The Sound of Success: From Center Stage to a Fortune 100 Tech Company
Student Success Story
After success as a musician, this alumnus found his next career path while an undergraduate at the Extension School.
Back in 2013, John Whippen was working at a technology startup in Cambridge. It was early in his undergraduate degree program at Harvard Extension School, and he was unsure of his next steps. Graduate school? Law school perhaps?
His career path crystallized when he met an employee—a fellow Bachelor of Liberal Arts candidate, nonetheless—from Cisco Systems, a computer networking equipment company. Suddenly, Whippen knew where he belonged.
“We had done some work with him through the startup,” says Whippen. “He opened my eyes to this company, and the type of people they hire, and who is successful. My goal since third semester has been to work for Cisco.”
Whippen, a native of Massachusetts and one of the friendlier Bostonians you might ever meet, is all business when it comes to his goals. His aim and focus are precise: he doesn’t miss many shots. After graduation, he joined the Cisco team as a technology sales representative.
A Winding Road
Whippen was bitten by the technology sales bug over a decade ago, when he worked for Apple. He immersed himself in the technology and products, he says, so he could help consumers navigate all the pertinent features. “I felt like I was not just selling a product, I was selling a lifestyle.”
A closet techie, Whippen revels in helping people solve problems through technology. And while his interest in technology sales has long warranted a space on his shelf of skills, Whippen’s career path initially curved in a different direction: music.
“I had attempted college out of high school, but a burgeoning music career got in the way,” he says. “I was signed to a record label, toured the country, and wrote many songs you’d probably hear if you turned on the TV.”
Whippen—who went by the stage name Jon Robert—describes his music as acoustic pop rock, mainstream and organic, like Matchbox Twenty. He has played on stage with heavy hitters like John Mayer, Sheryl Crow, and Maroon 5.
He even co-wrote a song with the members of Hootie and the Blowfish and Josh Kelley, and fondly remembers that moment in the Chicago studio. “I was nervous but excited to be sitting with a Grammy award-winning artist, crafting something from nothing," he says. “After many hours of lyrics, melody, and bourbon, we created a song that encapsulated a piece of each of our lives and something that we were all truly proud of.”
When Whippen first heard one of his songs on television, it was a surreal experience. He was happy to revel in the success. But more importantly, that moment epitomized all those long hours he spent honing his craft. What had begun as just a thought had transformed into a hit song. This realization catapulted his confidence and reminded him just how rewarding it was to set a goal, work hard, and achieve it.
Up in the Morning and Out to School
After years of composing and performing, Whippen grew restless. Marriage, children, and job security beckoned. He faced a new challenge: finishing the bachelor’s degree that he started years ago.
He took a few classes at Harvard Extension School. He originally planned to transfer those credits to another school, but he fell in love with Harvard and applied to the Extension School undergraduate degree program instead.
While working as a real estate broker in Boston, Whippen created an education roadmap for himself. He frontloaded the difficult classes and got serious about his goals. He combed through the entire Extension School website, looking for every opportunity he could use to bolster his experience.
“I attribute my ability to get multiple job offers—and present myself in the fashion that I have to—through the resources available and the classes I took [at the Extension School].
It paid off. During his tenure at the Extension School, he was able to earn Special Student status, which enable him to study at the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences [see the various academic opportunities available to degree candidates]. He worked as a Law School faculty aide. And he completed the Harvard Business School’s HBX Credential of Readiness (CORe), a three-course business primer.
He also networked whenever possible. “I began making contacts a year in advance of actually applying to Cisco, attending as many career and résumé events on campus that I possibly could, simply preparing to be the best candidate as possible,” he says.
Whippen’s strategy was simple, albeit challenging. “I dug in and got the good grades, worked on a flawless résumé, went to [career advisor] Linda Spencer’s advising sessions,” he says. “I utilized the on-campus interview program, and ended up with multiple job offers. I had my pick.”
Look All Around, There’s Nothing but Blue Skies
Whippen received job offers from multiple Fortune 100 firms, but Cisco won his heart long ago. They have the pulse on technology, said Whippen about the Cisco leadership. It’s a forward-thinking company, with a keen eye toward technology’s role in our lives, both now and in the future.
After an intense interview process—including multiple phone screens, a video interview, a video résumé submission, an in-person interview, and a mock sales meeting presentation—Whippen accepted the job offer from HR.
Now he is completing an intensive year-long sales training program that admits only 1 percent of its applicants globally, says Whippen. After working for a time at Research Triangle Park in North Carolina—along with his wife and French Bulldog named Steve—he hopes to transfer back to the Boston area.
Whippen credits the Extension School for much of his success. “Because the competition was so fierce for this position and training program, I really needed to make sure I over-prepared for every aspect of the four-step interview process,” Whippen says. “I attribute my ability to get multiple job offers—and present myself in the fashion that I have to—through the resources available and the classes I took.”
— Profile by Lauren McLaughlin