In January 1993, I was 24 years old, ten months into my marriage and four months away from fatherhood. My history degree collected dust while I spent my days as an administrative assistant, typing and filing for a staff of architects and engineers only a few years older than me; my wife was still in college during the day and waited tables by night. Beth and I lived in a one-bedroom apartment in northeast Philadelphia, around the corner from her parents, and their standing dinner and laundry invitations made it possible for us to just get by. At least when it was just the two of us.
With a baby on the way, I knew I had to find a way to earn a decent living so we could stand on our own, but three years post-college I still didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grew up. And I was about to become as grown-up as one gets.
I surveyed my skills: I was a pretty good writer and had dreams of becoming a journalist or author one day, but neither path was going to provide me the financial support I needed right then. I was good with computers, too, having spent the better part of my adolescence in front of a VIC-20, Commodore 64, Apple II, and Macintosh, but my coding skills stopped with Apple Pascal and 6502 assembly language, neither of which were currently in demand. All that time in front of computers turned me into a pretty darn fast typist, though, so inevitably I kept coming back to secretarial and clerical jobs where my ability to quickly pick up new versions of WordPerfect made me a pretty easy (if overqualified) hire.
The company I worked for upgraded their software regularly but never trained their staff on the new versions, so I occasionally held lunchtime training sessions to teach my secretarial colleagues how to improve their productivity, and after one of those sessions a friend suggested that I look into doing that for a living. Until that moment, I don’t think I even knew there was such a thing as technical training—I thought that teaching computers required advanced college degrees and a post at a university. But it turned out that a company just a few blocks away from where I worked was delivering software application training and was looking for part-time instructors, and after an interview and audition, I was hired to deliver some evening classes on WordPerfect and Paradox.
The extra money made a big difference, and when a full-time position opened up in March, I made the move. A few weeks into my new job, my manager informed me that our company had just signed an agreement with Microsoft to become one of their first official training partners and that she needed me to fly to Seattle to take a class and get certified so that I could teach the Microsoft courses.
I wasn’t crazy about the idea for a number of reasons: 1) my daughter was due a few weeks before the class was scheduled, and I didn’t like the idea of being so far away from my new family; 2) the class was about something called Windows NT, and I did not like Windows (I was strictly a DOS snob, GUIs were for wimps who couldn’t deal with command lines); and 3) the prospect of having to pass certification exams was pretty scary: what if I failed and my company had to fire me? But I went, despite my qualms, and after attending the class and passing my first two MCP exams, I joined the MCP and MCT communities.
At the time, the trainers at that class pretty much were the MCT community—we were only the second group of trainers Microsoft had certified, and the Excel spreadsheet in the classroom identified me as MCT #17 (today we have more than 18,000). MCPs, by contrast, had been around for a while—more than 5,000 preceded me---but at the time I couldn’t have predicted what both certifications would come to mean to me.
All I knew for the next year or two was that my certifications made me very important at my company, and as demand for Windows NT accelerated, I found myself teaching week in and week out, spending my evenings and weekends studying updates and trying to figure out how to get answers for questions not answered in the courseware. At some point, I stumbled upon a Microsoft Certification forum on CompuServe, which at the time was the dominant on-line network, and I discovered a small but active community of people that shared my interests and my challenges. Now able to bounce ideas and questions off of my peers, my training delivery grew noticeably stronger and more confident.
I discovered that I loved training (and grudgingly respected Windows)—even though those early classes typically consisted of grizzled UNIX sysadmins and Novell engineers who more often than not resented their employers’ decisions to migrate to (actually at the time, it was more like interoperate with) Windows NT. I was much younger than most of my students, and my job satisfaction largely derived from reluctant concessions from students that Windows NT was a pretty good network OS.
But gradually, a new dynamic introduced itself in my classrooms: I still had plenty of private corporate classes, but more and more of my classes consisted of career changers as word began to spread that the IT industry was growing faster than the IT community could keep up with. Every week, a new class brought new success stories, and helping people find their on-ramp to an exciting career and a better life became a drug that I’ve never lost my addiction to.
I became one of those stories myself, capitalizing on my early right-place/right-time luck by investing in myself at every opportunity: I deepened and diversified my MCP certifications, attended every class I could afford, gave back to the MCT community (by this point on the original MSN network), and took gigs writing and reviewing Microsoft courseware.
By this time, I was making pretty good money as a consultant and trainer, and I was able to move my family to the Pacific Northwest, an area of the country we’d fallen in love with when we first visited on our honeymoon. I was 27, enjoying a standard of living I’d never thought possible growing up in inner-city Philadelphia, and was absolutely in love with my job. It was pure joy and profoundly rewarding in every way—and I realized for the first time that my calling in life was to help people realize their potential.
And that’s what I did, week after week, balancing my classroom engagements with my writing assignments for Microsoft. At least once a year I’d get a job offer from Microsoft, but I could never envision giving up show business—I couldn’t imagine Microsoft offering anything as exhilarating as the high I got from switching on the light bulbs above my students heads. But in 1997, my soon-to-be manager figured out the words to reel me in, and I remember them better than any other words ever spoken to me by anyone. When I politely declined Microsoft’s third job offer, he said “You’ll never help as many people spending your entire career in the classroom as you’ll be able to in one year at Microsoft. When you help our trainers, you’re helping their students, too.”
I became a Microsoft employee the very next week.
In the 13+ years since, I’ve held nine different jobs, none of which ever again approached the sheer fun factor of being a trainer or provided the visceral affirmation of students discovering their potential, but I learned to replace those things with the satisfaction that I was helping entire communities of trainers, IT Pros, and developers have a much greater collective impact than I was ever able to do on my own. In those 13+ years, I never left the Microsoft Learning group, even though I know my career trajectory would have probably been much steeper if I had.
I promised myself that I would stay as long as it took to pay forward the debt of gratitude I still feel today for the opportunity that’s been afforded to me.
I promised I would stay as long as IT remained an on-ramp for anyone looking for a challenging and rewarding career, and as long as I could keeping finding new ways to help people take that on-ramp.
That’s why I’m here, and I’m not alone—I know more people at Microsoft with stories like mine than I can count. I’m not here to change the world (I leave that to my more technical colleagues)—I’m here to enable you to change your world.
That’s why I’m so excited about our upcoming Microsoft Certified Career Conference, and why I’m so proud to work for a company that cares as much about your long-term career success as it does about mine.
Looking back to that mid-nineties recession, I can’t imagine what would have happened to that scared, directionless, newlywed father-to-be if he hadn’t pursued that first Microsoft certification. But every morning, I wake up thinking about him, and every morning as I kiss my girls goodbye, I thank him for taking that first step.
That’s my story.
Thanks for sharing your story. I really enjoyed from it. I'm also looking forward to be a trainer.
Inspiring story. I'm staring in my early years. I am only 24 yrs old and into my 3rd year as a systems administrator working with Windows. I hope to have a long career as you :)
thanks you encouraged me am a to be trainer hoping to be a MCT some day..