How My English Degree Helped Build a Tech Company

Illustration by Joe Mruk How My English Degree Helped Build a Tech Company
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When I was 26, my dad got sick and asked me to take over as CEO of the tech company he started. I was armed with my English major from Allegheny College and a couple of years in a retail management training program. In other words, I didn’t have a clue.

Or so I thought. It turned out, however, that I had an ability whose value I had no way of appreciating yet — the power of narrative — the ability to tell a story.

I ran that company for a decade, and during that time, telling stories was essential in helping employees, customers, and investors visualize “the possible.” We needed to convince engineers that “if you build it, they will come.” We had to inspire marketers to scale mountainous sales goals. We had to solve customer problems with innovations. And we had to convince investors they would find El Dorado.

Did it work? We turned a struggling company into a publicly traded NASDAQ company with a market capitalization of $2 billion.

You can be sure we paid attention to the bottom line the entire journey. But in the end, our success depended on one thing, what financial underwriters call “The Story.” What was the customer value proposition? Did we own proprietary technology? Was there a large, unaddressed market with growth potential that could be reached efficiently?

Most people probably think that businesses are about profit and loss, not narrative.

The late Joseph Campbell would have disagreed. The author of “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” Campbell was a world-​renowned mythologist who believed that all hero myths follow essentially the same story arc.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder,” Campbell wrote, describing this oft-​repeated journey of discovery. “Fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Director George Lucas found the theory so compelling that he structured the tale of Luke Skywalker so that it precisely followed Campbell’s hero’s journey storyline.

And when Apple guru Steve Jobs recruited Pepsi CEO John Sculley, he asked, “Do you want to sell sugar water the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”

I hadn’t read Campbell when I started my business odyssey, but I’ve had plenty of time since to consider his teachings and those I received as an undergraduate.

As I started teaching at a variety of schools, I knew first-​hand the power of the liberal arts to prepare a person for anything. In that last decade, however, since the Great Recession, many claim that a college education needs to be more “practical” and teach skills that lead directly to a job.

The concern hasn’t fallen on deaf ears. Many liberal arts colleges have created business majors with a liberal arts focus. Complementing my English degree with business courses would have prevented much heartache along my journey. I needed to teach myself the management, accounting and finance.

My academic colleagues aren’t building business robots though. They’re molding first years into out-​of-​the-​box thinkers, who can analyze a problem and apply economic theory to create innovative solutions. Most important, they teach our students to learn how to listen, to observe and to communicate.

When they become executives serving customers, employees, investors and the community, they won’t simply regurgitate data using stylized diagrams in a PowerPoint presentation weighed down by clip art.

They will take them on a journey of discovery. They will show them how to make their lives easier and more profitable. They will convince them of their greatness.

Chris Allison

For 16 years — 10 of which as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer — Chris led Tollgrade Communications Inc. from technology startup to public company to being recognized as one of the Best Small Companies In America by Forbes, Fortune, Business 2.0, Bloomberg Personal Finance and Industry Week. In the year 2000, sales of Tollgrade’s centralized telephone test systems reached $114 million. That year, its value on the NASDAQ exchange also reached $2 billion. For his efforts, Chris was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst and Young, as well as by the Pittsburgh Venture Capital Association. Chris was also named CEO Communicator of The Year by the Public Relations Society of America.

Chris has been a columnist for Pittsburgh Quarterly since the magazine’s inception in 2006. His column, “To Boldly Go” deals with the subject of innovation. For his writing, he is a two-​time nominee and one-​time winner of the Golden Quill Award by the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania.

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