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From English Prof to Tech Startup CEO: Steve Adams of Sabrix (Part 1)

Posted on Sunday, Sep 14th 2008

Most technology executives with over 20 years of experience did not start their careers as English professors. They certainly don’t start as British literature PhDs teaching in Louisiana. Meet Steve Adams, CEO of Sabrix. Anything but ordinary, Steve has tremendous vision and an incredible track record of success. He worked his way from an entry-level tech writer to VP of marketing, senior VP of marketing, to the president and CEO of multiple high tech companies. Today he is the CEO of Sabrix, a managed tax service company for small- and mid-sized companies. A perfect fit for a British lit PhD, don’t you think?

SM: Steve, give me some context about where you come from. What is your personal story?

SA: I actually came from academia. I have a PhD in British literature and was a university professor for seven years.

SM: At what universities?

SA: Florida State and University of Louisiana-Monroe. I taught writing and literature.

SM: Where did you grow up?

SA: I grew up in the south, mostly in Tennessee. I am from a family that has a typical Scotch-Irish background with a strong work ethic. I am a bit of an anomaly in my family for two reasons. First, I pursued an academic route, and English was not considered a manly area of study. Second, I abandoned that to come to be in the business world in California, which was a very radical deviation. My two younger brothers are cowboys. One is a horseshoer and the other a large animal vet.

SM: What happened after teaching for seven years?

SA: One of the things about academia, especially in the liberal arts, is there are an extremely limited number of jobs available at any given moment. When I graduated with my PhD in 1982, there were four tenure track jobs in the entire United States in my area of study. From a generalist perspective, there were 750 applicants for every tenure track job. There were about 250 to 300 applicants for the particular jobs I was competing for.

I landed one of the jobs; it happened to be in Louisiana. Even though I was from the south I did not like living in Louisiana. What I discovered was that up to the point when you get your PhD, whether you are doing your own teaching or publishing, you are pretty autonomous. You feel like you are in control of your own destiny. However, because of the job cycle there is no mobility to live where you want. You do not have control of your own destiny. I did not like that. My wife was from L.A. and I had kept her in the south much longer than she wanted. I decided to change professions because I did not feel like I had any control over my own career.

I told her to pick where she wanted to live. She had family in San Diego so she told me that is where she wanted to live. I thought it was a lot better than Louisiana. I got two job offers within three weeks of arriving in California. One was for a publisher to be a college text book editor. The other was and entry level technical editor in high tech. I could have been a college text book editor for $19,000 an entry-level technical writer for $27,000, so I chose to be a technical writer.

Once I was in profession I knew that was not where I wanted to stay. It took me six years to work my way up to a VP of marketing role.

This segment is part 1 in the series : From English Prof to Tech Startup CEO: Steve Adams of Sabrix
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Having a post secondary education provides a great foundation but shouldn’t be a limitation: if you get your PhD in English, you know how to research, how to write, and how to present in your field. These are highly desirable and transferable traits.
Good interview – certainly puts the tenure track at universities in perspective.

Kris Bovay Monday, September 15, 2008 at 11:04 PM PT

What a great inspiring story for humanities grads….I have a blog called selloutyoursoul.com which tracks my own decision to find a job outside of academe…thanks for this and I will share it with my audience –many are looking for ways to escape the job market and need a little inspiration…thanks James @ selloutyoursoul.com

James Friday, November 19, 2010 at 7:06 PM PT