A life on rails
I grew up a child of the 80s. Between He-Man, Def Leppard, Knight-Rider, and The Electric Company, I was a well-kept child (in my opinion). I never wanted for anything. Born of a UK native, and a US service-member, I was an international kid and did not even realize it until I was much older.
Growing up on Air Force bases from Utah to Germany, I developed a strong sense of family. They were the only constant in my life, as we moved rather frequently. I think to a large degree, most Air Force brats can relate to that. To them, that is just life. To those outside the culture, it seems foreign to move every few years, let alone to another country where you do not know a single soul. At times it was scary and exhausting, but more often than not it was exhilarating.
At about 3rd grade, I began to become interested in computers. We had gotten an Apple IIe in one of the classrooms. On that machine was a program called LOGO. The idea behind LOGO is that you have an on-screen turtle that can draw with a pen using the instructions that you provide to it. I was fascinated by this piece of software and spent an inordinate amount of time playing with it. I was not particularly adept at it, but could get my mind around what the basic programs were doing. I think this is my first substantive interaction with programming.
The following year, I had a teacher that was incredible. In my memory, she was the first person (besides my parents) that ever told me that I could be whatever I wanted. She has stuck with me all of these years. I am still in contact with her from time to time. This just goes to show how important teachers really are. They can have life-long impact. This teacher, Mrs. P. had an Apple IIGs in her classroom with The Oregon Trail on it. The entire class was captivated by this game. Mrs. P. noticed that I had an unusual ability with the machine and must have mentioned something to my parents.
For my tenth birthday, I received an Apple IIc. I did not know this at the time, but my parents’ foresight had lead them to save up for months to purchase that machine for my birthday. To say I loved it would be an understatement. I got multiple books on the BASIC programming language and started typing in the listings to play the games they were discussing. At the same time I was building a functional knowledge of programming logic. Before too long I was writing my own games and adapting the ones that were already on the system. I think it was at this point that the long arc of my life was basically set.
Growing up with the labels “talented” and “gifted” went to my head a bit. I was always being told by teachers, parents and friends how smart I was and how I was an achiever and would go very far. For the most part that was true. I was achieving high academic scores. However, I think I let that get to me. I did well in school because it was easy, therefore I never had to tackle anything truly difficult, and never learned to fail. Over time I was conditioning myself to take the obvious and easy path. Seeing as I was so “gifted” and had an obvious predilection for computers that seemed to be the path of least resistance.
Naturally I tried to fight the inevitable a little bit once I got older, but once I seriously settled into college, the choice of major became clear. However, remember I have conditioned myself to take the easy road. The obvious major choice would be computer science. The comfortable choice would be information systems. The difference here is profound if you are not aware. The study of computer science is a hard science. It is furthering the field. It is information theory, algorithms, development, and design. Information systems is just enough programming to program a cash register and enough management to land you in a Dilbert strip. I don’t say this to belittle students of information systems. This can be an incredibly rewarding course of study. I was not in it for the rewards. I was in it for the piece of paper. My heart was not in it, it was the easy path, the rail-road to comfortable living.
Naturally the follow-on to this is the Information Technology career. At the end of my studies I impressed a recruiter for the largest IT firm in the world at that time (and probably still is today) with my knowledge of an up and coming operating system. They offered me a job that was only tangentially related to that knowledge, and I took it. I was thrilled. I was “living the dream”.
If you are unfamiliar with IT as an industry it is largely a meat market. The industry as a whole vacuums up young potential, grinds it up for a few years and extrudes the pink slime of middle-age. There is a lot of pressure to perform under ever-increasing workloads and to continually top your last herculean effort. Over time this leads to lots of burn-out. I was not immune. I was told to “just get used to it.” At the time I did not realize it was endemic to the system, but figured it was the company I was working for. I took a job with another firm, and it was much the same.
Six years into my IT career I began to seriously take stock of my life. The catalyst for this was a near-breakup of my marriage (which is a whole separate story (and entirely my own fault)). Taking a step back, one of the things I could see was that I was completely dissatisfied with my career field. I knew that I wanted out. What I did not know was what I wanted to do with my life instead.