Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Career Change (My Job Journey Part 6)

My wife, my parents, even I knew that I wouldn't be in the printing industry forever.  With the advent of the internet, print media would never command the same influence or resources as it had previously.  While I was a pressman, I bought a book on HTML and tried to teach myself but couldn't get into it.  I was learning through a process of trial and error that I don't learn efficiently on my own

During that time my brother went through a 9 month intensive IT training course for people who already had university degrees.  I couldn't believe the job offers he got what he was finished.  He had two offers from companies in different countries at 60k+ USD a year.  This was more that I could hope to make in printing even after I got another promotion - I wouldn't see that kind of money for 20 or 30 years.

That was all we needed to convince ourselves to put our house up for sale and try to enroll me in the same school.  I had to see if I could qualify for admission.  I didn't have a degree, and that was one of the stated requirements for students.  Apparently they had taken students without a degree in the past, though.  These students had to write and exam and a paper as to why they felt they should be considered for admission.  When trying to gain admission to schools or even trying to get a job, 'no' doesn't always mean no.  Put differently, requirements are guidelines, not rules.  Don't disqualify yourself because you don't appear to 'qualify' at a first glance.  I wrote the exam and did the essay and was ecstatic to get accepted to the school.

Tuition was expensive, so I also had to take out a student loan.  Getting out of high school, I was mortally afraid of getting into debt for an education that I wasn't sure was 'me.'  Now, with a family to support, I was doing just that.  Going back to school at the age of 30.  It was high stakes and I simply had to make it work and 'go for broke.'   Want some motivation in evaluating your direction in life?  Put a lot on line...

Vancouver, BC
I started school in January 2001 and that spring saw the beginnings of the 'dot.bomb' era in the stock market.  Up to this point, investors had been bullish (enthusiastic) about investing in IT companies.  However several large IT companies had posted questionable numbers that spring (Nortel being the main Canadian example) and the bubble burst causing stocks to slide.  As a result many IT companies went into receivership...  including the IT school I was going to.  While our school was closed, the receiver kept the Vancouver school open.  They gave us a living allowance and had us finish school there.  Because of all this I knew the IT job market was going to be tough to get into for a 'newbie' like me.  I consequently tried to get a certification in Java programming while I was still in school.... and I failed that test.  I resolved to write the test again after school was done (and I had more time to study for it).  Upon finishing school, I studied for two weeks, wrote the test and passed.   Significant personal investments of time or money have a way of pushing you to work hard.

Returning back home, I spent most of the next 10 months looking for work.  I called every software company in the yellow pages listings one by one, and asked for a job.  When I was turned down, I learned to ask if they knew of any other companies that were hiring.  I got a 2 month contract this way, but I completed it with no further opportunities.  We had been living off of our student credit line and in the end I had to take a job framing houses with a friend to make ends meet.  This felt terrible, kind of like a surrender.  However, after 4 weeks of framing houses, I got a call from a large IT consulting company who was interested in hiring me because of the Java certification I had persisted in obtaining after school.  If you have a goal, don't let failures or set backs stand in your way.  Persist, focus, and determine to accomplish it.

As badly as I wanted that java developer position, I managed to get lost driving to the interview.  (This was before the days of Google Maps)  Realizing I was going to be late, I phoned to let them know I was lost and confirmed the directions to the office.  I learned a big lesson there:  For important meetings and interviews, always double check the address and location of the meeting place.  Give yourself extra time to get there and never assume you know the way.  Fortunately, I did well on the interview and they offered me the job.

For the rest of my Job Journey and to read other career profiles, check out my Career Path Profiles page here or follow the links below:

Monday, March 23, 2015

Searching for a Real Career (My Job Journey Part 5)

Returning from Poland, (see this post for background) my first priority was to get work so I could sponsor my wife to become a landed immigrant.  My Dad found me a job at the OSB (Oriented Strand Board) plant he was working at.  I was hired on as a general labourer.  Here's an outline of the lessons I learned there:

OSB Plant, paid by the hour (fall 1995 - spring 1997)
  • Shift work is not easy - frankly, it can be dangerous. It's not for everyone.  I worked 12 hour shifts, 4 days on, 4 days off, and switch from days to nights every set of off days.  Shift transition 'hangover' between shifts were challenging.  Many times I fought to stay awake on the drive home from work.
  • Think twice before you do something where you could get hurt.  I started as a general labourer doing cleanup.  The winter we had some large icicles from on the roof of one of the buildings.  Thinking they were a safety hazard, I tried to knock them down with a shoved.  I miscalculated their size and what they'd do when broken off, and one knocked off my hard hat and hit me in the head.  I had to go to the hospital for stitches.  
  • Back injuries affect everything.  After some time I moved up to running a 'waferizer' - essentially a blender for wood.  Using pickaroons, we had to ensure the wood blocks entered the waferizer at a proper angle.  These wood blocks could be heavy and I strained my back trying to move one.  After getting home that night, the pain was so bad I could hardly breathe and I could feel it every move I made.   
  • Unionized work isn't for everyone.  It can lead to some silly situations turning petty differences into a dispute that could terminate your employment.  You'll rarely reach your full potential working in a unionized plant/factory.  Promotions and/or better positions are based on seniority (how long you've worked at the plant).  The longer you've worked there, the more seniority you have.

After several months in the OSB plant, I could not see myself working there for the rest of my life.  I started to search for a 'real career' - something I could see myself doing for the next 30-40 years.  At first, accounting seemed like a great option.  Every business, no matter the industry, needs accountants and I was good with numbers.  I discovered I could start taking accounting classes from home through the University of Athabasca.  I enrolled in a beginning accounting course and started working on assignments.  What I didn't 'account for' (pardon the pun) was how difficult with would be to do the course work alone and dealing with a shift work transition 'hangover.'  This was one of my first lessons in understanding my 'learning style'.  I eventually dropped the course and tried not to see it as a failure.  I had to move on and find something else....

Air Traffic Controller...?
Not long after that, I found a advertisement in the paper that NavCanada was looking to hire Air Traffic Controllers.  There was a preliminary math test candidates needed to write, and if they passed that and a subsequent personal interview, NavCanada would hire them and pay for their training.  I applied for the position, wrote the math exam and passed it.  I read plane magazines, books, and practiced more trigonometry to prepare for my interview.  When the time came, I met with couple of air traffic controllers and they grilled me on more math questions and why I was interested in the job.  After one particularly hard math question, they asked me 'are you sure?' and I said 'I think so.'  Apparently the lack of commitment and conviction in that answer sealed my fate.  Air Traffic controllers need to be firm, definitive, and exact.  My hesitant 'I think so' didn't cut it.

Printing Pressman...?
Searching through the paper again (this was before job postings were put on the internet), I found a posting in a nearby city in which a company was looking to hire another shift of pressmen.  I applied and after a lengthy process a group of us got hired.  Three weeks after starting work there, the contract they hired us for fell through and they laid us all off.  I had left a secure job at the OSB plant and moved to a new city for this position, so I wasn't very happy.  I called their head office (in the States) and nicely told them that I didn't think we had been treated very well.  After some back and forth with them over a period of a couple of weeks, they agreed to pay us a better severance package.  Through this I learned that workers should stand up for their rights and sometimes the little guy can get heard.  It was a good thing too, because I couldn't find another paying job for several months after that.

Printing was a skill I had the most expertise in at the time, so it made sense for me to try and find another job as a pressman.  I eventually found one, and I ended up working there for three and half years.

This is a Goss Community web press configured
in a similar way to what we ran.  There's a
web splicer on the right, a '4-high' stack on printing
units in the middle, and an anvil folder just to
the left of that.  Our press had 5 splicers, 2 anvil
folders, and 18 printing units.
Pressman, 1997-2001  paid by the hour ($14.50 - $18.63/hr) This newspaper printing outfit was some of the most intense work of my life.  My mind was so engaged during this time that I still dream about working here over 15 years later.
  • Initially I didn't have enough experience for the position I was hired for.  This made things a bit stressful for everyone at first.  I was in fact demoted and had to wait extra long for a pay raise because of this.
  • This print shop wasn't unionized, so we worked hard, sometimes through lunches.  
  • I was pushed to learn a lot, and that's exactly what I did and I felt good about everything I accomplished there.  I made it back to the position I was hired for and I was respected for the work that I did.  
  • It was dangerous work as the press was old and there were pinch points everywhere.  You had to clean the press while it was on.  Paper rolls where hundreds of pounds.
  • A good attitude and a willingness to forgive can open doors.  There was a lot of frustration when I started because I couldn't pull my own weight.  A running joke on the team was everyone would ask me 'Are you dumb, yet?'  With all the hearing protection we had to wear, I would hear 'Are you done, yet?' and nod my head.  Hard work, a smile, and a willingness to learn helped me gain the respect of everyone and be a good influence there.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Career Presentations At James Fowler High School

James Fowler High School's logo
I did three presentations for a Career Fair at James Fowler High School here in Calgary recently.  Specifically, they were on my career in Information Technology.  In it I answered questions like:

  • How and why did I decide to get into IT?
  • How did I prepare for this career journey?
  • What does a typical day in IT involve?
  • What are the best things about an IT career?
  • What are the most challenging things about an IT career?
  • What kind of opportunities are there in IT?
  • What do average wages look like in IT for entry level and top end positions?
Click the image above to actually view the presentation
I gave at the school.
I thought the presentations went fairly well.  I had about 25 students in each one.  Because each of them was about 35 minutes long, I didn't have time to tell a lot of fun stories.  There was some time for questions and discussion though, which was good.  I came away with a couple of thoughts:
  • I missed a big point on the 'Most Challenging Parts of My Work..' slide.  Fear in the form of feeling inferior, being intimidated by new concepts with big names, and people who sound very smart is something I deal with a lot.  I try to ignore it, but often it rears its head and tries to get me down.  
  • I couldn't underscore enough how many different opportunities there are in IT.  It isn't just about how the field continues to constantly grow and require new workers.  It's about:
    • Almost every industry needs IT to function and stay competitive.  
      • Entertainment - think Pixar, Industrial Light and Magic, and Nintendo.
      • Tourism and Hospitality - Travelocity, Hotels, Airlines.
      • Utilities - running the Power Grid, water systems, traffic lights
      • Resources - Oil & Gas, Mining, Renewables
      • Public Sector - Security, Economy, Health
      • Financial - Banks, stock markets
      • ...and so many more
    • The variety of positions in IT that most people don't even consider.
      • Project Managers
      • Business Analysts
      • Quality Assurance testers
      • Security Analysts (for those hackers)
      • Infrastructure (networking and server management)
      • Architects
    • The ability to be flexible in where you work.
      • Work from home (or the beach)  Check this link out
      • Get an IT job in a different country or continent.  IT Jobs are very transferable.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Can I live on a $40,000/year salary? Thoughts and Resources

I'll never know for sure why we never had this discussion in our Home Economics class in high school.  How much does a person have to make a year in order to be comfortable?  Perhaps it was an obvious question?  My assumption is that most people have a good idea how much their parents were making growing up.  Based on that, they think they have an idea of how much they will need to make in order to be comfortable.  Is that a good approach?

I think the answer depends on several things:
  1. Where do you live?  While $40k/year can seem like a lot of money, if you live in a big metropolitan centre with a hot real estate market/economy it can actually be a fairly paltry sum. Back in 1998 I was making approximately $40k/year.  I owned a small condo, had 1 car, supported my wife, and lived in a medium sized city.  There were times when we had less than $100 left over for food but still 10 days to our next payday after paying our bills.  That was nearly 15 years ago!
    You might get further with a salary like that living in the country, or in a city that has a depressed real estate market/economy.  Either way, I think you'd be hard pressed to say you are living comfortably if you are making $40k/year and having to provide for all your living needs on your own.
  2. What kind of an investment did you have to make to start earning money in your chosen profession?  Paying down your student debts can take a fair chunk of change out of your pay cheque.  Check out this link on 5 Student Loan Pitfalls.  Be responsible with the money you spend on school.  Get informed about student loans, forgiveness options, payback options, etc.  It does NOT pay to be in the dark about your finances.
  3. How do you define comfortable?  Many people would say that being married AND living with one's parents is not comfortable.  Many young people today choose to stay single and live with their parents because it IS comfortable.  In that scenario, $40,000 a year can definitely be manageable.  Is that how you want to live the rest of you life, though?
    For some, comfortable might mean living independently (your own car and living quarters) and being able to take a reasonable vacation (2 weeks, out of town) once a year.  If you're single, you might need a $60,000/year or more to manage that lifestyle.  

Here's what I see living in Calgary, Canada in 2015, assuming you are 'starting from scratch.'
  • An independent single person with a car would need to make at least $50-$55k per year to be comfortable.  You will not be maxing out your RRSP's with this kind of wage.  Or you might be able to save up for a payment on a condo or townhouse, although that might take you several years.
  • If you want to own a house and not be penny pinching, you'll need to have 2 people in the household bringing in $60,000 annually - not counting bonuses.  That's based on an average house price of $450k.  
Believe it or not, the Consumer Measures Committee of Canada has some informative and well written resources that can help you understand your finances.  Specifically, they have published several pamphlets for young people that would be worth investigating.  I've linked to them below:

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Married, Working, and Living Overseas (My Job Journey Part 4)

While in Texas, I completed a Print Production School with the University of the Nations.  My future wife came from Poland took the course as well.  We became friends during the school, and a year later we got married and moved to Warsaw, Poland to live.  We both worked together for the Polish Baptist Union Publishing House while we were there.  They gave us a monthly salary as well as an unfurnished apartment to live in.

Washing the floor in the living room of our apartment. 
The apartment was new and larger than an average apartment in Warsaw, however it was situated on the outskirts of the city.  Since we didn't own a vehicle, we used public transit which meant walking through a forest 2km's to the first bus stop on route 518 (in Radosc).  We brought some our new IKEA furniture home from the store on that bus, carrying it through the forest to our flat. That was some good exercise!  Be prepared to be pragmatic and use public transit if you end up living overseas as the cost of gas is high.
I enjoyed using public transit in Poland.  Because our stop was the end of the line, I was able to study and read a lot during our commutes.  I studied Polish diligently and made some good progress with my vocabulary and grammar.  Be open to learning the local language as locals appreciate it.  I also discovered a couple of magazines on the bus that I still enjoy reading (The Economist and the European Edition of Time).  They provided me with a European perspective of the news which I found illuminating - particularly since the Polish economy was trying to come to terms with the country's recent independence.  There's nothing like getting paid in 2 million zloty bills to make you think twice about currency exchange!
In the dark room
developing film

We worked at the publishing house in Warsaw from Fall of 1994 to the end of Summer, 1995. Working as an expat things don't always turn out like you think.  I thought being married to a Polish citizen would make it easier for me to legally work in Poland.  It didn't seem to.  I had to renew my work visa every three months which was a real hassle.  Ensure you obtain all the information you can about working and living in a new country before you decide to move - don't assume that you can apply logic or common sense to every situation.

The work itself was challenging as well.  While my wife and I spoke English, everyone else spoke nothing but Polish, so I had to learn fast.  I did typesetting in Polish, using Polish characters, learned to develop all our film by hand, and also learned to print full colour pages on a new, single colour sheetfed press.

In the outside market across the
street from Hala Mirowska
My eyes were opened to history, culture, and architecture in a new way while I lived in Poland. Walking through the forest to work, we could still see the remains of trenches and craters from World War II.  Once the bus got us into downtown, I loved looking at the buildings with their red, tile roofs and green copper domes.  Up to that point I had never lived in a city that large or old.  The church we worked in stood in what was once the Jewish Ghetto made infamous during the war.   Two blocks east from there was Hala Mirowska, a fantastic indoor market where we'd buy our groceries (and sometimes lunch).  Take advantage of the differences you experience abroad.  Savour them.  Read a good book about the country or continent you are on while you are there.  I distinctly remember being sick with the flu in bed for a couple of days and reading The Count of Monte Cristo - much more rich for me with the old world atmosphere!
On the grounds of the Palace in Warsaw

I don't want to make it sound like I'd died and gone to heaven.  There will be challenges and frustrating circumstances.  I definitely felt alone, separate, misunderstood, limited, and out of my element at times.  My wife says it was the first time she saw me cry.  Plan ahead and have something you can do, or someone you can visit with to help you get around those time where negative feelings try to take over.  I remember thinking 'Man, if I ever get back to North America, I'm going to take advantage of my ability as a native English speaker there'.

For the rest of my Job Journey and to read other career profiles, check out my Career Path Profiles page here or follow the links below:

Saturday, March 7, 2015

On My Own - The Tradesman (My Job Journey Part 3)

After one year of college, I had several strong feelings that were leading me away from returning to a formal post-secondary institution:
  1. Financial fear of going into debt.  I didn't have enough money to go back to school full time without going into debt.  I really didn't want to borrow money to get an education (my perspective on this has changed since then - knowledge pushes out fear)
  2. I couldn't sit in a classroom and learn theory anymore just for the sake of 'jumping through an educational hoop' and getting a certificate.  I needed to do something with my hands and be 'productive'.
  3. God was doing something in my life - I needed to figure out what He was trying to tell me...

Texas Highway 16
In the end, I travelled to Texas to go to a Bible school for 10 weeks.  In the mornings there was teaching, in the afternoons we helped around the campus.  I was assigned to work in the cafeteria because of my previous experience in the food industry (read more about that here).
Here I got experience with:
  • Daily food prep (in the afternoons) of main meals for 200+ people
  • Working as a team to get a lot of work done.  I got to see the division of work - how the responsibility for making a 'meal' or 'dish' was divided up between team members for efficiency sake.  
  • Small beginnings.  Most times, there is a reason for 'the way' or a method to how something is done (like food prep).  I learned not to be afraid to question the 'method' and learn from that answer.  It turns out restaurant franchises are build (like all the fast-food restaurants) using tried and true methods that 'work'.  Tricks like using cold water (instead of hot water) to get the suds out of the sink after a huge load of dishes....

Here I am running a job on the 4 unit Didde Conserver press.  You can't tell
from the picture, but this press (with splicer, tinter, 4 print units, gluer,
folder, cutter, and stacker/conveyor) is over 60 feet long
After school was done, I decided to go on staff and volunteer with them.  They offered me a job in their print shop where I gained a wealth of experience over the next 2.5 years.  By the time I left, I had picked up two trades - printing/binding, and pre-press (or film layout).  This was full time, unpaid, non-profit work.  Here I learned:
  • Print Shop Operations - operation of forklifts, industrial folders, industrial paper cutters, an envelop stuffer, a Didde Conserver web press, a Ryobi sheetfed press, a Multi 1250 sheetfed press, a Multi 1850 sheetfed press, and be part of a team that ran a Solna King heatset web press
  • Patience in problem solving.  Invariably a press or a folder (some piece of machinery) would work properly, so we'd have to trouble-shoot it.  There is a process of logic that is important to follow when troubleshooting anything.  This was where I started to learn that logic.
  • Responsibility.  I was essentially responsible for the entire operation of the Didde press - all the job orders were mine to expedite.  I had to prioritize them, manage the quality of the printing and the folding (perforations, tinting, and gluing at times as well)
  • Team work  I had a team that worked with me packaging product off the press.  I had to shut the press down if there were issues with packing.  Team management - small teams of 2, and larger teams of 5 - depending on the work.
  • Planning - I had to have all the pieces in place before I started a big run (paper rolls, brick ends, twine, pallets, ink, etc)
  • Integrity and honesty -  I watched myself tell a lie to try and get ahead.  I subsequently learned that being dishonest isn't the right way to get ahead - even if no one else knew.  I couldn't live with myself like that.
  • Getting some film ready for the press
  • Push my Limits - I tried to learn as much as I could - pre-press/dark room - burning plates, putting film together, stripping film.  Because of that, I essentially picked up another trade - Pre-press/film layout.
During this time I also did 2 overseas trips (one to India and Pakistan, the other to Europe).  This traveling broadened my perspective and changed the direction of my life.  Click the links above to find out how.

For the rest of my Job Journey and to read other career profiles, check out my Career Path Profiles page here or follow the links below:

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Work Experience in School (My Job Journey Part 2)

I got a bunch of work experience while I was still in school (or during years when I was going to school).  I think I really benefitted from the experiences I had during this time.  I was able to see what 'working' was like, it helped me grasp the value of a dollar, I got to earn enough money to pay for my first year of college, and I got exposure to a variety of industries.

Here's a glimpse of what my early 'job journey' looked like, and some of the lessons I learned from that time:

Esso Gas Station, paid by the hour ($3.65/hr)  This was a part time job during my high school years
of 1986, 1987, 1988.
I learned to:
  • Manage my schedule - concurrently went to school, skied, was involved in extra curricular activities, and I had other part time jobs in the summer,
  • Be dependable - someone depended on me to do that work - I was the only one there.  I received shipments of gas and managed the till and pumps,
  • Communicate better - gave directions and tourist information
  • Respect value of money - working for minimum wage and seeing how long it took to save up for something special

Saw Mill, paid by the hour (union work $18+/hr) This was a weekend part-time job during and after high school - 1988, 1989, 1990.  My routine job here was as an oiler.  However I also did spark watch with the welders and clean up.
Here I:
  • Saw a hierarchy in the workplace in action - unionized mill.
  • Learned the value of personal protective equipment and safety procedures - the story of electricity, sparks and smoke at the Electrical Panel by the 22 inch barker, saw a co-worker hit an elevated walkway with the BlueChip forklift boom - gave him the shock of his life.
  • Learned how pay cheque deductions and income tax work.  Paid union dues, paid more in taxes, got it all back because I was under the annual basic exception tax.
  • Learned more communication and schedule management.  I had to set priorities and manage my schedule - piano lessons, basketball/volleyball tourneys, overtime, getting up early - work started at 5am.  I needed to communicate with my team lead at work, my coaches and teachers at school, my piano teacher, and my parents what was going on with my schedule.
  • Learned to drive heavy equipment - several forklifts and use some of the mill machinery.
  • Got to see what Millwrights, Welders, and Electricians did for work in a Mill.  Didn't understand or see at that time how lucrative those trades would come to be in the oil industry
  • Began to appreciate different work environments.  I worked both inside and outside for hours at a time.  It could be cold (-30 C) or hot (+35 C) outside.

The Old Caboose - Restaurant, paid by the hour (around $5/hr plus tips) This was a summer part time job after high school in 1989 and 1990.  The only job I didn't really do around the restaurant was
cook.  I got a chance to do pretty much everything else.
I continued to discover:
  • Time and schedule management as I had several part time jobs during those summers, and I had to ensure that I wasn't expected to be working in two places at the same time.
  • The value of money - I was paid fairly low, however there were tips here.
  • Teamwork - sharing tips with the rest of the crew - the value of a team.
  • New jobs - dishwashing, basic food prep, bus-boy, waiter, etc.
  • Planning - strategic thinking before attempting a delicate manevoer - the garbage bag fiasco
  • Communication - both heard and spoken.  I learned fast that I needed to get orders right and manage customers' expectations

Tree Planting, paid by the tree - spring and summer after first year of college 1990.  In my journal at that time, I called this 'the ultimate test of human goodwill in work.'  I saw the limits of my patience tested with my friends - this surprised me somewhat.  I started to learn more about myself, and continued to build on lessons I had already started learning....
  • The value of money - This was hard manual labour, not paid minimum wage but paid by the tree planted - I averaged around $100-110 per day.
  • Exposure to a different work environment - seasonal outside work in the mountains.  On good days it's OK (if the bugs aren't bad).  On cold rainy days it can be miserable.  Most of our crew got varying degrees of hypothermia on one particularly wet and cold day.
  • Learned a bit about personal hygiene.  Jock itch.  Enough said.
  • Value of Integrity.  Our contract got terminated because others were hiding trees (getting paid for them, but not planting them)  Saw how the actions of others on the job impacted me (devaluing a team)

Salmon Fish Hatchery, paid by the hour ($15/hr) fall 1990.  We wore hip-waders most of the day, caught Spring Salmon (some up to 30 pounds) in drift nets and then collected sperm and roe from them.
  • Seasonal outside work harvesting sperm and eggs from spawning salmon.  Beautiful scenery but long days because the spawning season is short
  • Scientific work - gathering data about each fish we harvested from.  I felt like I was involved with sustaining our natural resources and helping scientists learn about them at the same time.  It was fulfilling (even though it could be miserable an cold in the mornings)