The Surprising Benefits of Choosing a Career Outside Your Major

Meet three Zions bankers who have taken unconventional paths to their current roles.

Story and photos by Kaitlyn Smith Aug 15, 2019

Your college major can feel like a choice of the utmost importance, but it shouldn’t feel restrictive.

You may already believe that an English major can work in marketing and a physics major can go to medical school, but it goes much deeper than that.

Twenty-two years ago, Fernando Machado received his degree in mechanical engineering. Today, he is the Chief Marketing Officer of Burger King, and one of the most celebrated marketers in the world.

Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube, was named one of “The 20 Most Influential People in Tech Right Now” by TIME in 2017. Her major? History and literature.

If you choose to pursue a future career that doesn’t align directly with your education, you’ll be in good company. In fact, the latest census found that only 27 percent of college grads have a job that is closely related to their major.

To look a bit closer to home, we interviewed three people who have taken unconventional paths to their current roles.

lady sitting at a laptop

Kristiane Koontz, Director of Banking Transformation, Zions Bancorporation

Kristiane Koontz, Zions Bancorporation’s Director of Banking Transformation, has a unique career path. She danced professionally, majored in International Relations, founded a digital marketing business, worked in consulting at PwC, and now leads technology-driven initiatives for Zions Bancorp.

Throughout her career, technology played a central role, but she deliberately chose to major in something completely different to gain another perspective.

“In terms of advice? Be curious. Learn as much as you can. Learn why you are being asked questions and not just the answers to the questions,” Koontz says. “You can make even a boring assignment interesting if you can use it as an opportunity to learn or develop new skills.”

Koontz also cites saying “no” to opportunities early in your career as one of the biggest limits you can put on yourself. 

Dave Stirling, Chief Information Security Officer, Zions Bancorporation

Dave Stirling of Zions Bank

Dave Stirling, Zions Bancorporation’s Chief Information Security Officer, majored in English, a choice he cites as an advantage in his highly tech-based role. Stirling also took technical courses on the side while completing his degree.

“The certifications I obtained convinced prospective employers that I had the technical skill despite my ‘non-technical’ major,” Stirling says. “Once in the role, I had the advantage of being able to write, speak and collaborate more effectively than those who had a ‘technical’ major but no training in writing or other communication skills.”

Stirling also brought up how many big-name tech companies (think Apple, Amazon, Microsoft) have found that soft skills like communication, collaboration, and teamwork are much harder to teach than technical skills. Often, companies want to see someone who already has the hard-to-teach soft skills and is a quick learner for technical ones.

Technical ability is still important, but you should ask yourself how you stand out in a field of applicants that all possess similar technical talent. In our quickly-evolving world, new programming languages, software, and hardware can come and go faster than you can learn them.

Focus on the fundamentals and on being a lifelong learner. Find what common themes are seen throughout different positions and different industries.

Gabriel Zharov, Chemical Engineering student, Vanderbilt University

Gabriel Zharov, a Senior Chemical Engineering student at Vanderbilt University, spent this summer as a Portfolio Risk Intern at Zions Bancorporation. He says many people are surprised when they hear about his academic background.

“A lot of the critical thinking and problem solving that I use in my engineering classes has come in handy at this internship and getting to use those skills in a different way has really expanded my perspective on how to approach problem solving,” Zharov says.

Taking an internship not directly related to your schooling can be a great way to expand your perspective or to take a test drive in a different industry. The hardest part will be landing the interview.

Curate your resume to the position and ask yourself what skills you have learned in your experience that are transferrable. Being able to demonstrate that you are a quick learner, a strong communicator, and a great collaborator will get you farther than any so-called “hard” skill will.

There is not a set path to success. The most successful among us are not the ones who make the mold, but those who break it. The only person who can put you in a box is you.

Interested in summer internship opportunities at Zions? STEM-degreed positions are posted in late September and business/finance roles are posted in early January. Intern positions start between May 1 and June 1 and continue through the middle of August.

Visit the Zions Bank Careers website and search for “intern” or email the Zions Bank Human Resources department for more information.

Kaitlyn Smith is a summer intern in Zions Bank’s Marketing department and is pursuing a degree in Cognitive Science at UCLA.

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