The best career advice my father ever gave

For Father’s Day 2009, I’d like to take you back to 1984 and how
I learned a valuable lesson in life and work from my father.

I still had shooting pain in my groin when my Dad walked in for
lunch.

It was my third day working at the McDonald’s in Durango, Colorado
back in 1985. I was 17, going into college, and had just started
my first job in the real world. I’d been trained for about two
minutes total. “Here’s how you make hotcakes,” Vic showed me, and
I’d make hotcakes all morning. Then at 11:00 when lunch rush
started, I was moved to the lobby to mop and clean tables. I didn’t
even need training on that.

My most important training was the harshest kind, that mop wringers
can be dangerous. I’d put my mop in the wringer, leaned over the
bucket and pushed down hard on the handle. My wet hand slid off
the spring-loaded handle, leaving it to arc up and whack me right
where it counted.

I was not having a good day.

A few minutes later, my father walked in for lunch. After a while
my mopping duties took me past his table. “How’s it going?” he
asked me.

My frustration came out. All the barked orders, being treated like
a peon, my scratchy polyester uniform, and to top it off I just got
cracked in the family jewels because the wringer handle was wet!
It was just too much!

I looked at him, tears welling in my eyes, and as emphatically and
dramatically as I could, I sniffled “They don’t pay me enough to
take this shit!”

Dad chuckled. “Yes, they do,” he said, “they’re paying you minimum
wage.”

It wasn’t I wanted to hear. He might have said something else more
concillatory and sympathetic. But later that day, as I slopped
away with that mop, I thought about what he’d said. He was right.
It was silly of me to think that I would have a life of luxury,
only doing fun tasks, on my third day of work at a fast food joint.

It’s like that in the technical fields, in our cushy white-collar
worlds. The first year I was a professional programmer, I spent
hours separating the carbon paper and tractor feeds from thousand-page
reports on 5-part fanfold paper. It wasn’t programming, but it was
part of the job. As I got better as a programmer, my value as a
programmer increased, and my boss assigned me report duty less and
less.

I never thought that it was beneath me, either. I knew that different
jobs had to be done, and that’s part of working on a team. My
patience and learning paid off down the road.

Lessons for the working geek

  • Everybody has to start somewhere, but it’s never at the top.

  • No task at your job is beneath you. If you have to string cable, you string cable.

  • Wisdom can come from anywhere. Sometimes that might even be a parent or boss, surprising as that may sound.

  • Stand on the side of the bucket opposite the wringer.

What low points did you have at the start of your geek career? What
important work life lessons has your father taught you? Post them
in comments below.

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One Response to “The best career advice my father ever gave”

  1. Andrew Sterling Hanekamp Says:

    I’m reminded of some of the comments given on your recent post about learning Microsoft technologies (Do I need to learn Microsoft technologies?). This is a perfect complimentary lesson to that post. Working toward the job you love and coping with the parts of your current job you dislike are two different things. Sometimes you do what you don’t want to figure out what you do want or even to get to the point where you can do what want.
    My first post-degree job was doing SysAdmin work for the university I graduated from. I liked playing with the toys, but I never really felt serious about it. And I really resented putting out fires all the time. No matter how much prevention a SysAdmin performs, he will still spend a good deal of time putting out fires. I know because I tried to do a lot of prevention (though, looking back a little more process and a little less tech might have been better strategy). In any case, it’s part of the job. I decided that being a SysAdmin was a better hobby than a job for me, so I looked for something else.
    My next job was software development in Java. I hated Java, but I love the town I live in and knew a guy and figured at a small company as the only developer I could pull them toward Perl projects (in fact, they’d done some in the past already). I succeeded to some extent and learned a whole lot at that job about myself, about software development, and about how small corporate culture functions (which isn’t quite the same as the state institution I’d been used to). When management and I no longer saw eye to eye on where the company was going and my role within it, I moved on to my latest employ.
    I’m now doing Perl full-time and I enjoy a great deal about what I do. The company I work for now is bigger than I necessarily would find ideal, but I get to work from home and use a skill set I’ve been developing and enjoy. This isn’t quite my dream job yet, but it’s a little closer. I still do a lot of code cranking without as much input into design and architecture as I’d like, but I’ve had the opportunity to do that on a couple projects to limited extent. So, sometimes I’m a little bored, but there’s potential for moving up as I gain experience and I’m pleased with the compensation in the meantime.
    Maybe after a few more years this will be my dream job, or perhaps I’ll be looking for something that’s a little better fit down the road. We’ll see. I am where I am for the time being. My guess is that I’ll never be truly content, regardless with what I do, but the pursuit of this future dream job pays the bills and is good enough for the time being.
    Keep up the good work, Andy.

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