Reflections

In late May 1992, I walked into the Houston warehouse of Swiff-Train Company for my first day of work. I was 22 years old and in desperate need of a job. My last few had been odd jobs, short construction gigs, etc. Nothing that would help that end of the month stress around making rent. Hopefully, this would be different, I thought.

My best friend Darryl worked here for a couple of years and always spoke highly of the company. I had met most of the people from the local branch at various birthday parties and BBQs at Darryl’s house, and they seemed like a good bunch. So when things ended at my telemarketing job, I called up Monnie, the warehouse manager, and asked for a job.

I started sweeping the floors as contract labor for a week until my paperwork went through corporate, and I became a full-time warehouse worker. It was hard, hot work, but the pay was fair and, most importantly, stable. I stayed in the warehouse through the summer until I saw an “Inventory Control Clerk” notice. I asked around and realized that position was for the San Antonio branch, not Houston. So I asked the branch manager why we didn’t have that position in Houston, as we sure needed someone to manage all the shipping and receiving paperwork. She agreed, and a few weeks later, I was the new Inventory Control Clerk in Houston! I was on a roll now!

After a few months, I was happy, and learning the computer systems was fun. I had a good time flirting with the girls from other branches on the phone and chatting on the computer. Let me pause to say; these weren’t PCs we were using. Remember – 1992. No, we did all of our work on TN5250 green screens, with big clunky keyboards and square CRT screens. But computer work sure beat hauling rolls of carpet pad in the Houston heat! Then another change came, and it was a big one.

I had gotten pretty friendly with the purchasing team at HQ in Corpus Christi. I handled the receiving of goods in Houston. When the purchase order didn’t match what arrived, I needed them to adjust it to receive the PO. Still, I was surprised when the purchasing manager Steve called and asked if I would be interested in a job in his department! It required moving to Corpus Christi, but most importantly, the company would help me move, and it was a dollar and a half raise! It sounds crazy now, but I only made $7 an hour back then! I talked to my girlfriend about it, and we were in! We traveled to Corpus Christi to find an apartment and visit with Steve. The interview went well, and we found a place we liked, so we went back to Houston to pack! In January of 1993, we moved to Corpus Christi using a Swiff-Train delivery truck and the help of one of the drivers.

That moving day was an excellent example of the company’s spirit that helped keep me there for almost 30 years. Rona Train, the president’s wife, stopped by and brought us a sandwich platter and snacks. That small act of kindness from the company owners impressed me greatly. That ‘family’ feeling persisted for a long time. Over the next three years, L.A. and Rona Train were my business parents of sorts. When I started doing extra projects that involved meeting with vendors in person rather than over the phone, LA sat me down for a talk.

He told me that I was a bright, well-spoken young man and would do well in the business world. HOWEVER. He advised me that I was making less than a perfect impression with my long pony-tailed hair. My hair was halfway down my back at that time, and I was pretty proud of it. The girls loved it! But my mentor told me that I was starting each new conversation two steps backward because older business people didn’t take me seriously. That afternoon, I cut my hair so short my girlfriend didn’t recognize me.

While all of this was happening, I had developed computing into a hobby of sorts. The IT guys Tim and Wade had put an actual Windows 3.11 PC in each department with instructions to “see if you can find a use for it.”  I was poking around when I found that I could record and write something called a ‘macro’ on the terminal emulator installed on the PC. It took a couple of weeks to master, but I wrote a macro that automated one of my very tedious purchasing jobs. That macro took ordering updates from a manual two-week process to a semi-automated 2-hour process. I was hooked! I started borrowing PC magazines from the IT Department and bugging them to explain things I didn’t quite understand. I spent my spare time hacking on a used PC I bought from a friend. I was on a new track!

I was terribly bored pushing paper as a purchasing clerk by this time. My friend Jason had moved to Dallas and gotten a job with a big tech company, and I started looking at making a career change myself. I was pretty good with PCs and spent a lot of my spare time around the office helping people with their software or hardware when the IT guys were busy. With that in mind, I started sending out my resume to companies trying to get a help desk job, tape technician, or ANYTHING in IT. I wasn’t gaining much traction with that, and I had also spread my inquiries to the Dallas area. Shortly after the big haircut, Tim, the IT manager, approached me about learning to be a programmer. Of course, I jumped at it!

My education was more in the line of an apprenticeship than formal classes. Every day, after I finished my work in Purchasing, I would go back to the IT office, and Tim would teach me how to code in RPG (Report Program Generator). I didn’t care that I wasn’t getting overtime or even paid at all. I was LEARNING and CREATING something! Tim told me that if he didn’t feel like I had what it took to do this full-time, I could go back to purchasing. Yeah – no way in hell! In November 1996, I officially became a “Programmer/Analyst II” and left boredom behind!

Over the next few years, I helped with the rollout of PCs for everyone in the office, replacing old Twinax and TokenRing networks with IP on Ethernet, and helping people with their problems with new technology. I installed our first Windows server running Microsoft BackOffice Small Business Server 4.0. It had Windows NT 4.0, Exchange 5.0,  Internet Information Services 3.0, SQL Server 6.5, and I LOVED IT. for the first time, we had company email. Granted, we dialed into our service provider three times a day to download it, but it was a start. We upgraded to SBS 4.5 to prepare for Y2K and moved our interbranch communications from leased lines to Frame-Relay. By this time, I wasn’t programming much anymore. Most of my time was taken managing servers, networks and supporting the growing number of PCs.

We survived the Y2K ‘Millenium Bug’ without much fanfare because Tim and I worked our butts off to ensure every piece of equipment was compliant. Life was pretty good, and our small IT team of two grew to be three with the addition of Catrina. She was the receptionist in Corpus Christi until I noticed her writing HTML at her desk in her spare time. I told Tim about this, and he immediately hired her. I convinced Tim and the rest of the management to get rid of Frame-Relay and go to a pure internet-based Wide Area Network (WAN). We secured connections between branches with IPSEC VPNs using Netscreen firewalls. That saved a bunch of money and opened up our bandwidth to a whole new level. We opened, closed, and moved branches. And so we went. I was still learning new things but had gotten caught up in the day-to-day. I started filtering new technologies based on whether they applied to Swiff-Train or not. If we couldn’t use it, I didn’t bother. I was stagnating and didn’t know it. It was around 2010, and everyone was pretty happy.

By 2014 I asked for some time to go to one of the big conferences I kept hearing about. Tim and I went to COMMON sometime in the early 2000s, the big IBM mainframe/midrange conference. We had gone to learn more about tools and such around our AS400 and how to tie it to the broader internet. I had learned a lot, but Tim had felt like it was a waste of time and that it was “just a bunch of people trying to sell you stuff.” But in 2014, Microsoft’s Tech-Ed conference was in Houston, and I would be 30 minutes away from the branch if something happened and they needed me. So Tim relented and let me go. I think he did it to reward me and to shut me up about it. *grin*

So in May 2014, at Tech-Ed, my life began to change once more. I went to learn more about how to manage Exchange and Windows servers, etc. That was going along great until Wednesday of that week. I had heard “Powershell, Powershell, Powershell” for the last two days. I thought it was just a replacement for VBScript, which was clunky and not a part of how I managed computers. However, everyone seemed pretty hyped up about it, so I checked the session calendar and went to see Don Jones’ “Windows PowerShell Best Practices and Patterns: Time to Get Serious” session.

Damn. Don looked and sounded a little like Tony Stark from the Iron Man movies, and his message ignited my brain. During the Q&A, he said, “either learn Powershell or memorize the phrase ‘Do you want fries with that?'” He also said, “learn Powershell, and when you get that big raise or new promotion or a new job, I like whiskey. Good whiskey.”

Wow. I quickly switched my session plans to be all about PowerShell. I learned about Desired State Configuration, and I heard that Microsoft would do away with the Graphical User Interface (GUI) on servers. I downloaded podcasts about Powershell, and I was on fire!

When I got back to work, I was like a man possessed. I was writing Powershell scripts and automating things; I was innovating again. When my evaluation came up, I got a BIG raise, like a 5 figure raise. So I wrote an email to Don Jones to thank him and ask if he would be at Ignite (the new Tech-Ed) Conference. I owed the man a bottle of whiskey. He was very gracious and introduced me to Jason Helmick, Jeffery Snover, and several other influential folks. He liked the whiskey as well.

So fast forward a year, and I let several opportunities pass, mainly due to crushing Imposter’s Syndrome. People kept saying, “blog more, speak at conferences,” and I would freeze up. Heck, I still have trouble writing tech blogs, as you can tell by the long gaps on this one. Despite all of that, I was crushing it at work and got another big raise. We split our IT department into Dev and Ops, and I became IT Ops Manager – later Infrastructure Manager. We hired a new SysAdmin/Help desk person, and suddenly I was a manager and a mentor.

This time I took a bottle of whiskey to Jason Helmick at Ignite 2016 in Atlanta and introduced my young apprentice Bradley around. I was going to two conferences a year; each was a shot in the arm, and I would come back all fired up and full of new ideas. My bosses were loving it and quite willing to invest the money to keep me lit up.

Ignite 2017’s bottle went to Greg Shields for his advice and all of the classes on Pluralsight that helped me get certified. I was still fired up at work, but the ownership had changed, and the culture was starting to shift. I started spending more time managing than tech, but I was still happy. I moved our stack of OLD servers to a hyper-converged Storage Spaces Direct cluster, which Microsoft then rebranded “Azure Stack HCI” That went well. In 2019, Dell/EMC did a case study on our deployment of Azure Stack HCI and even did a video interview with me talking about the benefits of Dell and Azure Stack!

Then came COVID-19.

I admit that, at first, I thought that the media was blowing things out of proportion for the impact on the US. That had been the case with SARS and the Bird Flu, but it quickly became apparent I was wrong. Over a week in the spring of 2020, we took a workforce that was 95% in the office to one that was 80% remote. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.

Lucky for us, I had started an initiative to make the company “branch independent.” The idea was that no matter which branch was “down” for whatever reason, the company could keep functioning. We had long had redundant servers in different branches and had started moving servers to a co-located rack in a local data center. That didn’t cover if employees couldn’t come to the office due to weather, or power issues, or in this case, pandemic. Honestly, I was planning for hurricanes and building fires, not pandemics, but it worked out well.

We had just started a rollout of RingCentral’s cloud-based PBX, so with some accelerated training and some long nights, the company was no longer tied to phone servers or phone lines, for that matter. The problem was we didn’t have enough laptops to go around, and we had to send desktops home with people and help them set them up via phone call and Facetime. This is where a good relationship with Dell paid off. We were able to get a bunch of laptops to enable our people to work not just from home but from anywhere with an internet connection! A real hero moment for our IT team. No lost work, no security issues, all formulated and executed in a matter of 2-3 weeks.

Unfortunately, that was the last big hurrah, it turns out. Technology growth in the company slowed to a crawl and then stopped. Ask three people why and you’ll get three different answers. The bottom line was that I had gotten the company to a level of technology where the execs were comfortable. The mission was to keep the lights on and cut costs every year rather than innovate and improve. I took the opportunity to use some vacation time to make some motorcycle trips and think about the future. I realized the 29-year relationship between me and STC had withered beyond repair.

I opened up my LinkedIn profile to be “Open to a conversation” with recruiters and had several nibbles over the next few months. Then in November, I got the call that changed it all. A phone interview and a face-to-face interview later, I had an offer letter in my hands! And what an offer! A much larger company, a larger team, a larger paycheck, and opportunities to grow.

While I was going through my interview process, I was worried about leaving Bradley in a bad spot. I was planning on spending my last weeks trimming and automating as much as possible so he would have an easier time handling the IT Operations alone until the company could hire a new junior help desk person. Plot twist – Bradley had been finalizing a new job as well!

So on Friday, December 3rd, I met with the COO and handed him both letters of resignation. Two weeks later, Bradley gave me a bottle of whiskey as thanks for a leg up in his career, much as I had given that bottle to Don a few years back. I cracked it open, and we shared a small taste before I left for the last time.

Before we left, Bradley and I worked hard to smooth the transition to an outsourced IT service provider. I still have the company laptop and a consulting contract if they need my help, but I doubt they will. The new service company was pretty impressed with the work that Bradley and I had done for just being the two of us for the last several years. We cleaned up pretty well before we turned in our keys.

How long was I at Swiff-Train? 10,802 days. 771 paychecks. A lifetime? No, only half of one (I hope). It’s not the end of a career; it’s the end of a job.

Today I’m starting a new job at a new company—a new job with new challenges and rewards.

The difference between a job and a career? Ownership.

 

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