What if you’re really good at your job and it should be your dream job, but it doesn’t capture your interest. If you’re not sure what would excite you, how do you decide your next steps? Susan Harrison is wrestling with those questions. I asked Susan how she is crafting her career. The highlights of her story follow.
In the beginning…
As valedictorian of her graduating class at Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio, Susan Harrison said, “I was good at school”, but she wasn’t sure what should be next.
Susan enrolled at the University of Dayton with a hazy idea of her future. The options she knew were doctor, lawyer or teacher. Since she liked science and math, she began as a pre-med major. That didn’t last long. “Chemistry sucks and premed is almost all chemistry”.
Susan’s high school boyfriend, Jason Harrison, asked, “What classes that you took did you like? What did you enjoy doing?” She told him that she liked physics and math. Since his brother was studying electrical engineering, Jason suggested it. Susan reviewed the curriculum and thought, “Oh, this looks perfect”.
“Electrical engineering had a lot of problem solving to it, where you took these basic circuit classes where they laid out a circuit and you figured out what it needed to work or how the current ran. It was just the way it worked was interesting in terms of a problem solving thing for me”.
Using her contacts, Susan found co-op internships at GM and Heapy Engineering. Her “dad worked with signal processing at Wright Patterson Air Force Base and knew guys who spun off to start company, so I got a job with them”.
The company built signal processing hardware for the federal government to decode signals intercepted from satellites. “I actually learned how to design and build hardware. I spent a ton of time actually soldering parts on boards …I actually kind of miss that part of it”.
What did Susan do after graduating from college?
Susan and Jason had maintained their relationship through college and eventually married. After Jason graduated from The Ohio State University, he planned to move to Washington, D.C. to work for the CIA.
Susan’s Dayton employer used their contacts in the DC area to help her find a job with TMA, providing technology services to the United States government.
At first Susan designed signal processing hardware, but within six months, the company trained her to write software code.
Within two years, Susan was bored. That “felt wrong because I had a top-secret security clearance, I was getting to travel…I just had access to really interesting things and the work should have been really interesting”. Although elements of the job were interesting, “the process of what I had to do day-to-day never really grabbed me…I still can’t articulate why…I was so young I didn’t know what to do with that…so I kind of tried to make myself like it”.
Although she was unhappy, Susan couldn’t see her options. “Everyone I met was doing some version of what I was doing, so it still didn’t broaden my knowledge about what was out there”. Nonetheless, she stayed with TMA for five years.
What did Susan do next?
By then Susan’s stepfather, Jack, was nearing the end of his battle with cancer. Since neither Susan nor Jason liked their jobs, they decided to quit and move back to Ohio to be with family.
By chance, Susan’s mother, Diane, met Tim Nealon. Nealon was working with Dayton Public Schools and the University of Dayton to design the Dayton Early College Academy (DECA) to prepare first-generation urban students to go to college. Diane introduced first Jason and then Susan to Nealon. DECA hired them as founding teachers, and they moved to Dayton.
How did Susan make the transition from being a software engineer to a teacher?
Susan had considered switching from software engineering to social work, so she liked the idea of helping urban students. DECA smoothed the transition by:
- Paying the tuition for the Masters in Education program at the University of Dayton
- Scheduling Susan and Jason to help with the program during its first year
- Moving them to teaching after they had their Masters
During the first three weeks of school, however, one of the math teachers left and DECA tapped Susan to take over his classes. She got her emergency teaching certification and negotiated a reduced load in the Masters program.
Before school started, Susan and Jason visited all their students at home to meet their families and begin to involve them in the school. Throughout the school year, they worked “late into the evenings…doing stuff on weekends, doing stuff with the kids outside of school”.
Teaching at DECA was the “hardest two years of my life…I’m an introvert…I had some strengths in the relationship building with the kids, but I wasn’t a good teacher…and my personality type was working against me”. After two years, Susan and Jason left.
When Susan realized teaching wasn’t right for her, what did she do?
Susan and Jason were in Dayton for Jack’s last year and the hard year afterwards. Then they said, “We’re 30, we’re free in terms of what we want to do, let’s just do it”. They moved to New York City so Jason could to pursue screenwriting and acting.
Susan assumed she’d easily find another software engineering job, but discovered that her prior jobs had been specific to the intelligence world, which didn’t exist in New York. Additionally, without an Ivy League background, she couldn’t get past the application. Eventually, she found a job at an online Wall Street trading company on the support desk.
That was the only job Susan ever held that was solely for the paycheck. She realized she valued positions that supported either people or the interests of the United States. After four months, she left Wall Street for a technology job with the New York City Department of Education, managing the Salesforce online database.
In Susan’s first year, twenty experimental schools used the Salesforce database to track attendance, report cards, and discipline records. Susan built it out and traveled to schools to train, pull data, and troubleshoot. The job was fascinating, but she chaffed under her boss.
After two and a half years, Susan left the school system and contracted independently with Exponent Partners, which worked with the New York City schools and nonprofit organizations as a partner of the Salesforce Foundation.
Did Susan stay with Exponent Partners?
As a consultant to Exponent Partners, Susan worked from home, making her position portable. After four years in New York City, she stayed with Exponent Partners when she and Jason moved to Los Angeles and then back to Washington, DC.
When they returned to Washington, DC, Susan did leave Exponent Partners for two years, because she was frustrated. The company was growing very quickly, and everything seemed disorganized. When her mentor from her first DC job offered her a job with his new company, working with the FBI, she accepted.
Susan was doing software engineering work in the FBI headquarters. One of her most interesting projects was designing a software threat prioritization system for cities. At first the work intrigued Susan, but again she grew bored quickly. After two years, she called Exponent Partners and returned to her prior job as an independent contractor.
Exponent Partners appears to have been a steady factor in Susan’s life. Was anything else bubbling up?
While they lived in LA, Susan started an online business with her sisters. Building on her interest in genealogy, they created Style My Tree to design modern-looking family trees. Susan discovered that, although she loved working for herself, working with family was challenging.
During their time in New York and LA, Jason had worked as a personal trainer. In DC Susan and Jason started Present Tense Fitness as an online platform for Jason to offer wellness, nutrition, and lifestyle coaching anywhere.
After four years in DC, Susan and Jason made a fast decision to move back to Dayton to assist with Jason’s parents. They asked themselves, “Are we the people who come home and help or are we the people who just ignore it and have to come home for stuff that’s awful?”
How did Susan’s life change in Dayton?
Susan was able to continue with Exponent Partners without missing a beat. As Jason considered his options, Susan said, “Do what you know”. Since he had experience working as a personal trainer, he adapted Present Tense Fitness to engage clients for 1:1 training.
Jason rented space in two different gyms to train clients, but quickly found he was spending too much time traveling between sessions. Susan and Jason understood the advice, “Don’t open your own space until you have to”, but that time had arrived. They opened Present Tense Fitness in downtown Dayton’s Oregon District.
How has involvement in Present Tense Fitness influenced Susan’s direction?
For years Susan has “been searching for what it is I wanted to do, and all I could come up with is that I want to do something that is my own and not somebody else’s”.
Currently, Susan continues to work for Exponent Partners and also uses her skill at “taking technical stuff and making it understandable to people” as a Precision Nutrition coach. She and Jason are developing their vision for the Present Tense Daily Brief, a daily wellness guide Jason writes and emails to subscribers, by asking, “What’s your ideal day? What do you want to be doing when you’re 50 all day?” They are using their answers to “try to see what that long-term picture looks like and then work back from there. What do we have to do today to make sure we get there”?
- “Do what you already know and what you like to do; don’t chase what’s currently in vogue”
- “Your business doesn’t have to appeal to everybody”
- “Get the people who are your champions”
- “Don’t be afraid to make people mad. I’d rather have people have a strong feeling about us, because … there’s also the people who are going to have an equally strong like of us and those are the people who end up building your business”.