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A conversation with Eugene Carr & Rachel Hands

Eugene Carr speaks with Rachel Hands about her career journey from French Horn to the tech field. 

Eugene: I'm here today with Rachel Hands, who is a French horn player and studied music history and got into the tech business about 11 years ago. Today, she runs a technology consulting team and she works at exponent partners. Rachel, welcome.

Rachel: Hello. Thanks for having me. 

Eugene: Yeah, thanks. I thought we should start first on the artistic side. Tell us a little bit about your musical side and your musical background. 

Rachel: Yeah, so I studied French horn performance in college and moved into music history in grad school. Got very into contemporary classical performance studied at the Bang on a Can Summer Festival one year after grad school and came to the conclusion that I was not really going to be able to make a life for myself playing the kind of music that I really wanted on the French horn, which was my instrument of choice.And that music history also was not really the right path for me. So I wound up working for. community symphony orchestra, just west of Boston, that happened to be implementing a tool called a Patron Manager in its beta form so that we could start selling tickets and so forth online. And that was my entry into tech, but that's the very short view of my artistic.

Eugene: Got it. And let it is a great question though. So here you were. As a French horn player, you get an orchestra job and they throw you into kind of a technical role with I'm gonna guess not much experience. How did that feel? And how was, how did you digest that experience? 

Rachel: Yeah, that's a great question.I was mostly picked for that role on the basis of not being afraid of computers. I had a real strong grasp of word from having written my master's thesis but not really a ton of experience even with Excel. At that point, if I'm thinking all the way back to the early days of working at that orchestra.But I felt basically comfortable with computers and internet interfaces and that turned into great, now you are the technology one at this organization which I think happens more often than one might expect and certainly was happening pretty frequently at that. and I found that the folks that I was chatting with at the Patron Manager, on the Patron Manager staff at the time really understood what we were doing as a business.And also were meeting me where I was certainly and were used to having conversations generally speaking with folks whose expertise was in, 4,400 year old orchestras and not four month old technology. 

Eugene: And, but, so you were learning as you were going and I guess I would ask did it feel threatening foreign, overwhelmed, or other words?How was it that, how was it that you adapted to this completely foreign experience? However similar that it might be in terms of the organization you were working for?

Rachel: Yeah, I would say that the biggest the biggest changes for me really came when I started working with. Working on the Patron Manager's staff. While I was working for the orchestra, it felt like a natural outgrowth of the music librarian role that I was playing there.

Eugene: Got it

Rachel: . Which was, if, if I can zero in on the details required to transfer some bow markings onto some parts, I can zero in on the details that I need to edit this Excel file to be more accurate and cleaner data. so it felt really a transferal of skills that I already had. And the, what felt like the biggest transition was the point at which that was the bulk of my income versus this sort of orchestra side gig supplementing my freelance horn playing.

Eugene: And so somewhere along the line you became aware of a job opening at Patron Manager. And why don't you talk about how you felt about that, how that came about and how you ended up learning to become a, essentially a professional technology worker. 

Rachel: Yeah. So how it came about was as happens in these circumstances, the funding for my position at the orchestra was running low because we are funded to implement this tool.And then the idea was we'd be implemented and then we would be done. Every, everybody who knows me and my current role is now laughing cuz that's not how technology works at all. But the executive director of that orchestra actually knew you, Gene, and introduced you and me to each other at Tanglewood.We chatted at Tanglewood one day. And you said, I don't know what you would do at my company, but go talk to Nathan Anderson. Who's running our client services team. So I went and talked to Nathan Anderson, who was running the client services. Who at the time said, you know what? I don't actually have a job opening for you right now, but I'm not interested in finding someone more experienced than you for this job.So a few months later, maybe even a couple of weeks later, I got an email from Nathan saying, Hey, we've got a two month contractor job for you. What do you say? And at that point, I was freelancing. I was doing small librarian jobs for various orchestras around town. Steady income is not really what you would call that.And so the idea of two solid months of income at a rate that was totally beyond anything I'd ever seen in my life or expected to was like, yep, absolutely. We're gonna do that. . and that turned into a more permanent full-time gig a couple months later.

Eugene: Now I would like for the purposes of this conversation, I would like you to talk a little bit in specific about the role of a Salesforce admin.What is that job really? That was your first role, essentially at Patron Manager. And ultimately you had more and more senior jobs, but help us understand what does an admin do. 

Rachel: Yeah. So there are different ways that an admin can work there. The role that I held at the orchestra was in some ways, a Salesforce admin job, the roles that I held at Patron were in some ways, admin jobs early on, you can work within an organization as a sort of a focused only on that organization's internal business.So what you're doing is fielding requests and questions from people who are using Salesforce to do their day to day jobs, helping them improve the system, helping them understand how to use the system day to day and occasionally figuring out what might be broken. And those are all things that you are doing without necessarily understanding any code. So the title admin comes with sort of an underlying assumption that you're not somebody who has a lot of computer science background. You might not know any coding language, but you're able to make a lot of configuration changes and adjustments to how a system works for an organization.Without needing to have that background. So you can do that. As I was doing for the orchestra, with, one organization as your sole focus, you can also do it as part of partner organization with lots of clients. So you're spending a lot, a little bit of time with a lot of clients at once.So the first role that I held at Patron was focused on moving data from people's old systems into Salesforce. So they had, everything from just random spreadsheets to more sophisticated systems that they were moving away from and into Salesforce. My job was to help them get that data cleaned up and usable in the new system.So that was just a, that was a very specific focus that I was doing for a lot of different clients at once and helped me sort of reconcile the fact that I wasn't having as direct an impact on the arts organizations that I really cared about individually, but I was able to have a much broader reach under that role than I could before.

Eugene: And so for someone that's in that job, give me, what are the things that are the most challenging and rewarding part of the job? 

Rachel: Yeah, I think one of the challenges that folks maybe don't expect when they're becoming a Salesforce admin, is that it's really about listening to people and understanding what their challenges are.So as a musician, we are trained to listen really closely to each other. We're trained to pay really close attention to what's going on around us. We had a lot of folks from the theater at Patron Manager as well. And that sort of background in training in close listening and understanding what's under people's what's under people's requests because sometimes they'll ask, Hey, can I have this new.Checkbox on my screen that I use to enter this particular kind of data. And you could just make them a checkbox or you could ask them why and what it'll help them do. And the best and most rewarding conversations that you get to have as an admin are where you understand the "why" behind what they do, and maybe give them something a little different than they had envisioned in the first place, but that might be easier.That might be more sustainable in the long run. Those are the things that are most satisfying for me.

Eugene: So it sounds like it's a lot of listening. It's a lot of creative conversation and then applying technology, but not writing lines and lines of code. 

Rachel: Yep. You need to understand how the technology functions and how particular, how data relates to other data in the system, but you don't need super deep computer science backgrounds to do this.You do need a good ear. 

Eugene: Yeah. So let's transition and I'd love for you to give some advice to people that are thinking about doing something like becoming a Salesforce, admin working in the field. There's gotta be a moment where you think I've practiced my violin for 15 years. And boy, if I do this somehow I'm not a success or I'm a failure that I didn't do.And that, of course, I don't believe any of that but I wonder if you want to comment on your vision of your career and now how this has helped you or changed your perspective on how the arts fit into your life.

Rachel: Yeah, absolutely. when I embarked on my musical training, when I went into both my undergraduate degree in horn performance and my master's degree in music history, I had a vision that I was probably going to be a university professor. Yeah. Playing horn in some orchestra somewhere, maybe teaching music appreciation, maybe teaching some horn lessons to majors to non-majors. That was where I saw my life going. I thought probably I would end up getting a DMA, a doctor of musical arts and and go teach it to college.The timeframe in which I did that was right around the timeframe in which more and more of those jobs were turning into adjunct roles that were not full-time permanent positions. You weren't gonna get a tenure track job teaching French horn at almost any university that I frankly with my skill level would have been qualified to teach at.I was not going to be in the Boston symphony. I was not going to be at the metropolitan opera. That's just not the level that I was playing at. And so the places where I was most likely to end up meant that my quality of life and potential for long term sustainable job prospects. We're pretty low.By the time I was getting out of grad school. And so when I started working at Patron Manager, first of all, my salary literally doubled when I started from what I had been making. And I, had suddenly visions of, oh, I might actually pay off my student loans one day which I did eventually, by the way.And. Also, it felt like you were saying like selling out, right? There's this vision that you are that you're prompted with throughout schooling when you go to music schools, that is, if you can see yourself doing anything else you should, because you should only be doing this. If this is the only thing you could possibly see yourself being happy doing.And so if you're going to get yourself out of that mode of thinking requires a lot of. Reflection and focus. Actually, I took me a good amount of therapy to get through that that moment of am I having the impact that I wanna have? In my life, really coming to terms with that bit that I was talking about earlier, where maybe I'm not having the most direct impact on the kind of art that I wanna see in the world, but A, I have a broader impact on all of my clients that I'm working with day to day B I can afford to commission pieces.Now, if I want to . So if I can set myself up so that I can. Help in ways that I might not have ever conceived possible. Imagine myself as a tenured professor, even commissioning what one solo horn work in my lifetime. Where, whereas on a text salary, that's something that can be much more accessible to me over the span of my career.

Eugene: And is that in fact, help me understand or share some of how you integrate music and the arts into your life now? 

Rachel: Yeah. So I do I, my role in the arts right now is primarily as a patron. So I donate regularly to some of the new music groups that I care about. I subscribe to them on Bandcamp so that I get all of their new releases, when they come out, which is very fun. And I go to the the performances that I feel most strongly about. Have, art museum memberships at the places where those those interact that even, that extends to all different kinds of my, all different parts of my life. Other folks that you and I have worked with have maintained their performing life.That is, that ended up being, for me, not the place where my long term focus was gonna be, but being able to fund and enjoy the fruits of all of that labor has been really satisfying. 

Eugene: So that leads to my, what I think is my last question, which. Would you recommend this career path to others who maybe are in their grad school or thinking about their future?Sort of what advice broadly would you get to people that are maybe imagining this for the first time and really never thought about it before? And they're like, wow, what is this all about? How would you advise them. 

Rachel: Yeah. I think what I would advise to almost anybody, whether you're imagining this particular career path or just a sort of a different branch off of what you're doing now is to really think about what it is that you love the best about what you're doing.Now, if you are somebody who gets really deep satisfaction from a connection with an audience while you're performing. Think about what that connection feels like, think about how else you might be able to get that connection feeling in your life. If you're somebody who really gets a lot of satisfaction of sitting in a practice room and grinding at something until you've got it exactly right.That repetition and that singular focus is something that you can obtain in other parts of your life .That, that's a good sign that coding might be for you, by the way, if you really are best friends with your metronome, coding might be for you. Not to say that it's not for you, if you you're not a metronome kind of person, but that's solitary focus, being able to get in the zone about a specific thing that you're doing.And then see the results at the end can be really satisfying in any number of fields. And that that narrative that we get fed of, this is the only thing that you should be seeing yourself doing is preventing you probably from looking at why you love it so much. And so if you think about why you love it so much and think about whether that can translate into something else that you're doing or into a different way of engaging with it. Like for me with I love listening to contemporary music as much as I ever loved playing it, if not more, cause I don't have to stress out about it. 

Eugene: And you can afford, and you can now afford to go to those performances and to buy the recordings and to support those organizations, which obviously gives you a lot of pleasure.So it, what you've, what I like to say is that you've created, it sounds like a hybrid life. You've got a career that you really enjoy. That's creative and challenging, but also music still provides for you a lot of enjoyment and a lot of value and a lot of importance in your life in a nicely balanced way.And a way that doesn't require you to be working at Starbucks or driving Uber or scrounging, in the way that you might, if you were in another career path I think this has been a terrific conversation and so thanks. Thanks very much. And appreciate the conversation.

Rachel: Yeah. Thank you, Gene.

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