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.
(We’re sharing our slides, worksheets, and other resources at the bottom of this post so you can start a discussion with your own team!)
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 there of) 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.
➡️ Try it yourself. Take a look at the two images below, which do you think would be perceived as more technical?
Pretty easy to choose, right? How about this one:
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.
The final portion of the Lunch & Learn was breaking into small groups, where each person wrote down skills they had and categorized them as technical or non-technical, and shared them for feedback.
We hoped this exercise would serve as a key takeaway: No matter what your title is, you're using both technical and non-technical skills to do your job, and you can absolutely continue to expand on both.
3 tips for avoiding traps of technical/non-technical labels:
Encourage your team to embrace a growth mindset. Technical and non-technical are NOT fixed traits. No one is inherently technical or non-technical. Facilitate a forum for team members to share what technical and non-technical skills they possess and which they'd like to work on or acquire.
Explicitly acknowledge both non-technical and technical contributions made to teams. If you're only rewarding and recognizing technical skills, consider what contributions team members bring to the team beyond technical skills (e.g. communication, self-management, conflict resolution, mentoring others on a team) and include those skills in discussions around personal growth, team goals, and hiring criteria. If you're only acknowledging non-technical skills, consider what technical skills are valuable to the team.
Avoid using the words "technical/non-technical" to refer to people. If you're using one of those terms, consider what you are actually trying to articulate and just say that instead.
"I'm not technical enough to do that" → "I don't know how to use SSH."
"She doesn't seem to have any non-technical skills" → "she needs coaching on communication/collaboration/XYZ skills”
We challenge you to help change the way these terms are used in your teams. Leave "technical/non-technical" labels and instead describe skills that can be acquired and avoid putting people in boxes.
Small language choices don't take much effort and create an environment where team members strive to learn and develop both technical and non-technical skills. We saw the impact of the Lunch & Learn afterwards, when someone slips and uses the term "non-technical" to describe someone, another Leveroo would gently remind them to be more specific.
It’s worth noting, this discussion is also highly relevant to recruiting. Too often, candidates are dismissed as “not technical enough,” and the lack of care and specificity can eventually lead to imbalanced, homogeneous teams, who are missing critical skills.
This Lunch & Learn taught us that the limiting labels of technical/non-technical affect all teams, not just engineering. For example, our Customer Success Manager, Chelsea, shared that candidates for her team sometimes strongly identify as non-technical and can be hesitant to dive into anything that is labeled "technical." The first step is awareness, and with a few tools and support, we can empower every team member to recognize their workplace contributions and encourage their continued development. It’s a critical step towards improving all teams and working toward shaking the limiting labels we enforce on ourselves and each other.
The slides for our Lunch & Learn session.
Want to start a discussion at your company? Here's a worksheet template you can use to get your team thinking about what technical/non-technical skills they would like to develop.
Two resources that helped us refine our thinking on this topic:
- The Myth of the Non-Technical Startup Employee (Model View Culture)
- Are non-technical employees really marginalized at tech startups? (Quora)