Career Advice

How I Broke the Rules & Found My Perfect Job  

Have you ever had a tough time finding a job? I can relate. This is my story of overcoming a difficult situation, in a down market, at a rough time in our country’s history. I recently had the opportunity to share my story as a TEDx Talk in Worthington, Ohio and I’m very excited to share it with you here today.

Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine! It’s 1997 and I’m entering college. The internet is still a brand new thing, and we are in the middle of the dot-com boom. Companies like AOL are just coming into their own, and sending out these amazing floppy disks with one hundred free minutes to try their internet service over a fast dial-up connection.

Remember?

I have a computer before my friends, and I wait for those free disks to come in the mail. The sound the dial-up modem makes gives me goosebumps when it connects! Startups are popping up everywhere, and getting huge investments is easy. Young kids, about my age, are getting funding for companies, and have more money than they know what to do with.

I love computers. I go to college to learn more about them and all about the internet. I study computer and systems engineering at a small engineering school in Upstate New York. The degree is like a combination of computer science and electrical engineering. I learn to solder parts together, to build websites, and to code in so many different programming languages, including FORTRAN 77, C, and HTML. It’s the perfect degree. It guarantees me a job when I graduate. But, not only that. It guarantees me a great paying job!

Well, that was all true, until about halfway through my pricey private school education, when things change completely. The dot-com crash happens, and the dot-com boom is over. Suddenly, all of the recruiters that normally come to our college to recruit for new jobs cancel their visits. Not only do they cancel, but the positions they’re hiring for are gone too!

Looking for a job online is still very new, and securing one typically comes from meeting recruiters in person. I search at job fairs and through personal contacts. In fact, it will be close to ten years until many of the job sites like Glassdoor are born.  

I’m panicked. The job market has completely changed, and I’m not even the best student to begin with. My classmates are the ones with perfect SATs and straight As — not me! I wonder how in the world I’ll survive.

In a number of my computer programming courses, I’m always the one who helps to manage the team and to create our presentation materials. Writing computer code feels difficult to me. That’s why I help with the presentation materials… or, so I think. During our senior year, one of our professors asks us to write a story about someone who has impacted us during school, and to my surprise, one of my super smart computer whiz classmates writes about me. He says I have a special skill for bringing people together, and for making our projects make sense. It’s something I never expected to hear and have never considered. It’s not necessarily that I am bad at one thing. Maybe I’m just good at something else.

And, with that, I started to look for alternative career paths. How could I get around this job crisis and the stock market crash? How could I minimize the impact of the dot-com implosion? What could I do other than computer programming? What transferrable skills did I have?

I applied for a project management job with a little logistics company that goes by the name of FedEx. You may have heard of it! They flew me to their headquarters for a job interview. But, when I arrived, I learned that they had also flown in two other people — at the same time — even though there was just one job opening. I remember meeting the other candidates, and feeling in total disbelief that a job interview could be structured this way. It was like interview to the death, or some kind of weird gladiator movie.

The night before, I re-read the job description and found something I’d missed. The job required an MBA. Not optional: REQUIRED. I went from feeling scared when I arrived to feeling completely embarrassed. Not only were the other two candidates almost twice my age, but they both had MBAs and extensive work experience! The night before the big interviews, we all ate together at a local Memphis barbecue restaurant. They used MBA business jargon I’d never even heard before. It was like they were speaking in another language. Why in the world would such a big, impressive company pay money to fly me in for an interview? I wondered if they were going to laugh at me and send me back to New York when they realized their mistake.  

I decided to give it a shot, because after all, what did I really have to lose? I did my best, and afterward, I headed back to the airport to fly home, expecting to never hear from them again. Then, suddenly, while I was still in the Memphis airport terminal, I got a phone call. It was the hiring manager and he was calling to offer me the job!

Looking back, I was a good fit within the organization. And, let’s best honest — I was definitely the cheapest. But, the thing that really surprised me was that the company asked us math problems during the interview in front of a panel of judges. We actually had to work out the problems while other people looked on. One was a Venn diagram question. Assuming that a certain number of customers shipped with FedEx and a handful of other variables, how many people might ship with FedEx and some other company? Of the three of us, I was the only one that got the math problems right! It turns out engineering school really is good for something.

The thing I learned from this experience is that the rules we see out in the world aren’t always “rules.” Sometimes they’re just suggestions or guidelines. But, if you don’t push those boundaries, you’ll never know which things are rules and which are more flexible. “Requirements” on a job description aren’t always really required. And, the job market isn’t always what you expect, but you’ve got to try anyway.

Rules we see out in the world aren’t always “rules.” “Requirements” on a job description aren’t always really required.

What I’m saying is — I can relate to the challenging job market we’re all facing today. For the first time in the modern era, more adults under the age of 35 are living with their parents than are living with romantic partners. I live in downtown Memphis and last year I started seeing some new signs for apartments in my neighborhood. But, they weren’t the normal signs about the cost or the number of bedrooms. They were about the benefits of living in your own apartment rather than living in your parents’ house. One said, “Let’s be honest. Your parents won’t move out first.”

But, it makes sense that new graduates are struggling to find their own place in the world. The average price for college tuition was over $33k a year last year for a private school and over $9k for a state school. Baby Boomers are holding onto their jobs for as long as possible, leaving only a limited number of good jobs for new college graduates. In fact, only half of 30-year-olds are making more than their parents did at their age. This is a huge drop from the 1970s when over 90% of people were making more than their parents.

So, what can we do about this? Here’s an example. I recently spoke to a hiring manager who was having a hard time getting applications for a particular job posting. He’d been advised to put everything he could possibly want into one job description, to make it as open-ended as possible. So, he did. The job description included things like marketing skills, selling skills, technology skills, customer service skills, computer programming skills, and internet-related skills. If you read the job description, you might think they were looking for a computer engineer with a MBA in marketing, and experience in sales, digital marketing, and technology. That’s pretty specific, and a lot to ask for in one person! When I shared the job description with a few candidates who would have been great, they all said the same thing. “I’m not comfortable applying because I’m not qualified.” Ironically, the hiring manager would have happily taken someone who met seventy or eighty percent of the job description — if they’d only applied.

And, speaking of that FedEx job I got that I was completely underqualified for — I took it and worked at the company, with the great benefits and the 401-K and healthcare, for three years before quitting my job to go to business school. I received quite a bit of discouragement from the usual suspects who said, “Why would you quit? You have such a good job!” For many of those in my parents’ and grandparents’ generation, the responsible thing to do was to stay at a job for twenty or thirty years, until you were of retirement age. Then, you’d be set forever. It was the right thing to do.

But, today, employees only stay with one company for three to five years. If you stay at a company too long, your future hiring manager may wonder if your skillset is out of date – or if you’re not very ambitious. There’s even been a study that’s shown that those who don’t switch jobs frequently enough will make less over the lifetime of their career. Forbes estimated this number to be fifty percent less. Fifty percent! But, if you think about it, logically, it makes sense. If you stay at one company, you’re likely to receive a two or three percent raise each year. But, if you switch companies, you may negotiate your pay up ten percent, twenty percent, or even fifty percent in one switch. I can personally attest to this. Twice, I’ve negotiated my salary up over fifty percent, and once, I doubled my salary.

This is a great incentive to never stop looking for a job! And, because turnover is so high, it’s also an incentive for companies to spend less time and energy training their current employees. This again puts the burden back on you — to take the reins of your own career — to pursue your own education and your own training. Don’t wait for your company to train you. Don’t assume that will happen. Other people will pass you by who are developing their own skills, on their own.

If you stay at one company, you’re likely to receive a two or three percent raise each year. But, if you switch companies, you may negotiate your pay up ten percent, twenty percent, or even fifty percent in one switch… This is a great incentive to never stop looking for a job!

This is exactly why I quit my job to pursue my MBA — that, and to interfere with my own career path yet again. I originally planned to take twenty months to complete my degree, but ended up finishing in fifteen months. By graduation, I was given a number of great job offers, including one that paid twice what I was making before starting graduate school. This sounds really fantastic, right? In theory, yes. BUT, it was twice as much to do the same exact type of job I’d had before. I didn’t quit my job and go back to graduate school to make twice as much money, doing the exact same job as before, just for a different company! I’m ambitious, and frankly, that would have been boring. I wanted to move into a new department, and go up the corporate ladder.

Can you guess what I did? Yep. I turned down every job offer. This was incredibly scary because I wasn’t working, and I didn’t know how I’d pay the rent. But, I had faith in my abilities. If I could complete school early, I could have a little time to think about what I’d want to do for work, if I didn’t have to do anything. This decision honestly worried me every day for a very long time, and I kept a copy of that big offer letter nearby and would look at it when I was feeling uncertain about things.

Then the strangest thing happened. I ended up learning about a new field called digital marketing. I knew how to build websites, and I had a pretty decent sense for marketing. I became an affiliate marketer. It’s the kind of marketing where you promote products online for other companies and earn a commission on their sales. I sold a lot of shoes for this website Zappos.com. After doing this for myself for a while, I built up enough knowledge and experience to land a full-time digital marketing position on my own. It was a game changer. I became a director of digital marketing at a well-known home services company, and later, a vice president at a large bank!

In today’s career environment, you don’t get bonus points for waiting for your boss to tell you you’re good enough. Don’t wait! And, don’t let the fear of failure stop you from trying something new. As someone once said, “Formal education will make you a living. Self-education will make you a fortune.”

Ironically, the interference I experienced going from engineer to project manager to digital marketing executive led me to an entirely new career path. It turns out, I really like interviewing – for all kinds of jobs and at all sorts of companies. You might call it an obsession. In fact, I once snuck into a graduate school where I didn’t go – and posed as a student there – in order to get a job interview.

When word got out about my passion, I started being asked to help other people find their new career paths – as a career coach. Now, I get a chance to see inside the secret process that we’re all in the middle of. And, do you know what makes some job seekers the most successful in their search? They don’t wait for permission, and they never assume a company isn’t interested in them, or that they’re not qualified.

Do you know what makes some job seekers the most successful in their search? They don’t wait for permission, and they never assume a company isn’t interested in them, or that they’re not qualified.

Let me leave you with this. Finding your path isn’t going to be easy. It’s not going to be straightforward, and it may take a while to put the pieces together. In fact, you’ll likely find that you’ll always be working to put in another piece along the way. But, it is absolutely worth it to take a risk and interfere with your own path to find something that you truly love.

Angela Copeland is a Career Coach and Founder of Copeland Coaching and can be reached at CopelandCoaching.com or on Twitter at @CopelandCoach. You can find her book, Breaking The Rules & Getting The Job on Amazon.


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