In 2004, a book was written that would become a classic of sorts—a guide for college graduates on how to navigate the real business world. Written by a young woman in her first corporate job, it has helped provide a generation with the practical corporate survival information that’s so essential for young people to learn, but that they were never taught in business school. While the book, now in its third edition, has been widely read and is even being used as a textbook in some university courses, what isn’t as widely known is that the stormy corporate environment that inspired its author to write it was the one at the company known at the time as Computer Associates, now CA Technologies.
The book is “They Don’t Teach Corporate in College: A Twenty-Something’s Guide to the Business World,” written by business and workplace consultant Alexandra Levit. I was invited to interview Levit on the occasion of the release of the third edition this week, and in the course of preparing for the interview, I visited Levit’s LinkedIn page. What caught my eye was Levit’s employment history. The first employer she listed was Computer Associates, where she worked as a public relations manager from 2000 to 2004. I’m no genius, but it wasn’t difficult to extrapolate that since the first edition of her book was released in 2004, it was obvious she had written it while she was working at CA.
What I found interesting about that was the timing. For anyone who doesn’t remember how all hell broke loose at CA during that very timeframe due to a massive accounting scandal that would land former CA CEO Sanjay Kumar in prison, suffice it to say that it upended what was already a company with a tumultuous history. Kumar left CA in June 2004, the same month Levit did. In 2007, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison for obstruction of justice and securities fraud. CA co-founder and longtime CEO Charles Wang, meanwhile, was found by CA’s board of directors to have created a “culture of fear” at CA. According to a report released by the board in 2007, “Fraud pervaded the entire CA organization at every level, and was embedded in CA’s culture, as instilled by Mr. Wang, almost from the company’s inception.”
Imagine what that environment must have been like for Levit, who was fresh out of Northwestern University, and who had high hopes for making her mark in her first corporate job. I asked her how she handled that experience, especially as a PR manager for a company that was living a PR nightmare. Here’s what she had to say:
My experience at CA is in large part responsible for me being where I am today, because that was such a bureaucratic environment—an environment where I was absolutely a square peg in a round hole. I was this innovative 24-year-old who wanted to come in and shake things up, and they were not having any of that. I was basically told, put your head down, do your job, and stop making waves. That was when I learned the importance of presenting things diplomatically, and how to get people to cooperate with you.
I actually was kept relatively in the dark on all of the scandal stuff going on. I did work with the higher-ups, but it was on product-related information. They didn’t tell us anything, so we were mostly ignorant—that’s probably for the better, so I didn’t have to testify or anything. I was a little too low—my boss was one of the people who was let go, because he knew.
The accounting scandal, then, was not the reason Levit left:
I left because, in true keeping with CA being the way it was, they were not OK with me moving to Chicago and working from there. You had to be in Islandia, New York, and that was that. They were very traditional, very by-the-book—or not, as the case may be. So my leaving had nothing to do with the timing of the scandal. I was glad to have gotten out before the worst of it hit, because they went through a really hard couple of years after that. The company was already very stressful to be a part of—I can’t even imagine what it was like after all that.
I mentioned to Levit that I had extrapolated that the book was written while she was working at CA, and that CA constituted the sum total of her corporate experience when she wrote it. She said I was dead on:
That’s exactly what happened. The book was first written in mid-2002—I wrote at night and on the weekends, and it was all my CA experiences. So whenever I talk in the book about the company I was working at, or a boss I had, it’s all CA stuff. It’s pretty transparent, if you do the math. It took a little over a year between the time it was written, and the time it was published.
Finally, I asked Levit what her advice would be for a 20-something who finds herself working for a company whose reputation is so badly tarnished that it has to change its name, the way Computer Associates changed its name to CA in 2005. I told her I had a hunch they don’t teach that in college, either. Her response:
It was actually a great learning experience, because you have to learn to spin. There are going to be things that happen in everybody’s career that require spinning—sometimes people are laid off or fired, and you need to be able to present that in a way that shows that it was an experience you actually learned from. CA taught me to learn to deal with turbulence—it was a turbulent company before the whole scandal happened. There were changes in direction all the time, and I had been very much a perfectionist, very much a linear type of person who liked to make sense of things, and do things in a way that I considered to be the right way. And sometimes things there were completely nonsensical. Being able to learn that lesson, and to be adaptable, is so critical. So what’s important is to be able to put a spin on it, and say, “Yes, it was a turbulent environment, yes it was difficult to work there. But here are all the things I learned and came away with. And this is why I’ll be the best contributor to your organization.” I think people respect that.
With all that as a backdrop, Levit discussed the changes that have occurred since she released the first edition of her book, and the changes that lie ahead. I’ll cover that in a forthcoming post.