Applying at a High-Tech Firm When You're a Non-Tech Person

The high-tech sector has rapidly become the workforce's most desirable marketplace. Jobs in that area are better paying, have better hours and offer more employee perks.

But every employer still looks for basic job skills. And they expect their potential employee to give a great interview.

Danica Snyder is the marketing manager at an Internet-based company in San Francisco. A few years ago, she decided to roam the dot-com landscape to try and find a good work opportunity.

She was unsure of her chances with an Internet start-up because the work she had done up to that point was all in the traditional market.

"I was a city planner," she says. "I worked for the government a bit." She says that she had strong technical skills, but had not worked in the dot-com landscape.

"I had to work really hard to convince [her employer] that I was able to move at that speed and had the skills and then could develop them as needed," she says. "That was the challenge of me moving from a traditional environment to the dot-com Internet world."

Previously, she had been the system administrator of her own company. She could write HTML. She says it was her strong technical skills that got her the interview in the first place.

Steve Kweller is a recruiter at a software company. He says that a new employee at his company will have a good knowledge of an operating system and some hardware programming. And those skills are required prior to them coming to the company.

"Not all my positions require technical ability," he says. "But for the most part, they do."

Other companies require proficiency with Windows, Word and the Internet. Many companies train employees on their own software. So it's good to be comfortable with computers in general. It's rare that low-tech employees will have to know any programming or hard tech skills.

Kweller says that generally, his company does not train employees from outside the company. But once they're inside the company, there is some training available.

"If they come in, they already have the skills that we require," he says. "Sometimes we do an intern program where we will accept somebody less qualified."

Many companies offer employee training programs for both hard and soft skills. Hard skills are things like being able to program computers, write HTML or design software. Being able to communicate well and having strong leadership abilities are two examples of soft skills.

Many of these skills are learned in university programs other than computer science or information technology, says Donna McNicol. She is the vice-president of human resources for a wireless communication company. She adds that liberal arts students are hot commodities in the high-tech workplace.

McNicol says that her company is interested more in people who are adaptable and have an aptitude for learning. A person with only good computer skills is not so highly prized.

"What we're particularly looking for is people that have shown a pattern of an ability to learn," she says. "We'll train in some of the skills areas."

Farood Malek is the chief executive officer at a recruiting company. Malek says an experienced manager may have no technical background, but strong management skills. Such a manager could start out in a high-tech company by coordinating projects at a lower level.

"We try to dip down further and find out the past experience which can help them to get to the job that they want to get into," Malek says. "The previous knowledge that they have helps them get into the company."

And often, that previous experience can come out only in the interview stage of the hiring process.

Malek says that to make an impression in an interview at a high-tech company, you have to stress any relevant schooling and past work experience.

"The best way to look at it is to look at your education or background and try to find the companies that are working in that specific market," he says. "Start from there, and you have more chance to get into it."

He says the more preparation you do for the market you're going into, the better you are going to fare.

"Do your homework and find out if there are opportunities in that company," Malek says. "Look at your experience, what you study and any co-op courses that you have. Get into it from that door.

"If you look at most of the companies in this field, they have needs, from reception to advertising to business analysis. There are many different types of opportunities. Try to get into the company from where you have experience and study."

McNicol says that having a firm skill set is not the essential attribute her company looks for in new employees. She says they look for employees who have the ability to learn. And she tests that ability in the interview situation.

"We hire based on competencies," McNicol says. "We do behavior-event interviewing where we're looking for particular competencies in the area -- such as listening, understanding, responding, team building -- that we know that mean somebody can work in a fast-paced environment."

McNicol says that it is virtually impossible for students to show a strong work history and background when they are just out of school. That's because many students are only then starting their first job.

On a resume, she looks for good marks, but not necessarily a decorated work history. In fact, the resume plays a fairly small part in the hiring process, according to McNicol.

"The only thing on the resume that's of interest to us," McNicol says, "is 'Do you see a pattern of behavior that they have shown that [indicates] they are extending themselves in the community?'"

She says they are not looking at specific skills. But she wants to see some life experience that indicates an ability to lead a team, for instance.

Strong leadership abilities -- from experience with sports to a role within a family -- often come out in interviews, she says.

"If you're [an employer] looking at an entry-level position for somebody who is in a non-technical field, then you're looking for patterns of their behavior that show that they've got other areas that they could draw on in their life skills in order to bring something to the job."

And in many cases, an interview is the best opportunity you will get to bring out the strength of your skills and to show an employer what you can offer.

That's what Snyder did at her interview. She decided to follow her instincts and show enthusiasm. And it paid off big.

"I requested a work assignment, kind of a homework assignment, during my interview," she says, "to prove to them that I could think quickly on my feet, and learn, and analyze, and produce. That was, I think, the way I got the job."