My Journey From Theater to CS: Turning Unique Experiences into Assets

Michael Manley
Senior Customer Success Manager
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Interview Highlights:

  • If candidates don’t have the experience required for a role, they should think about the type of person the company needs and how they can fill this gap. 
  • Job specifics can often be taught, but the company may benefit from a non-traditional candidate’s unique skill set.
  • When hiring candidates with a non-traditional background, managers should think about the voices, skills, and experiences their team is missing and fill these gaps.

Could you please introduce yourself and what you do?

My name is Michael Manley. I'm a Senior Customer Success Manager for Signal AI, a media monitoring and decision augmentation platform. The platform is used by communications, PR, and other teams within organizations and agencies, allowing them to make sense of the world’s chaotic data. 

My specific role as a senior CSM is to bridge the gap between what our platform is capable of and how our know to clients use it. I help teams not only use the software’s media monitoring features, but also show them how to use these insights to spot decision-making opportunities that contribute to the goals of their wider business. 

Please describe how you got into CS and your current role?

It was definitely not a traditional path. I received a BA in Theater Performance and worked as an actor for a few years after college. I worked with multiple regional theater companies in the United States and performed with them for either a specific show or an entire season. 

When I was getting ready to leave acting, I moved home to Philadelphia and started working for SoulCycle while acting on the side. That turned into a full-time role, and I moved up the ladder to become a studio manager, working with them in several different markets

From SoulCycle, I moved to WeWork—another major industry shift—where I became a Community Lead of Sales here in Manhattan. I worked for them for over a year and a half, starting in sales and then moving into account management. 

While I was at WeWork, one of my clients was Signal AI, the company I am currently with After working as one of their global account managers for almost a year, I left WeWork and joined Signal AI as a Customer Success Manager.

What lessons from theater acting influenced your career growth and movement into CS?

I think there’s a lot. Some of the obvious things I learned are communication skills and being able to see all the working parts that make a whole. 

As an actor, you're focused on your scenes or dialogue, but in the back of your mind, you still have this wider picture of the show or production that you're always contributing towards. It allows me to break things down at a granular level and see how separate parts contribute to the wider picture. 

Two of the less obvious lessons that have benefited me in all my positions are empathy and the idea of human study.

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Can you drill down into what human study means for those who aren't familiar with the concept?

Human study is like character study. Actors have to be able to get into the mindset of the characters they're portraying. You have to understand why they make decisions, what motivates them, their priorities, and their challenges - even if they are vastly different from your own. 

Through that study and by acting for a long period of time, you develop this incredible sense of empathy and an understanding of what drives and motivates  different types of people. One of the biggest things I've carried through all of the positions I've held is that when I'm speaking to someone, I am able to understand why they make certain decisions and why something is a high priority for them. 

An example of how this benefits my current position is that I can easily navigate the difference between working with a junior analyst on a communications team versus a chief communications officer. I know how their priorities differ. I know how cut-and-dry my conversation has to be with one, whereas the other might involve a little more hand-holding and guidance. I can tailor each client's experience based on how I know they're functioning within their role.

How did you figure out how to do your job as you transitioned into CS, or was it taught to you?

It was a combination of both. I was not a part of the PR industry before, so the biggest learning curve was industry-specific—I had to become familiar with the jargon of PR, communications, and the technology we provide our clients. 

But I didn't need to be taught how to do the job, because I could bring in all of these different skills and experiences that I gained from theater and other positions I've held. 

How do people overcome the fear that they aren’t qualified for a career in CS during the interview process?

You have to understand yourself and know your skills and superpowers. Then you have to strategically think about how to leverage those skills to meet the job criteria for a position that you're really interested in.

If you have a non-traditional background, don't focus so much on what the actual job requirements are in terms of previous experience. Think about the type of person the company needs to fill the role, and how the skills you have make you the perfect candidate. A lot of job requirements are specific things that can be taught. Whereas the experiences you bring from your non-traditional background may be things that can't be taught but the company will get far more benefit from.

What would you say to a manager who is wary of hiring non-traditional candidates?

The first thing I'd say is that I understand the hesitancy. We've been trained to think in boxes and sometimes it’s hard to think beyond them. I think we're in the middle of a really exciting cultural shift within the workforce. We now have this higher focus and reverence towards diversity, equity, and inclusion, which is starting to open those boxes a little bit. 

Prior to that, there was this focus on culture fit. I am a huge anti-culture fit person. I do not think it works. If you just bring in people who feel and think the same way as you do, you're going to get a lot of yes-men and you're not going to get anyone pushing back. And if you don't get pushback and you don't get diversity of thought, then your company is not going to grow in the ways you want it to. 

I would tell a manager to define the non-negotiable requirements that a candidate has to meet but ask them to blur the lines a little bit. They should think about the voices, perspectives, and organic skills that are missing from the team, and allow that to be a new set of criteria they apply to hiring decisions. By doing this, you're still getting all of your must-haves, but you're diversifying the table and you're going to bring in new, exciting voices.

Do you have any final thoughts on non-traditional careers or recommendations for people who are starting out?

You must know how to sell yourself. Really take the time to think about what in your skillset excites you the most and what your superpowers are. Think about the things that completely separate you from any other candidate. 

My superpower is empathy. The first question I get asked in pretty much any interview is “we see you're a theater major, what does that do for this role?” And I always say that while I have a degree in theater on paper, what that really means is that I have a degree in empathy. And then I explain why they need someone with that unique perspective. So find out what your superpower is, and then lean into it. 


Signal AI is a leading global decision augmentation company, turning the world’s data into knowledge and empowering business leaders across a range of industries to make informed and confident decisions. 40% of the Fortune 500 including Deloitte, Bank of America and Google use the Signal AI decision augmentation solution for real-time market and media intelligence to uncover trends, risks and opportunities and support critical decision-making. We are thrilled to announce we have now attracted investment of more than $100m to build out our decision augmentation solution and transform the way businesses make decisions.

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