Editor’s Note: This case study is republished from HR Open Source (#HROS). View the original case study here.
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Jennifer Kim was the original Head of Employee Experience & Development at Lever, a modern collaborative hiring platform powering innovative companies like Netflix, Eventbrite, and Lyft.
My colleague Rachael has a degree in Electrical Computer Engineering, has built apps for Fortune 500s, helped a previous startup scale from 50 to 250 employees. She’s the most tenured engineer at Lever and is heavily involved in building and scaling the platform on the infrastructure side. However, three years ago, after a less-than-stellar interview performance, a hiring manager told her: “Maybe you’re not technical enough. If you want to work for a startup, you should try sales.”
When she shared this story with me months later, she shrugged it off and didn’t treat it as a big deal. These types of comments are too common of an experience for women and other underrepresented minorities in tech, and developing a thick skin is part of survival. But that doesn’t mean it’s right.
First, there’s the issue of telling a young female engineer that she’s not “technical enough” to belong in the field, potentially crushing her confidence to even go through interviews at other companies. When you stop and think about it, it’s mind-boggling how much power untrained interviewers have.
The less obvious, bigger problem here is the assumption that someone who’s “not good enough” to be an engineer automatically must make a good salesperson. Because no salesperson is ever tech-savvy, right?
This attitude is all-too-common not just in tech startups, but across many industries and types of cultures and employees. But just because it’s pervasive, doesn’t mean it’s inevitable for your team. You can choose to be more thoughtful about the language and conversations around this topic, which can help foster a more equitable and inclusive culture that values different types of skill sets. Here’s how we did it at Lever.
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WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE “TECHNICAL”?
Here’s one handy definition:
A technical skill is an ability to perform certain specialized tasks within some domain.
- The ability to manipulate photos in an image editor is a technical skill.
- The ability to compute sums is a technical skill.
- The ability to use a fork to eat is a technical skill.
“No one’s born knowing how to do any of these things, but people can learn, and then they have a technical skill in the corresponding domain.” – April Wensel, Founder of CompassionateCoding
Over time, we’ve come to associate certain jobs as “technical” and therefore, out of reach for some of us. It’s unnecessarily divisive, and it’s time to reclaim the word to mean a learned skill or expertise regardless of function!
EXAMINING WHERE LABELS COME FROM AS A STARTING POINT
Rachael and I joined Lever in 2014, and the company was only 10 people, mostly in engineering. We naturally started referring to the sub-divisions as “eng” and “non-eng” without thinking much of it. Our first sales rep Aalok and I were the two “non-technical” employees. Soon though, our CEO Sarah called this out as problematic. Both Aalok and I were quite technically skilled (otherwise we wouldn’t have gotten hired), but the label suggested otherwise. Being called “non-eng” meant that you were the negative of something, instead of being your own entity. Sarah was concerned about the precedence that these labels would set as we grew the team. We wanted future hires to feel proud of their functions and their skills, instead of just seeing themselves as supporting players to an almighty Engineering team.
Eventually, this sentiment would transform into a company value we call cross-functional empathy (XFE). We didn’t want to be a company where engineers were automatically most valuable. We wanted to be a team that explicitly acknowledges and values non-technical contributions. You need both to scale a healthy business.
In contrast, non-engineers are treated like second-class citizens at too many startups. For example, some companies only offer stock options to their so-called “technical” talent. I know of multiple companies that provide free lunch to only the engineers. Can you imagine the build up of widespread resentment and struggle to feel valued in these kind of environments?
In addition to recognizing and valuing both types of contributions, we also agreed to avoid labeling people as technical and non-technical. These are NOT fixed traits; no one is inherently technical or non-technical.
HOW TO SPREAD THIS MESSAGE TO A LARGER AUDIENCE OF YOUR TEAM
As anyone who’s been part of a fast-growing company knows, decisions and choices made a long time ago often need to be re-explained so new hires can be caught up.
The issue of “technical” and “non-technical” labels was reignited a couple of years later when Lever surpassed 50 employees. I was running Lever’s onboarding program, Ramp Camp, and made an observation about new hires in Sales, Customer Success, and Marketing. Many were insecure about their “technical” skills (or perceived lack thereof) and were anxious about whether they would “sink or swim” at a tech startup. They had been trained to label themselves as “not technical enough” and to put themselves in self-limiting boxes, often for years before they even arrived at Lever.
I observed Implementation reps anxiously apologize on customers calls, “Sorry, I’m not technical enough to answer that,” and Marketing team members stressing about being stuck on a task, when reality was, they just hadn’t been trained on it yet. Often, the fear of not being “technical” enough was the factor that inhibited learning, rather than the actual ability of our smart, accomplished colleagues.
One of my key responsibilities as Head of Employee Experience & Development was identifying and implementing growth opportunities for the team. Clearly, there was an opportunity here for a discussion around some outdated habits and beliefs around the concept of “technical ability.” So, we designed and hosted a Lunch & Learn session called, “I am technical and so are you!”
In the session attended by “Leveroos” (as we affectionately refer to ourselves) across all teams and levels, Rachael shared the story of being called “not technical enough” by that one hiring manager years back. In the audience, I saw flashes of confusion and annoyance that seemed to say, “That makes no sense. If Rachael isn’t technical enough, then who is? What does being technical even mean?” You could really see the wheels turning in people’s heads!
In breaking down the concept of the “technical” and “non-technical” labels, we asked the audience to categorize various images. Even if we can’t articulate an exact definition for “technical,” we seem to be able to easily apply technical and non-technical labels to skills, jobs, and people.
Most people chose images on the right. That brought on the next discussion – what about the hoodie-wearing guy is actual proof of technical ability? Why are we so quick to label him as the “more technical” of the two when we know nothing about the man in the suit? And when we call a person “technical” – what does it even mean? In our experience, these terms carry with them a lot of implicit assumptions.
The workshop walked through real-life scenarios that challenge our assumptions about the technical/non-technical labels. Take one example, occasionally Lever customers writing into Support insist on speaking to an engineer. The assumption is that the engineer is more “technical” and can help them faster. However, our reps in Customer Success and Product Ops are thoroughly trained in technical troubleshooting and translating customer issues. We discussed ways Support team members can respond to such a request, and feel empowered and secure in their “non-technical” skills and. The goal was to reinforce that they are often better equipped to help the customer than an engineer, and to provide them with the confidence to articulate it.
The Lunch & Learn then segued into exploring the how Lever values both technical and non-technical skills. Evaluating the non-technical aspects of an Engineering candidate–communication, project management, and user empathy–is just as an important part of our hiring process as the technical screens and pair programming exercises. Sales and Implementation reps are hired not only for their skills in communication, presentation, and execution, but also the ability and potential to pick up complex technical concepts and internal tools. In short, all Leveroos are hired for ALL skills they bring to the table and their ability to continue learning.
Learn the key takeaways from the Lunch & Learn’s exercise and get some final tips on avoiding traps of technical and non-technical labels in the rest of the case study on HR Open Source.