I wanted to challenge myself to reflect upon and write about these topics because they are important to me and because I think these topics are fundamental to building trust. Also, I wanted to be explicit about topics (values, especially) which, without publicly stating, others might be left to fill in for themselves.
I was born in 1984 into a family of three. My parents were older: mom 34, dad nearly 40, and my sister was already 6. We were the quintessential definition of middle-middle-class. Neither of my parents were college educated. My dad worked as a dispatcher for a shipping company and my mom worked as a convenience store cashier; then, later in life, as a teller at a bank. Our family home, a 1100 square foot brick bungalow in South City St. Louis, was located one block north of the elementary school my sister and I attended and within walking distance of our extended family — one aunt (my dad’s sister) and both of my grandmas (both of my grandfathers had passed away by the time I was born). My childhood was pretty humble. We didn’t travel too often, but did take vacations together as a family: Lake of the Ozarks, Memphis, Chicago, once to Disney World. In hindsight, the one thing that stands out to me about my childhood is regular family dinners at my grandma’s house on Sundays. On occasion (about once a month), my immediate family and my aunt’s immediate family would all get together for dinner. There’s a quote out there, somewhere: Grandma’s House: Where cousins go to become friends. Looking back, for me, I think that was certainly true.
My first encounter with the reality that life is fragile (that I can remember) took place in 1995. Peacefully, yet unexpectedly, my mom’s mom passed away. Though I couldn’t really understand it at the time, looking back I realize that this was incredibly difficult for my mom. As an only child and as someone who had lost their dad early in life, she was left without any of her original immediate family by the age of 45.
In the spring of 1999, I graduated grade school and, by summer’s end, had began attending Vianney High School in Kirkwood, MO. I think this was my first real taste of “culture shock” and where my life-long struggle with imposter syndrome and a sense of not belonging began. Suddenly, I found myself in the mix with kids who came from families with far more money than mine and who had much more exposure to life than me. On top of the awkwardness that came along with adjusting to high school life, in the fall of 1999, my family learned that my mom had developed Stage 4 lung cancer. Despite treatments, her cancer quickly metastasized. In October of 1999, just eight weeks after the original diagnosis, my mom passed away. This was a major turning point in my life and in the life of my family. All at once, my vision of what I had expected my life to be like (family dinners, graduations, weddings, witnessing my parents as grandparents) vanished into thin air. The chip on my shoulder that came along with being the less-privileged kid from South City grew into a giant slab: I was now the even less-privileged kid from South City with no mother. How would anyone else possibly be able to relate to me?
Once my mom passed away, our family finances became somewhat of a difficult situation. I never really focused too much on the reality of the situation, but in 2003, my dad made just $52k (that number is adjusted to reflect the purchasing power of his salary in 2018). I later learned that in the years following my mother’s death, he supplemented his income by taking distributions from his retirement account. In the summer of 1999, I picked up my first job, full-time, at a McDonald’s managed by one of my grade school friend’s aunt. While I worked there for less than six months, I managed to help out to the best extent that I could by maintaining a job (elsewhere) throughout the rest of high school.
In the spring of 2003, I graduated Vianney as number 14 of 201 students, and earned a scholarship to Saint Louis University. My grades in high school were good enough to get me into a handful of different schools, but, since my sister had moved out of our house, I felt as though I couldn’t leave my dad behind. Besides that, I couldn’t justify the financial burden that would have been placed on him were I to attend school elsewhere. So, in the summer of 2003, I began commuting back-and-forth to Saint Louis University as a major in, you guessed it, communication. Wait…what? Yeah, at the time, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. My family wasn’t really well-versed in offering guidance when it came to attending college. Regardless, I managed to make it through my first year relatively unscathed. All the meanwhile, continuing to work nights and weekends (early mornings) unloading trucks and doing merchandising at the local Best Buy.
In the summer of 2004, between my freshman and sophomore year, life landed it’s next big blow to me. One day (July 5), while I was at home, the household phone began to ring. Out of laziness, I let the answering machine pick up the call (am I dating myself or what?). When the machine did pick it up, the person on the other end stated that they were from a local hospital; my dad was there. When I returned the call, the person divulged no details, but simply said that I should come down to the hospital immediately. Within an hour, my sister, my brother-in-law, my aunt, my cousins, and I were on our way. When we arrived, we were escorted to a waiting room where we were informed that my dad had gone into cardiac arrest, earlier, and died. I was 19 years old, in the early stages of college, and felt like my life had completely come apart.
After the dust settled, I was left in life with $50k in inheritance money and 50% ownership of a house worth $100k (with a $20k mortgage). Although I was unsure of how things would turn out, I knew that I had to try my damnedest to finish college. My parents had worked largely uninspiring jobs and had made sacrifices to provide me with a good education and a chance for a better life and I couldn’t let their sacrifices end up having been made in vain. The chip on my shoulder that had grown into a slab transformed into an enormous source of motivation and fueled my ever-growing attitude of “fuck you” towards adversity and misfotune.
So, I sucked it up and got back to it. I continued to work full-time during the summers and part-time during the school year. I clustered my classes in the mornings so I could work more at night. I became a firm believer in the 5am workout; getting up early and hitting the gym before class. Somewhere in the pursuit of it all, I landed in SLU’s Management Information Systems (MIS) program because I was told that I could “make a good living” in the field. And really, that’s all I’ve ever wanted out of life: a nice house, a happy family, a chance to enjoy my precious time on earth and explores its wonders. It just so happens to turn out that I also really enjoyed programming and had somewhat of an affinity for technical work.
During my time at SLU, I made several good friends that I still hang out with today (one of them was the best man in my wedding). I studied some pre-law and picked up a Computer Science minor, as well. In the fall of 2006, I began an internship at VCSOnline, a local, project management software vendor. In the spring of 2007, I graduated from SLU summa cum laude and was awarded “Outstanding Senior in Management Information Systems”. Shortly thereafter, I moved out of my family home, rented an apartment, and began my first full-time, professional programming gig at VCSOnline.
All was going well until the spring of 2008. My lease was coming up for my apartment, but I was more interested in becoming a first-time home buyer. At the same time, unbeknownst to me, my family home (of which I was part owner) was slipping into foreclosure. After much negotiation and pleading, I was able to convince the bank to halt the foreclosure proceedings and, eventually, took full ownership of the house in which I grew up. I had survived my first (and hopefully only) foray into home foreclosure and become a home owner at the age of 23.
Other Major Events
- In 2013, my wife and I got married in front of a small gathering of our closest family and friends
- In 2017, we sold the house that my family and I had called home for over 30 years and moved from the city to the suburbs
- In 2018, my first child was born; fatherhood has truly been a transformative experience for me and one that I now wish I would have had earlier in life
In Regards to Technical Work
My path to technical work is my own. Some people grew up inundated with technology. I did not. My family didn’t own a computer until 1996. In grade school, I did run a fairly popular website about wrestling star, The Rock (really really). But, as opposed to playing with technical gadgets (of which we had few), I preferred to spend most of my childhood outside riding bikes, playing sports, and hanging out with friends. This is still how I prefer to spend my non-working time today.
I think it’s fair to state that I’ve encountered a few obstacles in my life. The death of my mother and father at an early age left me with an extreme case of anxiety that I still deal with today (effectively managed through exercise). Additionally, to this day, I continue to fight what has turned into a life-long struggle with feeling isolated and like I don’t belong, regardless of the context. Although I am improving it this area, I often have a hard time recognizing and establishing common ground with some people.
Despite the challenges I’ve encountered along the way, I have to admit that I feel tremendously blessed in life. After the passing of my parents, my aunt and uncle selflessly stepped forward to play the roles of mom and dad. Although it was incredibly sad to not have my parents around to witness my college graduation, wedding, or the birth of my son, I am lucky in that I got to share these moments with the love and support of my “second” family. Additionally, the values and habits I was taught as a child (and acquired on my own as a young adult) have put me in a position where “making a good living” seems like an inevitable reality.
My values have been shaped by the experiences I’ve had in life. They are direct outcomes of the events that I mentioned in my origin story. They include:
- Embodying a growth mindset — who I am tomorrow is different than who I am today
- Favoring character over competency — competency can be gained over time; poor character is much harder to improve
- Focusing on work/life balance — time is an extremely precious commodity; use it deliberately and carefully
- Challenging yourself — growth means constantly pushing yourself to the edge of your comfort level
- Engaging in meaningful work — find meaning in your current work or pursue other meaningful things
- Providing autonomy — if you give individuals meaningful work, the resources to succeed, and the freedom (space) to do a good job, you will be amazed at the quality of the work that they do
- Being transparent — not doing so is disingenuous; in the long-term, nothing good will come from being opaque
- Delivering value frequently and consistently — no matter what you do, focus on value above everything else
- Displaying humility — humility keeps egos in check and allows teams of people to be honest and open with one another
- Having an opinion, letting it be known — argue as if you are right and listen as if you are wrong; for more of my unfiltered opinions, follow me on Twitter
- Believing that anyone/everyone can be a leader — there are “leaders” and then there are those who lead; leadership is a trait that can be fostered and developed, not a role that is assigned
- Having a sense of humor/not taking things too seriously
- Living a principled life — stand for something or fall for anything; reflect on your own values, know in what you believe, don’t waver from your values
- Being a minimalist — in regards to everything (people, lines of code, services, possessions); the more “things” that you have, the more time you spend managing those “things”
- Doing the dirty work — there’s plenty available and someone has to do it; give me a workhorse over a unicorn any day
I’m not always perfect at living these values…I am only human. I sometimes display behaviors which I feel are regrettable or aren’t inline with the type of person I strive to be. But, as much as possible, I try to live my life and make my decisions by them and with them in mind.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this read. If you’re interested in engaging with me or just want to see what I have to say next, you can find me on Twitter, here.