A Seaman's Journey

Adventures of a Lifetime

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Discovering Teaching

A Chance to Teach

It could not have come at a better time.  My career was in decline and I was feeling quite frustrated over the stagnation that was taking hold.  I had already had two full careers and I was only 57.  I was planning on retiring and spend my twilight years writing my memoirs.

My first career was in software engineering culminating in a decade of technical leadership of engineering teams.  This career was extremely successful and satisfying but also high stress.  The implosion of the tech industry after 9/11 and globalization made we want to launch out on my own and run my own engineering company.

I founded Shrinking World Solutions with the idea of building a medium sized software engineering company.  I believed that brilliant engineers can easily become successful entrepreneurs.  How naive I was!

Running a business was nothing like engineering.  Over time I spent roughly 90% of my mental energy trying to do sales (getting new engineering business).  While I have always found building software to be life giving, sales is soul-sucking for me.  After ten years I was ready to shut down the business and write full time.

I remember sitting with my son at a park in London, where he was living while working on a PhD in Bio-informatics.  I was telling him about how discouraged that I felt to have so much knowledge that I was unable to pass on. I had spent my life learning and now was ready to teach.

We discussed the dilemma of wanting to train others in software development but without having to recruit students and manage the business details.  Josiah commented that they make universities to solve that problem.  At the time I could not picture how to connect with opportunities to teach at a university.

About two months later I received an email from a business associate asking me if I would be interested in teaching at the University of Northern Colorado. Dave knew of my interest in training others and thought that it might extend to teaching college.  UNC had unexpectedly lost a professor and had a class of students with no one to teach them.

Trying Something New

My dad was a college professor so I grew up associated with universities and campus life.  During college my dad let me use his office to study late at night.   I always pictured myself being a college professor.

When I was interviewing for my first engineering job, my plan was to work in industry for 2-5 years and then get my PhD and teach at a university.  Life often works out differently than how we picture it.

After graduating from college I immediately started working for Hewlett Packard and started a family.  Being at the forefront of technology during the early eighties was very rewarding, both economically and emotionally.  During the first few years I dreamed of teaching someday but could not justify the hit that my family would need to take to make that happen.

But now, soon after our 40 year high school reunion, we were in a totally different situation.  After a lifetime of making a high salary we had no need to make a living.  Our kids were grown and had their own families.  Now was the time to try something new and bold.

I agreed to take the class, reasoning that if it was miserable it would be over by Christmas.  The first week was absolutely insane.  The first time I was on campus was the Thursday before classes started.  I got keys to the office, met with the computer guy to get login info, got a faculty ID, the textbook for the class, and met a previous instructor of the class.

Monday morning at 9:10 I was lecturing to a room of 50 students.  I had no clue what I was doing.  As a perfectionist, I take great pains to control everything so that I am never in this situation.  But here I was - I had to power through.

I decided to be open and honest with my students and treat them like responsible adults.  Most students rewarded my trust, but some acted like sharks sensing blood in the water. They felt that my lack of competence and confidence was an opportunity to act out.

By the end of Week One, I was absolutely spent.  I had invested about eighty hours of effort and wasn't sleeping at night.  I was wondering if I would be able to hold out until Christmas.   I continued to work at a feverish pace (10-12 hours/day, 6 days/week) for the next three weeks.

By the fourth week, things in the classroom were beginning to click and as a result I began to relax. This is actually going to work!  I can do this! But I was still spending way too much energy.  

Doubling down

By the sixth week I was able to cut back my time investment to about 50 hours. Things were starting to get routine and somewhat predictable.  I remember telling my wife that now I was ready to reduce my time to about forty hours weekly.

On Friday, I got a call from  the university.  There had been a car accident involving the professor of the Software Engineering class.  In trying to find someone qualified to teach this class, two independent sources recommended that they contact me.

Because engineering is my background and professional love, I agreed to take on the class.  On Monday I started teaching the class and finished the semester.  I was able to bring decades of experience in the software industry into the classroom and teach practical engineering skills.

The next few weeks were a whirlwind of activity and intensity.  I was awakened to the reality that I care deeply about teaching practical skills for students to thrive in the workplace.  And I have little regard for knowledge that will not help students succeed.

Striving and Succeeding

It was difficult to start on the road to teaching.  The university did not really have any way to integrate new teachers into the process.  It requires a certain kind of person to manage themselves with no support, but I knew at the time that I was walking into a crisis.  I have learned that I actually thrive in intense challenges that will sink most people.

Fortunately, I had many years of web development and software engineering to draw from.  I knew the subject matter extremely well; I just needed to learn the process of teaching. 

I was also willing to pay the steep price to create materials, grade assignments, create and deliver lectures, and mentor students.  I suspect that few others would be willing to pay this price.

Early on, I adopted the posture of a learner.  Everything I did was viewed as an experiment.  The things that worked I standardized and what didn't work was never repeated.  Over a brief time this yielded practical methods for teaching students the skills they need.  This constant improvement paradigm is thoroughly ingrained in the software industry and was now employed in the classroom as well.

That first semester was a crash course in teaching.  Within seven weeks I had responded to two emergency startups with no previous preparation time.  This taught me that it is possible to learn and teach at the same time and that everything is a grand experiment anyway.  I have incorporated these key lessons into my life philosophy.

Answering Life's Call

My career has been filled with intense challenges.  I have learned that a tough challenge met can turn into the greatest fulfillment.  Teaching was a huge challenge at the beginning.  This was the most difficult professional task faced, both intellectually and emotionally. But the reward in personal growth has been equally huge.

In my career of twenty-six years at Hewlett Packard, my most rewarding times were when I was teaching other engineers.  As a software developer I was the person that would evaluate new technologies and integrate them into our workflow.  This requires teaching each person on the team how to use the technology appropriately.  Now I am able to bring that to my students.

My time at UNC has shown me that I have always been a teacher. Years ago I adopted the personal mission statement "To Learn and Teach Best Practices" as my motto.  This is in my bones and it is who I am.  In a sense this is a key part of my destiny.