While I sit here alone in this Webex room waiting a few more minutes for someone to show up, I’d like to tell you the story of my first technical job experience.
About 12 or 13 years ago I took my first technical position after leaving teaching. In between teaching and this first tech job was a short stint in technical sales where I actually started down the certification road.
My first actual tech role was doing L1 helpdesk support in upstate New York at a regional VAR. I took a big paycut from teaching, and the insurance was so expensive that I simply had no coverage for me or my wife for almost a year.
I was making $30k USD with a family of 3, and we were living hand-to-mouth, check-by-check. The only reason we made it was because of a few generous financial gifts from my father-in-law. My wife was and is a stay-at-home mom so there was no other income, but my daughter was able to get Child Health Plus (government subsidized healthcare) because of my meager earnings.
I already had about 7 years professional experience, but it was mostly as a classroom teacher. When I started the helpdesk job I had an M.S., a Network+, a couple Microsoft certs, and I had just passed ICND1.
This was a strategic move for me, and I was well aware that there would be financial hardships before getting myself to a better financial position long term.
I loved the actual job. I was doing end-user support and working in a NOC with a pretty fun team. I had a decent manager, and because this was as VAR I also had exposure to some higher level engineers who were in and out from time-to-time.
I was older than many on the team, probably because I was a career-changer. I spent mornings studying, lunch breaks studying, and evenings studying. During the workday I tried to close as many tickets as I could (that was the only real metric used to gauge our performance).
I soon passed ICND2 and got a CCNA. This was huge for me. I was 28 or 29 I think, and I built a lab at home that was more sophisticated than many of my customers’ networks.
I got the chance to work with a couple network engineers, but since it was a VAR, I got that chance only once in a while because they were out working with customers. Nevertheless, I got to configure a few site-to-site VPNs, stand up some EIGRP adjacencies, and handle some (very) simple network helpdesk tasks.
Then there was an opening for a junior network engineer.
This was right when I was due for my 6 month review, so I was excited about the timing. I sat with someone from HR who explained how I was “awesome” and they were glad to have me.
I was handed an offer letter that didn’t change my position but increased my salary roughly 35 cents an hour. I sat stunned while the young woman from HR smiled with satisfaction that the company was doing this for me.
I changed the subject and asked about the junior network engineer position.
Her face went from a smile to an expression of concern.
After a moment she explained that I would not be a good fit because they cannot have someone “learning on the job.”
I politely declined to sign the offer letter and left her office after an awkward back-and-forth. She couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t sign it considering it was more money. I think I refused to sign it based on principle. In hindsight maybe I was trying too hard too make a statement, but that was the course of action I chose in the moment.
A week or two later the head of human resources saw me alone in the NOC. She was using the copier and did not come into the room specifically to speak with me. Nevertheless, she saw me so approached me to talk about my offer and how I have the company “over a barrel” by not signing it.
I was baffled by her interpretation of the situation (let alone her choice of words). I explained my position and my desire for the junior engineer position. The conversation went nowhere, and she left the NOC after a few minutes.
This job was a great technical learning experience for me. I learned about ticketing systems, change control, all sorts of troubelshooting methods, and got to get my hands dirty with some simple networking tasks. I’m very grateful for the opportunity in that sense.
Nevertheless, I sat in bed that night and searched online for a new job. In only a few days I landed an excellent technical gig making 50% more money with decent insurance for my whole family.
That first company had and still has very high turnover and a very poor reputation among engineers in my community. I learned a lot, though, both from a technical and personal perspective.
I’m not really bitter about that experience. I tried to choose my words in this post carefully to be both positive and accurate. It was my first step in my career transition, and it started me on the road to be eyeball deep in a field I love which also allows me to provide abundantly for my family.
I don’t have much of a conclusion for you today; no moral lesson; no clever quips. I just wanted to share with you the story of my first steps into this business.