5 Survival Tips for Non-Technical People Working at Tech Startups
I’m not a technical person by any means, so I’m sure you’d imagine that working at a tech startup has been an interesting experience. As a non-technical person working in a tech startup, you're faced with many challenges. Be it people always mistakenly assuming you’re a software engineer, or your own colleagues emitting strange noises that somehow make sense to everyone but you, it takes some getting used to. Here are some of my tips to help you survive the daily grind.
1. Know Your Role
Of course, knowing what you need to do and doing your job are both important, but this is a bit more than complicated than that. Knowing your role is all about breaking down what you’re good at and what you’re not so good at, and being able to decide what to devote your time to.
Everyone talks about teamwork, but sometimes it seems like people don’t really know what that means. Teamwork is about individuals with different skills pooling their skill sets together. To achieve their goal(s), most people do what they are good at together, in the pursuit of the common goal.
As a non-technical person, you have a lot to offer. Not only by bringing your non-technical outlook on the product or service your team provides but also being able to communicate it to a layman. This is especially true if you take the time to learn some basics to bolster your technical understanding.
2. Read...a lot
My first tip for you sounds like something that's been hammered into most of us since we were kids, read. Reading is paramount if you want to learn anything. We all spend countless hours on the job reading small text on the screen, so why not mix it up and add some learning material in.
Here are a few books I recommend you add to your library:
Lean Startup-Eric Ries
This book presents and explains many concepts that can be applied to startups and other industries alike. Ries uses some stories from his life as well as other successful startups to help tech startups and convince you that the way of the future is the lean methodology. Not only is this book an excellent read for technical and non-technical people alike, but it has lead to other books that take the concepts and build upon them, such as the next on the list. Audiobooks are also available if you have a long drive or if that's your thing.
UX for Lean Startups-Laura Klein
This book is an especially great read for those who don’t know much about UX Design. The book has some humorous elements, which make it quite enjoyable. I would encourage anyone, to read this book as it will open your eyes to customer-centric design, and that is a powerful tool to have, coming from a non-technical customer-centric person (yours truly).
Disciplined Entrepreneurship-Bill Aulet
This book is a 24-step guide of how to build a successful startup, and while that may sound like a gross oversimplification, it's not. The main focus of the book is discipline, and always keeping a specific goal in mind. It also discusses the importance of knowing your weaknesses and playing to your strengths. As a non-technical person, you shouldn’t worry about not being able to do what your technical counterparts can. Just do what you know, because that's where your strength lies.
Built to Sell-John Warrillow
This last recommendation is actually not tech related, but it’s a nice change of scenery. And for those who don’t have the attention span to read non-fiction, this recommendation is for you. In my humble opinion, the most memorable lessons are those told in story format, and it seems the author of this book agrees with me. This book is very business oriented, and in the context of startups, many of the non-technical team members are usually in business-related fields, so this will play to those strengths.
Now that you’ve got some reading material, I urge you to pick one of these up and give it a try as their full of great tips and strategies that will help you along your entrepreneurial journey. You don’t have to do anything fancy and sit around a fireplace in a velvet jacket like a Bond villain, but try to squeeze in some reading time. With just a few hours a day or a handful a week, you can easily finish one without realizing it. Who knows you might even enjoy it.
3. Learn the Basics
What are the basics? In terms of a technology company, it would be the simplest computer science concepts. Where can you acquire this knowledge? You’re in luck. There's this nifty tech solution called the internet that’s practically a one-stop shop full of some free knowledge.
If you’re interested in a free course, I recommend the CS50 course, an intro to computer science course by Harvard University. Yes, you heard right, the Harvard University offers a free course, which also offers a certification once completed.
The course itself is quite comprehensive and spans 13 weeks. Each week has got 2 lectures that are 50 minutes each. So it will take a decent amount of time dedication, but its self paced so that shouldn’t be an issue. But if you can’t take my word for it, go look into it. You’ll find that CS50 has glowing reviews across the internet.
Once completed, a non-technical person would learn some helpful information. You’ll still be a non-technical person, but you would have a firmer grasp on some concepts you’ll encounter on a regular basis. You may even be able to understand some of the alien languages your colleagues mistake for human speech as well.
4. Speak to Your Colleagues
Yeah, I know. Some real groundbreaking stuff I’m coming up with here. But nonetheless, a really important one too. While it may be intimidating for some, it's pretty much inevitable.
Now that you’re more well-read and have some basic computer science knowledge, I urge you to strike up conversations and put that knowledge to use. You have many opportunities throughout the day to talk to your colleagues such as during breaks, social times (team lunches/dinners, ect.) or just random chitchat while you’re working.
Try striking up conversations about their weekly scrum sessions, and if they’ve run into any roadblocks. You can ask them for their perspective on something you’re currently working on. Or better yet, keep up with current events and ask their opinions on the subjects. The last one is especially good because tech current events are always exciting, whether you’re a fan of AI overlords or not.
It may sound like a gross simplification, but trust me, I practice what I preach. You have a lot to gain from a conversation on what their daily tasks are and how they handle them. And even basic convos could lead to plenty of questions you can ask and absorb knowledge from. Of course there's also the chance that as a non-technical person, you’ll have no idea what they're saying, but no worries, the next piece of advice is specifically for that situation.
5. Come Back to My Planet
As a non-technical person working at a startup, I’ve encountered some situations where I’ve spoken to or overheard people speaking alien languages. My first thought is that they’re some sort of artificial life form sent from the future.
Any time this happens, I present the “person” speaking to me with a captcha form. Once I’m certain they’re not a robot, I ask them to restate what they said, but in a human language, that way I can understand. This practice has helped me absorb some technical speak from people in my team as well as some of our super technical clients.
Although you may not always understand what they talk about, you shouldn’t worry that the person speaking to you will think less of you for not knowing. If they do, you should definitely worry, you might have a serious body snatcher on your hands.
To wrap it all up
With these tips, I guarantee you’ll survive as a non-technical person in a technical field. In all honesty, you could probably survive without them, but they just make life easier. Just use these tips, figure out what works for you and roll with the punches. But keep in mind you’re still a non-technical person, and at the end of the day, you’re still necessary in the grand scheme of things. You were hired because you are non-technical, and there's nothing wrong with that.