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Can't Code? How to Get a Job at a Tech Start-Up with No Technical Skills

04/21/2015 03:11 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2015

Tech is hot. Start-ups are cool. You need to look no further than the Sunday night line-up on HBO or the pages of the New York Times to know that Silicon Valley is the current "it" place for young talent.

As a "New York finance guy" turned "San Francisco tech start-up guy", I often get introduced to friends-of-friends who want to break into tech. These friends-of-friends are often smart twenty-somethings who followed the paths laid from their prestigious schools to large professional service firms or other big company jobs. It isn't until a few years in that they realize it's time for a career switch, and right now, they often cast their eyes to tech.

I've seen several of the folks I've spoken with succeed in securing new roles at fast growing tech companies. And I've witnessed an unfortunate share flounder in the recruiting process and then fail. Neither group has software coding skills, so what sets the successful ones apart from the unsuccessful? How did they get their jobs and what can you learn from their experiences?

Before I began at an early stage fintech company, Personal Capital, I was lucky to have had prior experience at a large tech company, Hewlett-Packard, and received my MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Those opportunities opened doors. Though I know my experience was atypical, much can be learned from the process I went through and that I've seen others go through.

Here are some recommendations for landing your dream tech job:

1. Refine Your Search

If I get on the phone with someone interested in working vaguely at a "tech start-up", I'll roll my eyes and wish the conversation would end. "Tech" is too broad a term, as technology has pervaded every aspect of our economy. "Start-up" can also mean anything from a couple of people tinkering in a garage to a fast-growing billion-dollar business about to IPO.

One friend of mine, a former executive for a top Valley company, told me about the MBAs he has spoken with who say they're interested in working at Uber, Airbnb, Square, Pinterest, and Dropbox. These are all companies worth more than $1 billion. A remark like that signals to an executive or a recruiter that you care less about the company and the problem the company is trying to solve, and more about the latest valuation.

Instead, figure out what area of tech excites you. Do you want to work in a B2B business? What about consumer tech? Software? Or hardware? Edtech? Maybe fintech? Once you've determined the area of tech you want to go into, read about the companies in the space and follow them in the news for months. You'll be amazed how much you'll learn that will position you well for your eventual interviews and to hit the ground running when you start that dream job.

You'll also want to be sharp about which size and stage of company you're looking for. Seed-stage start-ups tend to have only a few employees. Series A or B-backed start-ups tend to have 10-50 employees and look like small businesses. And unicorn-level "start-ups" often resemble large companies. The larger the company the more narrow your role will be and the less risk you'll likely be taking on. It's important to do some soul-searching about how much risk and reward you're looking for, knowing that risk and reward often must be traded off.

2. Identify the Company's Growth Areas

All start-ups want to grow at blistering paces. These companies tend to be spending money far faster than they make it to feed their investors' demands for growth. As you refine your search and build a list of the tech start-ups you'd like to work at, start to understand the growth challenges each company faces.

Growth can take on many forms. Are they looking to grow their installed base of active users of a free service in their existing markets? Have they decided to expand abroad to tap into new potential markets? Do they need to grow top-line review by selling to non-paying users? Can they grow bottom-line profitability by offering more services to paying customers? Do they need help recruiting talent?

The company's growth needs are likely to be related to how old the company is and how many rounds of funding it has raised. A company having just raised a seed round will likely be bringing a product to market for the first time, whereas a company on its fourth or fifth round of funding might be trying to prove its existing growth rate is sustainable ahead of an IPO.

To the extent you can, talk to company or industry insiders to understand the specific challenges facing each of the companies on your list.

3. Understand Your Value

Just because you can't code, doesn't mean you can't get hired. In fact, non-coders are sometimes best able to help a company solve its most challenging growth problems. But you need to know how you and your experiences can be used to help.

Companies are always looking for great sales people. In a B2B tech start-up, sales is often king. Do you have past sales experience? Can you show your hustle? Imagine if you showed up to a job interview with a few sales targets in mind that aren't customers yet and a plan to win their business. Count the recruiter impressed.

All companies have marketing functions. Marketing is more and more reliant on data, so a track record of analytical skills can set you apart. And if not, there are still roles for eager individuals to work on company blogs, manage social media accounts, and write copy for ads or webpages.

Business development roles are very popular. Many of these roles involve striking partnership agreements with other companies that can lead to wider distribution of a company's product or service. Networking skills and deal experience are strong indicators of success in this role. But just because you worked in finance doesn't mean you understand "deals". Most companies only have a few individuals in these roles, and they are often more experienced, given how dramatically this function can shape company-wide strategy.

Be open to wearing multiple hats and having a more vague job description, particularly if you're talking to a very early-stage company. But don't let the "I'll do anything" attitude show a lack of focus on your part. You can show you have specific skills that will propel the company's growth while still presenting yourself as open to take on new challenges as they arise.

4. Nail The Interview

Treat every conversation with a company you'd consider working at as if it's an interview. The hiring processes at these companies tend to be less formal than at large companies, so there is no "informational interview". Make no mistake about it: the company representative is judging you and determining, in real time, if and how they could add you to their team. So, use that to your advantage.

Be bold and ask for a job. When I was looking for a summer internship during business school, I had countless conversations with target companies I wanted to work at. They led nowhere. And then I shifted course and went back to one of my strengths: my PowerPoint skills. I then began every conversation with three slides. The first slide discussed who I was and why I loved the company's product. The second slide outlined what I saw as the company's major areas of growth and its biggest challenges to accomplishing that growth. The third slide outlined three potential projects I could complete over the summer.

The slides worked. Interviewers were impressed, and I had job multiple offers in a matter of days. I don't doubt that if you're equally as prepared and come with specific and appropriate ways you can help a company grow that you too can see success.

Go Get the Job

Can't code? Don't let that discourage you from pursuing a job at a tech start-up. Instead, let that motivate you to do some soul-searching, researching, and understanding your value. Once you do, you'll be in an excellent position to make your case to a tech start-up that you are the right fit for their company.