Enter: The Soldier
To truly appreciate and understand my career views, I must take you back to where my career path first started. Back to the very beginning when I was fresh out of high school.
To start off, I barely made it out of high school. While others were studying and doing the right thing, I was chasing girls and trying to live up to my notorious name. This type of living bit me in the rear when graduation arrived. Needless to say, I didn’t have enough credits to graduate. With the threat of having my pre-paid college tuition pulled, per my grandparents, I reluctantly attended an entire extra year of high school and summer school the following summer. I got that darn diploma, though. Was I still chasing girls and attempting to live up to my name? Why, yes indeed. I did, however, realize that this type of living would eventually land me in prison or kill me.
So, instead of going straight to college, I joined the Air Force National Guard. I was aware that I needed some discipline before I decided to take on the real world, plus I felt the move would redeem my tainted name. The promise of one weekend a month and two weeks a year of paid training didn’t sound like a bad gig, either. Heck, I even received an $8K bonus just for signing my name! The future was so bright that I had to wear shades. This very noble and promising decision seemed great for one week. A week after I swore in, I watched two planes crash into the Twin Towers. I watched America brought down to her knees from a low blow that shook the heavens and earth. I’ve never been so mad and afraid in my life. Mad that someone would ever do this to innocent people and afraid of what the future held for me. A few days later, I received the call that I knew was coming. I’m surprised it didn’t come a lot sooner, honestly. I was informed that I was to immediately report for basic and technical training; all way earlier than originally planned. Before I knew it, I found myself standing in the rain with a shaved head and being verbally chomped on by a drill sergeant pulled straight from the pits of hell. This guy seemed to hate my guts and made sure to inform me of that every single waking hour of the day. I expected this going in, so it never really messed with me much. The worst things I remember about basic training were the sleep deprivation and the lack of food. I went in at 180 lbs. and came out 155 lbs. At my graduation ceremony, I was so skinny that my brother walked right passed me when it came time to see family.
Once the pure hell of basic training was over, I was fortunate to go home for a few months before returning for technical training. I basically hung out and lived off the little bit of money I had earned while in basic training. You know, chased girls and lived up to my notorious name. If I could go back, I’d start making some decisions on what truly interested me when it came to making a living. Unfortunately, I fell prey to all of the bad influences that once corrupted me. This time, I felt justified because I felt I deserved to have a good time since I was a soldier.
Tech school wasn’t as bad as basic training and it’s where I started to realize a few things I was good at. I still partied hard on the weekends, but was all business on the weekdays. When not in school, I spent time in the gym or sight-seeing. Tech school is probably the fondest memory I have of my time in the service. I had a lot of good times with a lot of good friends. Besides just having a good time, I learned I was good at troubleshooting and understanding the complex technical manuals we had to follow when maintaining the systems I was assigned to. I also found that working with the basic onboard computer systems was pretty interesting. Other than that, looking good in uniform was about the only other thing I felt I had going for me.
Following tech school was about 6 months of on the job training at my local base station. I lived in my hometown, but worked on the local Air Guard base. What did I do in my spare time? Can you guess? Yep, chased women and had a good time. I felt like time was on my side and worrying about the future just wasn’t appropriate for that moment in my life. The best thing I unknowingly did for myself, at this time, was sharpen my troubleshooting skills.
Soon came the orders to deploy. I knew I would eventually travel over the great waters, but wasn’t sure exactly when. I spent just a short period of time overseas, but learned a lot about myself in that short amount of time. I can’t say I enjoyed any of it, though I did appreciate the experience. The most I remember from it was the drastic temperature changes when the days turned to night, and vice versa. I also remember not being afraid of death, which was a sign of things to come in a spiritual sense.After my short deployment, I returned home. I still remember driving home from the airport and looking around at what a truly free country looked like. It looked terrible to me, actually. A bunch of spoiled, disrespectful people worrying about obtaining material possessions and worrying about small things that didn’t mean anything on the larger scale. As much as I wanted to see the good, I couldn’t see through the bad. I began to feel that the people of this country weren’t worth my service and sacrifice. That thought, along with many others, eventually led me to decide that the military was not the place for me. I began seeing through the political BS and was simply sick of serving a country hell bent on self-destruction. I felt I shouldn’t sacrifice anymore of my precious time and got out after only four years.
Entering the civilian world after serving in the military is kind of scary. No longer do you have big brother government to assist you in what most people struggle to accomplish. The military made it so very easy to get a loan, find a job, relocate, etc. In the civilian life, you’re on your own. I knew that it was going to be tough, but I truly had no idea. If I could go back, I’d at least sign up for a different military specialty than I did. See, I maintained weapons systems on F-16 fighter jets. Think you can get a good job doing something with that experience, once you get out of the military? If so, you’ll be very saddened to learn that it won’t help you land a job faster than if you had flipped burgers the entire time. Nobody gave a rip that I had served in a war or worked on million dollar pieces of equipment. They truly didn’t care. All I was ever asked, in the dozens of interviews I had after I left the service, was if I had a college degree. I’ll cover my thoughts on and experience with college, later. A college degree is something I most certainly did not have.
The Long Haul
Finally, I landed an installer position for the local cable company. Would you guess that they hired me for my troubleshooting skills? If you did, then you are correct. I was hired on as an installation tech making a whopping $11.00 an hour. At the time, I really didn’t care about the pay because I was pretty desperate. Also, it really wasn’t a bad gig because I was outdoors all the time and unknowingly learning new skills that would benefit me down the road. I stuck with this job for a while. I was currently 23 years old and was still 100% confident that time was on my side. After about a year at this new job, I made the decision to leave my job. The reason, you ask? Well, my grandmother was dying and I felt it my obligation to spend as much time with her as possible. It turned out to be more vacation time than I had accrued with the company, so I left. Plus, I felt time was on my side and another job would be easy to find with the little bit of experience I had obtained. I was ever so wrong.I do not regret the decision I made to leave my job in order to spend the last two weeks of my grandmother’s life next to her side. Getting back on my yet to be established feet was very tough, though. Very, very tough. Many a night of going to bed with an empty stomach or crashing on my mother’s couch. My pride at the time was almost none and I would do just about anything to make a buck. I began to slip into old habits and made a few bad decisions in an attempt to silence the pain I was feeling on the inside. I struggle for months and months. I even lived in a hotel room with two of my good friends while we all struggled to land a solid gig somewhere. To say times were tough would be an extreme understatement.
After a few long months of searching the job boards and walking into businesses with a small resume in my hand, I finally landed a job with a local off road truck accessory store. It was a far cry from the honorable military career I once was a part of; but it was a job, and one that paid $10 an hour. You’ll see what I’m getting at by informing you of all of these pay rates, later. The position I was hired for was that of an installer. Basically, I installed everything from lift kits to bug visors. Not a very appealing job for most, but I didn’t mind the work. I worked with some cool people and we made the most of every day. It was a shame to watch people blow thousands of dollars on useless crap for their vehicles, but it wasn’t my money to spend. Seeing it was disheartening, sometimes. I’m there counting change for gas money while these privileged folk were having a tough time choosing which brand of oversized mud tires for their teenager’s brand new full sized truck to go with. Every day was pretty much a kick in the teeth of my pride, needless to say. After selling a few lift kits to random walk-ins, I was promoted to a sales position in store front. I thought I would get an incredible pay raise, but only got $2 extra dollars and hour. I took it for what it was worth and did my best. I don’t really have any good memories of this place other than the fact that I helped build some really cool custom trucks and learned a lot about general vehicle maintenance. What changed my direction of focus was an interaction I had with a customer, one day. As I was helping him decide which brand of bug deflector he should go with, he asked me a question that set off a series of events that eventually lead me in the direction to arrive at where I am today. He simply asked, “Why do you work here?” I said, “Uh, huh?” He replied, “Seriously, you seem like a really smart guy. Do you really want to sell bug deflectors your entire life?” Now, had it been a few years earlier, he might have received a knuckle sandwich. I had to appreciate his brutally honest question, though. I looked at him and laughed, answering with an unconvincing “No.” Once he bought some overpriced bug deflectors, he left the store; but his question only got louder in my head. I was literally haunted by this question. This question led me to undertake many a night filling out stupid career assessment questionnaires online and many a day, once again, searching the wanted ads. I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do, but felt this inner drive to find out. Just about every questionnaire I filled out ranked me very strong in the troubleshooting and electronics area. This is what I decided to center my resumes around, along with the customer service experience I gained at the truck store. I eventually landed something completely different than what I was doing at the truck store and more like what I did with the cable company.
I’ll never forget the interview. I went in looking like complete hell. I had lost so much weight that a shirt that once felt pretty snug on me was wearing like an extra-large. I remember my stomach growling from being hungry and profusely sweating because I was so anxious. I remember the guy asking me what I had to offer more than the other applicants. I answered, with all certainty, that I had more to lose. I was hired on the spot and told to be back, ready to rock and roll, the next morning. That was the start of one of the most miserably exciting jobs I ever had. I was hired on as an audio/video installer for a national company that offered “elevator music” to local businesses and major franchises. It’s in this position that I traveled all over the state of Alabama, met some of the most interesting characters out there, and found out what I was truly made of. There’s not too many cities in Alabama that I have not done work in. Unfortunately, it was one of the most physically challenging and uncomfortable positions I have ever held. It was common that I installed a satellite dish in a lightning storm, got stung by multiple wasps, fell asleep driving, or duct taped cuts that could’ve used stiches in an attempt to simply get the job done. I bled more at this job than I did when I got my wisdom teeth pulled (a great story in itself). I endured all of this for $11.00 an hour. Even after working 12 hour days, 6 days a week, I still couldn’t pay my bills. How anyone ever expects someone to survive off that much money blows my mind, to this very day. This job introduced me to my current field of expertise, so I can’t knock it too hard. This opportunity came on at a time in which a lot of stuff was beginning to be done remotely, which meant I got the chance to start working with IT (Information Technology) guys at some of the client companies. The kicker was that the IT guys were never on location. I would get to a point in which I needed to connect a data line in a server room and would have to call a remote IT specialist in order to determine which port to plug the wire into. If I lost you there, I basically had to call them in order to determine where to stick the wire into the building’s computer network. This would then allow them to remotely control the audio or video that was fed into the business. There were no more tapes or CDs; it was all being piped in from a remote location. This intrigued me to an insane extent. How the heck can someone get paid to accomplish something from the comfort of an air conditioned office at a site that is 100 miles away from said office? This way of earning a buck was not only appealing, but the science behind it truly got my gears turning. I had to find out more about this career field of IT and how to get a foot in the door.
Getting my foot in the IT door was way easier said than done since I had absolutely no experience when it came to computers or any related equipment. I wasn’t even sure what the IT career field was all about, so I began reading up on it. I read everything I could get my hands on. I’d go to the bookstore, buy a coffee, and read through certification books until I found one that made sense from a beginner’s level. On the job, I did my best to get as close to possible to anything that could be considered IT equipment. Upon showing my interest in computers to my boss, he tasked me with simple hard drive swaps and software installs on some of the few computers we did come in contact with. It wasn’t much, but it could go on a resume. To get my foot in the door, I knew having experience could go further than a certification. See, I still had no idea what area of IT I wanted to go into. I just knew I wanted to get into IT. My studies and experience was gained very slowly, but at least it was some kind of progress. The problem, though, was that I was getting impatient. The experience was coming at a very slow rate and I was getting more desperate as the days passed. Desperate to find my happy place.
Time slowly crawled on for a while, but I finally landed a gig that allowed me to put my hands directly on computers. It was as a test analyst for a military contractor that manufactured rugged military computers and peripheral equipment. Though it took me away from the grueling and laborious position I held at my last job, it also took $2 from my hourly wage. So, I was back earning $10 an hour and being the brokest joke on the block. I felt really good about my position, though. It was a very boring and mind numbing position, but it gave me hands on experience with computer hardware. Being a manufacturer, we got some killer holiday time and the days were very routine. This is where I began to study for a particular IT certification that is best known as the first IT certification most people earn. Those studies soon ended, though. Earning $10 an hour simply wasn’t paying my bills and, yet again, I had to make a job move. This time, it was to a position that had absolutely nothing to do with computers!
How I got the job was a bit of a fluke. A friend of mine worked for an oral surgeon’s office and mentioned, in a random conversation, that they were looking for someone. I quickly asked what the prerequisites were and was pleasantly pleased to hear that there were none. Without a second thought, I applied. In a short amount of time, I found myself in scrubs and standing in on my first surgical observation. This sounds pretty awesome, huh? Well, there was just a small issue I had with my new gig. See, at this time in my life, I got really sick when it came to blood and needles. I’d get so sick I would turn pale as a ghost and eventually black out. I was reminded of this while in that observation room on my first day. I thought it wouldn’t bother me, but I was dead wrong. Right in the middle of the surgery, and after I had moved back as far as I could from the action, I asked if I could be excused to go to the bathroom. When granted permission, I ran to the bathroom. As soon as I made it into the restroom, I hit the floor. I remember the floor feeling so cold and the cold air feeling so good in my lungs. As I lay on the floor, with my legs propped up on the wall, a sudden realization hit me. This realization was that what was making me so sick was all in my head. I had to not look at blood as blood, but simply just fluid. I had to see body parts for what they truly were, just parts. I also realized that if I didn’t get my butt back in there, I was going to look like an idiot and would be back on the job hunt. So, I recovered my bearings and walked back into the observation room. When I walked in, the surgeon asked “Get a little sick, did ya?” It must have been very obvious. He followed with “Don’t worry. Happens to most people their first time.” That was very reassuring. Not long after that first day, I was sitting chair side and assisting with all kinds of oral surgeries. I assisted with numerous wisdom teeth extractions and even helped stitch a guy’s face back together. It was really a fun and rewarding job. Would you guess that it didn’t last long? See, even at $13 an hour, I needed more pay. Some may ask, at this point, what the heck I had to pay for. You try paying a car payment, car insurance, student loans, utilities, rent on a house, and whatever else on that kind of money. You won’t even make it off the ground.
So, what the heck did I do next? Well, I went back to working for the cable company. I went back as a contractor, though. This allowed me to make more money since it was untaxed. The opportunity was perfect for me, at the time, because I needed to make money and needed to do it fast! The hours were long and the work was miserable, but the money was great. I worked 6, sometimes 7, days a week from sun up to way past sun down. It got to the point that all I did was work. The people I came in contact with were very interesting, to say the least. Not sure why, but I was assigned to the worst side of my town. Now, this side of my town is not anywhere for anyone of my color to be. Parts of this area are so bad that the police don’t even go into it. Most of the cable techs, before me, were either robbed or beat up and forced to be re-assigned to more stable areas. Growing up in this town, I knew what to expect; so I went in prepared. I always made sure to carry two knives on me and keep a loaded Derringer .22 caliber pistol in my boot. The Derringer was very uncomfortable, but the courage it afforded me was well worth being uncomfortable for a little while. I ran this route for about a year and a half with each day playing out like a television show full of events that could only be imagined. Luckily, I never had a single problem with anyone on that side of town; completely changing my outlook on the area. The weekends were the best, too. I can’t tell you how may family barbeques I attended on a service call or how many times I assisted a family in singing “Happy Birthday”. The people I met were the realest, most down to earth people. The people that were to be avoided were never out and about during the day. Night time was when they came out of hiding and did their business. I always had a rule to be off of that side of town by the time the street lights came on, though there were more than a few times that I couldn’t get out in time. I can’t tell you how many times I got accused of being “tha police” when I was out there; but I’m pretty sure that assumption saved my butt a few times.
The experience was very eye opening at what our society has created. One of the most irritating things I would run across would be when I would find myself in a house full of individuals bragging amongst themselves about how they were screwing over the government to get a paycheck. They’d do anything for a check: fake an injury, really have an injury, have a baby, have multiple babies, and the list goes on. They were truly proud of this and thought it was the funniest thing in the world. These were the same people that had the entire family sleeping on a queen sized mattress on the floor because they were broke; but were getting a fully packaged cable system installed. I heard these conversations every day and it absolutely infuriated me. There I was crawling under spider infested crawl spaces and through wasp infested attics for the sake of them having something to watch on a television they probably stole. Regardless, at the end of the day, I got to go home to something I honestly earned and was proud of. Who was I to judge anybody else and what they decided to do? I worked this gig for a long while, while applying for any position that would get me in the IT door. Finally, I got a bite.
Close, but no cigar.
I got hired on at a small IT company as an entry level field tech. I had just enough experience to get me in the door, but that is all I needed. Only a handful of people worked at this small company and all of them were light years ahead of me in the IT field. They didn’t, however, have a laborious bone in their bodies and couldn’t lift anything above 75 lbs. Sadly, I’m talking about an all-male group. This worked out great for me, however, because I was tasked to do all of the field installs and wasn’t chained to a desk all day. Along the way, I learned an immense amount of knowledge of any and everything to do with IT. Though the management and pay was terrible, I was racking up on knowledge. Not only did I obtain knowledge about the IT field, but I learned a lot about how not to manage employees. This place was the poster child for how not to treat employees. We were not allowed to eat or drink anything in the building, talk or laugh amongst ourselves, have our personal phones visible, or dare be a minute late. There were a few other things that made this place a nightmare, but those immediately come to mind. I knew the type of people I was working for weren’t the best of people, even during my interview, but I really needed the experience. I worked the position for a little over two years; constantly getting the bad end of the deal as an employee of such a corrupt company, but getting the best deal in terms of knowledge. Mind you, I updated my resume every time I learned something new as it sat online within a handful of career sites. After a while, the way I was being treated and the poor management started to wear on me. The lack of job prospects was starting to wear on me, as well. All of the bites I got didn’t offer respectable pay and I began to think IT wasn’t a good career choice. Eventually, a very heated conversation between the owner and I cost me my job. The reason, you ask? I couldn’t take being talked down to anymore and finally let the man know how I felt about it. Looking back on it, I’m glad I did it. The decision, however, couldn’t have come at a worse time.
I was fired exactly one month from my wedding. Can you imagine how awesome breaking that news to my soon to be wife was? Luckily, she was proud of me for speaking up. She, at the time, was making enough money to float us for a while. The day after I was fired, I started looking for anything to make a buck. I amped up my job resume submittals and reached out to anyone in my network of associates to find out who was hiring. It didn’t take me long to find employment with a former co-worker who started his own IT business. He needed an installer (GO FIGURE!) and someone to work as a field tech, part-time. The pay was absolute crap and I didn’t get enough hours, but I wasn’t in any boat to complain. I had figured, by now, that the town I lived in just wasn’t the happening spot for an IT specialist and figured I’d just roll with whatever I could get. I did some personal fitness training, on the side, to make a few extra bucks. All in all, it wasn’t enough to keep the bills paid. Even combined with my wife’s salary, we were slowly drowning in debt. I can’t describe the stress I felt as I watched the small foundation that my wife and I were trying to build just melt away, like butter on a hot pan, with every passing day. It felt like our entire world was falling apart, and it was. The tunnel was only getting darker; with no hint of light on the other side.