An early success
Discovering who you are can be really tough.
After earning my BSME from Iowa State, I started work in Manufacturing Engineering at the John Deere Dubuque Works. One of my projects was to implement Computer Integrated Manufacturing (CIM). After a few years we had hundreds of computers connected using office and shop-floor networks.
Working with Deere corporate, we also installed a wide-area network to our sister plant in Davenport, Iowa. Corporate was really biased towards IBM mainframes and joked that we were in over our heads. They named our project the Factory Interconnect And Systems Connectivity Options (FIASCO) pilot.
It turned out to be a huge success. When Deere’s CIO signed off on the final implementation, he said “Great work, but change the name.” I did: Wide-area Integrated Network (WIN). Our FIASCO became a WIN.
After the pilot I said “You should have someone at corporate doing this.” “OK, you do it.” (Oops!) So I transferred to Moline and helped drive connecting all the Deere plants to WIN and to the early commercial Internet.
A career mistake
My career was on hot streak; I was getting interviewed by magazines and speaking at conferences. Then I decided to take a risk. I left Deere and joined two partners at a computer reseller to start a systems integration group.
One of the partners was charismatic; he could be your best friend one minute and flame you the next. I only saw his best bud side at first. Later I saw his other side. I didn’t like how he treated our staff (including the people I managed) or how he made business decisions.
After six months we started to run tight on operating capital. Each of us needed to co-sign personal guarantees for a $200k loan. I looked at who had hard assets to loose, my confidence in the business, and made a decision. “I’m done.”
“Who is this?”
“You WHAT?!” my wife said.
“I quit. Its fine, it won’t be hard to find another job.” Looking back now I was way too confident.
I scoured want ads in all the newspapers and sent out over 200 resumes. Nothing. After a couple months I began to worry a little. Cindy tightened our finances, we started having more hamburger and hot dogs. The girls were too young to understand what happens when money goes out but no money comes in.
Still confident, I called a buddy who was VP of HR at McGladery & Pullen.
“Bob, here’s my résumé. Think you can help me find a job?”
I was so proud of that six page document. It had every detail about every exciting project I’d done. It was my masterpiece. Bob took the paper, studied it, flipped the pages, then handed it back.
“This isn’t you. Who is this? Go home and think about it. I’ll be back in town in a week or two. We can get together then and see what you’ve got.”
I was crushed … and scared … and worried.
“How’d it go? Can he find you a job?” I don’t remember what I told Cindy.
Who am I?
That conversation with Bob was about the lowest point in my professional career.
When I was looking for a job in college it was just me. Now I had a wife, two kids, a mortgage, and a savings account that was dwindling away.
I did some deep soul searching, then wrote a new version for Bob that was straight from the heart. I thought about who I really was – a builder and a communicator. It just flowed. What I wrote then is still true today (here’s my current résumé).
When I showed it to Bob he smiled, nodded, and handed it back. “That’s better. Now I know it’s you. Let me see what I can do.”
Bob made some calls but no strong leads turned up. I was getting desperate.
With nothing to show from my 200 letters, I decided to hit the phone. I did find a local government contracting position, but my best call was with a recruiter. She had a friend in Greensboro, North Carolina who just happened to have a friend looking for an Engineering IT manager in Raleigh.
I interviewed, played both offers to get the best salary I could – and waited. We were down to the wire. I took the local contractor job in Davenport. Then Ed called from Raleigh. I jumped at his final offer, declined the contracting job, and we moved the family to North Carolina. Wow.
Your personal brand
Between leaving Iowa back then and today there are a hundred more stories I could tell.
But what did I learn from this story? I learned who I am.
I’ve also learned over the years that you may cycle (many times) between employee, employer, or freelancer. To survive, you need to build and grow a personal brand that transcends your employment.
At the core of your brand is your story. What do you do? How do you do it? How are you different AND better than your competition? Most importantly, why do you do what you do?
What would be your answer if you asked yourself “Who am I?”
Think about it.
A pretty good person
It’s been said we’re the sum of our experiences. That may be true, but I think alot of what we are – who we are – comes from our parents.
Some things our parents try to teach us will shape what we do and how we act. Some things our parents don’t try to teach us will shape who we are. My dad gave me both.
My dad is Lowell Foster. I owe most of who I am to him. OK, I learned lessons on my own but Dad gave me the foundation for how to learn them. With a mother who was mentally ill, my childhood was unusual. Dad helped me separate the sense from the nonsense.
Sometimes his lessons were simple.
“Don’t ever hate somebody. You can dislike who they are and what they do, but don’t hate them. Hate only hurts you.”
Sometimes they were complex.
“Doug, we’re going to build a go-kart the right way. Let me show you how we need to do it. We’re not going to just slap-nail some wood together. We’ll drill holes, press bushings, use a steel axle, and put a thrust bearing on the turning mechanism. (I was about 6 at the time.)”
And sometimes they were unintentional.
“Here Doug, you might enjoy reading this book. It’s called “A Pretty Good Person“. You know, when I die I want people to look back on my life and say that about me. Not that I was great person … or an expert at some craft … or even a man who conquered his dreams. I just want them to say “You know, that Lowell was a pretty good person.”
I write this as I sit next to him. He’s in a nursing home, confined to bed, just a couple months shy of his 93rd birthday. He hasn’t eaten for weeks and is only occasionally able to recognize me. In days he’ll be gone. But when he is I’m sure I’ll say “You know, my dad was a pretty good person. Not perfect, not infallible. But you know what? I think he helped make me who I am. Thanks Dad.”