Skywalkering It

A journey from higher ed to the corporate world — and back

In the summer of 2009, I was about done with higher ed. In two different jobs at two different colleges, I felt as though I was always being held back from doing all I could do online, mostly due to political nonsense that had nothing to do with meeting goals and objectives. I was bored, frustrated, and jealous of other members of the higher ed web community who could actually DO stuff, instead of just sitting around thinking about it.

It was about that time that higher ed vendor who will remain nameless came knocking at my door. I had been a client of theirs for years and they decided it was “time” to hire me. I almost immediately signed on without giving a second thought. I couldn’t have been more excited – finally I would be able to actually DO stuff and people working at colleges would actually LISTEN to me in a way that my co-workers/bosses never had.

The Ways of the Dark Side

But it didn’t quite turn out like that. In fact, what I found out is that since you’re still working with colleges, you still have to deal with all of the same problems you always did – the politics, the pace, the people thinking they know what they’re talking about when they have no idea. The difference is that you’re dealing with it from a different angle. You’re an outsider. In some respects, that’s good. If a client makes a bad decision against your advice, the poor results they get are probably not going to significantly impact your life as much as it will theirs. On the flip side, it’s just as frustrating to see people making bad decisions when you’re on the outside as it is when you’re sitting next to them on their team. In so many respects, I had more power in a lower-level position at a college than I did as a director at a vendor. Even when I was in an assistant director of admissions position, my opinions were listened to by directors and VPs. I had influence. As a vendor, no matter what your rank in the company, clients may or may not listen. It all depends on if you’re telling them what they want to hear. I had the ability to present them with options, but at the end of the day, the amount of influence on their decision varied widely. With some clients, it was a lot. With others, it was none. And sometimes the client knew best, and others were just wrong and paid the price for it.

Another unexpected side effect of joining the vendor ranks was that I felt instantly banished by the higher ed web community. I never viewed vendors as being “outside higher ed”, and still don’t today. When I think about people like Michael Stoner of mStoner, Lance Merker of OmniUpdate, Karine Joly of HigherEdExperts, and even the infamous Kyle James of Hubspot/nuCloud, I see as much dedication to higher ed as I do from many people working at a college. I’ve never faulted vendors for making money off of higher education – it’s part of the natural ecosystem of the industry. But there are many others who don’t feel the way I do. When I was hanging out at tweet-ups or conferences, they would veer away, afraid that I was going to try to sell them something. People would tell me flat out to my face that I wasn’t higher ed. I would think (and sometimes say out loud) “Wait a minute! I work on college stuff ALL DAY! How on Earth am I not higher ed??” But perception is reality.

So I felt like an outsider from the clients I was working with and from the community I loved dearly. Maybe it’s residual emotions from not being the prom queen in high school, but it always bothered me. Still, there were a lot of things I liked. For instance, I enjoyed the change of pace of working on a new project every day, focusing on multiple schools instead of one, and the different points of view that I got to see higher education from. It was refreshing and made me better at what I do.

A (Surprise) New Hope

And then one day, I had the rug pulled out from under me. I got a phone call saying I no longer had a job, with no warning and with no explanation. Just days before, all I had heard was plans for my future with the company and then, out of nowhere, it was over. But I was lucky – because I’ve always insisted on maintaining my personal identity online, I had a lot of companies interested in bringing me on board. So I looked at it as an opportunity and spent the next month and a half flying around the country checking out my options. During my travels, I got an email from a recruiter saying that Southern New Hampshire University was looking for a Director of Social Media. A phone conversation later and I knew it was the right choice.

Now, none of this is to convince you that working for a vendor is a good or bad thing. It’s not better or worse than working for a college. It’s all about what you’re looking for in a job. If you want a fast-paced environment where you’re going to work on a lot of different types of projects and never have to go to another committee meeting in your life, then the vendor world is probably a good option. There were times I loved it. There were more times that I didn’t. But the lesson to take from my experience is this: No matter where you go, do it on your terms. Insist on maintaining your own identity online – if the rug ever gets pulled out from under you like it did for me, you’ll be so thankful you did. Because of my network, I came out ahead of the game – better job, better pay, more responsibility, and the environment I want.

So, would I do it over again? Yes, in a heartbeat. I learned so much in the year-and-a-half that I spent in vendor-land – how to work really efficiently, manage a ton of projects simultaneously, adapt to new conditions quickly and how to work with different types of people. But the biggest lesson I learned is to appreciate higher ed on a new level. As of this writing, I am several weeks into my new job. And wow…I’ve breathed so many sighs of relief to be back. We tell prospective students to choose the place where you fit in the best, and that’s good advice all around. The moment I set foot on campus, a complete sense of calm came over me. It just felt right. Is it a perfect work environment? Absolutely not. But it’s the right one for me.

  • Thanks for this. I think we’ve all wondered what it would be like to throw off all the downsides higher ed and head out for the sunny uplands of the corporate world.The problem, I guess, is that sometimes the grass *is* greener, and sometimes it just looks greener. I’m so glad you’ve landed on your feet — more than that, you seem to have landed in an amazing new place.

    Oh, and happy birthday!

  • Great reflection, Karlyn! Having already had two other careers, I can relate to almost every single thing you shared – including the phone call where you found out you were out of a job. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. I can honestly say that I am right where I want to be, warts and all so to speak. I think your blog post should be required reading for every single college student. The two gems about maintaining your online presence and doing things on your own terms are absolutely vital components of having a happy career. Congrats on being the first post for Link. I am looking forward to many more great stories here.

  • Lougan

    You’re always my Prom Queen! Haha