The 6 Habits to Land a Job Without a Degree or Experience

I thought I had finally figured out what I wanted to do for a living. At the time, I didn’t realize that there doesn't need to be one single answer for this, so having solved that puzzle was a really big deal. Transforming my body through a rigorous fitness practice had changed my life and I wanted to share that experience with other people. I worked as a personal trainer and nutrition coach for four years. On a typically cold and rainy San Francisco morning, all of that changed. Meeting with a new training partner for an exceptionally early workout, I hoisted an absurdly heavy barbell off of the ground and immediately felt a crippling pain in my lower back. I was diagnosed with two herniated discs, two pinched nerves and three degenerating discs. Unable to get into the gym to train people, I was hit with the unlikeable reality that my chosen career made me completely dependent on my physical strength.  

My roommate at the time was a childhood friend from preschool through high school. He went on to get his mechanical engineering degree and jumped right into technical sales after college. He was currently working for a Japanese company that made devices for factory automation- basically the eyes and brains for robots. His job sounded cool. He was constantly going into different manufacturing facilities and prescribing these products to solve problems with efficiency and quality. In the morning, he'd be working on a microchip measurement application and in the afternoon he'd visit an ice cream plant that was having packaging issues. By the time he got home, he’d also seen a robotic human genome sequencer and an aerospace facility. He had a new car, wore a tie to meetings, got a paycheck every two weeks, had health insurance and a 401K. I was a little envious. 

He said their office was hiring an inside application engineer, a position that held a future as a technical sales manager. I laughed and reminded him that I was a personal trainer with a wrecked back, no college degree or any experience in tech. In fact, I had never even powered on a computer and didn’t even know how to type. His response lit a fire in me: “I'm not really using anything I learned in college. In fact, I bet you'd be even better at my job than I am. You’re just lying around on ice packs anyhow. Why don’t you learn? I’ll give you my college engineering textbooks and the company product manuals. You can use my old laptop to start figuring that out as well. Then we’ll just pull a resume together for you. What do you have to lose?” Here are the six habits that I found to be key for pulling this off. 

  1. Do Your Homework: In addition to giving me his textbooks and manuals, my friend did something else. He told me there would be some very specific questions during the interview process in addition to an aptitude test. If I was going to have a chance at pulling this off, I’d need to retain details on the science behind how photoelectric sensors work. Things like spectroscopy, hysteresis and repeatability vs. accuracy. That was just the beginning. I’d also need to memorize the most popular hardware model numbers, their detecting distances, response times and voltage. He also strongly urged me to learn as much about the company as possible. I studied like my life depended on it because at the time, it kind of felt like it did. As it turns out, he was totally screwing with me. I didn't need to know any of that stuff at all but he thought it would be fun to watch me squirm for over a month. At first, I wanted to kill him but I couldn’t really be mad since I ended up getting the job. It also probably didn’t hurt my chances of success when I worked their top selling products and specifications into the interview conversation. Most importantly, it was a great mental reference for how quickly I could teach myself something if I was highly motivated to do so. Note: this was before there was much of anything online. I can’t imagine what he would have put me through in today's world. 
     
  2. Do What Others Won’t: Getting through the interview was the easy part. Once I actually started, it took all of one day to realize that I was in way over my head. I couldn’t follow more than two minutes of any training on the computer because I was still figuring out how the damn thing fundamentally worked. Being guided through workflows in Windows, Office, SAP and a hoard of proprietary software was like trying to follow a conversation in a foreign language. I needed a plan to catch up quickly. Since I had to be there at 7:30AM and the office was over an hour away from my San Francisco apartment, there wasn’t much embarrassment-free time for me to acclimate. I decided that a few times a week, I’d bring an overnight pack and a sleeping bag in my car. When everyone left for the day, I’d break out Windows for Dummies and every other instructional text I could find. Again, these are pre-internet days. At 2AM, I’d unroll the sleeping bag next to my desk and crash out. I’d get up early, shower at the nearest gym, put on fresh clothes and start work again. After about two months of this routine, I knew about as much as any of the degreed engineers in the office. Simply doing what others aren’t willing to can be a massive differentiator. 
     
  3. Show Up & Follow Up: I hate to point out the obvious, but I’m going to anyhow. Having now spent more interview time on the hiring side of the desk, it never ceases to amaze me how many people will no-show, arrive late, attempt to reschedule or never follow up. I don't want to set the bar too low, but if you can simply do exactly what you say, you’ll pull ahead of what appears to be a growing population of flakey people. In this case, I relentlessly followed up with phones calls, hand written letters and faxes. Yes, faxes: the preferred method of stalking before email. I wouldn’t just call and send these at random, but first inform the hiring manager that I would do so and when, and then do it. Every time I would reinforce the fact that I do what I say, when I say I will do it. While this was exceptionally important for a job that had a future in sales management, this trait is critical in just about every job imaginable. 
     
  4. Cultivate Grit & Confidence: It’s the most overprescribed job advice in the world and sounds so cheesy, but conveying strength of character goes a lot further than you might think. Companies invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into employees who turn out to be bad hiring decisions for a multitude of reasons. More than often, the hires cannot grow into expanding positions and if they can, there's not a lot of loyalty when a slightly better opportunity comes along. Showing an employer that you have the tenacity to tough out challenging situations invites them to view you as a leader who can grow with the company. When things came up in my interview about having to work extra hard, cold call and be generally uncomfortable, I didn't even flinch. I did my best to embrace it with a tone of familiarity and tell stories of adversity I overcame, situations I turned around, people I led and the friends I made along the way. You can even border on sounding a little cocky- it’s usually not such a bad thing if it doesn't come across as isolating or arrogant. The hiring manager questioned my lack of experience in sales. I had a ton of examples that showed how selling had been prevalent in many of the  jobs I had filled, even if none of them had "sales" in the title. He asked me how a personal trainer was supposed to get comfortable with wiring diagrams and electrical schematics. I replied that I had become intimate with all of the origins and insertions of muscles in the human body along with the major neural pathways, so I wasn't too worried about a comparatively simple wiring diagram. I then revealed that I had already become familiar with most of their product specifications before even showing up for the interview. There are a million websites that list out all sorts of common interview questions. Have honest, confident and original answers for as many as you can. I remember interviewing one engineer and I asked the standard, “What do you think your biggest weakness is?” He replied, “I guess sometimes I get so immersed in programming that I forget to eat. Then I get really tired and need to stop for a while.” I’m pretty sure that was a totally candid and honest answer and I loved it. The guys who said, “I don’t have any weaknesses” only showed that they were scared to talk about them or didn’t have enough creativity to frame one in a way that also showcased a strength. Bullshit confidence will always come across as so. 
     
  5. Uncover Your Hidden Experience: Being able to connect the dots where people wouldn’t obviously see the lines is both an art and a science. Craft your resume to meet the specific role you are seeking with as much laser focused relevance as possible. From the seat of the hiring manager, a personal trainer is pretty far from having relevant technical sales experience. It became my job to illustrate how relevant it really was. I didn’t talk about reps, sets and grams of protein. I went into deep detail on how the human body was like a very complex piece of electrical equipment with a multitude of specifications based on the particular subject. I dove into the process behind building and plotting wellness programs and the psychology of motivating others to disengage from destructive habits and build new beneficial ones. I laid out the sales techniques that were required to get people started, the follow-up required to keep them there and the process for instilling new belief systems. Before becoming a trainer, I had done a bit of membership telemarketing for a gym so that I could work out there for free. While not worth noting on my resume, I went into detail about my learnings around the importance of lead volume, sales funnels, follow up and conversion tracking. You have more experience than you think and at the end of the day, the most sought after hire is the dependable, adaptable and trustworthy one that will get shit done. Your task is to convey that experience and drive you have in the most relevant way possible. 
     
  6. Foster Many Friendships: I don’t remember much sage advice from my father, but for some reason it really stuck in my head from quite a young age when he said, “It’s very, very important to always have lots of good friends.” That’s true for many reasons, but especially if you plan on your career being a series of leaps instead of baby steps. If my close friend hadn’t told me about the job opening, coached me on what was required, convinced me to go for it and then put in a good word for me, the entire experience would have never manifested. In fact, I can honestly say that every meaningful job I have landed since has been by means of a friend’s referral in one way or another. I went on to work in robotics for over a decade before diving into the entrepreneurial world and the same rule has consistently applied. When my friends tell their job placement stories, they also almost always start with the introduction from a friend. Make time for your friends and always be open to making more of them. 

-Elijah Szasz