Sometimes in your life, you run into situations that spur reflection. Decisions made, paths chosen and priorities run through your mind at lightning speed and stimulate deep emotions. For many people, the road to a dream can be long and be full of challenges and sacrifices. I was in my early 30’s when I first started seeing the fruits of those challenges. Hopefully, my story will inspire others to keep trying and never give up on their dreams.
I’ve always loved programming and computers. I was lucky enough that my father enjoyed them too. My family started out with a TI-99 4A. Remember the one with cartridges, the tape recorder and the really cool games like Hunt the Wumpus?
Armed with a Programming Monsters in Basic book, I began creating little games day after day. Variables, conditions, and arrays defined mazes and lead to exciting and amazing adventures. I could create stories and characters in lines of code with peeks and pokes. I was hooked, and if that wasn’t enough, next came the IBM (a 5170 if I remember correctly) with a Hercules graphics card; bringing multiple shades of monochrome fractals to life on the screen.
We lived in a rural area so none of the BBS’s were all long distance so I missed out on the beginning of what would later influence the ‘internet’ we know today until I moved out and went to college and friends introduced me to this world full of wonder.
School had always been difficult for me, and it should have been no surprise that when I left home at 17 to attend a community college that I would struggle. Computer Science programs were relatively rare at the time, so I started my degree in electronics. Within 2 semesters I was failing almost all of my courses. I dropped out of college.
Engineering Once Removed
I was living on my own and trying to support myself with the income of minimum wage jobs (several at a time) all while trying to adjust to my new independence and coming to terms with my immaturity. The city that I was living in was not a tech mecca by any means and access to tech jobs was limited. I had always been taught that to do anything you more than flipping burgers, you needed a college degree, so with no mentors, no hope of working in the industry, and my failure in school, I drifted from the technological world that I loved.
I bounced from job to job for a couple of years, never satisfied, not knowing what direction to go. I knew that the life that I was living was not what I wanted. It didn’t take long to come to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to find it without some significant changes. I needed a fresh start.
I moved again, re-enrolled in school, but this time I would not focus on the technology. My educational focus this time would be in the humanities. Why not technology? My previous failures had left their mark. I had already proven to myself that I couldn’t make it in the science or engineering fields. I had been removed from that world for several years, and all the technological advances had passed me by. It was just a distant dream long past and out of reach.
Academic life still wasn’t easy for me, but I was starting to adapt, and the grades were improving. Life moved on, and I met a wonderful girl, and we started a family, but something was missing. I looked into the future and didn’t like what I saw 10 years down the road. In terms of my career, I was settling, and I didn’t enjoy or admire who I was becoming. In the meantime, I had picked up a job in data entry and was starting to get that passion for technology back.
I had to make another change so I did what any broke kid with responsibilities would do. I joined the military. Wait… I did what? Yes, I drove down to the recruiter and joined the Army. I often argue with myself whether or not that was a good move, but the rigid discipline and structure that the military taught me, influenced my life significantly.
With the influx money that my service in the military had provided, I built my first computer for about $300.00. With this, I was also introduced to the internet explosion of flashing gifs and plaid backgrounds. I began dabbling in web design, Perl, and a little Pascal when I was bored. By this time our family had grown with the addition of a daughter so my dabbling would never pay all the bills.
It remained a hobby until I began working part-time with the College of Southern Idaho on their website redesign project. At that point, I knew that I knew what I wanted to do. Computers had been a big part of my identity in the past, and they should be my future as well. With a new vision, my family and I packed up and moved to Moscow, Idaho where I enrolled in the Computer Science program at the University of Idaho.
I wish that I could say that this is where my dreams started to come to fruition and that everything from here on out was great and went according to plan. It didn’t. Remember when I said that I had trouble with science and engineering before? Well, that hadn’t changed. I was failing out of school and becoming more and more discouraged. I started to doubt myself again and almost quit, but something amazing was about to happen… something that would change my life. I met someone who, little did I know, would later become my supervisor and my first mentor.
Pivot to a Dream
Ken was working with a group of researchers on the UI campus as a system administrator and had come to give a presentation at an ACM meeting on the work he was doing with high-performance computing. He was the actual embodiment of the crotchety old system administrator from the BSAFH days. What he was doing sounded like a lot of fun so I asked if I could volunteer. Now, any of you who have worked in academia will know: Free is always good. He accepted and invited me to stop by his office. I started searching through logs and compiling applications.
After two days and an in-depth discussion about the intricacies of the GNU C++ compiler, he offered me a job as part-time assistant systems administrator. This change was not without sacrifice on my family’s part as I quit my current full-time job working in a hotel for the opportunity. It was the best job ever — I was learning and growing. Even though it was a part-time job, I was working the hours of a full-time job just to soak in all I could. Unfortunately, the fun wouldn’t last.
After 7 years in the Army Reserves, Uncle Sam called. Our unit had been activated and was leaving for Iraq. I would be gone for approximately 18 months. However, instead of just leaving technology behind, I took a laptop with me. Whenever I could find a free moment (very rare when you are working 18 hour days), I would teach myself something new and hone my skills. Since books were too heavy and didn’t travel in a war zone well, I would read man pages and download open source software when possible, dissecting the code to figure out what the author was doing. When my time in Iraq ended, I came back and contacted my old supervisor. A few months later I was hired into a full-time job as a system administrator. By this time I was in my early 30’s.
Working in high-performance computing at the Institute for Bioinformatics and Evolutionary Studies was terrific. We had plenty of old systems laying around that I was able to experiment and cobble systems together. I teaching myself hardware, advanced Linux, DevOps and configuration management (before that was what all the cool kids did). Those days it was not uncommon for me to roll out of bed at 5AM with an idea, run out the door, start installing, reconfiguring, and creating. I couldn’t believe how much fun I was having. I could finally support my family doing something that I loved doing. There’s something magical about doing something that you enjoy and getting paid for it.
As part of my benefits, I could go back to school taking a class or two at a time for a small fee and finish my degree in Computer Science. Interestingly enough, I was thriving in this new environment, and my F’s and D’s became A’s and B’s. This new found academic success was an invigorating experience for me and I started to realize that it wasn’t because I was stupid or not meant to be an engineer.
When I took a full-time course load, I would always find something that intrigued me and inevitably become hyper-focused on the concept or problem. This focus, although incredibly fun and exciting for me, was incredibly toxic to my other classes; even the same one that introduced the concept. I would inevitably spend hours or days (and sometimes months) burrowing into the problem like a tick and completely let everything else go. I was unable to unable to focus on anything else.
After several more years, I finished my degree in Computer Science, surrounded by my family and friends.
Falling Off the Promotion Cliff
Five years into the job I started noticing that I was becoming more and more removed from the things that kept me excited. I kept on taking promotions with additional responsibility and more money and ended up as the Director of the Core Facility that I helped to create. The bulk of my time was starting to be evenly split between studying books on business and working on excel spreadsheets. The cloud of excitement that I was feeling before was beginning to dissipate. Then Google called.
Talk about exciting! I made it through the first pre-screening interview just fine and started cramming everything I could from Google’s research papers. I wanted to ensure that I was somewhat educated on the concepts and procedures. The big day came, and I knew I was ready. The engineer called and began asking questions.
Things that should have been easy for me had a difficult time coming to the surface, and I started to become discouraged. The call ended, and I was devastated. I knew that I had blown the interview. Inevitably the recruiter called to tell me that I would not be progressing to the next round of interviews.
This hit me like a ton of bricks. I had been worried about developing business plans, financially sustainable research data centers, and writing reports. I did this to make sure that the infrastructure that I built with passion, excitement, hard work and long hours could be used to make the dreams of others come true. Don’t get me wrong, helping others to realize their dreams is not a bad thing, but in my choices, I had set aside my own passions and desires for titles and money. In short, I began to realize that in working to make the dreams of others come true, I had lost sight of my own.
At that moment, I knew that I was in the wrong place. Despite the friends that I had made over the last 8 years and the systems and services that I had put so much time and effort in building, I knew that I needed a change and began looking for a new job. It was a difficult choice and one that I struggled with for a while because of deep loyalty to the organization that had done so much for me. I resigned from my position.
Time for a Change
After my resignation, I began a new job as a Linux Technical Lead at Washington State University. I was now working with a team of outstanding Linux admins doing many of the things that I loved again.
A year later I accepted a position as a Senior Systems Engineer at a mobile analytics startup whose customers include several big names in the technology industry. Several months later, with a considerable amount of hesitation, I became the Director of the Live Operations group — with the understanding that the position would still allow me to be hands on a good portion of the time.
I now have opportunities that I could have only dreamed of all those years ago. I work with a fantastic group of individuals that comprise our Reliability, Systems, Database, and Support teams. We work on large-scale problems in multiple cloud and physical co-lo environments, building and supporting systems and services that analyze metrics in real time from billions of devices.
All of the technical excitement aside, there is one thing that I’ve really started to enjoy as I’ve grown into my role as a leader in our organization. I now have the opportunity to mentor others and make a difference in their lives.
Maybe, just maybe, I can be that person in someone else’s life that gives them a chance at their dreams.
There will always be those defining moments in life when you say or do something that will ultimately take you in a new or unexpected direction. My moment was attending one ACM meeting and asking if I could volunteer. In a matter of minutes, I had completely changed my destiny. That leap of faith turned into a part-time job, which turned into a full-time job, which turned into a career and built the foundation of the dream that I’m living now.
It was hard work, and there were a lot of struggles and sacrifices that came up along the way (not only for me, but for my family as well), yet because I was focused on a goal, they had meaning. When the next defining moment that came to me in the form of a failed interview, I was able to take that moment and use it to redefine my expectations and refocus my life.
We discover ourselves in different ways and on different paths. The only certainty is that if we don’t explore; if we don’t try on that new look; if we don’t take that chance; we will remain the same. So don’t worry about failing, learn something new every day, take those chances that will change your life and don’t compromise or give up on your dreams.