Entering an Industry with no Prior Experience

Today’s jobtalk is with Timothy Johnson III, who is working in a field that is unrelated to what he studied in college. In this interview, I don’t get into what Tim does for a living, rather I find out about the decisions he made when he was in college and how he was able to break into marketing without studying it in college – no related internships either. Check out what Timothy has to say about getting a job in an area in which you have no prior experience.

Title: Marketing Coordinator

Education: B.A. Linguistics, Swarthmore, 2007

Age: 26

Did you have an interest in marketing when you started college?

Well, no. When I started college, my intention was to go to medical school to get my M.D./Ph.D. I always liked science. During the summer before my senior year in high school, I did research through the Temple University’s Physician Scientist Training Program.  The following two summers I also spent doing science research because at that point I was set on going to medical school.

But I’m guessing it’s safe to say that you’re no longer interested in going to medical school and being a medical researcher since you are in marketing now. Why did you change your mind?

It’s primarily because when I started taking science classes in college, I started to realize that my drive to work in a lab wasn’t there. I enjoyed lab-work, but it wasn’t something I could imagine myself doing for a long time. I wasn’t comfortable with having to function with very little sleep and having to be in charge of people’s lives. I know what I feel like with 2 hours of sleep, and it’s very hard for me to do anything.

I also realized that I was more interested in doing something that would let me have more conversations with people. So I realized that I wasn’t quite as into doing medical research as I thought. I also noticed that there was a marked difference between me and my friends who were really into science.

My friends that were really into science would always be in the science library and they were always talking about science. I enjoyed talking about science, but not to the extent that my science-friends liked to about it.

I decided that I didn’t want to major in science, so I chose linguistics. I had wanted to major in English, but unfortunately, at Swarthmore, to do that would have required a special major. And it just wasn’t feasible. So I decided to try linguistics. It was very different from what I thought it was.

In one of James Altucher’s blog posts, he writes that college is basically about memorizing facts and that it will not really teach people how to think. What is your response to this statement?

I would say that his point about memorizing information is wrong. I think you see more of that in high school.  When I got to college, we were expected to be able to apply our knowledge. My first several exam grades in biology were abysmal. I would study the information and do the study questions and thought, “Okay I should be good for this test.” But I was wrong.

In college, it wasn’t read, absorb, and regurgitate. It was read, absorb, and apply your knowledge to a problem you haven’t seen before.

For me, college really helped to shift my thinking.

What else did you do during your college years besides going to class?

I worked at the library and in the art gallery. That showed me what it was like to do a job, handle money, and budget my time. I had also worked as a lifeguard when I was in high school. Every Saturday I taught preschoolers how to swim.

When I graduated from Swarthmore, I looked for marketing and communications jobs, and I couldn’t find anything. I had gone on interviews and gotten to the last round and then someone had a marketing internship or background and they took that person over me.

So I thought about it, and since I couldn’t get a job in the field that I wanted to work in, I made a list of retail companies that I could stand to work in that would cater to my interests. I came up with a really short list. It was Apple, Barnes and Noble, Verizon Wireless, and AT&T. I had also looked at Pier 1 Imports, but after I had had an interview with them, I thought, “Nah I can’t work there.” I ended up working at Apple.

Did you take anything away from your time working in the Apple store?

I got to work with a particular product that I thought was pretty out-of-this-world and I really believed in it. It was easy for me to talk about it because it wasn’t like I was trying to get people to buy Oreos. I also got to meet interesting people that came into the store, so that was great from a networking standpoint.

Working at Apple also taught me that I loved working as team with my coworkers. While salespeople were all responsible for being knowledgeable, if I didn’t know something that a customer asked about, it was okay to say, “I’m not really sure about that. Why don’t we go to my colleague and we can learn more about it together.”

I also learned how to give excellent service from working at the Apple store as well as what it was like to work for a company that really cares about its customers. Understanding what a customer experience should be like – from the floor plan to the way the product looks on the shelves – taught me what goes into marketing a product.

What attracted you to marketing?

At its core, marketing is about drawing attention to product or service that solves a customer’s problem. It’s about finding the right message that will strike a chord with a customer, capture their attention, and make them say to themselves, “Wow, that product is just what I need! How can I get one?” I enjoy the internal satisfaction that arises from being able to solve that problem.

How did you land your first marketing job? Was the experience at Apple an instrumental part of helping to get that first job?

If I hadn’t worked at the Apple Store, I wouldn’t have been as passionate about marketing as I am today. A trip to an Apple store, from when a customer walked in the door until the customer left, was a complete marketing experience. As an Apple employee, one understood that each interaction with an Apple customer was a reflection of how that customer viewed the Apple brand. I think being able to internalize the brand message and deliver on it daily, was key to seeing how vital marketing messages are to a company’s bottomline. If I hadn’t worked at Apple, I would never have met Noelle Stary. Noelle is the founder of 20 Lemons LLC, a strategic marketing company, whom I worked with from 2009-2011.

What are your responsibilities as a marketing coordinator at Learning Express?

I am responsible for event planning and logistics related to the library trade shows the company attends, including the American Library Association Midwinter Conference and the Public Library Association Conference. I also work on marketing LearningExpress Library and Job & Career Accelerator, two B2B products that are used by patrons in hundreds of libraries across the country.

What advice do you have for someone that wants to go into a field that s/he didn’t study in college?

Sit down and say, “Okay, I have a degree in XYZ, and I want to get experience in marketing.” The question to ask is “How can I get experience in marketing?” Make a list of all the ways you can go about fulfilling your goal.

For example, the list might have the following for someone who’s interested in marketing: internships, jobs, taking a class at a community college, taking out a couple books from the library, joining an organization such as The American Marketing Association of New Jersey. Also figure out how to network. Talk to people who do what you want to do and ask them about what it’s like and what advice they can give you.

I know you commute from NJ to NYC, so your weekends are precious. What do you love doing on the weekends?

Yeah, I have a busy week. I leave my house at 6:30 in the morning and get home anywhere between 6:45 and 7:15. So on the weekends I like to see my friends. Yesterday I went bowling and tonight I’m going to a dinner party. I also spend time on my hobbies and enjoy reading fantasy novels

*Update on 6/19/12: Timothy Johnson no longer works for LearningExpress.