The Perfect Detour – From English Major to Personal Trainer to IT Professional

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A few months before my last day of college I no longer wanted to do what I went to school for – to teach English at a university. Meanwhile my best friend and colleague was off to his graduate program the following semester, still burning with the same passion he started with. The morning after my college graduation ceremony, I remember waking up with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. The following years were a struggle, both financially and emotionally. I did not know what I wanted to do, or what I was necessarily good at. I submitted resumes for various jobs that involved writing – technical writing, marketing, PR – until eventually taking what I could get. During the following years, I worked several jobs in different jobs and industries.

Until recently, I believed that all of the time spent working outside of my current career in IT was a waste. I was embarrassed over my resume – a hodgepodge of unrelated experiences, certifications, and education. Looking back, I can see that these past experiences, education and employment were leading and shaping me for my future career in software development. A career I get to wake up excited for. A career I am fulfilled by and a career that marries what I enjoy with what I’m good at. I stand now, proud of my resume, despite its eclectic nature. Here are the experiences I will likely never remove from my resume along with some of the skills I’ve learned, borrowed, and abandoned.

English Major

I’m often met with shock when I tell people I Majored in English. ‘Don’t you already speak English?” some would quip. At first, my education would seem like a complete 180 from my current role. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

What I learned

·        How to write clearly

Until recently, I took my writing education for granted. After all, everyone knows how to write! Now I realize how rare the skilled writer is – especially in the corporate world. A skilled writer is able to quickly, clearly and concisely communicate ideas.

In software development writing is a big part of what I do. From user training documentation, to functional specifications and requirement documentation and even daily email communication, writing is one of the most indispensable skills I possess. When technical documentation is being written, or a communication is being sent out to multiple users, I have to make sure that it is able to be processed and understood. The communication has to be free of syntax or grammatical errors.

·        How to quickly generate ideas

Nothing puts the mind to work like having to come up with a ten-page essay the following day! I once had a final where I was required to write five essays in two hours based on prompts I had never seen until then. As an English major, coming up with what to write about is just as challenging and as important as grammar, syntax, and style. We constantly employ brainstorming techniques like round robin, reverse thinking, stream of consciousness and any other creative means to get us to where we need to be.

In software development, coming up with ideas to solve problems or build solutions is an essential part of our work. You can have all the technical skills in the world, but if you don’t know how to think on your toes you will most likely never get the chance to employ those skills.

·        How to take criticism

In my Freshman year, it was a terrible feeling to get an essay back covered in red slashes or to sit patiently in a circle while each of my classmates told me what they didn’t like about my short story. In later years, I learned to appreciate such criticism and even look forward to it. I knew it was making me a better writer. Unfortunately, I’ve learned that a lot of people in the corporate world do not take criticism well. Most people think their idea is the best idea. The problem is they have not been able to detach their self-worth from their ideas and may view the criticism as a judgement of themselves. English majors learn to distinguish between the two and take advantage of good criticism.

In software development it is necessary to willfully accept the criticism of others. A technical lead may have some ideas to make your code allocate memory more effectively. A business user might have a different opinion on the layout of a page. The important thing in software development is to come up with the best solution, even if it is not yours.

What I borrowed

·        The writing styles of my peers and favorite writers.

Some of my communication requires short, concise, sentences. Yet, others may call for elaborate and descriptive sentences. As an English major, I learned different ways to write the same thing.

In software development, and in the corporate world in general – it is important to not only write clearly, but be able to write for any audience. There is a different style of writing in user training than design documentation or functional specifications. Some messages may need to elicit other feelings that cannot be seen in the words themselves – like urgency, confidence, or even reluctance. Not everyone responds best to the same writing style so it is important to be able to call upon many.

What I abandoned

·        Trying to be like others

There is a fine line between being influenced and copying. It was at times tempting to try to write exactly like others, or about what others write about since so much of an English major’s time is spent reading and writing about the works of others. Doing this masks true potential and covers up an original style that is harder to build but much more effective when it is used. I’ve noticed in the corporate world, many people take their own abilities for granted and would just rather continue doing things the way they have always been done or how others would do it.

To be successful in software development bringing out an original idea requires original thinking. Finding an effective way to do something is much more important than continuing the old way. It is important to actively think about the process being done, and how it can be improved.

Mortgage Loan Officer

What I learned

·        How to sell

Before working as a loan officer, I had generally looked at sales in a stereotypical light. I imagined a skinny man in a colorful suit, generously applied cologne, and slicked back hair who only cared about one thing: money. I learned that selling is more than that, and its applications are much wider than most would imagine. An employer is sold by a candidate and hires them for the job. A husband sells himself to his wife when reciting his vows, assuring her that he will be there to love her until death. Zig Ziglar, one of the most listened to sales gurus said ‘Selling is not something you do to someone, it’s something you do for someone’. If you believe what you are selling will help someone, there is no reason to feel ashamed.

A developer can create the best solution with all the bells and whistles – but if he or she is not able to sell the benefits of the tool to the end user, or the customer – the tool will never roll out. Many of us unfortunately know the feeling of working on a project for months and months, only to not receive sign-off or buy-in from the business.

What I borrowed

·        The optimism attitude

 “Either you run the day or the day runs you.” – Jim Rohn

There is a mentality held by almost every successful salesperson. It is one of relenting optimism. In sales, you have to live call by call, imagining an easy sale every time. The failures of the day before should not influence how today will go. The best salespeople go to work excited, and excite others. They exude energy and positivity and motivate others. They operate on synergy and know how to use momentum.

In software development it may be hard to see the light at the end of a tunnel during the middle of a seemingly endless and evolving project. Yet everyday has to be given the same energy and creativity of the last – an optimistic person can make a big difference for team moral

What I abandoned

·        The get rich quick mindset

It’s common for sales jobs to highlight their most successful employees’ accomplishments, and my job was no different. At any moment in the break room you could hear the conversations. “Did you hear John makes twenty thousand a month? Can you even imagine?”. There is nothing wrong with trying to motivate employees but unrealistic expectations do more harm than good. Several employees in my hiring group quit a few weeks after they finished training when they realized that the ‘Easy Money’ was not as easy as they were led to believe. The truth was that the employee making twenty thousand a month had been working in the industry for a very long time, attended sales seminars on the weekends and worked ten to twelve hours a day. There may very well be an easy, quick money sales job out there – Let us know when you find it.

Personal Trainer

 What I learned

·        How to track and measure success

A personal trainer is responsible for keeping others accountable. They need to be able to set realistic goals for their clients, goals that are big enough to make an impact and happen quick enough to be motivating. The goals require creativity, and are usually never the same between clients. One client may have a goal of reaching ten pull ups in one minute, another may want to lose inches while another only wants to lose weight. Setting an unrealistic goal that is not accomplished can cause a client to lose interest. I communicated regularly to my clients about their goals and expectations, showing them where they could improve and where they are doing well, treating each client like a project you have to manage.

Executives speak the language of metrics. They want to know the facts and they want to know if the investment in your project was a good idea. Having clearly defined goals and metrics ready at any moment only helps the possibility of a successful project.

What I borrowed

·        The advice of my clients

The best part about working with people is listening to people. Everyone has a story. Everyone has a slightly different motivation. I learned that the best way to get clients to listen to you is to listen to them. Many of my clients enjoyed our time together because they were able to talk to me about their day, their challenges and even share some aspects of their personal lives. I was able to learn a lot from their personal experiences and life lessons. While they gained from my knowledge of exercise and diet, I gained from their knowledge of business, parenthood, or marriage.

What I abandoned

·        Blaming others

As I mentioned previously, people have different motivations. Exercise is not an integral part of their lives like so many personal trainers. While some may disagree, I’ve noticed that most ‘Gym Rats’ have not yet started a family or work in professions that afford them the free time to exercise. Instead of blaming a client for not hitting a goal, or cancelling on a session, I thought “How can I motivate this person”? Is there an expectation I am not meeting?”.

In my current position, while there is plenty of opportunities to cast blame around I’ve tried to instead focus on what I can control and ways I can improve my communication to better manage expectations.

In a Stanford commencement speech, Steve Jobs said “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future”. As I remain anxious about what the future holds, I trust that as long as I attempt to actively learn from my experiences, they can be made to strengthen my future positions – whatever they may be. I hope that this article gives others who may be anxious about their future career some hope and perspective.

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