Got interested in electronics around 5th or 6th grade. While in high school took a FORTRAN course that was offered by a local university (open to the public, so I could take it even though I was in high school). Landed a part-time job at one of the first computer stores in the Chicago area, circa 1978. Built my own computer... back then this meant actually using a soldering iron to assemble the boards yourself from kits. Taught myself BASIC and 8080 assembly language.
Went to college, majored in CS. Got good grades in the CS courses, mediocre grades in pretty much everything else (just couldn't bring myself to give a crap about a lot of the other coursework). Used the PC I built in high school to avoid standing in line waiting to use the keypunches -- typed up the programs locally, uploaded them to the university's mainframe over a flaky 300 bps acoustic modem someone had given me, and had the mainframe punch the cards for me.
I'd originally wanted to write video games, but the video game industry fell into a slump. I'd worked a couple of summers while in college at a company that did typesetting software, and planned to take a full-time position with them after graduation; but the company tanked, putting an end to that plan as well. Ended up working at a company that did 9-1-1 dispatching systems; that job lasted about a year and a half. In the nearly quarter of a century since then I've held positions as a software developer at a number of places in the telecom, government, financial, and defense sectors. About 10 years of that was as an independent consultant.
The stuff I've worked on has ranged from the mundane (financial databases, medical records transcription systems) to quite interesting (high performance computing research, head-mounted displays). The places I've worked for have ranged from tiny start-ups to multinational corporations, with a 5 year stint working for the US Department of Energy thrown in for good measure. The pay has generally been good; there were a couple of lean years as an independent consultant but that has been the exception not the rule.
On the whole, I'd say I've enjoyed what I've done for a living so far. There have been ups and downs, but overall more ups.
If I had to give any general advice to someone contemplating a career in the tech/IT field, I guess I'd say the following:
- Be flexible; don't allow yourself to become pigeonholed. A specialist may be able to make a killing if they happen to get lucky and pick the right thing at the right time to specialize in, but a generalist will almost always be able to find work.
pass up an opportunity to pick up new skills. If your current job doesn't provide these opportunities, pursue them on your own time, and make sure you play up any new skills you've acquired to potential employers.
- Look for ways to turn things that interest you into marketable skills. You're more likely to put in the effort required to be good at something if you find it interesting.
- Start building a network of personal contacts. Changing jobs somewhat frequently at first may help you here, but there's a fine line you don't want to cross -- if you're perceived as a "job hopper", some companies may be less likely to hire you. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, sometimes taking a job at a place that is not in the best shape can help -- as co-workers leave and scatter to the four winds, you implicitly get a network of contacts at other potential employers!
I'm really sorry if that advice seems sort of vague, but it's the best I can come up with looking back at the career path I've taken to date.
Lately I've been feeling restless, kind of like a career midlife crisis. (With a kid in college now, and another one starting in 3 years, I sure can't afford the traditional midlife crisis car anytime soon!) I suppose you could say that the occasional blog posts I've been doing for TR over the past year are part of a broader exploration of what might be next for me. Launching a web site of some sort... or getting back into the independent consulting game when the economy starts to rebound... these are things I'm considering.
Or if someone knows some investors who'd be willing to front the money for me to open my own brewpub, I'd consider that too!