Why I Can Give Back – More Help Along the Way that Made Me Successful
For the second 20 years of my life, I paused the hope phase and began the execution phase. I realized coming into this block that I wanted to be married with kids, have a good programming job and start my foray into the business world. It wasn’t easy to execute on any of those three things. In fact, at 20 years old, I was a college drop out with no girlfriend (much less a person to marry and have kids with), no job at all (much less one dealing with programming software) and starting a business seemed like the furthest thing from my mind. I don’t remember feeling hopeless or helpless though. I knew that I was going to have to start at the bottom and work my way up. I just knew in my heart that there would be people along the way to help me. That just seemed logical to me since there were people the first 20 years, so I decided to get started as soon as possible.
I had no idea what to do for work, so I started working through temp agencies at my dad’s recommendation (I think). My trick to getting work was to just show up at one of the temp offices and wait in the lobby. I didn’t drive so once I took the train and subway to downtown Los Angeles, I couldn’t leave. If I did, there’d be no way to be back in time for a same day job. So by waiting, I always got first dibs on new orders. Some days, I’d get work within minutes of arriving, while other days passed by with no work at all. (Mind you, there was no mobile phone to pass the time with either! LOL) Frank Thomas was the agency I preferred to hang out at and Frank was a great guy. He smoked out of his downtown LA office window (one of the few highrise buildings that had windows to open) and would give me any job type that came through. Sure he was out to make a buck, but he had faith I could do it too. After several months, one temp gig through him turned into my first full time job.
This full time job was significant for many reasons. Frank gave me the job after asking, “Tom, you know accounting?” And I answered with, “It’s just adding and subtracting dollars, right?” I started working at Right Connections with a guy named Joe Leone. He realized that I didn’t know anything about accounting, but he trained me nonetheless. I took the initiative after a couple of years to completely automate their invoicing system. No one asked me to, I just couldn’t stand handling the triplicate paper they used to type up invoices. This self-starter mentality worked out good, because the biggest client (Disney) decreed 3 months later that everyone had 3 weeks to become computerized or they’d stop being used as a vendor. The reason was that American Express would be taking over paying Disney’s bills and we’d need to submit invoices to Disney electronically via a new piece of software made by American Express.
In addition to creating and perfecting a system for work, I also helped Disney and American Express perfect their application. Amex called one day and asked for feedback. I replied with, “How much time do you have?” The voice said, “As much as you want. I’m the product owner here at American Express and your our heaviest user.” I basically became the User Experience person on their project, directing how things should look and feel for optimal use. Jim McGee at Disney and Scott Baxter of American Express both put a lot of faith into someone just turned 21. Both were great at their jobs and both went on to do greater things. (Scott even said once, “If you come to New York, you have a job with American Express.” I would later fall in love with New York, but was too scared of the unknown at the time to make the move. I’m an idiot! LOL)
From this FT job making $8.15 per hour, I learned how to work with 2 huge enterprise companies, design 2 separate yet cooperative systems, interacted with and tamed tough programmers (at Amex) and effectively user tested both apps. All without the internet! LOL Yeah, sure, I was underpaid at the time, but I didn’t know any better. I was living with my Aunt Susie and Uncle Rick, riding a direct 90 minute bus ride from Florence, CA through South Central LA to eventually Beverly Hills. I was loving the fact that I was working and learning. Sidenote: The stories of those bus rides need to be told someday. Unbelievable things went down on those bus rides.
I moved away back north to Tacoma, WA after a few years to party with my college friends their senior year. I took on a temp job figuring out the errors in a manually kept inventory system that was flawed. Again, I got paid pennies and saved the Bon Marche a ton of money. I still didn’t care because my manager was Debbie Neely, one of the sweetest, nicest managers I ever had in my life. Sunny days are rare in Seattle, so when they occurred I would just take them off and enjoy being outside with friends or alone. She could’ve easily fired me for doing that. Had she, it probably would’ve changed my perspective on life and started bending my will to the corporate ways. But because she didn’t, I never did bend my will and still to this day take beautiful days off to play with my kids or hang out by myself exploring. Debbie is one of the few influential people I had in my life that I never lost contact with. She and I are still great friends to this day, 20 years after I worked for her.
When I went back home to Southern California for Christmas of ’97, Disney had some changes to be made to the system I built. I went back to help. The Disney employee was a new face and asked, “Do you work here?” I said, “Oh, I used to, but now I’m just helping to make the changes you want.” He asked, “How much do they pay you?” I replied proudly in my best Big Man on Campus voice, “$8.15 per hour.” (Hey, it was like 3 bucks above minimum wage, I thought I was doing great for being a college dropout!) He replied with “What you’re doing is called consulting and if you take anything less than $45 per hour, you’re stupid,” then turned and walked away. I realized this was not a point of discussion, but rather a statement of fact. I don’t remember his name sadly as I only met him once, but this person changed my life forever. He didn’t have to do that. He could’ve just did his job and not inquiry about me. But he did ask and he made sure I knew this was not the way things were supposed to be. Therefore, from that day forward, I was a consultant. I renegotiated my rate and contract for the work Disney wanted and got paid $14,000 for 10 weeks of work vs the $3,260 I thought I was going to get.
My second big consulting gig was for Bank of America. I worked next to another great manager, Joy Nakamura, who taught me that if you take care of people that will earn their respect. Part of taking care of them is feeding them and feeding them well. She would tell me, “I don’t even like half the stuff I make for them, but they love it so I do it for them.” I built an app for BofA that eventually saved the entire 35 person division from being shut down. Not bad for my second project where I was designer, UI, backend and QA. 🙂
In this same 20 year block, I went to Europe twice (once by myself and once with my folks). I had my longest FT job at Ameriquest Mortgage where I made great friends like John Wilker, Anthony Tanaka, Citlali Naranjo, Marc Bir and others while we all helped build tools to support the subprime mortgage products that single handidly brought down the world economy in 2008. Not a highlight as far as what I did, but a highlight in regards to the life long friends and future business partners I met!
I moved to Silicon Valley (something I thought would never happen) to work for eBay. While fun, the biggest thing I learned at eBay was that I could help people in Silicon Valley grow. I started a user group and had tremendous effect on people’s lives. It was empowering that a simple meeting held once a month could impact people’s lives in such a great way.
My second job in the Valley was at the startup Workday. I’d like to say I hung out a lot with Dave Duffield, but I didn’t really get that chance. Part of it was because my heart wasn’t entirely into the business. Why not? Well, because I learned that I’m not a follower and don’t work well as a powerless cog in a system. I came to this revelation because a side business I had started blossoming during this time.
My side business was a partnership with John Wilker, my first and only partnership. We created and hosted conferences. (Where one of our first attendees (Rance Patterson) and first sponsors (Abbi Vakil) became lifelong friends and business associates.) I learned the beneficial power of having a business partner. Many people don’t like the idea of having to share power. And to be honest, John and I did bicker a lot about direction and focus, but more importantly we were there to support one another. I remember being so down as we were preparing for our 3rd show that I was ready to quit. John went to the restroom and then came back to shake me up. “We can do this! We will not fail. We just have to think up a solution and I know we can, but only if you stop thinking so negatively.” He was right and we did think up something and the company didn’t die. I sold out to him years later and he’s been running with it, making it better and more succesful ever since.
After that, I really began to focus on my consulting business. We moved to Queen Creek, AZ to be near my wife’s family again (they had moved east from Southern California during our trek to Silicon Valley). It was tough at first for me and my wife because money was tight; however, the kids were none the wiser and loved being with all the many extended family members that lived in da Creek.
At the tail end of this block of 20 years, I decided to use hackathons as a way to market my consulting company (which now loosely comprised of Anthony, Rance and my bro-in-law, Chris Eggleston). As a team, we’ve won 4 hackathons. The first two of them never amounted to much work, which is a shame because they were great apps. The other 2 have worked out better. One worked as planned, which was never to win the hackathon but to get to know the corporate teams that hosted them to hopefully generate paying work. It did via Jim Cole. Jim is the coolest CIO in the world. I have been truly blessed to be work with him and wonderful team at Arvest Bank on a great project.
The fourth hackathon was for Access to Justice in New Orleans. This was the first non-corporate sponsored hackathon we attended. We did so because we wanted to make a difference in the world, no matter how small or big. We won and got invited to a prestigious law summit. (Read this for more details of the summit.) There I met the smart and dedicated Tiffany Graves from the Mississippi Access to Justice Commission. We talked about the app I built for the law hackathon and spoke about maybe doing an app to help the people of Mississippi. Come to find out, she never thought I’d actually show up and execute on the things we talked about. It took a year, but I finally got out there.
Another major thing happened towards the end of this block. I went to Hong Kong for an academic tech conference. It was my first trip east of Europe and West of Hawaii. I was blown away. Never have I immediately felt a sense of belonging as I did there. So much so, that I decided right then that when my business expands, the area I will expand to first outside the US will be in Hong Kong. But while I was there, I was informed that programmers were looked down upon. That seemed so odd to me and so wrong. With the infrastructure and population density, I felt in my heart that Hong Kong was ripe to become an amazing center of software innovation. I still feel that way, a year and a half after my visit.
All of these random events propelled me to bigger and greater things. I rode the dot com wave and left before it crashed. I rode the mortage wave and left before it crashed. I jumped on board the hackathon wave and have turned it into a marketing tool for work. All of that was mostly by accident, but introduced me to so many great and influential people in my life.
I also learned a big and important thing during this block of 20 years: I don’t have to tackle things alone. My first toe dip in a meaningful product driven business was via a partnership. My hackathon wins were the product of us as a team working together vs just me working it alone. I learned that software could make a difference in people’s lives, but only if I was informed about the problems that needed to be solved. I realized that there are people in Silicon Valley that need help becoming the success stories we all read about. My eyes were opened to plight of the poor and under represented in this country of ours. And lastly, there’s a place on the other side of the planet that I feel I belong to just as strongly as I do here. That all prepped me for the next phase of my life: giving back.
Note: This is one part of a 3 post series.