What is the best way to break into education publishing? If you are young and starting out what launching pads set you up well for a career in the world of instructional materials and software?
I’m bullish in the industry and think we are in one of the most creative and fascinating eras as traditional print publishing blends with digital production and distribution. There is going to be a huge amount of disruption but there will be an enormous amount of opportunity in the midst of all the changes.
In the first part of this series I focused on the best ways to prepare and organize your search. Today I turn the focus on what kinds of jobs industry entrants should consider.
Print or Software? (both!)
Digitization is hitting instructional content full force but books are not going away any time soon. The cost of equipping every student with a tablet or laptop is still prohibitive (despite the bleating of the hardware companies).
For this reason seek a blended tech/print publisher rather than a pure tech or print play. Print and software are built using two very different paradigms – each of which has a lot to teach a newcomer. Learning how to work with both will set you up for the long haul.
When I started out in the mid ’80’s I was told to get operating experience at a large company. At the time this was a sound approach – big companies had the resources to invest in new people that smaller companies didn’t and seeing well developed processes deployed at scale was a solid base.
In the age of agile development and a market in the midst of disruptive change I don’t think that advice holds. Most of the big companies are thrashing around trying to find a strategy that will hold. While there is still a great deal to be learned in a large publishing house I’m not sure I would start there today.
As the bigs have consolidated over the past 5 years many of their best people have fled to smaller companies where the politics and uncertainty are more in their control. If you are looking for good mentors (and you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you – right?) then you can find them there.
More importantly the small companies can react nimbly to the changes going on around them. In eras of disruptive change the big organisms die off and smaller ones fill their niches (to become tomorrow’s giants).
Education publishing is globalizing but until recently it has been a very parochial business – companies were organized around serving specific nations. Culture and politics still play a huge role in what materials get selected and produce a drag on the pace of globalization. But the long money at places like Pearson and HMH is on a fully global industry (HMH’s slogan is “Your Global Education Services Provider”).
Because the industry has been so fractured there are few people with experience who know how to work the international side of things. This creates an opportunity for new people who have taught overseas or who are willing to take on the unknown.
Even if the job you start in isn’t international in scope be sure the company you are talking to is engaging internationally.
Jobs To Consider
I polled a table full of industry veteran executives on what jobs they would want to start in today if they were in your shoes. Here are some ideas – but don’t limit yourself to them. As I stated in my last post companies hire people to solve problems – your goal is to find a problem that you have some basic aptitude for regardless of the title.
Sales – There is no better way to understand how a business really works than to go out and sell. When I started in the Cable TV industry in the early ’80’s I was filled with idealism about arts and political programming. Knocking on doors taught me that people just wanted more sports, more reruns, and more movies.
A few seasons selling to schools will help you understand the real reasons buying decisions are made and exactly how they are organized. If you are going to be in the sausage business you really do want to know how it is made.
Consulting – Most education companies have a sales role called “Consultant.” In this context it really means a former educator who can go toe to toe with the educators on the other side of the table. It is an essential role and one that former teachers and administrators are uniquely qualified for. Also, if you think asking for the order is icky this may be a good way to get your sales experience.
Consultants travel a lot – you will learn to love your local airport.
Customer Service – This is another great entry spot, particularly if travel is not your cup of tea. Spending your days talking to customers is as good a grounding in the realities of the business as Sales.
In particular Customer Service gets an up front and close look at the systems that power the business. In an era of data driven decision making that is critical experience.
Teach – You should consider a couple of years in the classroom. I’m a bit of an anomaly in the business in that my experience was teaching Japanese businessmen English for half a year. Most senior people in education started as teachers and many went on to be administrators before crossing over.
But there is an interesting and potentially better approach available to today’s initiates. Seek out one of the many virtual school organizations and teach on-line. This is going to be a critical component of the product mix for all publishers going forward and understanding what works and what doesn’t in this environment will make you more effective.
While you are teaching seek out publishing companies and see if you can get on an advisory board for new products or act as a part time writer. Many people use this approach to get into editorial. It gives both sides the opportunity to get to know each other.
Other jobs to consider if your skills bend that way are Marketing Support, Business Analyst, and Editorial Support.
Purchasing, Finance, and Operations are essential areas – but the skills in these departments are generally transferable between industries rather than specific to education publishing.
If you already have a foundation in one of these areas and burn to enter this particular industry they are great places to get your foot in the door. But if you are starting out with the specific goal of getting into ed publishing I’d recommend one of the other positions listed above.
Taking the time to learn the craft early will pay off in spades as you build your career. Resist the urge to skip steps, the most important of which is working directly with customers (or being one…).
Even if you have a burning desire to do something very specific – editing, coding, selling – you will probably benefit from filling some of the other roles in an education publishing operation first. There is no substitute for boots on the ground experience.
Welcome, we need you!
(read Part 1 here)