This is the story of how a couple of life crises lead me to make the most out of a College degree I no longer enjoyed.
Going into engineering after high school seemed like a great Idea. I had good grades in math and science and I liked to draw. You know, because technical drawings are the same as drawing superheroes, right? (obviously not). Civil Engineers make enough to pay off the debt that I would accrue, they are in demand, and the degree is pretty flexible in that there are a lot of different career paths with it.
Fast forward to Junior year of civil engineering and I was on the struggle bus. Courses were intense, I was taking on leadership roles in student orgs, and I was working a part time job (and of course drinking and partying : /… ). This all culminated into a pretty burnt out version of myself.
I remember being in a library study room preparing for an exam and I suddenly felt a very urgent sense of dread and exhaustion. I reached a breaking point. I was stressed, I didn’t know or like the material, I knew my mediocre grades were going to limit my professional options and I was probably going to fail this exam. I broke down nearly to tears in a room full of my fraternity brothers.
Me: “Fuck this! Fuck this exam, fuck engineering, Fuck it I’m switching majors.”
My brothers were a little taken aback. None of them were trained on how to handle this. There were some mumbles among them. One of them asked me what I would switch into. I didn’t know. One of the brothers tried to help and asked me what I liked to do.
Me: “I like music, I used to draw,… I like the idea of business and being my own boss.”
Brother 2: “There you go! Business! That’s a good idea”
After some time consulting with my brothers for a while, I calmed down and decided not to switch out of my major. I landed on taking classes toward the entrepreneurship certificate the school was offering which was kind of like a minor. This seems to be a sensible choice. I won’t lose the time I’ve spent in the school of engineering and I get to focus on a side of it that interests me. I can learn business as it relates to Civil Engineering and I will like it better. Perfect.
I started taking entrepreneurship classes the following semester and I loved it. The case studies, the stories of making something of nothing, and problem solving in a different context. Plus if you figured out how to make it work, you can make pretty good money without having a boss. Cool. This will be the way. I just have to get some experience at a company so I can see how it runs from the inside and learn from the best. I managed to push through and graduated with my Bachelors in Civil Engineering in a total of 5 years of college.
Cut to my first full time salary paid job. My uncle was able to help me get an interview a couple years prior which lead to the three summer internships in construction management. That being said, I was a pretty competitive candidate for a full time position by the time I graduated . Man, did I feel like a grown up and, man, did this version of being a grown up suck. Long commute, long hours, tedious and boring tasks, and not great pay. Sure we were building a road and that sounds cool, but I wasn't building anything. I was tracking production, filling out paperwork for paying invoices, and addressing problems if they come up. The outlook didn’t look very promising either. By that I mean, I took a long look at the men who held the positions that I would one day need to fill if I wanted to progress in this field or start a similar company of my own and that was not a appealing to me.
Once again I found myself down a path that I probably shouldn't have started down. I didn't really know what to do but I knew I was stuck with this degree so I reached out to a fraternity brother who also had a degree in Civil Engineering. Jorge graduated a year before me and he took a different career path. He was a sales engineer in Houston and I was curious what the job entailed and if it might be a better fit than construction. He was able to give me the run down of what the heck a sales engineer does. In summary: he controlled his schedule, he got to meet a lot of new people, he helped people solve problems, got to take clients out to lunch, … and he made a lot of money! This sounds promising!
Through my entrepreneurship courses, I had learned the importance of sales skills in business and the idea of learning those skills while getting paid intrigued me so I queried about opportunities. Unfortunately, there weren’t any sales engineer positions open at his company, that they fill up quick, and once filled it usually takes someone quitting to open up again. I asked if he would let me know if something opened up and he enthusiastically agreed to do so. We both were really excited about the idea of working together.
This prompted me to revisit my resume and start a search of my own. A couple weeks later Jorge called back. There was an opportunity at a different company, similar to his, but smaller and, besides one product line, sold very different products. The position would be in Houston and, If I was interested, There was a high likelihood for me to get an interview. Hell yea I was interested! I’d rather be almost anywhere except Chicagoland in the winters…
I didn’t have any experience but Jorge knew me pretty well and assured me that my social skills were a strong foundation to build sales skills on. Plus the construction experience helps. The customers are constructors so I would have a unique insight.
I had landed a phone interview soon after and with a little coaching from Jorge, I nailed it. The next step was a skype interview with the CEO and team. Like I mentioned, I had started independently searching and applying for sales engineer positions in Indianapolis because that’s where my girlfriend, Cristine, lived at the time. I had passed the phone interview stage for a company that sold concrete pipe and I was scheduling an in person interview with their management.
It was working! I had two interviews and I’m feeling good about it. I could kill like five birds with one stone: I can schedule a long weekend to Indianapolis, spend some time with Cristine, have a decent background for a skype interview in the morning, drive over to the other interview, then spend more time with my girlfriend. What a plan!
One Thursday afternoon, I drove down to Indy after lunch and spent the evening with the love of my life. The morning after, I remember waking up and looking for my work phone to check if everything was going alright on the project but I couldn’t find it. At this point I was managing a small crew that installed concrete stormwater drainage pipe for a road we were building. Surely, they'd be fine for one day. See, I had been having some issues with one of our suppliers sending products that were slightly off from spec but it was usually a quick fix. I specifically had the conversation with the superintendent about how to handle it but had a nagging feeling about it all.
Nevertheless, I couldn't spare any more time to search for the phone and I had to get ready for my interviews. I put on my best suit and logged on to skype. It went great. I finished it off with a little sales pitch Jorge gave me to use and the CEO said, “ I think he just closed the deal, he’s the guy. You’re hired” His team doubled back and informed me that they had a couple more candidates to interview before they can make a decision. "We'll be in touch". I was feeling good but I had to get going to to make it to my interview with the other company. I sped out of the hotel and I made it right on time, repeated the same tactics, and really impressed the interviewer. Killed it.
Now I could take some time and do another search for my work phone. I found it hidden in a crevice at the back of my Rav 4 by the spare tire. I found the phone with tens of missed calls, texts, and emails. The high I was on from those interviews disappeared. I called the superintendent to check in, it was exactly the situation I tried to prepare him for, but my effort was fruitless. Nonetheless, I’d deal with it on Monday. I had some time with Cristine and I’m not going to let that mess this up.
When I returned to work on Monday I had to answer to one of the Assistant Project Managers (APM) who took it upon herself to address the issue with the supplier (you know? the simple solve I mentioned before). She had her own responsibilities and was not dealing with these things on a daily basis, so it was a burden on her and in her eyes something was going terribly wrong because I didn't make sure things were taken care of in my absence. Anyway, I got a scathing email from that APM with a printed version on my desk to match. I took full responsibility for the mishap because, that’s what good leaders do and I did misplace my phone and that's on me… also I didn’t have anything to lose.
What a good time to quit. I had received offers from both companies. The offer for the job in Houston meant a roughly 30% increase in pay in a city that was like 50% more affordable than Chicago. The offer was also way more competitive than the offer in Indy. At this point I had decided that I was going to accept that offer in Houston. Cristine and I talked about it and she agreed that she would join me in Houston to start a new life together!
As soon as I could, I proposed a one-on-one meeting with my boss, the Project Manager, Gil. He responded, “ Yes, good. I need to talk to you about something too”. Oh man, I’m thinking he’s going to rip me a new one about the whole phone situation. He started the conversation like this:
Gil: “ Look Josh, you’re a smart kid and we have a small team here. The other APM is not going to cut it. Look you had a slip up, everyone does, but I don’t think that’s a reflection of your potential and really it’s a learning opportunity. I think you’re in a really good position to move up soon…”
I actually really appreciated this candid discussion and I knew what he was saying was true. I could be good at this job, I could move up quickly, and I could have success in this field. I was very grateful for the fact that I had a job at all, that I had the connections to get my foot in the door, and that the person in charge was recognizing me. What a position to be in for a new college graduate. My heart was filled with gratitude and it started to feel kind of silly to leave it behind. Who was I to try to get so much out of a job when some can't even make ends meet. Maybe I should just let this ride, put my head down and grind it out, make Gil happy and make my uncle proud… but I had to follow this new path. I felt really bad about what I had to tell him next.
I stopped him mid sentence.
Me: “ Gil, I really appreciate your candor, but before you continue I have to tell you something… “
Gil: “ Oh shit, you’re not quitting, are you?”
Me: “ Yes”
Two weeks later I was packed up moving to Houston to start a new career. What I didn’t know was: Landing a Job in sales is one thing, becoming good at that job was going to be a feat of its own. That’ll be a story for next time.