This is the most exciting time in Australia’s startup ecosystem yet: the breakout phase proving Atlassian and Canva weren’t just flukes.
By 2025, Australia will need one million people in tech jobs, based on forecasts by the Tech Council of Australia.
That’s 260,000 new people who we need to enter the tech industry over the next four years, but with a global pandemic still rattling the world, we can’t merely rely on poaching international talent.
Our ecosystem often talks of a local tech talent shortage, but there’s a critical detail this ignores.
There’s a lot of non-tech talent curious about tech, but not sure what role to play and how to break in.
In filling the knowledge gap, one of the most powerful things we can do for our local startup ecosystem is build content, community and programs for non-traditional talent to break into tech & startups, with offerings like the Startmate Fellowship leading the way.
And importantly, we should be capturing and sharing the lessons from those who have successfully made the leap, to make it easier for the next wave.
In my time building the Earlywork community, Shilpa Mohan (Operations Manager @ ProcurePro) is one of the most iconic stories I’ve come across, with someone totally outside tech & business proactively venturing into the world of early stage startups.
Here, she shares her story and most important lessons for non-traditional candidates looking to break into tech & startups:
From Pharmacist to Designer to... Startup Operations Manager? 🤔
As a former pharmacist and interior designer, my journey into the world of tech probably isn’t the standard narrative.
Growing up in Adelaide, when it came to choosing a university degree, there wasn’t much of a tech industry at the time. Most friends either studied law or science, and I went down the pharmacy road because I geeked out on organic chemistry in school.
Alas, I love the creative side of things, and being a pharmacist didn’t quite scratch the itch. Wanting to use the right side of my brain instead was a... no brainer.
I studied Interior Design and got my real estate license at the same time - you’ll quickly come to learn that I don’t do things in halves and there’s no harm in having back up options.
While I was studying, the fact that really young people were building things quickly & taking over the world really intrigued me about startups. My sister was working at Google and working on her own startup, and I thought she was the coolest person ever, so naturally, I wanted in too!
So much so, I decided to fly to the other side of the world to volunteer at Web Summit in Dublin, where I met people from every kind of tech company possible.
Out of about 400 volunteers, I had travelled the furthest to get there, which helped me strike a lot of conversations and meet people I otherwise never would’ve met.
However, because I had no “tech or business education”, I believed I couldn’t do anything in that industry, so I never chased those relationships into further opportunities. Big mistake, so please learn from mine!
Instead, I continued on the design path, built up a reasonably successful career, became a judge for the Australian Construction Awards, and got my work published in magazines.
While I was doing this, I started volunteering for TEDxSydney in their core team, taking care of 300+ event day volunteers before becoming a curator.
Only this year, after learning to disregard my “nay saying” brain, I took a leap of faith into the startup world and joined ProcurePro, an early stage construction tech startup as their Operations & Marketing Manager, and 14th employee.
Taking the leap into the tech and startup industry felt like navigating a whole new planet.
Year-long projects turned into two week sprints, top-down decisions turned into employee autonomy, and hidden company information turned into an open book.
In jumping from Earth to Jupiter (I’ll leave Mars for Elon), these are the 4 biggest principles that helped me break into the world of tech & startups from a non-traditional background:
1. Go to tech community events and set a target for people to meet 🎯
The tech & startup world in Australia is absolutely brimming with events, remote and in-person. It’s one of the easiest ways to get out there and meet people, and could even land you your next role.
You certainly don’t need to travel as far as Europe like I did! Earlywork has a Slack channel solely dedicated to #events in the local ecosystem.
Just go to the events that:
a) Are focused on the specific domain you’re looking to break into e.g. marketing events if you want to get into marketing
b) Are more general, fun ecosystem events where people are more open to striking up a conversation
If you find an event run by a company you want to work for, do not miss it. You will meet people that can eventually provide you with introductions to said company.
If you’re an introvert like me, you might feel that same adolescent nervousness when you first start going to events in an entirely new industry.
I’m not going to lie, I’m still an anxiety-filled apple before most tech & startup events, but I push myself to talk to at least three people at every single event.
Whether it be a joke about the endless cheese boards, or a deep & meaningful about my existential crisis, or you know, a conversation that doesn’t completely show my weirdness... I do not leave until I have.
Funnily enough, the more awkward you are at these things, the more endearing you are as well.
Make the most of every event, and if you meet someone exploring a similar space, it’s totally okay to grab their details on LinkedIn at the end if you think there might be some way you can help them (LinkedIn QR codes are a surprisingly handy feature!)
If you have access to a guest list, don’t be afraid to connect with people beforehand if you think there’s a mutually relevant opportunity.
For me, it was early stage startup founders looking to hire, or potential speakers for TEDxSydney. Importantly, make sure you tell people WHY you are connecting.
Honestly, most people have some level of anxiety around “networking events”, so everyone would love to know someone that is also attending.
Forming genuine human connections with people on similar paths is one of the single most important things you can do throughout your entire career.
A word of warning: there is such a thing as too many events. You can get burnt out by over socialising, so prioritise based on relevance of content and attendees.
2. Learn to tell your story by finding great storytellers 📽
Something I took way too long to realise: regardless of what you want to do in life, you need to become an excellent storyteller.
Elevator pitches are as important for individual stories as they are for startups.
Think about every interview you’ve had for a job: it’s almost like a sales process.
And when you’re jumping into a career without any experience in the industry, then you really need storytelling skills.
So how you do build those skills?
For me, volunteering as a TEDx Sydney curator helped me become a much better storyteller and speaker super quickly.
My job was literally to find speakers, edit their scripts, and help them showcase their idea in the best possible way.
Essentially, I was training myself on a dataset of amazing, diverse stories of leaders across the industry.
Some of the best stories I got the chance to curate are those from Sally Woellner, Product Design Lead at Canva, and George Peppou, CEO of Vow.
We touched on specific techniques like the ‘Hero’s Journey’ to tell your story, but more broadly, seeing the challenges speakers faced in connecting with their audience drastically improved the way I communicate with people in general.
Here are the 6 key public speaking tips from my time at TEDx that I’ve adapted for everyday life:
- Embrace your nerves. Everyone is human; they’ll understand the wobbles.
- Know who you are talking to. Some people are professional, some people are casual... read the room.
- Prepare. Jot down the 3 points you definitely want to cover.
- Watch for feedback and look at body language. It will tell you a lot about how a person is responding to a certain nugget of information.
- Let your personality shine! Use humour and show vulnerability.
- End a conversation with something memorable or a call to action.
3. Translate non-tech experiences into relevant skills to show the value of your past work 🔑
Okay, so say you’ve met some incredible people who led you to a dream opportunity in tech, and you’ve aced an initial introduction or interview with your storytelling.
In order to turn that opportunity into a reality, and convince someone that you would ace the role despite coming from a different industry, you need to show them what skills you have.
First off, make a list of all the skills you have gained throughout your internships, education and career. Then, begin to map them to areas a tech company or startup might need help with.
Here are some real examples of how I did it:
- I onboarded, trained and managed over 300+ volunteers for multiple TEDxSydney events → This translates into a people management role.
- I grew my own Instagram account as well as countless social media accounts for companies I worked at → This translates into social media or marketing roles
- I wrote press releases and pitched past design projects to magazines and found speaking opportunities → This translates into a PR role
- I created workflows for teams, created operations manuals and did some general accounting → This translates into an operations role
- My interior design skills leant themselves to knowing colour theory, modelling in CAD software and storyboarding → This translates into a design role (product, UX/UI)
This would be a stupidly long article if I showed you the full list, but to boil it down, I spent around 2 hours writing down dozens upon dozens of skills that I had built up.
Then I researched the local job market for all the possible roles in tech, and looked at job descriptions to see where my skills could map.
It might seem too theoretical or irrelevant, but believe me, just write it down and you’ll start to see the pattern of what roles you’re best positioned for.
4. Keep learning after-hours to overcome impostor syndrome 🎭
Now comes the scary part: you’ve landed the role and now you have to ace it, but there’s so much you’re ignorant about.
Frankly, a lot of the practices I learned in uni & industry needed unlearning when I entered the startup world.
The funny thing is, being a total beginner, and going in with a gung-ho attitude that you will try to learn absolutely anything needed, will help you succeed.
However, there were some key things I prioritised learning before applying for a role in at a tech startup:
- The basics around how startups work, like the different roles you find in startups (there’s an excellent Earlywork newsletter about non-technical startup roles) and things like stock options (check out the Eucalyptus ESOP guide).
- Familiarise yourself with basic technical jargon, even if you aren’t applying for a tech role:
- What’s a codebase?
- What’s the difference between frontend and backend engineering?
- UX vs. UI? Here’s a fun way of thinking about UX and UI: a burger has excellent UI but terrible UX (they look so darn delish, but man are they sloppy to eat).
- Understand the different types of tech companies: ProcurePro is a vertical SaaS startup so I learnt as much as I could about SaaS (starting with yup, the definition of SaaS: Software as a Service).
Feeling like I don’t know enough about the tech industry has made me hungry.
Instead of spending hours scrolling TikTok every night, I honestly find myself watching videos by David Skok about SaaS metrics while I’m lying in bed.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m learning everything I need to on the job, but some learning outside of work feels like play.
My barometer for deciding if something is encroaching on my ‘work-life balance’ is if I feel stressed or if I am trying to meet a deadline outside of work hours.
If it meets neither criteria, then anything I learn is making me a better person so it falls in the ‘life’ pile.
The high learning velocity of startupland, and getting the chance to work across multiple aspects in the business, has helped me build an attitude that nothing is too scary to do.
Tech is a relatively new industry that is constantly changing, so most of the time, people are figuring it out as they go.
Squash that niggling imposter syndrome that attacks you without notice and if you don’t know something, learn it!
Summing it up
Tying it all together, these are the lessons to remember:
- Get your face out there in the tech ecosystem, but set a framework for networking so that you don’t feel like you’re flailing in the wind.
- Become a good storyteller, because if you can’t tell your story, then who will?
- Your past experiences have value. Focus on translating them into what tech companies need.
- To smash your first role, keep on learning about the broader tech industry beyond just your immediate responsibilities.
And if you are reading Earlywork’s newsletters, you already have a leg up 😉
Soaking up advice from everyone that has done the hard yards is absolute bitcoin(saying ‘absolute gold’ doesn’t quite feel right anymore).
A side note: If you are looking to make the leap from non-tech to tech, early-stage startups can be a great way to break in.
You will learn about the ecosystem at hyper-speed, and early-stage startups usually need a lot of multi-talented people who are ready to wear multiple hats before they need specialised roles.
If you ever want to chat about how to make the leap from non-tech to tech, feel free to reach out to Shilpa on LinkedIn.
She’s happy to provide specific advice related to the type of tech company you are looking to enter, offer some job search tips & tricks, or make introductions for you.
ProcurePro will be hiring later this year, so let her know if you’re interested!