As a kid, nothing captured my imagination more than space travel. The idea of exploring new worlds was intoxication and I geeked out on everything spacey.
Star Trek. Star Wars. Stargate. Any story that hinged on some kind of hero, using some mode of interstellar travel to explore the universe.
Ultimately, this led me to a focus on science in high school. I took advanced placement courses, then switched to a more-intensive international baccalaureate program in physics.
I studied astrophysics, quantum mechanics, electrodynamics. Anything I could find with a cool-sounding name attracted my attention and interest. It wasn’t long until I was enrolled in the physics program at the University of Oregon, double majoring in math to back up my studies in probability-based physics.
A Fork in the Road
My original plan was to work in the space program. My high school science teacher talked often about her days at NASA, and I wanted to be involved on that level, too. Sadly, the space program hasn’t been active for … most of my life, so I turned my interest instead to exciting the next generation of space aficionados.
I decided to be a teacher.
I practiced by tutoring my friends on everything from kinematics to chemistry. It was fun, I learned a lot at the same time, and it seemed particularly applicable to my future goals as a teacher.
Except tutoring your peers doesn’t count as teaching experience. So I decided to pivot into experimental/theoretical physics instead. Eventually earning a doctorate would allow me to teach on the college level someday – my grades were good enough, and I was on track for a promising grad school appointment.
Until I argued with a professor.
A series of retaliatory Ds on my transcript cost me my chance at a Ph.D. 1
I had to change directions – fast. As potential jobs dried up, I was left with one opportunity: tack an extra year on to my studies to work as an Assistant Complex Director in the Residence Halls.
A Fourth Year
Graduating with a double major in just three years was a point of pride for me, so when I point out that I did go to college for four full years people scratch their heads. The job I secured after I graduated the first time required I be a full-time student.
So I enrolled as a post-baccalaureate undergraduate and took a fourth year of college. I also worked hard to determine if there were any major programs I could complete in a year.
Just one: political science.
I still helped tutor students in math, chemistry, and physics, but I was now spending my days studying politics. Game theory, political economics, opinion polling. The “science” in political science was very accurate, and I was lucky to pull over some of my knowledge of basic number theory into the social sciences classroom.
I also had to write a lot more often.
Part of cramming an entire academic major into one year means you have to take several (sometimes 5 at a time) 400/500-level classes concurrently. These classes aren’t designed to be done in parallel, so I was often writing a 4-5k word essay every night to stay on track with assignments.
The best thing about this program – it taught me how little I cared about the hard sciences behind my studies and how much I cared about the stories these sciences told.
I loved physics because of the stories it told about the physical world around us. I loved math because of the stories it told how that physical world worked. I loved political science because of the stories it told about the people who lived in that world.
Finally, Graduate School
I finished my second bachelor’s degree in a year, and was able to leverage my higher GPA to get into a masters’ program at Portland State. I was so engrossed with the international components of my political science degree that I signed up for a program in International Management.
During the earliest days, we were encouraged to choose from three specialties: finance, supply chain management and logistics, and global marketing. I’d already done my stint with numbers, logistics interests and bores me at the same time, but I love telling stories. Global marketing was a no-brainer for me.
My year in graduate school consisted of more rigorous lectures, 2, an intensive language course, and a 3-week trip to Japan and China to meet with businesspeople on the ground.
Our professors consisted of experts from around the state – including executives from local multinational corporations and a couple of retired diplomats. My exit project (“thesis”) was a marketing study for a major sports manufacturer in the area trying to increase their share of the Japanese market. I had the opportunity not only to interview their local management team but also spend time interviewing customers, partners, and regional managers in Tokyo before making a presentation.
I love marketing because of the stories it tells about products, the people who make them, and the people whose lives they impact.
The consequence of cramming 3 separate degree programs into the same 4-year period: I finished school with my master’s degree very young. More than once, a job interview ended with, “I know I’m not allowed to ask this, but how old are you?”
Since the economy was on the decline, I had to compete with other professionals who had more years in the job market than I had on the planet. One company even had the audacity to offer me $13k per year while requiring me to relocate to Manhattan, explaining, “MBAs are a dime a dozen, if you don’t take it, someone else will, and I’ll hire you a year from now for even less.”
My prospects weren’t too good, so I took the first job I could: with a tech startup.
A few months into the job, I had to shift from a focus on market research and corporate messaging (storytelling) to building and maintaining the company’s website. I knew very little about web development at the time: the majority of my code was copy-pasted from tutorials, manuals I found online, and examples from the YUI developer handbook.
When that job didn’t pan out, though, I was able to use my work there as a portfolio piece to get me in the door with a new employer. In turn, my work there led me to an even better job; one that encouraged giving back to the open source community.
Finally, my work in open source led me to 10up, where I’m happily working on some stellar projects with an incredible team. I get to work on open source daily, I have the continuing opportunity to teach and speak about my work, and best of all I get to keep telling stories.
When people ask how I got started in web development – or how I got to where I am now – I tell them. I also tell them that I took a fairly non-standard route to make it to where I am today.
I’m not proud of every step I’ve taken, but I am proud of where those steps – even the misplaced ones – have led me.
I get to keep telling stories for my customers, and I get to keep writing my own as I go.
What does the path to your present look like? What is your story?
- I was told at the time the only ways I could fix my transcript problem were to: ask the professor to change his mind (he kicked me out of his office when I asked) or to re-take the same courses from a different instructor. ↩
- Our weekday lecture blocks were 4.5 hours long. Saturdays were 8.5 hours of lecture. After four years of 50-minute courses, taking notes for several hours at a time was agonizing. ↩