Reflections on my career path – Part 1

In high school, I was a C student at best. Basically, my goal was to not fail a class. If I managed to accomplish that, I called it a success. For whatever reasons, I never thought about what I was going to do after high school. Honestly, I really don’t remember anyone that I hung out with, talking about post-high school. Looking back, I don’t think I necessarily hung out with the ‘wrong crowd’, we just lived in the moment and very seldom talked about the future.

The one class I did enjoy in high school was metals/machine shop. I took it for three years and then was a teacher’s aide during my senior year. In metals class, we learned to run lathes, milling machines, and welding. Maybe somewhere in the back of my mind, I probably thought that was what I would do after high school. Graduation came and then reality sat in, it was time to try and get a ‘real job’. My Dad, who had worked at a plant for over 25 years, knew the owner of one of the local machine shops and was able to get me a job right out of high school.

Not knowing what to expect, I showed up the first evening at 4:00 P.M. on a hot summer day, with a small toolbox in hand. It had some basic tools in it, some of which I had used in metals class and I thought would be put to good use at my new job. The three things I had been told to be sure and bring on my first day were a heavy pair of gloves, safety glasses, and steel-toed shoes. After reporting in, the shift foreman immediately put me to work: He told me to go and get the broom leaning against the wall along with this huge trashcan on wheels. The foreman told me my job was to sweep up all the metal ‘chips’ that came off the material during the machining process.

There were so many metal shavings coming off the machines that someone had to be cleaning them up all the time, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to walk around safely in the work areas. It was so much material, you would easily fill up multiple 55-gallon barrels a night and were so heavy. When the barrels full of chips had to be moved, a crane that operated overhead had to be used. Needless to say, this was hot sweaty work that lasted for 10 hours an evening/night, which ended around 2:00 in the morning. I followed this same routine 4 days a week for a couple of months before getting my ‘big break’.

The shop foreman had a small job that required a few dozen pieces to be turned on a lathe for a customer. I was provided blueprints along with making sure I understood the allowed tolerances. When machining parts like this, the specifications usually call for no more than plus or minus a thousandth or two (that’s .001 – .002 of an inch). The whole thing made me nervous – I was so afraid that I was going to screw them up. If that happened, that meant the shop had lost wages in paying for my time, plus any materials that would be scrapped.

In the end, I don’t remember how bad they turned out, but I do remember that they all went in the scrap bin. To make things worse, the foreman gave the same job to another floor sweeper who had been there longer than me and he managed to make the parts successfully. This did nothing but guarantee my future with the broom when I got to work each night.

My only saving grace was one night during dinner, the foreman overheard me talking to a co-worker about a welding project I had going on at home. He asked if welding was something that I could handle, which I said absolutely! Luckily for me, the welder in the shop had just quit and my employer was in a small bind. After a quick demonstration of my capabilities, the welding job was mine for the rest of the time I worked there.

Welding wasn’t a bad gig – I had this huge fan blowing on me all night, sitting down (most of the time) listening to music on my walkman (early 90’s era — we are talking about cassette tapes and FM radio), while ‘running beads’ on parts. Usually, I would weld up things like worn-out shafts, which were built back up with weld, then handed off to one of the machinists to machine the part back down to the original ‘like new’ specifications. The job didn’t pay all that much and certainly wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So, at about the 4-month mark from the day I started at the machine shop, I went home and talked with my parents.

The discussion went something like this: Mom, Dad, I think I made a mistake. I don’t want to work at a machine shop for the rest of my life. Would you be willing to pay for me to attend a trade school for a couple of years — so that I could learn something else? Of course, they graciously agreed (maybe that was their ‘plan’ the whole time) and I quit my machine shop job and started vocational tech school, in a program called: ‘Computer Electronics’.

Turns out, I was really interested in electronics — the class started with electricity basics and moved into circuit design using resistors, capacitors, diodes, and later transistors. The program was set up where you moved at your own pace. You could go as quickly or as slowly as you needed to. As you moved through sections, you were required to do a one on one with the instructor to demonstrate that you knew the material. If you couldn’t prove that you understood it, then you would have to go back and repeat the section.

I flew through all the sections in the first part of the course with no problems. Once completed with the analog section, I moved on to the digital section. The digital section started out with learning to program a microprocessor using assembly language. The processor was plugged into a learning tool called a ‘trainer’, which contained a keypad for writing the program used to send to the processor for execution. After learning how to program the processor, analog circuits were then combined with the microprocessors to make more complex (and realistic) projects. By the time I finished the second part of the course, I was about a year into school.

From there I went to the next area of focus, which was programming in basic. We had Texas Instruments TI-99 computers that had cassette tapes attached to them. Without the attached cassette tape decks, you had no way to store the programs you had written, which meant after typing in a program and running it, there was nowhere to save it. This made it difficult when working on larger programs because that meant you would need to leave the computer on and hope the power didn’t go off. The cassette tapes provided a way to save your program so you could turn off the computer and not lose all your work. When you came back the next day and turned the computer on, you would hit play on the tape deck, loading it back into the computer’s memory, so that you could continue your work. I really enjoyed this part and was definitely the most fun I had so far.

After finishing the basic programming section of the class, the final part was programming in C. I wish I had spent more time here and quite honestly, I also wish the school had been more strict in that area. However, once you got to C programming, you were basically on your own — typing programs out of a book — with small challenges along the way. However, that work was not checked, so it was easy to not put in the full work of learning what was going on and just continuing on so that you could finish the course. With that being said, it is impossible for someone to read one book, typing in the programs, and expected to know how to program in C. This part of the course was more designed to provide you with exposure to how programs were made and learning the process of writing source code, compiling, and running a program.

I graduated from the program in about a year and a half and was back home working part-time at a tv shop while looking for a full-time job. My parents knew someone who was a Vice President in Information Systems at a local insurance company headquarters. A phone call got my foot in the door and before I knew it, I went in for an interview. Soon after, I received a call and was offered a job as a computer technician. This would be the start of my career in technology.

In this series of articles, it is my goal to provide you with information on getting started in Information Technology, whether you have any prior school background or not. I’ll share my methods of how I was able to start at the ground level and work my way up.

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