Making It In the So-Called Real World

I celebrated ten years in New York City in March. It’s a time for reflection. I have a lot of time to reflect as I ride my bus out of Manhattan and down into Brooklyn. Sometimes, if I leave early enough, I catch the sunset over the water. Life is good. But it was a long, hard road to get here.

I was so unprepared. For so many things. When my faith crumbled, I didn’t know how to rebuild something in its place. And there were practical matters to attend to. Life had to be lived. Bills had to be paid. So that raised a more pressing, immediate question.

What the Hell Do I Do with a Degree in Evangelism?

Sure, I can laugh now. But after six years of college and grad school, I couldn’t even land a telemarketing job.

I have a Master’s degree devoted to convincing people to embrace a religion I no longer believe. Talk about non-transferable skills. 

Over the years, I’ve met former pastors, priests, and rabbis who made the same transition. They moved from the spiritual world into the mundane; from a life of faith and service into a life concerned with jockeying for professional advancement, and a better salary. It feels like jumping out of an airplane, and knitting your parachute on the way down. 

Life after faith is often crippled by the lingering wounds of departure. We are left with a sense of failure, of not having what it takes, of being the doubter or black sheep. But there is also the jarring difference between the education and skill set we spent years building up, and the job expectations of the so-called real world. Most of us are unprepared for this transition. The longer you’ve been in, the harder it is to leave.

This is my particular journey.  

I went from a budding evangelist and academic wonk to a Security Analyst in the financial sector. I’m a digital forensics investigator who wanted to be the next C.S. Lewis. Along the way, I worked as a chimney sweep, an electrician, cabling guy, a QA researcher, a PC technician, and a systems administrator. 

I had no plan at the beginning. I took no computer science classes in college. I was terrible in math. If there were any obvious paths to a successful career in information security (also called infosec), I avoided them all. I like to joke that the only skill I brought into my new field was a willingness to RTFM. (More on that in a second.)

Grab Whatever You Can Find

In response to a fan letter, Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobs once said this to a man looking for the perfect career:

Stop looking for the “right” career, and start looking for a job. Any job. Forget about what you like. Focus on what’s available. Get yourself hired. Show up early. Stay late. Volunteer for the scut work. Become indispensable. You can always quit later, and be no worse off than you are today. But don’t waste another year looking for a career that doesn’t exist. And most of all, stop worrying about your happiness. Happiness does not come from a job. It comes from knowing what you truly value, and behaving in a way that’s consistent with those beliefs.

That’s the best advice I’ve ever read. I read it years after I needed it. By then, I’d already lived it.

In my post-faith life, I was in free-fall and I grabbed at any job like a drowning man reaching for a life-preserver. My writing and journalism skills yielded no work. My ministry degree was useless. Through a friend, I heard about an opportunity. A small company that bought and sold used Caterpillar construction equipment needed someone to fix their computers and run their website. They were willing to let me learn as I went. The days were usually 10 to 12 hours long, but it made the difference between paying the rent and being evicted. 

I’d always felt my job would be some sort of calling. Finding it would be a difficult journey, but in my mind’s eye it would be a noble, spiritual path with important lessons for my growth. Like a warm sweater, I’d unpack it and slip it on. And it would suit me.

In the real world, a job was whatever I could find to survive. Failure was the cold bucket of water constantly splashed in my face.

This was the late 90s, so the IT field was wide open to anyone willing to sit down and read the documentation for personal computers or networks. Often, computers still came with actual paper manuals back then. This seems quaint, now.  But this is where the phrase RTFM comes from: Read the fucking manual. Tier 1 phone support techs would sometimes direct you to particular pages in the manuals on a support call. Studying theology, I learned to pay close attention to obscure texts. This skill was finally useful! I waded through the Summa Theologica. I could handle any book on TCP/IP networking.

I learned to view my growing skill set as a toolbox. I could write, I learned about computer hardware, I studied systems engineering and routers/switches, I understood security and investigative work, and I studied law and risk analysis. Because no job – indeed, hardly any career – can be seen as a permanent thing these days, it’s more important to have as many tools for different situations as I can. I learned to identify what I understand, and how quickly I could pick up new knowledge. You never know which tool will make the difference between a call-back and a thanks-but-no email. If the field you’re in dries up or burns down, you need to be able to find another one. It never ends.

Find Out What’s Selling, and Take Classes on Everything

I learned to start asking recruiters was what skills were selling in my area. Recruiting companies often have their finger on the pulse of what employers are looking for in entry-level jobs.

It quickly became apparent that most of the last five years I’d spent studying literature, philosophy, journalism, and theology were a huge waste of time for finding a job. But the one skill I had was the ability to sit through lectures, take notes, and remember what I learned. Every weekend, I took classes in anything I could find: computer hardware, Cat 5 cabling and fiber optics terminations, HTML programming, Microsoft Office, networking, desktop publishing. Later, I focused on more advanced and specific skills like systems engineering, and tactical SIEM analysis. Along the way, I’ve studied law, investigative techniques, loss prevention and risk analysis, systems architecture, digital forensics, evidence handling, and court testimony.  

At the beginning, I had no idea which skill or which class would translate into a job, so I took everything. People without degrees were common at that point in IT, so possessing several irrelevant degrees didn’t affect me as a positive or a negative. After my first year, I was an A+ certified PC technician and a Novell LAN administrator. I started taking Microsoft classes, and earned my MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer). Recruiters guided me toward certain paths, toward Microsoft products, and away from others. When I first started, Novell products were seen as equal to Microsoft. But a lot of recruiters said Novell was on the way out, so I didn’t take their classes.

I learned I could start over. I did it once. I could do it again, if needed. I could start at zero and learn my way into a new field. Since then, I’ve had to do it several times.

Learning to Interview

I scoffed the first time I heard the phrase, “Sell yourself.” People should just recognize my willingness to work, even if I had nothing to offer. That naïve arrogance got kicked out of me pretty quickly.

For several years, I imagined myself going back to academia, and getting my PhD. This technical stuff was something I did to make it back to where I belonged. I learned to talk as if I cared about it. Fake it until you make it, someone told me. It’s a bad attitude to have, but a useful skill to acquire. Even enjoyable work can drag and feel like a burden.

If this sounds snooty and condescending, it was. But I was transitioning out of a way of life where I imagined myself as something big and grand and important. No matter how much false humility I slathered on top of my ambitions, I certainly didn’t see myself wiring networks or fixing computers when I graduated from college. I was a dumb kid with a lot of lessons to learn. I had a hard head, too, which meant I took a long time to learn those lessons.

My father used to tell me a joke about two farmers and a mule. One farmer bought the mule, and handed over his money. But then he demanded the money back, because the mule refused to pay attention to what he said. The farmer selling the mule picked up a board, and whacked the mule in the head as hard as he could.

“First thing,” he explained. “You have to get his attention.”

It took me a long time before I realized my dad was talking about me.

One of those lessons was how to interview. Good interviewing is mostly about being comfortable with people. You need to learn the lingo of whatever field you’re trying to break into. I learned to talk with AT&T linemen and electricians during a stint with Honeywell in their corporate security division. I learned to string cable with fish tape and duck butter, and signed up as a low voltage electrician’s apprentice. I learned to talk the talk, because I had to.

Good interviewing also involves learning that most interviews will not lead to a job. It’s like speed-dating. When that perfect job passes you by, you have to dust yourself off and start plugging again. It sounds easy to say that, especially when you need the job so badly. Sometimes, the rejection is soul-crushing, especially if your current job sucks and you’re trying to get out. There isn’t another choice, though.

My ability to plow through manuals and listen to journeyman techs sustained me. But if I didn’t learn to interview, and sell myself, those skills were fruitless. Of all the tools I needed to develop in the so-called real world, good interviewing was #1.

And there was only one way to learn.

I went on interviews constantly. That’s it. There is no other way. I interviewed for jobs I didn’t want. I took notes afterward, and analyzed what I did right and what I did wrong. I still try to interview at least two or three times per year, even when I’m not looking for a job. To stay sharp.

I learned to recognize when interviewers didn’t care about the interview, and probably had an internal candidate already selected. I learned to find that one hook, and discover what talents they were looking for, and pivot a spiraling interview into a good one. I learned to stand up in the middle of a bad interview, and tell the person I was done because I didn’t want the job. I learned to know I could do better, and recognize if the job they were selling was crap. I learned to recognize a good job, and bring every tool in my toolbox to bear on getting it. All of these skills can be developed over time. I know, because I’ve done it.

When I came to New York City, I interviewed every day. The most interviews I’ve ever done is five in one day. Phone screens, cold calls, in-person walk-ins. You get better at it. And you learn to shrug off rejection. Reading is helpful, but interviewing is a hands-on skill. You learn by doing.

Sometimes, It’s Just Luck

Sysadmins and network admins are taking a real beating in the current job market. Between outsourcing, automation, and cloud infrastructures putting us out of work, it’s a field that’s burning down. The guy who replaced me from the Managed Service Provider (or MSP) at one of my jobs was 26 years old. It was his first job out of college. IT is still an open field, but that window is closing as more people graduate with degrees in this stuff. I’ve met high school students who know more about networking in their teens than I did in my late 20s.

Fortunately, I transitioned into information security. That opportunity, like so many before, was simple dumb luck. I was manning the phones one day, when I received a call from the FBI. A special agent from their cyber operations team informed me that our network had been breached by operators working for the Chinese government. I landed a position on the clean-up team. My employer paid for graduate courses at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in digital forensics and cybersecurity. That field is exploding. 

It was luck, but I grabbed it when it came along. 

You will find your way back to your true loves

I was crushed when I gave up my hopes of teaching, ministry, and writing. For whatever hubris I may have possessed, I truly loved literature and learning. The classroom is a holy place to me. I love watching students grow. That moment where understanding blossoms is something I live for. 

Teaching in the college humanities has experienced an apocalypse in the last twenty years, but other opportunities came my way. I’ve taught high school students about computer hardware. I’ve lectured on state-sponsored cyber operations and intrusion techniques in NYC and Washington, DC. A paper I wrote was circulated in the FBI. For a time, I traveled for a lumber company and taught basic computer skills to workers in remote offices in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Michigan. A man in his 60s sent the first email of his entire life in one of my classes. The whole class applauded him.

I will probably never teach Beowulf, but opportunities to teach technology and security don’t even have enough warm bodies to fill all of the seats.

Now that my career is a bit more settled, and less focused on bare-bones survival, I’ve been able to focus on classes I want to take. One of the advantages of New York City is the largest cluster of major colleges, universities and graduate schools per square mile of almost any city in the USA. Once I learned to identify myself as a “non-matriculating” student, I found plenty of schools willing to let me attend lectures in almost any subject I could imagine. The CUNY Graduate Center has a Master’s degree in liberal studies. I’ve taken courses in the medieval studies department at Fordham University in the Bronx. I’ve attended classes in Post-World War 2 Italian film, and medieval travel literature. I’ve also branched out of my liberal arts beginnings, and developed my interests in martial arts, by studying Aikido, Western boxing, Muay Thai, Brazilian Jujitsu, and Iaido. I’ve developed my cooking talents in cooking classes. If I wanted to be a perpetual student, I definitely found my home.

Along the way, I found a field I enjoy, and opportunities to teach what I’ve learned.

No One Path

That’s my story.

There is no single path into finding employment after you leave the ministry. Not everyone enjoys computers. I wasn’t ordained, so I didn’t have access to The Clergy Project. But I hear they are doing good work helping ministers, priests, and rabbis transition into secular work. I know former religious workers who’ve found positions in sales, technical writing, insurance, social work. There are as many paths as there are people who walk them. 

I’ve learned to put other tools in my toolbox. I know how to pick myself up and move forward after I’ve been fired. This is never easy. I’ve learned to identify the weaknesses in my skill set. But this is how I got started.