Use your story to get your next opportunity
A non-traditional background should be an asset, not a liability in the tech job search.
This post was originally published on BeVisible, an online community and resource for Latinx people. For more information about BeVisible and their work, check them out on Twitter @bevisiblelatinx or BeVisible.soy.
A few months ago, Atlassian held an event with TechUP in our Austin, TX offices. The goal? To help underrepresented minorities (URMs) gain access to more opportunities in the tech industry. I sat on a panel during the event, and made an offhand observation that I haven’t stopped thinking about since:
“People from underrepresented groups don’t lack job skills. They lack the getting-a-job skills that their majority-group counterparts have either been coached on, or have learned through osmosis.”
Despite the fact that I come from a few underrepresented groups (I identify as female, Latina, and LGBT), in many ways I’m a very “traditional” candidate for a job in the tech industry. I was able to attend a 4-year college, and even received coaching from the careers office on topics like how to write a resume and how to perform well in an interview. But I know that not everyone comes to the job market with that kind of training, and that URMs are much less likely than their peers to have access to these resources.
In my work designing and implementing diversity programs for a software company, I’ve noticed that non-traditional candidates — whether they are ethnic minorities, didn’t attend college, took some time out of the workforce to care for family members, speak English as a second or third language, etc. — haven’t had the chance to have this kind of coaching. It’s time to change that, and time for coaching to highlight something important: those “non-traditional” candidates often have extra value to offer employers.
A marketing problem
One of the most important things to remember when searching for a job is that the process isn’t just about what you can do: it’s about how you sell what you can do. Getting a job is as much a matter of marketing as it is of competency. Whether you’re submitting a resume online or sitting in an on-site interview, highlighting what makes you special — what makes you different from all the others applying — is the key to success.
Turning life skills into job skills
One of the biggest missed opportunities I see for candidates is that they only think of the skills they’ve learned on the job as relevant during the interview process. Try to think of everything you have learned or accomplished as relevant to your future role. Just because you weren’t paid doesn’t mean it’s not relevant!
Here’s some examples:
- Moved to the U.S. as a teenager > Ability to adapt to new environments and challenges
- Fluent in Spanish language and culture > Experience with cross-cultural communication
- Went to school part time while working > Ability to meet multiple objectives while balancing time, budget, and logistical constraints
- Provided long-term care for a family member > Strong degree of empathy with the ability to consider and prioritize the needs of my team
The goal in this exercise is not to lie about your experiences, but to highlight them in ways a prospective employer will understand. It’s just about translation. If asked to elaborate, you should absolutely tell your personal story! The exercise should push you to think of the skills that you have learned in one area that can be applied to another. In fact, that ability itself is a highly desirable characteristic.
Your uniqueness is your value add
Once you’ve wowed the interviewer with your experience (and the novel ways you’ve gained it), it’s time to really impress them. A great company doesn’t want to hire carbon copies of people they’ve already hired. They want to find people with new experiences, perspectives, and ideas. It’s those new perspectives that will help them solve the problems they’re currently facing and the challenges they’ll inevitably encounter in the future.
Don’t ever fall to the temptation of hiding what’s unique about you and your experience! If there’s anything I’ve seen in the last couple years of working with some of the best recruiting teams in the world, it’s that we (the hiring teams) only have a vague idea of what we’re looking for. We can often give you a list of skills and abilities that the best applicant needs to have, but an experience or way of thinking that’s different is what turns a good application into a great one.
I work in tech, where being a Latina makes me a minority. But in economics, rarity often signals significant value. Never forget to highlight yours.
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