As time has passed, I occasionally reflect on choices I’ve made in my life. Would that narrative be useful to someone in today’s world contemplating their own future? Let me set the context…
I was born on Guam, the furthest western US territory in the Pacific. It was 1960, the island had one television station, KUAM. Broadcasts started in the afternoon and ended about 8PM. There were no personal electronics, the Internet and mobile phone was still decades away, and traditional neighborhoods where kids could come out and play didn’t exist. I lived with my parents and grandparents on a piece of land that has been passed from generation to generation, and large enough to accommodate three small homes. The surrounding area was jungle, ready to be explored by an energetic boy. I was the first of 5 sons, and the genetic roulette never did afford my parents with at least one daughter. There is nearly a 5-year gap between each sibling. Life on Guam, circa 1960s and 1970s, centered on the family unit, the village you grew up in, and the local Catholic church. After high school, you either joined the military, or if your grades were good enough, you go to the US mainland for college.
My Dad got his GED, joined the Navy, saw the world, and came back to Guam to work for Continental Airlines. My Mom was one of the first women to leave Guam after WWII, and attended Bowling Green State University in Ohio. She graduated with degrees in English and Biology. My maternal grandparents spoke poor English, and conversed with me in both English and Chamorro, the native language of Guam.
As first born, the expectation to achieve was very high. Achievement means being the best at whatever you decided to do with yourself. That my Mom was a teacher and my extended family valued an education they never received, I was strongly encouraged to pursue the college route. Education was a way to create options in your life. Alas, I was not a natural born student. Being more inclined to rough activities, school was a hard slog for me. I finished high school with a “C” average and considered the US Navy, or one of 3 colleges in Colorado. I needed and wanted to create as much distance between myself and the tiny island that I called home. Whichever came first, an enlistment cycle, or acceptance to a college, would drive my decision.
Stranger in a Strange Land
I landed at Stapleton International Airport in Denver in June 1977. I had about $800 in my pocket and a girlfriend, later wife #1. Job one was to find a place to live, and work to keep myself fed. School tuition was not something I had planned for. My average grades got me into the Community College of Denver, Metropolitan State College, and a stretch opportunity at the University of Colorado - Denver. Tuition in those days was about $1,200 for 12 credit hours, and just over 120 hours to earn an Engineering degree. Coming from a family that did not plan on college tuition, my first big lesson in life was how badly did I want that degree and how would I pay for it?
As a native of Guam, I was eligible to apply for a Government of Guam Professional-Technical scholarship. The interest rate was about 2% per annum. Upon graduation, you could “work off” the loan by coming back to the island and putting your newly minted degree to use. That required being on the island another 6+ years to pay off the loan. I took the loan but paid it back two years later as I did not want to be held hostage to the island any more than necessary.
My undergraduate years weren’t awesome. No parties, no drinking, no Spring Break in Palm Springs, just graveyard shifts at my job, college classes in the morning, sleep from 2 - 9PM, and the graveyard shift at Schlumberger. Weekend jobs at REI paid for my climbing and camping gear addiction and provided just enough spending money for the occasional meal out at Chili’s. In 1982, I was laid off from Schlumberger. The oil crisis hit Denver and the petroleum industry was imploding. With my main source of income gone, desperation came quickly. I had 2 semesters to graduation and no savings, I dropped out of school, and I got divorced. Shit sometimes rains in abundance but you have to keep going.
Even a Blind Squirrel…
My favorite show as a kid was Star Trek. The lights and sounds of the “computer” captured my imagination. A high school class in FORTRAN77 made sense to me. As a log data technician at Schlumberger, I received on-the-job training in computer operations and assembler programming. I had good managers that made time to answer my incessant questions, we did not have mentors back then.
I was starting to regret not finishing that engineering degree, and my Mom didn’t let me forget what a poor example I was setting for my younger brothers. In the desperation of being unemployed, I leapt blindly and started a software training business on the same system I had learned on, the Digital Equipment DEC 10 and DEC 20. I didn’t know squat about starting a business. I was 22 years old and needed to pay my rent, eat, and have a little play money.
I maxed out my credit cards – all 8 of them, to make ends meet. For 4 months, I called on potential customers, and practically gave away training classes for the Digital mainframe and VAX mini-system. I had developed a training curriculum for 3 subjects, command line programming, system performance tuning, and computer operations. Between cash advances for rent, charges for an early Macintosh computer, and printing of course material, the next 9 years became a blur.
Twists & Turns
Through this timeline, I married again, took on a technical partner, grew the business, paid off the credit cards, sold the company for a tidy profit, and got divorced, again. There is a pattern here and I needed some time to contemplate all those suboptimal decisions and figure out my flat spots:
Undergraduate degree not completed | 2 ex-wives | unpleasant business split | family thousands of miles away | 32 years old | next chapter… life is certainly not a straight line.
In this swirling ambiguity, I thought it’s time to finish those last 2 semesters and get that engineering degree. A quick re-orientation back on campus told me this was not the best idea. My passion for engineering had changed, and my calling was to a life as an entrepreneur, so let’s make a deal.
It’s summer 1992 and entrepreneurship is taking hold in campuses around the US. I was an entrepreneur with a track record and a bank account that was flush from the sale of my company. Letters were written and sent to Pepperdine, Stanford, University of Denver (DU), and Wharton. The deal was simple – no undergraduate degree, out of school a decade – GMAT was out of the question for now, but cash was not a problem. I offered to pay for the MBA up front and in full. If I could not maintain a B average, kick me out and keep the money, if I couldn’t score an acceptable GMAT post curriculum, keep the diploma - I got takers. DU was not far from my house and for the next 2 years, I took school in a deadly serious fashion.
Mom came out from Guam to make sure I wasn’t bullshitting her. I actually had a graduation ceremony to get my MBA. It isn’t my recommended way to go through higher education, but a good deal can always be crafted to benefit both parties. I am eternally grateful to those administrators that took my offer seriously.
I started many more companies. Some failed. Some went public. Some were acquired by larger corporations. I found out I’m pretty good at turnarounds to fix a struggling business and getting good outcomes for the stakeholders. I did some private contracting to give back to the country – Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, and places of that ilk are all interesting in their own way, especially in times of war. Living in Hong Kong, Australia, South Africa, Western Europe, and the Middle East has broadened my horizon, humbles me, and makes me grateful for all that I have. As a finishing school, I wouldn’t change anything I’ve done, I am fortunate.
If you’re still reading this, college is still an option not to be dismissed out of hand. Friendships form, memories are created, and individual transformation happens. Hard work of any kind is guaranteed to do this. Software engineering is my choice, and it evolved into fantastic opportunities that came my way.
If it hadn’t been software, I had contemplated the armed forces, or enrolling into a trade school and fully immersing myself into welding or diesel mechanics.
The world has shrunk and often times, a professional certificate is more than enough to get gainful employment in a wide variety of careers and locations. Also, the self-taught candidate exhibits a sense of direction and drive that are highly valued in today’s world. Hands-on qualities stand out among a sea of young professionals with similar backgrounds and little real-world experience.
The only easy day is yesterday
Courtesy of Naval Special Warfare Command… There were days I thought to quit. The pressure was immense, the walls were closing in, my anxiety was through the roof, yet, it was never an option, but damn was it tempting. Getting through each hard day or situation just made looking back at the event seem so trivial. Stick it out and work harder every day. Today’s pain is tomorrow’s memory. I can assure you, the rewards are worth it.