Sunday, March 16, 2014

How I became interested in the tech industry

On the Microsoft campus in Redmond, WA
I was born in New York City back in 1983 and I grew up next door in NJ.  Eventually, somehow, I ended up in Seattle, WA working at Microsoft, which is about 3000 miles west of NJ.  If you asked me as a kid where I would someday end up living, never in my wildest imagination would I have thought it would be so far from home.

Growing up
I was a very curious boy growing up.  There were many different areas where I focused my time.  I really enjoyed playing sports, like basketball, soccer, and baseball.  I also liked hanging out with friends, watching movies, experimenting with photography, and listening to music.  Out of all these interests though, I really think I had some strong potential in basketball.  I was quite skilled.  Believe it or not, I was actually once able to slam dunk the ball.  I even beat a guy playing 1:1 who ended up playing professional basketball.  Looking back, I think if I devoted more time to this hobby, I could have ended up working for another organization, a little smaller than Microsoft, called the NBA.

The family computer
All kidding aside, my father bought a family computer, and immediately my interest shifted from basketball to this amazing new device.  Not long after purchasing a computer, we also signed up for the AOL, which at the time many people thought was the internet (and unfortunately some people probably still think AOL is the internet).  Of course, the first thing I did was enter a chat room and spend countless hours talking to strangers about nothing, but I found it most entertaining.

First web development job
After the chat room novelty wore down, I became intrigued in developing web sites.  I advanced quickly and eventually started building web sites for local businesses.  The first business I designed a site for was a local restaurant called Sirin Thai, a thai restaurant in Morristown, NJ.  The great thing about building web sites for restaurants is that when you have a meeting with the owner, you get the delicious opportunity to sample the food, a nice perk of the job.  Unfortunately, none of the customers I work with at Microsoft are in the food business.  Sirin Thai was facing a business challenge.  Customers would call to look at the menu before coming in.  Sirin Thai would then fax the menu to the customer.  This was a very resource and time consuming process.  I convinced the owner to build a web site with a menu on it, which eliminated the need to fax the menu to customers.  The business owner was thrilled and thanked me.

I felt really smart that I just made a big one-time fee for putting together this web site.  Then I started thinking about it… I would probably never get another payment out of the customer unless they needed periodic maintenance.  What I needed to do was host their web site to keep making recurring revenue.  This marked the beginning of my web hosting business.

My own web hosting company
At 15 years old, I launched my web hosting company and immediately people started signing up.  To this day, I still have no idea why these people signed up for a hosting company run by a 15 year old high school kid.  I had people sending me checks for hundreds of dollars in the mail to host their sites.  Some customers who called me were surprised when they heard my high pitched voice on the phone, but I always said “thanks for the compliment, but don’t flatter me, I sound younger than I am”. 

At one point, I received 5-10 orders a week and eventually gained up to 120 customers from all around the world.  Running the business was great experience.  It exposed me to finance, marketing, accounting, and other business areas.

Applying real-world learning to school and positioning myself for work
It was also great in school, because I could apply classroom learning to the real world.  For example, I once had a server problem and customers became very upset, and rightfully so.  Typically, the first customers to call were the ones who ran the cat web sites.  They wanted to know why the pictures of Muffles, their cat, were not showing up.  Luckily, I was taking a business communication course at the time, and I was able to craft good messaging explaining the situation.  This helped me diffuse a potentially damaging situation.

Running my web hosting company exposed me to both business and technology.  I really had more of a passion for business, and that helped make my decision to study business in school.  When Microsoft came recruiting, I thought it would offer the perfect continuation of my interest in business and technology, but with more of a focus on business.  That led me out to the west coast and a career at Microsoft.  Now when I answer the phone, I hopefully no longer sound like a 15 year old kid.