I didn’t know how to use a computer. To be honest, I didn’t even know how to type.
But here’s what I did know: I was broke, I was badly injured, I didn’t have health insurance, and I barely got through high school.
I thought I had it all figured out. Fitness changed my life, so being a personal trainer felt like a perfect career. Then I got hurt. An acute spinal injury will prevent you from putting on your shoes, let alone pulling heavy weights off the rack for a client.
I was in San Francisco, and tech was booming. But this was pre-dot com times, and the valley was filled with semiconductor manufacturing. My roommate had health insurance, a new car, nice suits, and cool stories about his job. He was doing biz dev for a Japanese automation company, and it made me question a lot of the decisions I’d made over the last half a decade. His life was objectively more pleasant than mine, and his “stress” was comprised of first-world problems and felt more like excitement than anything else.
“Our office has an opening for an inside application engineer,” he said. “If you do well in that position, there’s the possibility of advancing to my role. Why don’t you apply?”
“Uh, because I’m not an engineer?” I answered. “I didn’t even finish college, and I don’t even know how to turn a computer on.”
But he convinced me that I was at least as smart as most people in the office. I couldn’t work at the gym with my injury, so he gave me all of his college engineering textbooks and all of the company’s product manuals. So I studied. All day, every day for the next month.
I finally got an interview, and by that time, I not only had most of their product line memorized but had also bought every book on sales and interviewing that I could find. I had also gotten an internship at an investment bank, which put me in the status of kind-of-employed and sort-of-corporate-experience.
The office manager then grilled me.
“You have no degree or experience in this field. How do you expect to get this job?”
I referenced the similarities of the human anatomy and nervous system to that of a complex electrical schematic. I emphasized the ability to understand such systems as being more important than only narrow knowledge of a single one.
“We want to get people into sales, and that’s not something you simply need some experience with.”
I told him stories of selling thousands of dollars of personal training packages only moments after somebody had authorized a new membership and then of the thousands of cold calls I had made at the investment bank.
“There is no way you can catch up on the highly technical requirements of this role without a technical background.”
I asked him to question me on anything about their product line. Anything. Application specs, detecting distances, hysteresis, power requirements — anything. So he did, and I could answer every question correctly. He was bewildered.
My roommate told me I was in the final selection group.
Not many people were using email yet, but every office had a fax machine. So, I went to the gym and faxed him a follow-up. Every day. I called and left voice mails. Every day. I mailed a handwritten letter twice a week. I was relentless.
I finally got called in and was offered the job. I was told that it came down to a Stanford grad who had recently finished his electrical engineering degree and me. He was way more qualified, but I was way more driven.
I often get asked about switching careers or starting a new venture. How to do it without any experience or specific education. Yes, times have changed, but I think it’s gotten easier, not more difficult. If there’s more competition, it’s only because there is even more access to knowledge. And there is much more knowledge than competition.
There are levels to everything. Most people won’t do the crazy thing or swing at the pitch that isn’t right over the plate. For each person who waits for the conditions to be perfect, a white space opens up for someone else — someone hungrier, someone with a little more fire in their belly— to make a move.