Career perspectives: Breaking into tech
HR professionals discuss working in tech, the power of your personal network and the value of an arts degree
HR professionals discuss working in tech, the power of your personal network and the value of an arts degreeBy Akailah Wilson and Joanna Woo Alumni
Welcome to Career Perspectives, where we share a conversation between two Waterloo alumni. In this conversation, Akailah Wilson (BA ’15) and Joanna Woo (BA ’09) discuss their experiences as Human Resources (HR) professionals in the Kitchener-Waterloo technology industry. Read on to get an inside view of talent recruitment in tech and uncover new inspiration for your own career.
Akailah: What’s it been like as an arts grad in tech? When I talk to students, the question that I get the most is, “How did you get to Google with your arts background?”
Joanna: There was a lot of imposter syndrome at first, because I'm not technical and I'm surrounded by all these brilliant people. How am I going to make it in this industry? But as arts grads, we excel in communication and collaboration – these amazing soft skills that are extremely valuable to businesses. So, over time and with encouragement from my peers, I just realized that I’m one of those brilliant minds as well. It's just a different skill set and a different value that you add to the company. Having diverse backgrounds will help make a business more profitable, and we need to appreciate those different skills.
Akailah: The imposter syndrome was very much real for me too. I recruit technical students, and I don't even know programming languages! It was my second job out of university so I was feeling pretty junior in my career and Google is such a big company. All that self-doubt crept into my mind and was honestly overwhelming.
And then when I got to the Kitchener-Waterloo (KW) office I was the only Black female there, which was a very new experience for me. And I think that’s one of the challenges in the tech industry that we’re continuously working on. Finding underrepresented talent can be challenging, but it is necessary work to ensure we continue to increase representation in tech.
JOANNA WOO (BA '09), Director of People and Culture at Shinydocs
… as arts grads, we excel in communication and collaboration – these amazing soft skills that are extremely valuable to businesses.
Akailah: To be honest, when I look at a resume, the degree can feel less relevant than your personality, what you bring to the table. A lot of the skills you have can be applied in the tech industry – what you were able to learn through classes, through co-op, through life and previous jobs. I worked at McDonald's when I was in high school, and I have skills from that job that I still utilize in my job today.
Joanna: How do you like the KW tech scene? Because I think tech in this area is kind of special.
Akailah: I love KW! You know, I moved to this city in 2010, and seeing the growth that has happened is tremendous. So many companies are moving in. Things are always evolving and changing and I feel like I love that part of tech HR. The talent being brought here is amazing, whether it's through industry professionals or even through students who are studying at local colleges and universities.
It’s become such an attractive spot in Canada. It's been referred to as like the Silicon Valley of Canada, so to be a part of that ecosystem is super exciting and I can't wait to see what the next 10 years look like.
Joanna: Yeah, I definitely feel the same way. I think BlackBerry did a lot to bring highly skilled technical professionals to the region. And, I mean, yes it was unfortunate about what happened, but I think it transformed our hub into what it is today. All those talented people spread out into the smaller companies to help them grow and scale.
I really love how the community comes together. We've had some large layoffs in the area in the past, and every time, all the other smaller companies will gather and help people find new jobs. I mean, I do it all the time. If somebody isn't a fit for my company, I will refer them to other companies may be a better fit. I think that's something that KW especially is very willing to do, compared to some of the other tech hubs.
Akailah: I totally agree. The sense of community here is really great. When you go to local events and you start to meet people, you’ll notice that you see them again and again. You get to build those relationships and connections within the community.
Akailah: When you talk to students or other folks, do you meet a lot of people trying to break into tech in KW? Are there common mistakes that you've seen from folks trying to land that first job?
Joanna: I think people assume that they have to be a software developer. I see it all the time – they'll do bootcamps for programming, or enroll in computer programming courses, but they're not really interested in it.
I think it’s important to pick an area of work that you enjoy. When you’re extremely interested in something, it'll show. We don't want to hire somebody who has very little interest in their job. Do you see this issue too?
AKAILAH WILSON (BA '15), University Programs Specialist at Google
There are so many non-technical positions out there. Tech companies need engineers, but they also need HR, marketing, legal.
Akailah: Yeah, definitely. I think a lot of the time, people forget that they should have some genuine interest in their work. It matters to potential employers because if you don't have an interest in the job now, a year from now you're probably going to be miserable. It's not good for you. It's not good for the company. It's really a lose-lose situation on all fronts.
I usually encourage students to focus on their interests, because whatever those are, there's a place for you in this industry. There are so many non-technical positions out there. Tech companies need engineers, but they also need HR, marketing, legal.
When I look at resumes, hobbies and interests don’t often come through. I see a lot of cookie-cutter resumes – here’s a list of the things I've done and these are the courses I've taken. But what projects have you done in your spare time? You may not have co-op or internship experience, but you might do great things through volunteer work, or you started your own initiatives.
Joanna: Definitely. I share my own experience a lot because I didn't have any co-op experience as a student. Instead of work terms, I volunteered. I built HR roles into all of my volunteer opportunities. And I encourage people to use their volunteer experience in that way too. I mean, on a resume I don't care if it's paid experience or not. It’s experience.
Also, I talk to a lot of people who want to transition from a completely different career, and they don’t always realize how valuable their previous experience can be. I'll use nursing as an example. I've spoken to a number of nurses who want to transition into tech. I think that’s fantastic. They have all this experience in the medical field, so I usually suggest looking at medical tech companies. Their knowledge could be really valuable in a customer service or in a product management role.
JOANNA WOO (BA '09), Director of People and Culture at Shinydocs
I mean, on a resume I don’t care if it’s paid experience or not. It’s experience.
Akailah: And showing that you will take initiative can be really helpful. Maybe you’ve gone to a hackathon, and you’re still working on that project, still trying to turn that hack into a product. Those type of things show your enthusiasm, and I’ve seen how attractive it can be for tech employers.
Joanna: Exactly, side projects. That's actually one of the first things I notice on resumes from recent grads. All of the students coming from the same program have similar school projects on their resume. But when they have their own side projects listed, it does help them stand out. And when it comes to an interview, you know if they’re actually engaged with these extra projects. They glow when they talk about it.
Joanna: Speaking of the job search, networking is really valuable. Meeting people, making a new connection, can be a little bit awkward at first. How do you get over that awkwardness?
Akailah: Honestly, for me it's about practice. That could be practicing with friends or family members, or even peers from university. That way, when you have the real-life interaction, you kind of know what you want to say. It’s like practicing your elevator pitch; you don't want to just wing it on a potential job interview. You want to actually go in prepared.
If public speaking or talking to people isn't your thing, there are courses to help. In university one of the best courses I ever took was speech communications 223. It changed my life; I used to be that nervous, sweaty person who hated public speaking. But that course really helped me to find my voice and get more confident, and now my job is public speaking! Take that course or another one external to university. Once you get over that initial fear, it kind of just is smooth sailing after that.
Improve your confidence and speaking skills. Joanna and Akailah suggest:
Akailah: Do you find those initial meetings awkward?
Joanna: Yes, haha! I've just accepted that I'm going be awkward. And it's okay. I think people just need to be comfortable being awkward, and understand that it'll be okay. Keep doing it over and over and it gets easier. And luckily with COVID we don't have to shake hands anymore!
Akailah: Right. And that person that you're talking to has been in an uncomfortable position before, where they felt nervous. We are all human. You can even call it out at times, like, “Hey, I'm a bit nervous, I really want to make a good first impression here.” Providing a statement at the beginning of a meeting or interview can be helpful, because verbalizing it can get it off your chest.
Joanna: One of the tips that I usually share with people: if you’re at an event and there's already a circle of people talking, stick your foot into the circle and people will let you join in. If someone looks at you in a weird way, just tell them: “An HR person told me that if I stuck my foot in, the circle would expand. I was testing that theory.” Use that to break the ice and then you can laugh about it. You’ve joined the conversation at that point.
Akailah: Is there anything you've done to impress someone after that initial interaction? Or has anyone followed up with in an interesting way?
Joanna: I'm really glad that you brought up the point! Something that really impresses me is when someone shares how they can add value, how they can help the business. You should know why somebody should hire you.
Also, after an interview process, if you’ve been rejected you can still continue the conversation with me. I've had a couple people who have told me, “You know what, I appreciate the feedback but I'm wondering if I can have an additional hour to chat with the hiring manager about these points.” And we've granted it to them.
When people handle rejection gracefully and they're able to indicate why they still believe they're a good fit for the company, I just want to help them. I really appreciate that humbleness, the willingness to learn and improve. Sometimes you're just not a good fit at that point in time, and you can take that opportunity to learn.
JOANNA WOO (BA '15), Director of People and Culture at Shinydocs
I really appreciate that humbleness, the willingness to learn and improve. Sometimes you’re just not a good fit at that point in time, and you can take that opportunity to learn.
Akailah: And also, remember that we are humans. If you met someone at a career fair, they might have met 100 different people at that event. Send them a little message that highlights what you talked about. If there was something that you connected about, including a reference to that can be super helpful.
And another thing too, this doesn’t just apply to recruiters. I remember when I was a student, during my school terms I would send notes to my previous co-op managers or colleagues, and just check in on a personal level. Maybe their kid was going into grade three this year – how did that go? Or maybe they were going to Jamaica – ask them about the trip. Try to continue that relationship, even when you aren't there, because that network can help you to navigate a job search when you’re looking for something new. And I think it’s really impressive when I see people making that personal connection. Keep in touch with people and tie it back to a personal anecdote you shared – it goes so much farther than rambling on about the technical skills you have.
Akailah Wilson (BA ’15) is a University Programs Specialist and advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion in tech. She is currently employed by Google. In her role, Akailah manages university program recruitment Canada-wide. Akailah's passion for driving impact, mentoring students and developing the next generation of techies started at the University of Waterloo, where she studied French & Business, with a minor in Human Resources.
While at UW, her passions outside of school included: growing her HR and entrepreneurship skills, activism, fashion, family, and love for great food. She was involved in a number of clubs, including UW BASE and the Association of Caribbean Students. After graduating, Akailah focused largely on her passion for travel and gaining new experiences. Akailah hopes her career will allow her to continue to lean into her drive to create a more fair, equitable and diverse tech industry, and (hopefully!) world at large.
Joanna Woo (BA ’09) is a Certified Human Resources Leader and the Director of People and Culture at Shinydocs Corporation. Graduating from the University of Waterloo in 2009, studying Psychology with a specialization in Human Resources Management and a minor in German, Joanna has spent her career transforming HR within the tech industry by applying software design and development principles to traditional HR practices.
While studying at Waterloo, Joanna was heavily involved in the Arts Student Union, Psychology Society, Orientation Week, and Canada 3.0. After graduating, she continued to make an impact in the larger KW community through her leadership roles with TEDxWaterloo, EPIC Technology Conference, Human Resources Professionals Association, Ignite Waterloo, and the KW Tech Slack group. Now in her free time, she enjoys training for the zombie apocalypse and is an avid board gamer.
The University of Waterloo acknowledges that much of our work takes place on the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee peoples. Our main campus is situated on the Haldimand Tract, the land granted to the Six Nations that includes six miles on each side of the Grand River. Our active work toward reconciliation takes place across our campuses through research, learning, teaching, and community building, and is centralized within our Office of Indigenous Relations.