4 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting In Tech

June 3, 2022
David Turnbull

People say that it’s good to learn from your mistakes and of course, that’s true. But there is an even better way – you can learn from the mistakes of others, so you don’t have to make them at all. With this spirit of sharing in mind, here are four things I wish I knew before starting my tech career.

1. There are more jobs in tech than you think

I’ve always been fairly tech savvy, but when it came time to move to a career in tech I didn’t really know much about how tech companies operated. I knew they had engineers and developers building software products, and people in marketing, support and admin type roles. But that was basically it. 

I started learning to code but it didn’t seem like the way forward for me so I decided I needed to look elsewhere. I have a marketing degree, so I thought that could be a good path. After many months of self-directed study I managed to get a job in growth marketing. It was good, but the truth is, while I am certainly capable of working in marketing with the benefit of hindsight I don’t think it was the right role for me. If I could start again with more knowledge of the industry I would probably go down the product management route. But back when I was trying to break into tech I didn’t even know product management was an option, so of course, I didn’t pursue it. 

My advice:

There are more career options in tech than the obvious roles in development, support, marketing and so on. If you want to find a great role in tech then you need to understand how tech companies operate – the teams and departments that exist, how they work together and bring products to the market. From there, you can research the various roles that are available within each part of the business and find one that’s right for you. It doesn’t need to be a traditional “tech” job, like coding or design – there are plenty of operations and administrative roles that need to be filled as well. If you’re a lawyer and want to break into tech you could leverage your experience into a job in the company’s in-house legal team. If you’re coming from finance you could work in corporate development. Whatever you decide, just make sure you understand all the options first.

2. It’s not always best to work at a startup

Startups can be exciting places to work. That is certainly true. But it doesn’t mean they are the best places for you to work. 

My first real tech job was as the first non-technical hire at a venture-backed startup. It was a positive experience overall and I’m profoundly thankful to the founders for taking a chance on me. But like most early-stage startups, we were a small, often overstretched team and there was an expectation that we would take care of ourselves. Looking back, I don’t think jumping straight into a startup environment was the best career move for me. 

Being new to the role and the industry, there was a lot I needed to learn, and quickly. I would have benefited from working alongside team-members in similar roles so I could see how they worked, ask questions, get guidance and mentorship. The organizational structure that exists in larger, more established tech companies would also have been helpful. With such a small, busy team I often tried to just figure things out myself as I didn’t want to get in anyone's way asking for help. If I’m being honest, if I’d chosen a company where I’d have more guidance and support I probably could have become much better at my job.

My advice:

Work in a startup, but not as your first job in the industry. Don’t make things harder than they need to be. Start off in a more established company, and once you’ve come to grips with your role and the wider industry, then you can take the gamble of startup life. Which leads me to number 3….

3. Startup stock options are a lottery

This probably seems obvious to you. I always understood intellectually that the odds of making serious money through stock options would be very small. That said, I allowed myself to let that dream of stock option wealth take hold in my mind. This stopped me from making some cold, calculated decisions that would have worked out better financially in the long term. It is highly unlikely that your startup stock options will ever be worth any significant amount. If you choose to trade a higher salary for options then you’re probably going to make less money overall.

Even in the best circumstances, when the company is growing fast and dominating the category, you still need an exit event to actually realize the financial gains. Look at Stripe – they are worth close to $100B and there are plenty of paper millionaires who have been working there for years. But until the company goes public they are just that – paper millionaires. 

My advice:

You can’t buy a house or pay your rent with unexercised stock options. Assume that any options you do get will be worth zero, and if by some miracle they’re not, congratulations! But when you’re negotiating your employment compensation, focus on areas where you have more control, like your salary, performance bonuses, benefits, or with bootstrapped companies, even profit sharing. 

4. Working remotely is not always a good career move

I don’t currently live in a major tech city, so the ability to work remotely has opened doors that would otherwise have been shut to me. The flexibility has been helpful, and I’ve had the chance to see my young children more as they grow up. These are all real benefits, and I’ve been thankful to have them.

But like everything in life, this choice came with tradeoffs. When it comes to the first stages of a tech career, I think there is a huge amount of value to be gained from spending time working alongside your colleagues. 

When you work remotely you can chat via Slack or email, and have Zoom calls but you miss the opportunities for spontaneity that arise in real life. And it’s in these moments of spontaneity where you can often solve problems or build relationships. It’s tough to really get to know your colleagues or build a network in a new industry when your only contact with people is through text chat or video meetings.

Working remotely can also be quite lonely. If you’re changing careers then you’re going to be in a new company and a new industry and you won’t have your normal professional support network to fall back on. Being stuck working in your spare bedroom for 8 hours each day isn’t going to make that easier. 

Does this mean you should avoid all remote jobs? No. Many companies now offer hybrid work options where you can spend some days working from home and some in the office. This seems like a good mix, where you can get some of the convenience and flexibility of working from home and avoiding the commute, but you’ll get to meet your colleagues and customers. In some other companies you can spend the bulk of your time working from home and then head to company retreats or offsites a few times per year to meetup, and that can also help. In one of my previous remote jobs we would all meet in an unrelated city like Budapest to go through planning and strategy for the coming year, and I think meeting up like that was as important for my own sanity as it was for team cohesion. 

My advice:

Remote work may be convenient, but at the start of your tech career just make sure you get some real, regular facetime with your team. 

To learn more about how you can turn your professional experience into a rewarding, highly-paid tech career, check out Metamorphous

David Turnbull
Founder of Metamorphous
Since changing careers to tech in my late 20s I've worked in B2B SaaS growth and was a partner at an ecommerce company that was ultimately acquired.

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