Declaring a major in college is a big decision. It can point toward a career path that lasts years.
Choosing biology points in the direction of doctor. Computer science offers preparation for a tech job as a software engineer. Philosophy can forge a path to becoming a lawyer.
But what do you become if you don’t follow the expected career path of you degree? Where do you land if you don’t stay on that predestined path you spent four years in higher education preparing to specialize in?
If you’re like Sherrod Davis, who got a degree in philosophy, by 30 you might land in tech. Davis is currently chief operating officer at Baltimore-based entrepreneurial resource platform startup EcoMap Technologies.
Fresh out of undergrad with no desire for law school, Davis first dabbled in marketing. He tried his hand as marketing director for a fledgling pizza restaurant in Charleston, North Carolina, even then having an affinity towards the young start up. From there he worked at a full fledged marketing firm, Full Circle as an associate. There he built client brands while also working to find new clients for the company. Marketing wasn’t quite the right fit so he pursued a Master of Business Administration at Wake Forest.
“Looking for jobs, they typically want to peg you within a specific function,” said Davis. “…I didn’t feel I was equipped to do just one thing, but I felt like I was really well equipped to do multiple things.”
It’s useful to be a jack of all trades, but when it comes to getting a job, most companies seek a specific skillset. With an MBA, Davis followed that generalist instinct, and ended up performing many different functions within tech. He worked in client management at North Carolina-based commerce company Inmar Intelligence, which he called “one of the largest companies most people haven’t heard about. He then ran his own company as cofounder of Baltimore-based AdWap, catering to the nonprofit market. He then worked in cybersecurity as vice president at Baltimore data privacy startup TrackOFF, and in healthtech as chief of staff with Fells Point-based analytics compliance firm Protenus. Now, he’s in the entrepreneurial ecosystem data space in the role with EcoMap.
While the companies and roles varied, a common theme has emerged throughout Davis’ career so far.
“In most places I’ve been, I’ve been responsible for managing and growing revenue and the team,” said Davis. “Those are things that are applicable to every business and tech is no different.”
Davis' industry agnostic skillset has helped him move into startup leadership roles.
He has also found a home at startups. He caught the entrepreneurial bug when he cofounded and ran AdWap, which stands for Advertising with a Purpose. The company raised money for charity with an app that allowed users to provide donations to charities by watching advertisements. It was a two-and-a-half-year lesson on sales, business development, customer success, legal, finances, marketing, product and hiring — basically a crash course in all the things one has to juggle to be an entrepreneur.
But in the challenge of running his own business, Davis found his niche.
“Early stage companies need generalists and jacks of all trades because they don’t have the finances typically to be able to afford three people, so they combine three roles into one,” said Davis.
When it came to seeking roles, Davis learned that a great way to find open tech jobs and break into the startup world is to check out the sites of investment firms that often list job postings for their portfolio companies. He found the role with TrackOFF, which was his first position with a startup after moving on from AdWap, through AngelList, which has a jobs board specifically for startups.
At TrackOFF and Protenus, he in turn found mentors and a network in his hometown of Baltimore, where he played football at St. Paul’s School for Boys. This allowed him to grow professionally as the CEO of each company acted as a mentor, and invested in Davis’ growth to help facilitate his transition to another company. TrackOFF CEO Chandler Givens helped him move from VP of operations to chief of staff at Protenus with an introduction to that company’s CEO, Nick Culbertson. With a two-year cycle as chief of staff nearing completion, Culbertson did the same and helped Davis meet CEO Pava LaPere and move to chief operating officer at EcoMap Technologies.
Although Davis gained many of his skills through experience, that doesn’t make his degree in philosophy useless. His education in the humanities still offers valuable skills that he applies in business and his current role.
One of the things I try to do is directly translate my experience into a positive outcome for the organization.
“It’s taught me how to identify and distill problems and communicate really complex things in simple ways,” said Davis. “My philosophy degree helps me to be industry agnostic. I can use frameworks to apply to any sort of problem, to any industry within any company.”
That’s the power of having transferrable skills, No matter the industry, skillset or occupation there are often many lessons learned that can be taken from one area of life to another. Often, the hardest part isn’t necessarily applying that lesson but packaging the lesson for a different audience or industry norms that might not understand the utility.
“Every day, challenge and company is different,” Davis said. But his broad knowledge as a generalist is what allows him to tailor a similar story to investors, teammates, employees, customers and prospects.
As chief operating officer at EcoMap, Davis is responsible for hiring and building teams. Drawing on his experience both in landing jobs and doing the hiring, his advice for those seeking a tech job is to tell your own story well.
“How does your experience translate into what the organization is trying to accomplish?” said Davis. “One of the things I try to do is directly translate my experience into a positive outcome for the organization.”
Davis broke down the equation with a nonspecific frame of how he’d do it with his own work history: “At Protenus, I supported business development. At EcoMap, I think we’re focused on growth. So my business development experience running these three programs at Protenus is going to have a really strong positive impact on EcoMap.”
To excel in operations, he’s learned to be comfortable in ambiguity and, instead of struggling and stalling on a problem, looking for the right answer. He operates on a “continuum of correctness.”
He described it this way: “Is this going to get me closer to the right answer? Then I should move in that direction, but I should never expect to have the complete right answer,” said Davis.
His work philosophy has been evident in the trajectory of his career. How he got here, to COO, is by staying along that continuum and trusting his skills, while always being willing to grow.Donte Kirby is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.
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