Technology Careers 101: A Whole World Beyond Google, Facebook, and Apple Awaits You

by Brandi Durkac

Social media, cloud computing, and mobile devices… oh my!  Just by reading this blog, you have already demonstrated expertise and interest in using social media (what a blog is), the cloud (where the blog sits in cyberspace), and mobile devices (most likely how you accessed the blog).  If you are an avid user of technology and are interested in exploring careers in the technology sector, you may have a great predisposition to thrive in the fast-paced, ever-changing, and potentially lucrative world of technology.

Although there are a myriad of opportunities for programmers and coders, you don’t need to be a computer science major to work at a technology company.  Nor do you need to limit your search to only brand-named giants like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Apple.  Some of the fastest-growing tech companies are not household names but are shaping emerging technologies in the cloud computing, biotechnology, solar energy, nanotechnology, software security, and social media.  Check out Forbes latest annual report on the 25 fastest-growing tech companies.

Helpful Tips:

1) Where to Start:  There are pros and cons to working in medium-to-large companies versus in smaller, start-up environments.  Industry-leading Silicon Valley companies like Google, Apple, Oracle, Cisco, Genentech, and, as well as established goliaths like IBM, Dell, Microsoft, and, have formal college recruiting targeted towards undergraduates.  In addition to product development, some of these companies also offer internships in sales & business development, marketing, and customer support as a great way to get in the door.  These larger companies often provide excellent training programs and opportunities for lateral and upward mobility in the organization.  However, if an enormous corporate setting isn’t for you, there are also start-ups and smaller, fast-growing companies that are eager to find talented, motivated young people to help them build their company.  Emerging enterprise social software companies like Lithium Technologies, Jive Software, LivePerson, Mzinga, and Drupal offer exciting opportunities in a fun, more intimate work environments that may be better suited for you.

2) Getting in the Door:  There is no better way to get into technology companies than to use technology!  A great place to start is with the Penn alumni network on LinkedIn and QuakerNet.  See if you can find an alumnus/alumna working at these companies who would be willing to schedule an informational interview with you.  If they think you would be a good fit and can help you, the good news is that you may also help them.  Many companies offer referral bonuses to current employees that help recruit talented individuals to join the organization.  Do your homework ahead of time to learn about what the company does and what jobs might be available on these companies’ websites.

3) Finding Your Niche:  Remember that where you start is not likely where you will end up.  The goal is to get in the door at a company that is financially stable and can offer you room to grow.  The technology world is constantly changing – remember how quickly MySpace went from hot to not? – which will always present new and exciting opportunities for you.  The more exposure you can get to different departments and functions within the company, the better off you will be.  You will need to decide which side of the company you are better suited for:  internal-facing operations and product development or external-facing sales, marketing, and support.  I found sales to be a great first career for me to gain exposure to many departments in a company, to learn how companies make decisions, and to build a strong foundation of transferrable business skills that will be useful in any career, including working in higher education.

4) How To Learn More:    You may be wondering about the best way to start learning technology jargon and industry lingo.  I would recommend a combination of YouTube videos, industry publications, and helpful websites, such as Inc., Wired, Fast Company, and InfoWorld to bring you up to speed. has published several excellent YouTube videos on cloud computing, which provide an easy-to-understand definition of “the stack” – the hardware infrastructure, database servers, application servers, web servers, user interfaces, and application interfaces upon which any software application runs — and explain why most companies are moving towards cloud computing platforms.  100 Best Companies to Work For is another great resource to help focus your search.

The sky is the limit!  Reach for the clouds and you just may end up working in one.

About the author:  Brandi received a B.S. in Economics and Spanish from the University of Virginia.  She spent ten years working in Silicon Valley at Kana Software, Inc. and, Inc. and is now completing her M.S.Ed. in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania.

Guest Perspective: Be Your Own Boss as an Independent Consultant

by David Goldstein

Independent consulting has been my career choice for entrepreneurial rewards without all the risks of offering products.   As a “software guy” I couch this in terms of a software background, but everything mentioned can be applied to consulting in diverse fields, from finance to movie costuming.  I compare this career to two others’ of mine: software engineer and entrepreneur.  I discuss consulting in terms of expectations, realities and the skills needed.  Because consulting requires specialized expertise, this career may be your second or third job out of school, instead of your first.

What does an independent consultant do ?

I provide  contractual services to organizations independent of large consulting firms.  Both independent consultants and consulting organizations charge a premium for their services – but independent consultants are their own boss, keep more of the fees they generate and “wear many hats.”  One of the greatest advantages that I have found is your clients can be all over the country, from Richmond, VA to Oakland, CA. I have consulted for many organizations in the Fortune 500.  The key is to be aware that engagements can end at any time; this is a high-risk, high reward career path.

What does it take to be an independent consultant?

The key elements are expertise, professionalism and business savvy.  Your expertise determines what the client would pay, your professionalism keeps engagements going, and your business savvy affects the percentage of that amount you keep.

My expertise comes from a computer science Ph.D.  Each client – as well as hobbies, volunteer work and other endeavors – also provide valuable expertise.  For example, working at Freddie Mac provides credibility in the mortgage business.  Expertise within a field can be as valuable technical skills.

Business skills are important for anyone but are essential for consultants.  Everyone should be able communicate with executives, speak publicly, and write well. Consultant’s skills also include entrepreneurial skills to acquire and manage business, such as contract writing, accounting, marketing, and negotiating.

What are the rewards of independent consulting?

Consulting can offer a great salary, which should be a part of any high-risk career path. Robert Half’s “Salary Guide 2011” gives the median income for a software engineer at $92,750 per year.  A staff consultant’s corresponding income is $75,500 and a senior consultant’s is $99,250.  As a consultant with specialized skills in (1) Business Process Modeling and (2) Business Rules Management Systems I have always billed at several times these salaries.

All of these characteristics are applicable to consultants in other fields.  For example, my friends in finance report that consulting rates as independent consultants range from $150/hr to $1000/hr.

Consulting also offers frequent change, which exposes you to a lot of people and businesses.  I’ve met people from around the country.  I understand many industries well; I could pursue a career in banking, insurance or other client fields if need be.

Independent consulting also hones many entrepreneurial skills.  My small software firm sold its products in the U.S. and abroad, but being a consultant has taught me a lot about building software and businesses.  Consultants see numerous firms create, sell and service products.  Thousands of things can destroy a company: learning from other’s errors is important for building a company that makes products, instead of mistakes.

What challenges independent consultants?

An independent consultant trades many things  for increased income.  Some of these factors include:

  • Travel: Many students relish the thought of travel.  However, most consultants would prefer to see their bedroom and spouses on weekends instead of hotel rooms and co-workers.
  • Stability: Independent consulting is very susceptible to economic trends.  Consultants can find it difficult to get their desired rate.  Most contracts are also “at will”, whereby either party can end an engagement at any time: bad corporate news, office politics, leadership changes, etc. can end an engagement.  Traditional consulting firms allot overhead for non-contract time and independent consultants should have a “rainy day” fund.
  • Bureaucracy: Every company has policies and systems for accomplishing mundane tasks, such as time tracking and purchasing.  While employees learn such policies and systems once, a consultant may need to learn many such systems each year.  Similarly, when working through third parties consultants may have to deal with extra levels of paperwork.  Even simply getting a client may involve dozens or hundreds of pages of documentation.

These three factors mean consultants need patience and self-confidence to overcome being on the road, worrying about engagements, and dealing with bureaucracy.

Independent consulting is a good high-risk, high-reward career path for many individuals. All consulting practices involve travel, flexibility, and workplace variety.  Working independently offers more compensation at the cost of stability, bureaucracy and other factors.  Bright, savvy professionals often choose independent consulting for its entrepreneurial feel and high income.


About the author:

David Goldstein received his M.S.E. from University of Pennsylvania and his Ph.D. from the University of Texas – Arlington.  He was a professor at several universities, most notably North Carolina A&T State University.  He has run several small businesses and is currently an independent consultant.  He specializes in building large financial systems using Business Rules Management Systems and Business Process Management tools. David serves as the associate director of Penn’s SEAS alumni board.