Long before the public got access to the Internet, I was logging onto Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes) with my Commodore 64. I first got started using Quantum Link, a commercial service, and then started asking around if there was anything similar but free and more grassroots-oriented. (Being a high school kid, I doubt I used the words “grassroots-oriented,” but you know what I mean.) When I discovered that local people were running their own online services with a bank of modems and a bunch of phone lines, I was awestruck. These little communities were springing up all over the US, and anybody could meet other likeminded geeks anytime, anywhere.
I was hooked, and I never gave up. When I got an IBM PS/2 in high school, IBM sent out a message to their customers notifying them of self-support in the IBM forums on some online service (might have been Prodigy, I can’t recall.) IBM ran a contest that the user who answered the most support questions in a month would win a piece of hardware – some months it was a monitor, other months it was a hard drive. I woke up early every day, answered questions like crazy, and raced home from school to answer more. I won a color monitor, and I remember being really bummed out that it wasn’t the monster 20mb hard drive.
When it came time to pick a college, I chose the University of Houston in part because of its excellent Internet labs. Any student could stroll into the labs at any time, around the clock, and get unmetered access to the Internet. Hubba hubba! I could have majored in MUDs and IRC. My IRC nick was TomServo, and I played a cross between the MST3K character and a helpful bartender. As people entered the chat room, I would do things like:
- /me slides a beer down the long wooden bar towards the new guy in the room.
- /me tosses a bag of quarters towards the newcomer and points her at the jukebox.
- /me cheers and hollers, “NORM!”
I lived for that stuff. Sadly, I was not quite as excited about the rest of the university experience, which leads me to my next life-defining event.
Dropping Out of College
I did pretty well in high school and was recognized as a National Merit Finalist. I could attend almost any school I wanted for free (but not the University of California Berkeley, which was my first choice.) I picked the University of Houston (go Coogs!) and lived it up. Full ride, free housing, free books, even free food and drinks.
I just didn’t like college.
I did really well in the courses I enjoyed, like literature, political science, and psychology, but anything I didn’t like, I dang near failed. I couldn’t get motivated to slave away over courses that had zero real-life use, like calculus, but I couldn’t avoid those courses if I wanted to graduate. Since I found myself less and less interested in the irrelevant stuff, I decided I could do without the diploma, and I dropped out.
I know I would have been a totally, completely different person if I’d have finished college. I’d have gotten a white collar job right after graduating. In a perfect world, I would have connected the dots between my passion for computers and my disinterest in mathematics, and figured out a way to motivate myself to get a degree in computer science. The early 90s was an awesome time to get an education in computers, and who knows? Maybe I would have ended up in a dot-com – or at least, a more successful one. That didn’t happen, though, so I wound my way through the hospitality industry instead.
Taking Control of My Career
In 1999, I worked for a hotel management company. Because of my odd background, I did a mix of jobs – I ran the financial auditing, and I managed the computer networks. By then, I’d already tried and given up on managing hotels – I hated depending on an army of minimum-wage workers who were all striving to get out of their jobs. I traveled around from hotel to hotel, auditing their books and their day-to-day operations, and also set up computers, servers, and networks. When I was in the home office in Memphis, I managed that network as well.
I started getting burned out, and I asked my manager to pick one of the two jobs – either internal audit or IT – so I could focus on that one. Due to the small size of the company (around 25 hotels), they didn’t really have enough need for one person to do either job full time. He tried picking one, but I kept getting sucked back into doing both. I worked ridiculously heroic hours, 10-12 hours a day, 7 days a week, for months on end trying to keep everything under control. After repeatedly asking for help for several months straight, I suddenly had a Eureka moment.
In my boss’s mind, I was a complete success. He had no reason to fix anything.
All of a sudden, I realized that I shouldn’t be striving for the company’s definition of a successful employee. I had to make my own definition and strive for that. It isn’t always in the company’s best interest to see employees blossom to their fullest potential. At the time, I thought it might be a limitation of small companies, but I’ve since seen that same problem pop up at big companies too.
From that point forward, I was a different employee. I want to be a successful employee in my employer’s eyes, but when I take a job, one of the questions is, “One year after someone’s taken this position, what does success look like? What is the best employee doing? How are you rewarding them for what they’ve done?” In IT, this question takes people by surprise, but the answers reveal a lot.