Things have been moderately absorbing at work lately, and since this has had my mind running in a work mode even in off hours, I thought I'd put this to use in writing on a topic I'd been vaguely meaning to get to for a while: How did I get here, career-wise? I wrote about a post on this theme six years ago, but there's been a lot of water under the bridge since then, both in regards to my career and also in how I write, so I wanted to do a follow-up and expansion of sorts.
Previously I wrote in the form of tips. This time I'm going to be more autobiographical, though I'll try to draw out any useful applications as I go along. I've always been somewhat over-interested in how people progress through their careers, perhaps in part because (with my parents and many of their friends in semi-academic careers or very, very stable careers at one company) I have often felt confusion as to what to expect when, and thus a lot of curiosity as to how other people's careers have worked out. Now I begin to have enough history, though still rather little, to satisfy the curiosity of my younger self, so this is, in a sense, written to the twenty-two-year-old me.
Going into college, I was sure of three things:
- I wanted to major in one of the liberal arts (I started out in History and switched to Classics after a year for a bit more of a challenge), both for the experience of studying something that fascinated me and because I couldn't stand the thought of studying "business" for four years.
- I did not want to go on in academia.
- I did not have specific career plans, but I was determined to "go somewhere".
Throughout high school I'd written a lot of fiction, and I had vague ambitions of trying to get into some kind of creative work. I looked into taking a professional program in film editing back in LA after graduating. However, I wanted to get married right out of college and with the looming likelihood of children to support, I didn't think I could afford to get more education or try to get into an industry that many people were eager to work in but only a small percentage "made it". A solution suggested itself when a web hosting company set up offices in town and I managed to snag an entry level job in their sales office the summer before my senior year, with no more qualifications than being well spoken and knowing my way around office software. For six months I proudly talked about myself as working for a dot-com, until it did what a lot of dot-coms were doing in 2000 and landed itself on the rocks financially. Thus, I got the experience of being laid off before graduating college. With six months to go and the need to pay rent, I hunted around for another job in the Steubenville area that I could talk my way into based on six months experience in sales. Next thing I knew, I was making the princely sum of $10/hr (more than I had before) across the river in West Virginia as one of the managers in a telephone call center. The best thing I can say about that experience is that it taught me that I could soldier on through a job I really didn't like.
First Job Out of College
The plan was that upon graduation we'd move out to Los Angeles, where my family lived, get married, and live there. But although I'd spent my whole life prior to college in the LA area, I didn't have any connections who would be useful in finding a job, and I needed one fast. So I went down to a temp agency, talked with one of their placement agents for an hour, took a few tests on computer usage proficiency, and was fortunate enough to get sent out on a job interview two days later. I did the interview and got the job: working as a sales assistant in a small company selling chemicals to the manufacturers of personal care products (lotions, shampoos, etc.) The job did not pay as much as I'd hoped (my salary out of college was $28k/yr) but I had got it in less than a week and it allowed us to sign the lease on an apartment for MrsDarwin to live in until the wedding.
The sales assistant job was relatively undemanding. I'd take calls from customers who needed chemical samples, pull all the data they needed on the chemicals they were interested in, xerox the data sheets, and send both samples and data off to them via UPS. Aside from that, I was supposed to type up sales call reports (and anything else needed) for the four salesmen, and cover the switchboard during the receptionists break. The work wasn't hard, nor did it take my whole day, but I quickly got frustrated with having to pull studies and data sheets out of badly organized file drawers. I told the owner this and advised him that the data should all be in a database. He pointed out that I had MS Access on my computer, handed me a company credit card, and said I could go to Barnes & Noble to pick up some books on how to use it.
I picked up two brick-like tomes on Access and over the course of the next few months I built a database which listed all the products. Once it was done, anyone in the company could pull up information on the products and email relevant data off to customers without leaving his desk.
By now, I was 23 and we were expecting our first child. Quick financial calculations revealed that although MrsDarwin hadn't been making much money, we would no longer be able to pay the bills once she stopped working. My six month review came up and I got a raise of $0.75/hr. Meditating on how built a database for the company's benefit, and that my friends who had majored in Computer Science and now held tech jobs made twice what I did, I was furious. I started looking for another job. There were better entry-level jobs than the one I had found out there, but I needed to plug a $10k hole in our monthly budget and none of them paid that much more than I'd been making. Getting desperate, I took a sales job which promised to pay lots of commission if things went well. I went in to my boss and quit, telling him that since they couldn't pay me more I was taking another job. He asked me how much I was going to be making. This felt like an attack on my pride, so I quoted the number which I'd been told I might make in commission "if things went well": $40k. "Well, don't tell anyone you're quitting yet," he advised. After talking with the owner he took me out to lunch and asked if I'd stay if they matched the $40k.
I'd spent so long being angry that the company didn't appreciate me more for the work that I'd done thus far, that I was strongly tempted to leave anyway. But sanity and self interest prevailed. I became a "Marketing Manager" (which meant I continued to work with my database, but also took over responsibility for all the company's own brochures, catalog, etc.)
Starting a Business Young
I'd been working on a side-plan to get myself into a better job -- trying to start a web-application business with some college friends. Originally, I was supposed to just be the marketing and sales side of the business, but since what we needed at first was lots of web work, I picked up a couple more books and taught myself how to write HTML, MySQL, and PHP.
It was to try to get things off the ground with this business venture that, when we had been married two and half years, we moved out to Austin. There's a lot that could be said about the start-up itself, but that would be a post until itself. We learned a lot. I in particular learned a lot of technical skills I hadn't had before. We also repeatedly found ourselves in over our heads -- not so much technically, but in regards to running a business. Good clients seemed to keep passing us over. Looking back, I can see why a group of guys in their mid-twenties wouldn't seem like a good bet for your expensive development project. As a result, we tended to win the customers who had big plans but very little money, and we did so by coming up with highly optimistic estimates, that we bound ourselves to rather than charging hourly. So while we learned a lot and managed to make a little bit of money, in the end we found ourselves burnt out, discouraged, and having lost our start-up capital. What I know now, that I didn't know then, is that optimism and the willingness to work unlimited hours are not sufficient foundations for founding a successful business.
Second Job and Moving Up
In Texas, I wanted a steady paycheck to supplement the money I was earning via the business. I looked at the ads and sent resumes out, but the way I actually got a job was by looking up the staffing company that filled temp-to-perm positions at the big computer and consumer electronics company that was located very near our house. This landed me a contract job that at an hourly rate paid a little less than I'd been making in LA, but since it was hourly I made a point of making up the lack by trying to squeeze in a couple hours of overtime each week. Time-and-a-half does wonders for the paycheck.
The job I'd got was on a team that audited calls at overseas call centers and then provided ratings and feedback to the call centers. Determined to stick out somehow, I built a database to store all the audits in. This worked so far as it went, but the group in charge of call center quality like the idea of having "third party" auditors, so were were stuck as contract workers indefinitely.
I had been spending my spare time helping out a woman who had moved into the cube across the aisle from me. She had just been transfered into a job that required a lot of work in Excel, and she was struggling with it. When things completely fell apart for her, she asked her manager to hire me on an hourly basis (since I was a temp) to get a big project done. A couple weeks later, she managed to get transferred to a job that was a better fit for her skills, and I was offered her job as a permanent employee.
I spent the next couple years working as a marketing analyst and gradually accreting responsibilities. I was working within the marketing organization, and it turned out that in marketing there were a lot of people who wanted to run tests or promotions or compile mailings lists or measure the effectiveness of advertising, but very few people who actually knew how to do the data analysis necessary to support that work. I found I was able to pick up how to do this kind of work on the fly, while many couldn't or were afraid to try, and in the end it proved to be a better way of getting notice and promotion than being one of the larger number of people struggling to get hold of the few "sexy" jobs managing high profile brands or dealing with advertising.
Finding a Specialty
They say that connections are essential to career advancement, and I used to think on this with great frustration since I felt I didn't have any. One thing I have learned since is that "connections" aren't necessarily "rich guys your Dad knows from the country club" or "people you met at your ivy league college". The connection that made my career what it is today formed when one of the constant moves that occur in the cubicle lands of a large company brought a new neighbor into the cube next to mine. As I was watching him unpack I saw him set up framed pictures of four young kids on his desk, then add a framed ultrasound to the end of the line. Immediately I thought, "This guy and I are going to get along."
We did. He was Evangelical rather than Catholic, but we had a number of things in common religiously and culturally. He also proved to be of like mind in that he had a background in the liberal arts but had become adept at data analysis. He built statistical models in Excel that allowed him to predict how many products could be sold in a week, based on what price the products were sold at. We shared tips and tricks in the way that Excel gurus tend to, and although six months later the endless shuffle or re-orgs and moves put us in separate buildings, we kept in touch. A couple years later, he was put in charge of a whole team of pricers, and he was able to offer me one of the open positions on the team.
This provided me with a welcome raise and an increase in responsibility. It also provided me with the opportunity to become a specialist in a field (pricing) in which there are a moderately small number of people with extensive experience. Pricing analysis has boomed as a discipline just in the last decade, so having five or more years of experience puts you in a relatively strong position. I discovered this more or less by accident. During one of the recurrent lay-off scares, I had put together a fairly detailed LinkedIn profile, which among other things showed that I'd then spent just over five years as a pricing analyst and pricing manager. To my surprise, I started getting emails from recruiters every couple of months asking if I was interested in pricing related jobs at other companies.
One of these caught me at a particularly frustrating time (re-organizations, layoffs, manager I didn't like, etc.) so I said I was interested, and for good measure started a full-on job search. Two months later, after various ups and downs and trips out to interview at different companies, the call that had started my search resulted in a job offer in Ohio and I took it.
Where I Am Now
While my title at my new company is similar to that I left at my old one, I'm the only person who does pricing analysis for the company, so the responsibility is greater. It's also been a huge learning experience setting price in a thousand individual brick and mortar locations rather than on a single, nationwide website. In the process, I've had the chance to use the products of some very good companies producing pricing analysis and test/control analysis software, which has been by turns interesting and frustrating after the build-your-own environment at my previous company.
From this vantage point, some things which worried me a lot when I was starting out on my career are no longer an issue. My undergraduate major is now just an interesting conversation point at work. No one worries about whether a Classics degree makes me less qualified for my job because I've got a track record in a fairly specialized niche.
As I look towards the future, I wonder if my lack of an MBA will eventually become an issue. In my current job I report to a director (I'm technically a manager, though I don't actually manage anyone) and a logical career progression would be to try to become a director myself someday. Most of the directors I know and virtually all the vice presidents have MBAs, a degree that I've long been prejudiced against, and I haven't got close enough to that point to know whether it will become necessary for me to look at getting one if I want to keep moving on, or if I'll be able to push on through on the basis of experience.
The other big career change that would loom if I attempt to move higher would be the need to generalize again. Specializing has been a big advantage to my career over the last few years, but to progress higher I'd have to generalize again. I still often feel like I'm working without a pattern. I never like it when I'm asked the "where do you plan to be in 5 years?" questions at work, because looking back I know that at each point in my career my prediction would have been wrong. But I can't complain. Indeed, I feel embarrassingly fortunate. Thinking back to the post I linked to at the beginning, to which this is a long winded reply, I wish I could read the sort of post a six-more-years-older me would write to the current me.
While I realize that crime of publishing such a long-winded post on a Friday afternoon is nearly inexcusable (this is what happens when I indulge in writing a post over multiple days), if any readers have actually survived reading it and feel inclined to share their own "how I got here from there" stories, please do. Verbosity is not required, though I would be the last who could disallow it.
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