Once I had settled into my life. With a wife, a child, and a house payment added to my list of lifetime accomplishments I had become respectable in the eyes of my family. No longer a miscreant youth, but still needing to be polished into full adulthood. I went to work for my uncle who had a Heating and Cooling company. My mother worked for him, and for the longest time she thought it would be a bad idea for us to work together. Or maybe she simply thought it was a bad idea for me to work for my uncle. My track record wasn’t great and I imagine that she worried for the potential damage that might be caused if things didn’t work out. But I needed a trade. So I went and talked to my uncle. He gave me an opportunity and I stayed with him for nine years.
In those years I learned a lot. I moved up the ladder as my skills improved. As I learned more and more of the trade I became a useful and productive member of the team. I taught the younger guys the basics and helped them along. I taught them the tricks and tips I had picked up, told them how to get along with the senior guys, and made myself available to them in a friendly and open manner. When I worked with the more experienced guys I made a point to learn what they were teaching, I asked questions and listened to the answers, and I deferred to their years of experience. I built bridges and relationships wherever I could.
I don’t know if they liked me, or If they assumed that I would succeed my uncle in the business, but either way I was given the training and the opportunity to carve a spot for myself in the company. I was being groomed for something, but what I was being groomed for really depended on who I worked with. I didn’t see it then, but looking back it is clear.
It was a good trade and I enjoyed it, but those years were hard on my body. It was hard work and I felt it in my back, my knees, and especially in my feet. My doctor said he could keep me going, but talking to him made me realize the real truth of things. I knew I needed to move on or move up. So getting out of the tough physical work of HVAC seemed like the thing to do when a couple of friends called with a new opportunity.
My friends had worked themselves up into management positions at an Internet Service Provider, and they called to say they were hiring and thought my troubleshooting skills would more than compensate for my modest computer and network skills. The work sounded interesting, the pay was great, and I would get to work with my friends. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. But I knew how good I had been treated by my uncle and his people, so I did the right thing. I didn’t want to burn any bridges or leave anyone thinking that I didn’t appreciate all that had been done for me. I made sure the guys I had been training knew how to get a hold of me if they had questions and I thanked the senior guys for everything I’d learned. I gave plenty of notice and continued to give it my all right up until I moved on to a career in IT network support.
While I was at the ISP we were bought and sold three times. Each time becoming a bigger company and taking on more responsibilities. I made friends and developed relationships in this new field and with my new coworkers. I was recommended to a support position by one friend for the skills that I had learned from others. Layoffs came around with each change of ownership and then the company ran into legal problems. Most of us were let go. The layoff wasn’t a surprise, the company’s troubles were on the news every night, and they gave us a full month’s notice beforehand.
I found myself without a job and looking for work. But I was trained at my last job and most of the systems and procedures we had used did not translate directly to new positions. I had no degree. Employers did not want to take a chance on a skill set they couldn’t verify and probably didn’t need. I had my references, but most of them had been cut in the layoffs. Everywhere I went they wanted a bachelor’s degree, I didn’t have one, and there wasn’t a lot I could do to prove my skills to a new employer. Just as my unemployment was running out my phone rang. One of those two friends who had taken a chance on me the first time had kept his job. He was being asked to start a new team and he had thought of me.
I went back to work for the same company, now with a new name, in a new group, and with a new focus. Again I cultivated relationships and learned what I could about the processes, technologies, and procedures. Again, when the opportunity came about, I was promoted to a support role. But it was not to last. More layoffs rolled through and I was out.
I had done my tour in the corporate world of cubicles and I had stayed long enough to know it wasn’t for me. I made a decision not to go back. I had done my time working with tools and done an equal time doing work on a screen. I wanted to combine both, but didn’t see how to make that happen without going back to school. I made the decision to go back to HVAC. It was harder work, but I found it more satisfying and I could not go back to sitting in a cubicle.
Having been out of the field for eight years I felt I needed a refresher to get my skills back up to speed. My uncle’s company had been sold to one of his longtime employees, and I made arrangements to work part time for him while taking an eleven-month certificate course in HVAC. It was the best thing I could have done. Combining the experiences of school and work paid dividends in both. In no time I was able to ramp up to my old skill set, and coupled with the organized class education, I became better than I had been.
At the school I was a superstar. I was the guy who knew it all. The guy who had done it. The guy with the field experience. All the other students had questions, some wanted help, and others just wanted a peak into what their future profession would really be like. I could have simply basked in this attention. I could have ignored them all, imagining that they had nothing to offer me. But instead, I tried to do as much for each of them as I could. I answered questions. I related stories. I made myself approachable. I made friends among my fellow students and my instructors. I cultivated relationships.
So as I walked into the interview with two men I had never met before I was taking advantage of fifteen years of friendships, respect, and hard work. A man I had gone to school with just a month prior thought of me when he saw a job opening and told the two men that I was just what they needed. And while it is a lucky coincidence that my future and former managers would go to the same church the result is rather telling. A man I hadn’t worked with for eight years sang my praises to a fellow congregation member.
The interview was short and I feel like the decision had been made before I arrived. The position was mine to lose. In the end the choice was Detroit, Lansing, or Grand Rapids.
I am where I am today, because there is value in cultivating relationships and working to help others.