Experience… What does that have do with anything?

Experience written on a chalkboard

My career began in television as a graphic artist and 3D animator in 1984 when I was 17 years old. Here I was this bright-eyed Eagle Scout on a career day. I left that day with a job offer. Granted, initially I was hired to clean-up and organize the chaotic art department. But it was a foot in the door that led to the career I have today.

Was I lucky? Absolutely. Thankful for the opportunity? 100%. But what I attribute that job offer was not only my enthusiasm and willingness to do anything, but also my experience. You see, even at 17 years old, I already knew quite a lot about graphic arts and television. I began learning photography when I bought my first camera with money I saved from mowing laws… a lot of lawns. I also volunteered at a local cable tv station where I learned how to run camera, switcher, audio, and other skills on local access programs. Sure they were crappy low-budget programs, but I learned a lot. In high school, I became the school photographer working on the newspaper and annual staff. There I learned how to do paste-up and had my own darkroom where I processed my own black and white film. So by the time Tom Foster, the art director at WMC-TV met that bright-eyed boy scout, I knew as much as most kids in college. Luck and being in the right place at the right time certainly played a huge part in being offered the job. But so did experience.

I spent 8 years in that job and learned a tremendous amount from people who taught me along the way.

When I began my career as a graphic artist, the artwork was real “hard” art. There were no computers to do it. It was literally cut paper on black cards. Print layouts were done with typeset mechanicals that were laid out with an X-Acto knife! Photoshop wasn’t invented yet and the very first computers to do graphics were astronomically expensive and my station got one of the first ones. It was called Artstar and I ate it up. I spent thousands of hours learning everything that machine could do. I was the proverbial kid in a candy shop and that is where I gained my knowledge of computer graphics well before most people in the United States. Schools certainly didn’t teach it yet.

Artstar had a 3D animation program that I ate up. That was the coolest technology I had ever seen. Again, thousands of hours I learned that technology. And when Ardent Studios acquired a Vertigo 3D animation system, guess who they called to run it? Me. It was another level of 3D. It was built on an IRIX operating system. To do things like compositing (rendering one animation atop another) you had to do it with code… C code. Keep in mind, this was before the movie Terminator had been released, which was ground-breaking at the time. Again, there were no schools that had this equipment or taught courses at it. Schools were teaching Cobol. So what did I do? I bought books and taught myself how to write C. That was my foray into the world of software development.

In 1992 I founded the company GrafxLab. I resigned my positions in television and radio because I had a feeling I knew where this industry was going. I sat at my dining room table and wrote a business plan. I poured over it for a month and presented it to a bank looking for a $30,000 loan. I don’t come from money and had nothing to back it other than my experience and that business plan. Believe it or not? I was given the loan from the first bank I approached. And while $30,000 my not seem like a lot of money to many people, for me, at 25 years old, it was a lot and allowed me to start a company.

Over the next five years I worked harder than I ever had. Sixteen hour days (and sometimes more). I built the company to a staff of 12 people. I was responsible for a $50,000 in revenue just to cover our expenses. I didn’t have “angels” or investors. Every single month for five years I did that. Did I make money? No. The title of CEO, at least in my case, meant nothing other than some initials below my name. But I was proud of what I built. What WE, my team and I, accomplished. It wasn’t until I had a major client (my biggest) go bankrupt over night. Without warning and that huge invoice I was left holding was the death of my company. A company that had it been able to survive was one of the oldest, most experienced companies in the IT space by the time the Dot Com bubble hit where everybody was throwing money at anything internet in 1999. But it wasn’t meant for me. Despite having written the first web pages (again, no schools taught it at the time) around 1994 when everybody had AOL and dial-up service, I watched from the sidelines as it passed me by. All I had to show for that hard work and valuable lessons was experience.

Closing GrafxLab was painful but I had to make that call because I could not (or would not) ask my employees to go another pay period without a check even though they were devastated at the closure and said they would wait out the storm with me. I appreciated that loyalty and devotion to something we all built. But that is leadership when you have to make tough decisions no matter how much it hurts. And it did hurt me even to this day.

But that closure led me to becoming a technology consultant, software developer, designer and architect that I am today. Since 1997 I have worked with more than 30 clients on over 50 projects that run their companies and do amazing things. I’ve often been called in when something is on fire, out of control, unmanageable or just plain too complicated for the resources an organization may have on hand.

It’s a pretty thankless job. Sure it pays well. But people don’t take into account that you are always the new kid in school. Nobody cares to get to know you because you are a “consultant”. You don’t get paid time off, holidays, health insurance, or a 401k. You get a check and experience. I am the original gig worker and it’s a scary position to be in, especially these days.

My resume is like nothing most people in my industry of software development have seen. I have experience most people don’t or ever will have. But I have paid a high price to get it. I write more languages and have seen more technologies come and go. I’ve seen more organizations waste millions of dollars because they lacked experience or chose the wrong path. One of the lessons I learned long ago through working in television, owning my own company, or putting my neck and name on the line is when I say something will be done, when it will be done, and for how much? It is. I don’t make excuses. I deliver. And how do I do it? Experience.

Yet as I write this, I am homeless. And when I say homeless, I mean living in my car for the past 122 days homeless. And some may ask with my background and resume how that can be? I am too experienced.

How Can You Be Too Experienced?

Let me ask you a question? If you were flying on an airplane, about to land at night in weather where you cannot see the wing out the window from your seat because the fog is so thick. There is turbulence. There are cross-winds. You will not see that runway until a split-second before you slam that bird’s wheels to the ground. Do you want a pilot who’s done this before? Do you want a pilot that’s calm under pressure? Or do you want a pilot who is experiencing this for the first time?

If you are having surgery. Sure your doctor straight out of med school had perfect scores. Does great on tests, but this is the first time to actually perform the surgery. Or do you want a surgeon who has done this many times and seen everything that can go wrong that might not have been in a textbook or on a test? Which would you trust with your life?

If you are building a pro team. Pick your sport. I like NFL football. Do you want that player who is available and you can afford who is a pro-bowler and has the stats to prove it on your team? Or do you want that young player because he’s cheaper and played well in college? Are you building a winning team for a championship or is okay good enough for you?

For some reason in my industry, they don’t think in those terms. Typically I am dealing with some middle manager who rose through the ranks, worked a couple of jobs and that’s who is doing the hiring. I understand my experience can be intimidating. But it shouldn’t be. I’ve worked hard to achieve it. I didn’t go to school and have somebody spoon-feed me or teach me then give me a test and move on to the next class. No, my experience is real-world, trial-by-fire, enterprise grade, mission critical, somebody will die if I get this wrong kind of test. The piece of paper that hangs on my wall is from the University of Experience.

A good leader surrounds themselves with people smarter than themselves. They value talents in many different areas. Great leaders cannot or do not afford the time, money, and effort for mistakes. There is too much on the line when you play this game or any at a high level. And for me, if I am building that team? I want experience.