4 Ways to Integrate Tech Talent From Non-Tech Backgrounds

In the not-so-distant past, many companies based their tech hiring decisions on where candidates obtained their undergraduate computer-science degrees. Not surprisingly, focusing on hiring graduates from elite universities not only created an environment that was too rigidly focused on technical skills, but it also favored those from more similar backgrounds. Even today, the fierce battle for the best tech talent has recruiters searching for candidates with specific degrees and titles. These searches come up short, as there simply isn’t enough tech talent to meet the growing demand for it. 

Increasingly, companies are realizing that their tech teams would be more effective if they increased their diversity. Not only would this include more women and minorities, but also greater diversity of thought as a result of different educational, cultural, and regional backgrounds.. 

Of course, finding technology professionals trained in specific skills is critical for the success of any project. But augmenting them with people from diverse backgrounds who are then upskilled can bring fresh perspectives that ultimately yield better results. For instance, it’s well-known that Steve Jobs was committed to bringing together different disciplines and once explained his approach by stating, “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”   

For talent management and HR leaders, the goal is to bring the entire team together by helping them welcome different strengths and points of view. Here are a few best practices to consider in doing this for your team.

1. Be As Background-Agnostic As Possible

Instead of worrying about degrees, focus on the fact that everyone on the team has earned the necessary certifications to do the job. It’s also important to weigh each team member’s accomplishments and the quality of their completed projects, even if they are not tech-related. 

While education and degrees are important, it’s not always one-size-fits-all when it comes to finding the best candidates to fill open positions. A survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 91% of employers are also seeking signs of a candidate’s problem-solving skills, and 86% want proof of a person’s ability to work as part of a team. These abilities are often obtained from real-life work experience, which can be just as valuable as the type of degree received

We know soft skills are increasingly becoming important, but they aren’t necessarily something that can be taught in a classroom. A recent LinkedIn survey found that qualities like creativity, persuasion, collaboration, and adaptability were the top soft skills listed by employers. New to the 2020 list was high emotional intelligence (EQ), which is a mix of “self-awareness, self-regulation, social skill, empathy, and motivation.”  Focusing on finding candidates with high EQs is vital as the tech industry moves away from the traditional waterfall development methodology with siloed teams to an agile software development process that features collaboration and teamwork.

Excluding candidates based on degree or years of experience eliminates an entire subset of prospects who have worked in unique situations or have skillsets or characteristics that actually make them more qualified than someone who seemingly matches up perfectly to a job description.

2. Reinforce Different Perspectives to Solve Challenges

In the past, candidates with non-IT backgrounds would never have been considered for roles in technology. By the same token, those candidates wouldn’t have pursued jobs that weren’t in line with their specific career path. 

However, the tech world is starting to see more crossover between different backgrounds and perspectives. For instance, there are examples of how musicians make excellent programmers and, not surprisingly, graphic designers can become skilled user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) designers. We’ve also seen English majors learn multiple programming languages due to their ability to understand language structure and psychology majors who become very effective in usability design due to their understanding of cognitive behavior.

While not all backgrounds will be an obvious fit, digging deeper into which qualities and traits cause individuals to be successful in one industry can help decipher what other sectors can be a good match. Once uncovered, finding and training those candidates will bring a new and unique perspective to a typically analytics-driven team. 

3. Understand That the Two Sides May Not Initially Speak the Same Language

Team members from different work experiences will often have trouble communicating at first. Many of these discrepancies can be solved during the hiring process. As an HR leader, it’s vital to work with the IT department’s leaders to understand their team’s culture and unique communication styles when filling open positions. 

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For instance, many IT professionals are analytical-minded, so communication is often direct and matter-of-fact. Others with non-IT backgrounds may communicate more subtly or come from work cultures that encourage constant and less formal communication. It’s important to bridge the communications gap by finding candidates with complementary (but different) perspectives and communication styles. For instance, a functional communicator who thrives on timelines and heavily detailed and planned projects will work well with the analytical communicators often found in tech.  

The shift to remote work due to COVID-19 has also made communication increasingly more difficult. For HR leaders, this may mean providing additional support to tech teams that may already struggle with communication differences. While much of this responsibility lies within the department, HR leaders can help alleviate the potential gap by implementing training courses for tech managers or proctoring team-building exercises focused on improving communication and understanding each other’s styles. 

They can also provide guidance to IT managers about how to clearly define expectations for communication including the cadence and type of communication expected to keep projects running smoothly. By setting this foundation, employees will be comfortable and better set up for success no matter their differences. 

4. Assign New Tech Team Members a Mentor Within the Department

For new employees, regardless of whether they have a tech background, a mentor can greatly improve the initial adjustment period by familiarizing them with the environment, culture, and expectations, as well as how to adjust to being on a project team. Mentors can come from either background, as long as they have successfully navigated and overcome that hurdle of integration. 

Mentors can also give counsel on working better alongside team members of different backgrounds and can talk through real working scenarios. Additionally, long-term, mentors can be beneficial in working on career development and ongoing skills training. And ultimately, the goal is for mentees to become mentors for others on the team. 

At the same time, HR can play a big role in the creation and success of a company’s mentorship program by working with technology leaders to identify each individual’s strengths and weaknesses. Based on that input, they can help pinpoint those on the team who would pair well with the new employees and look for future leaders within the IT department. Schedule recurring training sessions each quarter or bi-annually for the mentors, and if they need more assistance in this area, consider hiring an outside consultant to bring in this expertise and run these sessions.

As the gap between qualified tech talent and open tech positions continues to widen, companies must realize the old-school HR and recruiting methods aren’t enough to secure and retain the talent they need, nor would they yield the best team. There must be a conscious effort to expand the talent pool by using what some may see as out-of-the-box methods like these. In doing so, organizations will begin to close the tech talent gap, diversify the industry, and create the most powerful teams.

Vince Virga is co-founder and co-chairman of the board of directors of SkillStorm. An entrepreneur with a strong background in the federal and commercial technology space, he has expertly built teams and companies from the ground up since founding SkillStorm in 2002. Vince has a passion for accelerating opportunity for his customers and team.

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