frameworks, that goes some way to inform us that you are passionate about technology," she says.
- Give credit to your team. Being a geographically dispersed team, Rockstar relies on collaboration to succeed. "We need to be open with our ideas, share them across the teams, be able to communicate ideas to non-technical stake-holders, and mentor other members of the team to help them fully understand what we are doing and, just as importantly, why," says Amanda. "What I love during interviews is when people emphasize the team aspect of their successes, and even when talking about failed team projects, are able to communicate lessons learned and how those were applied to subsequent successful team projects."
Ready to apply?
Ready to become part of the future of gaming communities?
"A career in the gaming industry is a fantastic opportunity for anyone with a desire to work within a highly collaborative and communicative environment, on products that embrace social inclusiveness," says Amanda.
If that sounds like something that interests you, check out Rockstar's open roles!