No Marketable Skills by
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The Commodore VIC 20, one of the first computers I wrote documentation for. Photo credit: aydinstone.com.

I always liked school and was good at it, which is why I decided to never leave. I went straight from kindergarten through graduate school without ever taking a break, let alone a gap year. Doctorate in hand, I took my first academic job as an assistant professor, teaching psychology and family studies at the University of Utah. I settled in for a long career as a university professor.

“What are you going to do?” they asked. “You’re an academic!"

But I quickly became disenchanted with academia. While I excelled at teaching, it was research that was valued, and I had trouble establishing my research program. Academic meetings and committee work gobbled up time, and the salary was paltry. (After California Governor Jerry Brown once offered the justification that teachers got paid in “psychic dollars,” one wag quipped that we would gladly use them to pay our taxes.) And Patti and I never felt at home in Salt Lake City, a conservative backwater compared to the Bay Area.

Midway through my fourth year, I asked my department chair for a leave of absence. I planned to move back to California and try out the world of business. If it didn’t work out, I could come back (fat chance, I thought).

When I announced my decision, my friends and colleagues were aghast. “What are you going to do?” they asked. “You’re an academic! You have no marketable skills.” But after a month or so, several approached me quietly. “Let me know how it goes,” they confided. “I’ve been thinking about doing something similar.”

I arrived back in the Bay Area in the fall of 1980. The personal computer revolution was in full swing, and I thought it would be fun, and smart, to be part of it. I had enjoyed the one programming class I took in college, as well as the computerized statistical analysis of my research data.

But what could I do? As my colleagues had observed, I had no marketable skills.

Patti was working as a buyer for our friend Ken, who owned a chain of furniture stores. Hanging out there one afternoon, I watched him struggle with the IBM small business computer he had bought to manage his inventory. “Let me take a look at the manual,” I said, trying to help, and soon realized the problem. It was written by the programmer, who had no clue how to explain the program to a layperson.

No marketable skills, my ass! I was an academic. I could teach and I could write. So I positioned myself as a trainer or a technical writer, and started sending out my résumé.

The going was rough. I was turned down by hardware firms like Apple, Commodore, and Tandem. I was turned down by software firms like Personal Software. “You seem talented,” they said, “but you have no experience.” I observed my 30th birthday, unemployed and despondent.

Two days later, I was hired by a tiny startup with big plans, looking not to fill a slot but for someone smart and adaptable. A couple of the founders had connections at InfoWorld, the leading trade newspaper, and they brought me in to write product reviews and, eventually, articles and columns. People began to know my name. (In fact, the technical publications manager from Apple expressed regret that she hadn’t hired me when she had the chance.)

After two years I left the startup, and Patti and I co-founded our own technical writing firm. Over the last thirty-plus years, we’ve written documentation and marketing materials for dozens of tech companies, from unknown startups to megaliths like Oracle, Borland, McAfee, and Becton Dickinson. It’s still active today, and (with occasional breaks and forays into other ventures) has been our primary source of livelihood for more than 30 years—and a wild ride for someone with no marketable skills.

Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect.


Characterizations: been there, funny, moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Jeannie says:

    Love this story of triumph over the odds. It’s a true one for many of us, I know–how the computer industry saved those with No Marketable Skills (degrees in English, for instance).

  2. Wendy Ng says:

    I always “wondered” what you did when I met you and Patti on the airplane flying back from Los Angeles a few years ago. You mentioned academia and I knew you wrote, but…. As I sit here laboring over an article I’m writing during this Labor Day weekend, I’m reminded that our higher education system is not about teaching or training students for a particular job, but it’s about what they learn in the process. Those skills are not necessarily obvious in our education (and indeed, in our higher ed or graduate degrees), but they are the ones that we learn when we think, we write, we read, we ask questions, and inquire about the world around us. That is what makes your ability to channel your academic career (what, no marketable skills?) into many different careers….including Retrospect.

    • John Zussman says:

      Beautifully put, Wendy. I too think of Retrospect as a sort of culmination of my co-founders’ and my lifelong passions and experience. It seems fitting and logical that we created this company—but there is no way we could have predicted it when we started our careers.

  3. rosie says:

    I always wondered what you did for a living. You seemed to have the skills and personality to fit into so many niches and the creativity as well. I really enjoyed the story and especially the fact that you and Patti ended up in surprising places. ….I just noticed and looked up at Wendy’s comment and I unknowingly began my comment as she did. I actually thought you might be a psychologist, because you are such a good listener and so observant.

  4. Suzy says:

    Great story, John! So glad to see the triumph of someone “smart and adaptable.” Thank heavens the tiny startup recognized your value. Otherwise you might not have traveled the path that led you to Retrospect, and we all would be worse off.

  5. Marian says:

    John, I’m glad you re-posted this story, because although I knew your background, I lacked the details. With my degree in English and art history, I too had no marketable skills. It was fun reading about a successful journey.

  6. Suzy says:

    Hard to believe it’s been 4 ½ years since I wrote the above comment! It’s still a great story, and perfect for this prompt. Through my excellent detective skills, I figured out that you first posted it on the prompt Working. Thanks for re-posting.

  7. Bravo John for following your gut, taking the risk and winning. The only losers in your story were all those Utah students who came after you left.

    And thank you for Retro!

  8. Betsy Pfau says:

    Somehow, I missed this story when you first posted it. I think I was traveling. But I’m certainly happy to read it now, though I do know the history and relate to it , as someone with a theater degree, who was hired by a software company to do data input, then fashioned myself into a successful salesperson. I just needed a company to take a chance on me and moved to Chicago when that chance arose. To the risk-taker goes the reward. With love from “Moon Unit” Pfau!

    • John Zussman says:

      Thanks, Betsy. Back in the day, tech offered a world of opportunity for those of us like you, Marian, and me, who parlayed our strengths and skills into a career. As I said to Marian, we should start a club! Sadly, I’m not sure that opportunity exists anymore.

      Hmm, I wonder if there’s a prompt for which I could post that “Moon Unit” story … 😉

      • Betsy Pfau says:

        Unfortunately, I think you are correct, John. These days, resumés come in with no one to vouch for you and you are lucky to get seen. I think many are just scanned for keywords. Creativity isn’t a positive. We wouldn’t stand a chance.

  9. dj discoworm says:

    Fantastic John. 1980 Is when I left Salt Lake City and Headed For The Bay Area
    Dj discOworm San Fransisco

  10. I love that you followed your heart, John, from the opening line of your story to the last. I imagine without those naysayers and hardships along the way, your success might not have felt nearly as sweet.

    Wonderfully told, thank you!

  11. dj discoworm says:

    John, You Really do look familiar. I just updated the SunTavern 1975 bit
    Dj discOworm

  12. John Shutkin says:

    A great story about chartering your own career path, John. Beyond that, your story (and career) tapped into something that I observed, with great frustration, throughout my legal career. In short, lawyers (and most business people) and IT folks speak totally different languages. And yet they need to communicate. And now, with electronic discovery and other technological developments — to say nothing of a pandemic and even more needs for remote information transmission — more than ever. I always thought that anyone who could “translate” and bridge this gap would have a career path beaten to his/her door. And you did.

    By the way, the prime example of this gap for me was when my legal department in the 1990’s wanted to develop a “case management system,” a pretty basic mode of information sharing among the lawyers. So, for example, if one of the lawyers encountered Expert Witness X in a case he/she was working on, he/she could easily search to see if X had been involved in other cases involving the firm. We hired some IT consultants from our firm’s own consulting division; here, the legal department would be its “client.” Yet, when I received the consultants’ initial summary of the prospective project, I could barely understand it — even though I knew exactly what it was supposed to do since I had told them exactly what we wanted done. No wonder I could never figure out what their projects were about when I read their contracts for the firm’s outside clients.

    • John Zussman says:

      Thanks, John. Your story is a classic example of why technical folk need people who can translate and communicate outside the priesthood. There were several times in my career when there would be some technological “breakthrough” (like the Mac, Windows, or online help) that was thought to make technical writers obsolete. Remember that Apple ad comparing the voluminous manuals that came with a PC vs the thin manual that came with a Mac? Colleagues would come to me and ask, “What are you going to do when no one needs tech writers anymore?” I would smile and say, “Let me know when that happens.” I wonder how many projects your firm lost because clients could not decipher your IT group’s proposals?

      • John Shutkin says:

        One question I recall asking our IT consultants time and time again when I was reviewing — and trying to understand — their contracts was simply, “What are we supposed to be providing the client here?” The answer was, invariably, “the deliverables.” When I then asked what “the deliverables” were, the answer — equally invariably — was, “That’s what we’re supposed to be providing the client.”

        I could never get out of that loop.

  13. Laurie Levy says:

    What an interesting career path, John. You saw a need and set out to fill it. Inspiring story.

  14. Dave Ventre says:

    The failure to value teaching prowess is one of the worst aspects of academia. My wife also abandoned her academic career for business (and finally wound up combining them as a University Research Administrator). I, on the other hand, bailed when my progress became a demonstration of Zeno’s Paradox…

  15. Jeff Gerken says:

    Very interesting story. I have often read through owner’s manuals for tools and devices that were written in broken English, and wondered why those companies didn’t hire someone, like me for instance, who is both technically knowledgeable and able to write a sentence, to compose manuals for their customers.

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