Over-Educated, Under-Qualified by
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With Lelah, Jan, 2015

I graduated from Brandeis in 1974 with a degree in Theatre Arts and a Massachusetts Secondary Teaching Certificate. I also got married a month after graduating. Dan, my new husband, worked at a small software company in Waltham, MA called SofTech, but would start graduate school in the fall, though he continued to work part time. I needed a job. I applied to all the suburban schools near where we would live before I graduated, but heard nothing back from any.

When we returned from our nuptials in Detroit, driving through Canada for our honeymoon, I called all the schools where I had applied to teach to let them know of my name and address change. Dan’s family always had to spell his difficult last name and did it in this way: “P as in Peter, F as in Frank, A, U”. I knew I was in trouble when one administrator said, “You say your name is “Peter, Frank, Owwww!”. OY! I heard from none of the schools. I didn’t apply to Boston. A judge had just desegregated the schools and the KKK was marching on the steps of the State House. Little 5′ tall Betsy was not getting near that situation.

I read the want-ads in the paper and answered random ones, but nothing panned out. As August rolled around, I became desperate. We attended a party with lots of Dan’s fellow workers one Saturday night, including his office-mate Lelah and her husband Mike, who also worked at SofTech. I cornered Lelah, with whom I had been friendly since Dan went to work there a year earlier. “If you want to do him a favor, hire me!” She mulled this over, and told me to come in the following Tuesday (she worked part-time) and interview. She thought I might be right for the position of Program Librarian and she was hiring.

I was nervous. I knew nothing about computers, but I wore something I considered suitable for the office (which was ten minutes from our apartment) and showed up for the interview. Lelah explained the job and tested my typing skills, which were decent. She passed me over to others in the office. I had no idea what they were talking about. I came home crying. I didn’t think I was at all right for the job. Lelah called later. She apologized. The other people didn’t understand what she wanted me to do and she told me I was hired! I would make $7,000/year. Dan made that much working part-time. Still, between the two of us, we could get by.

At the same time, an offer came through from the theatre at Brandeis to be the administrator to the manager. I wouldn’t be acting, but I’d be around the theatre. It paid the same amount, but was only a nine month/year job with no room for growth. And the more I thought about it, I realized that being close to the theatre, but not in the productions, would probably drive me crazy.

I took the software job, not understanding anything about what I was supposed to do, beyond keypunching the programmers’ code. Lelah told me I was “over-educated and under-qualified” for the job, but she knew I was smart, willing, and would learn quickly. I cut off my nails and went to work the next Monday. Lelah took me out to a welcome lunch and the company of about 60 employees was a welcoming place, though I never entirely understood what they did. Much of it was Department of Defense contract work, so I got a security clearance – finger prints on file with the Waltham police.

Soon I was running the small data center, had a small staff of people who also were doing data input and I got so familiar with the code that I would recognize if a programmer had left off a semi-colon at the end of a phrase. I am very organized. But I was bored out of my gourd. In the computer room, which was very noisy, I’d sing Gilbert and Sullivan at the top of my lungs while keypunching with the door closed. I didn’t realize how loud I was until the company president poked his head in one day to tell me that I had a good voice!

I became friendly with the guy in the office next to me, the successful salesman. I watched and listened to what he did. I had a feeling I’d be good at that too, but was told a woman couldn’t sell to the military…women were either secretaries or mistresses. I took great delight in proving him wrong when, a few years later, I sold a contract to a full colonel in the Air Force at the Pentagon. But this was 1977.

These smart folks, many from MIT, started talking about software engineering and evidently a program librarian was an important part of that. There was a group working on a course on the subject with a company called Advanced Systems, Inc. out of Chicago. They developed and sold or rented video training. A course developer was coming to the office to work on the material  and would interview me. After years of doing this work I was ready to move on. I knew I would be an excellent sales person. I had the right personality, follow-through and ability to ask the tough questions. I was ready.

When the ASI person showed up that February day in 1978 he set up his tape recorder and asked me a series of questions about my job. When he asked me what was the career path for a program librarian, I turned off his recorder and handed him my resume. I was in Chicago in my first sales position two months later.

I worked in Chicago for 16 months, came back to Boston over Labor Day weekend, 1979 as a top sales professional. I am still friendly with Lelah, who took a risk on an untested girl and gave me my first job.

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.


Tags: SofTech, program librarian, keypunch, sales rep
Characterizations: been there, well written

Comments

  1. smithlouise says:

    I love stories like Pfau’s “Over-Educated, Under-Qualified,” about the burden of education and its attendant dreams. Women especially in our generation saw narrow career paths—nurse, teacher.
    I recall trying to fit a masters degree in psychology into something in the Washington Post Classifieds. Counselor was the only possible category. I read them all. I recall one job offering work staying overnight with mentally handicapped men. The next category was Counter Help. I read them too.
    Louise Farmer Smith
    louisefarmersmith.com

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Louise. Yes, getting a teaching certificate seemed prudent, but as you see, that didn’t work out. I didn’t have the gumption to actually be an actress (and we needed a paycheck!), so choices were limited. I was lucky that people were willing to take chances on me and see my potential and that I was willing to recreate myself a few times. I never really did understand the software world, but always had good people beside me who did. I gave good presentations, good follow-through, good service and persevered.

  2. Suzy says:

    Betsy, this is a great story. Thank heavens for Lelah, who was willing to stick her neck out for another woman! And lucky that she had enough clout to be able to do so – rare in that era! Of course you were successful running the data center, and then selling! Of course you sold a contract to a colonel at the Pentagon! And I love the image of you turning off the ASI guy’s tape recorder and handing him your resume.

    That “Peter, Frank, owwww” comment from a school administrator makes me wonder why you decided to change your name when you got married. There’s probably a story there as well.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Yes, Lelah was an innovator. She also hired interns from Northeastern a year or two later. She was a great mentor to many of us.

      And yes, there is a story about taking my husband’s last night. I was 21 years old when I married and was a timid little creature. Though I had dinner at my future in-laws every Sunday night (they lived in Newton, where Dan was raised, though business caused them to move away three years after we married), I didn’t know them very well. I came to truly love my mother-in-law, but she was a very strong and VERY tall woman who brooked no nonsense. She helped me in many ways, but we weren’t comfortable together yet. One night at her dinner table when Dan and I were engaged, I announced that I was thinking of keeping my maiden name (Sarason…much simpler). She rather emphatically said, “If I had to take this name, YOU have to take this name!” And that’s all there was to it. Years later she told me she was joking. I certainly didn’t understand that then. Through my many years in sales, I put together a collage of over 40 unique misspellings of that last name from name-tags, envelopes, etc. Dan’s family gets quite a kick out it.

  3. John Zussman says:

    From your clever title to your happy ending, I love this story of finding your way in a foreign field for which you had no training or qualifications. It reminds me of my own experience in tech. I’m thankful that we both had generous first hiring managers who were willing to take a chance on someone bright and motivated, even if they were “underqualified.” Now that the tech industry is well established, I wonder if that kind of career path is even possible anymore.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      John, I have often wondered that myself…could any of us with a liberal arts education who succeeded in the tech world 40+ years ago, get hired now? Back then, there wasn’t even a Computer Science major at most non-tech universities and these companies just had to take a chance. Like you, I am glad they did and we proved them right! Hiring is so non-personal these days, with just a list of specific skills and languages required. I saw what my daughter just went through. It was such an ordeal and she would have been a huge asset to most companies, but couldn’t get her resume past the door at so many Silicon Valley companies, even with a CS degree from Brown (and her first job was working in software engineering at Apple and I don’t mean in a retail store).

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