tecosystems

My Origin Story

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The funny thing about my origin story is that I’ve told it many times, but never in this space as far as I can recall. But with a push from Kiyoto Tamura, let me do that because for some just getting started in their careers it may have some value, if only as an anti-pattern.

Over the course of two decades in the technology industry, I’ve learned a few things about myself that I didn’t know coming in. While I can handle travel, for instance, I’m not a big fan. My high school self would likewise have been shocked to hear about my newfound affinity for numbers and statistics.

Perhaps the most surprising thing I’ve discovered, however, is that talking to people early in their careers is one of my favorite things to do. From students facing life after graduation to those navigating the early stages of their career, the return I get from helping pass on some of my lessons learned far, far exceeds what is required of me in the process.

In almost every one of these conversations, I’m asked how I got into technology. The common assumption is that I was a CompSci major in college, and that my current job is the end result of a long term carefully executed plan.

Most are shocked, some gratified, to hear that like much conventional wisdom, that’s totally wrong.

The truth is that not only was I not a CompSci major, I didn’t take a single computer science course in high school (it wasn’t offered) or at Williams. I also took advantage of my high school coursework to ensure that I took the bare minimum of mathematics courses and nothing in statistics at college (the latter one of my more egregious mistakes I later had to rectify by going back to school). I was a History major at Williams, and took a full courseload in that discipline along with more traditional liberal arts subjects. And as for my current job, I didn’t even know it existed while I was in school.

How did I end up in technology, then?

Coincidence, honestly.

Every day, I interact with brilliant men and women who build the tools I use, the networks I rely on and who are the giants whose shoulders we all stand on today. Many of these people grew up programming, were trained at some of the best colleges and universities in the world and have experience doing things that have never been done before. They’re the best in the world at what they do.

I’m very lucky to work with people this talented, obviously, but I am not one of them.

I was always geeky, to be sure. From tinkering with a friend’s Commodore 64 to the Apple IIc my Dad brought home, I was always interested in computers. Predictably, my brother and I used the IIc to play games, but I was also doing things like creating AppleWorks databases storing – no joke – shark information. Species, range, attack history on humans, maximum length and on and on. And for the record, no, I don’t think this database was ever actually queried, but as it probably still exists on a floppy disk somewhere there’s hope yet. There was even a Hypercard version at one point.

Apart from messing around and experimenting on my own, though, with no real local curriculum or training options that would suggest that I could make a career of this, I viewed computers as mere tools rather than a passion worth following.

Like my father before me then who upon graduating from Williams decided to apply to both business schools and law schools and attend the best he got into (which turned out to be Harvard Business School), I graduated from college with no real clue about what I wanted to do. And precious little in the way of directly applicable skills, it must be said. Take the best job I could get was as strategic as my plan got.

Which is what led to my casting an exceptionally wide net, career-wise. I interviewed with a carbon-fiber company that was looking to manufacture lacrosse shafts in Rhode Island. I talked to a friend of my father’s who worked for a paper company. I tried – desperately – to get an internship with the Red Sox. And I interviewed with consulting company after consulting company, mostly because I heard they’d at least talk to people like me.

A number of the larger systems integration shops – Accenture (then Andersen Consulting), CSC, etc – were unable to hire qualified applicants at the volumes they required, so they were forced to adopt a different strategy. Instead of a hard requirement for particular computer science skills, they looked instead for general aptitude and intelligence, the assumption being that they could teach at least the basics of the requisite technical knowledge themselves in intensive courses of study at residential training facilities.

In my case, I was pointed to one such opportunity by a fellow Williams alum. After teaching myself enough programming in a week to pass their entrance exam, the best offer I received – both in terms of salary and geography – came with a mid-sized systems integration firm called Keane, subsequently acquired by NTT. I spent the better part of two months living in and being trained at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston in technologies long since obsolete, only to be deployed in my first engagement on technologies that had been obsolete for over a decade even then.

I have managed to pick up a few still relevant technologies along the way, for the record.

While I had no way of knowing it at the time, Keane was the first step in a long and winding journey that led to my working with James at another analyst firm, which led to our founding of RedMonk, which is what I’ve been doing ever since.

When I talk to young men and women about this background, many of them are baffled, wondering how in the hell I ended up doing what I do having had no plan and no real relevant skills to bring to bear. I don’t have a good answer for them. I’ve been incredibly fortunate, and as a white male with parents who supported me, incredibly privileged. I’m not exactly Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but a couple of decades later I’m still here – in spite of my path, though, not because of it.

Their confusion notwithstanding, there are two reasons I think it’s important tell kids my story, warts and all.

  • Most importantly, I want them to understand that no matter what their background, what their training, there is a place for them in this industry if they enjoy the work and are willing to work hard. It’s a demanding and challenging industry, and it requires the intellectual flexibility to adapt to a constantly changing environment, but whether you’re a CompSci major or didn’t attend college, you can work in this business.
  • I also relay my experiences to illustrate to them that in virtually every case today, they are vastly more qualified than I was at a similar juncture. I see headline after headline about what so-called millenials don’t know and how they can’t cook chicken or balance a checkbook. For me, it’s indistinguishable from those I encounter in my day job who focus on what a given technology can’t do at the expense of what it can. In my experience, millenials – whatever they may or may not need to make up for in “adulting” skills – are frighteningly well educated and driven. They are far more impressive than I ever was.

There are organizations, many of them, that wouldn’t have hired me as a new graduate, and wouldn’t hire me now, because I lack a particular achievement or credential. Which I understand today, and even understood then because hiring is hard and you need a process that scales. But there’s a reason why we’re open to non-traditional backgrounds when we hire at RedMonk. If someone has a CompSci background, great. But just as Keane once concluded with me, I’m a firm believer that technology can be taught if a candidate is bright, motivated and has the kind of skills that are harder, I believe, to teach: work ethic, how to write well, how to be a good teammate, and so on.

In part because of how I came to it, I’m grateful to this industry, because it’s given me a lot. I brought very little to the table, but technology has provided me with work that I enjoy, kept a roof over my head, let me live where I wanted to and allowed me not wear a suit and tie – outside of my first consulting gig, anyway. It’s also allowed me to peek behind the curtains of an industry that is changing the world, for better and for worse, in ways that I never could have imagined when I was a college senior with the world in front of me but no set direction.

Which is not to sugarcoat things. The technology industry, as has been noted in this space more than once, has systemic challenges around diversity, empathy and inequality. It is spectacularly tone deaf at times. And my positive experience, again, is heavily skewed by my privilege.

But for all of that, I think technology is still an incredible business to work in. So for all of the liberal arts majors, college dropouts, people looking for a new career or anyone else thinking about the field, if nothing else, I hope my path gives you hope.

If the industry has room for me, it sure as hell does for you too.

2 comments

  1. I have over thirty years in the IT industry, in many roles, and also didn’t methodically choose this career path early on as much as it chose me. I graduated high school in Honolulu, had a job lined up as a donut cook on the third-shift so that i could attend day classes at uni. I happened across an job ad in the paper for a Computer Operator, 3rd Shift and it stated the pay which was $100/month more, so I applied and was hired. My primary qualification was that I could lift 50 lbs and operate a hand truck, to move boxes of paper for printing. My curiosity led me to read the many manuals on the bookshelf, and there was ample time during batch runs to tinker. Many programming languages, certifications, systems and technology domains later, I’ve found a nice balance in product management. A long and winding road.

  2. Steve: Thanks for sharing your origin story. Though I’m probably not in your target audience, I do feel that in this industry, every year leaves you feeling that to some extent you are still new in your career. So much exciting change to follow, and occasionally lead. I started as an app developer working on purchasing logistics applications for the manufacturing and engineering arms of our company. The programmers and teammates that inspired me, as in your origin story, did not have CompSci degrees. I worked shoulder to shoulder with a marine biologist, an English major and a chemist, myself coming into programming with a mathematics degree, despite the existence of CompSci at my school. The challenge of, and results from, applying technology to solve real-world problems was addictive. The hours became minutes. Your story reaffirms the hope and excitement I too experienced after making my way into this brave ever-new world. May others continue to marvel at the possibilities and persevere. As you say, it’s all about work ethic, the ability to communicate, and I think, general curiosity, with a healthy dose of humility, as the world of technology continuously expands and transforms. Also, thanks to you and RedMonk for being our guide over the years and through all the change. — Jeff

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