How to get a job with a technology stack you don’t know

Have you ever read an amazing-sounding job posting, and then felt that sinking feeling in your stomach when you reached the list of required technologies? Maybe you’re a Python programmer, and they use Ruby on Rails; maybe you’re mostly a front-end developer, and they want back-end skills. Whatever the missing technologies are, this is an awesome job you don’t have a chance of getting.

Or do you?

In fact, it is possible, albeit not always easy. Years ago I got a job writing C++, when all I knew was Python and Java. And for the past few months I’ve been doing scientific computing for the first time, with a new toolchain, and math skills I haven’t used in almost 20 years.

In this post I’ll cover:

  • Why you should apply anyway.
  • Which companies to apply to.
  • How to pitch yourself so you can get the job.

Apply anyway

Even if you feel you’re not fully qualified for a job, you should still apply:

First, the list of technologies may be irrelevant. Sometimes the technologies listed are things the company might want to use someday, not what they actually use today. Sometimes they are perfectly happy hiring candidates with different technologies, and they put the list of technologies down because they aren’t very thoughtful about how they write job ads.

But what if they do actually want those technologies? The list of technologies and skills is what the company would like in the ideal world, not necessary what they can get in practice. In the ideal world many companies would probably also like to pay you half as much and have you be twice as experienced, with the ability to create gold out of lead and summon unicorns at will. In practice, companies hire the candidates they can get, not the magical and often non-existent candidates they dream of.

Finally, technologies aren’t everything. There are many other skills you have as a programmer, and some of them may trump the particular technologies you lack. We’ll revisit this in the section on pitching yourself.

Which companies to apply to

It’s hard to say as an outsider which companies will be more flexible, but here are some things to look for:

  • Companies that use less popular technologies: they’ll have a harder time hiring, which means they are probably more willing to train people. I got that job writing C++ with a company whose main product was written in Common Lisp, which is not a common skill.
  • Companies that explicitly talk about their commitment to training. For example, companies that talk about how they fund conference visits or classes.
  • Companies where you have other relevant skills: perhaps you’re an expert in this business domain, or you have adjacent skills.
  • Companies you’re really excited about. If you can convey that excitement in your cover letter, that may be enough to get you over that initial hump.

How to pitch yourself

Once you’ve picked the companies to apply to, you want to customize your cover letter, resume, and if you get there your presentation at the job interview. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Talk about your ability to learn quickly, with concrete examples. If you can show that at your last job you learned a new technology stack in a couple months you will take away the fear of a long slow ramp-up to productivity.
  • Stress adjacent skills. You’ll have hard time going straight from front-end development to a data science project. But, in practice much of data science is cleaning up dirty data, which is experience you might have in a different domain.
  • Talk about skills beyond just technologies.
    Do they do consulting work? Stress your ability to work with non-engineers and gather requirements.
    Are they growing rapidly? Talk about the time you helped a team grow its engineering processes.
    Is failure costly? Stress your experience in testing and building robust software.

The key is to research the company, try to understand their needs, and then demonstrate you can have value to them beyond just the list of technologies you know.

Next time you’re looking for a job, don’t limit yourself only to jobs with a technology stack you know. Look for jobs that excite you, for jobs you think you can do with just a little ramp-up time. And then apply for those jobs, knowing that most of them will ignore you—but it only takes one yes to get an exciting new job, and an exciting new opportunity to learn new skills.

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