Trust me, it’s closer than you think
When I graduated from engineering school, I didn’t have a clue about what I wanted to do. The summer before my final year of classes, I had worked in Houston for Humble Oil, soon to become Exxon, and at the end of the summer they’d offered me a job based on an oil-gas separator that I’d designed during my time there. But their lead engineer was a total jerk, and I couldn’t imagine spending my days working for that guy. Besides, the most rewarding part of that summer for me had been buying a wrecked Jaguar XKE and rebuilding it on nights and weekends.
That was the kind of work I loved, and for years I’d looked forward to becoming a mechanical engineer so I could spend my life doing things like that. There was even a point in my younger days when I thought the best job in the world was being a race car mechanic. Engines, speed, the elegance of solving mechanical problems—that’s what I was looking for. But in job interviews during my final spring semester, I hadn’t been offered anything I thought could sustain my interest. IBM flew me down to Cape Canaveral to talk about a rocket job. On the surface, it sounded glamorous, but it turned out they needed a mechanical engineer mainly to design frames to support their banks of computers. I also interviewed with Mobil, again in Texas, and they were offering maybe 40 percent higher pay than I could expect from most starting engineer jobs. But pay wasn’t my main motivation; the job itself felt like a glorified sales job.
My big hope was Texas Instruments, which was doing interesting things in those days. They invited me down to see them and I liked their building—very modern, sleek partitions, a smart solution to an office problem. I met with the engineering team and we were having a stimulating conversation. “So how would you solve this problem?” they would say, and I would explain how I would go about it. I was getting excited about these guys, about being part of their team. Then a bell rang somewhere in the office. “Coffee break!” they said. “We go to coffee now.”
“What?” I said. “You have a coffee bell?”
“Yeah, we get exactly 15 minutes, then we have to be back.”
Just like elementary school. Later I found out they also had a lunch bell and a time-to-go-home bell. It was too depressing to think about.
So as my classmates were packing up to move on to the next stage of their lives, I was sitting around the engineering fraternity house telling a buddy my tale of woe—how I had all these job offers and didn’t want any of them. “Well,” he said, “I’ve just made my decision—I’m going to work for IBM in Little Rock.”
“What’ll you do for them?” I said. Even though I’d interviewed for that engineering spot with IBM at Cape Canaveral, I really didn’t know much about the company.
“They sell and install computers,” he said, “and I’m going to be a computer systems engineer. Writing programs, developing software, stuff like that.”
This came as a revelation. No doubt I paid special attention because the guy talking, Randy Stewart, had a formidable brain—he was a starting Arkansas Razorback football player but also an Academic All-American, and I respected him greatly. Because of that, something about his words “computer systems engineer” hit me like a bolt of lightning. For years I’d been pursuing a single-minded hardware dream, allowing no alien options into my line of vision. Now, thanks to Randy, I felt like I had just shed my blinders.
“How’d you get hooked up with them?”
“They interviewed on campus twice this spring. In fact, they’re here today, probably for the last time this year. I just stopped by the interview room to check in with them.”
At that point, I sprang from my chair and dashed out the door, sprinting across campus as fast as I could. I was dressed like a slob, but there was no time to change. I had to catch the IBM recruiter and get in on this new thing, the only stimulating idea I’d heard in months.
When I reached the interview room, there was only one IBM rep still there—but he was the top guy; all his colleagues had already packed up and gone. If I’d been five minutes later, all I would’ve found was an empty room. “I was just about to walk out the door,” said Bob Oliver. His briefcase was already buckled shut.
Out of breath, I blurted Randy Stewart’s name and said Randy had urged me to see him. “I never even thought about working for IBM,” I said. “But will you talk to me?”
Bob looked at his watch. “Yeah, okay, I’ve got a few minutes,” and he sat back down at the desk.
I WORKED AT IBM for six years, and for a long time I loved it. I was especially happy when, after two years, I got transferred to the Fayetteville office to oversee the installation of the biggest computer in the state, at the University of Arkansas.
Working in Fayetteville was great. It was an office of about 20 people, but only two of us were in computers; the rest were in the services group or the typewriter section. This meant I was essentially my own boss on a day-to-day basis; my time was now free for me to allocate as I saw fit, with no interference from my anal boss in the Little Rock office.
It was in Fayetteville that I changed my work style: Instead of working hard, like I had in Little Rock, I now made a point of working smart. They didn’t need to know the ins and outs of my day—all they needed to see were results. IBM had decided they were going to make guys like me available for hire if a customer wanted us as a consultant. As it turned out, I was the top-billing systems engineer in the state, and more customers wanted to hire me. So, in addition to doing a good job for the University on its computer installation, I made sure I took care of my clients, which included Daisy Air Rifle and a little up-and-coming company called Walmart. I also occasionally accompanied the other computer guy, sales rep Jim Hefley, to call on prospective customers. But once my work was done, I was on my own time. Alex Dietz, a colleague in the Little Rock office, had introduced me to motocross racing, and I was hooked. So in Fayetteville, far from my boss’ sightlines, I often knocked off early to take my motorcycle out to the dirt track to indulge my new passion.
And what was the fallout from that? Two years in a row—1969 and 1970—I was named IBM’s Top Systems Engineer in all of Arkansas. They presented the award at a big banquet in Little Rock. Even though I knew I was taking care of business, I was totally surprised when they called my name that first year. IBM had also nearly doubled my salary over the time I’d been with them. To me, it just reinforced this evolving philosophy of mine: Results are all that matter.
At the beginning of 1971, IBM sent me to a three-month school in New York City. Called the Systems Research Institute, it was a sort of master’s degree program that only a few IBM people worldwide were invited to attend. It was mostly for non-management professionals who planned to stay with the company, as well as for younger guys like me on the road to promotion. It was quite an honor to be asked to go.
The idea of SRI was to give attendees a chance to get away from everyday concerns and turn their minds to Big Thoughts. The company brought in high-priced talent to teach the courses, which ranged from logic to the future of computing to the future of the world. They wanted smart, big-thinking people working for IBM—people who could make a difference for the company long term—and this course was a chance to get smart people together in the same room and let the synergy happen. You get a little philosophical at times like this. For three months, I didn’t think motorcycle racing; I didn’t think Walmart. I was like, “Wow, hmm, what does this mean? What does it mean to the world? What does it mean to me?”
In the middle of that three-month course, I was surprised when my boss asked me to take a couple of days off to meet him at IBM’s annual sales and systems engineering symposium in Atlanta. All the top systems engineers from around the country would be there, and again, it was an honor to be invited. Even so, I was shocked to suddenly hear my name spoken from the podium; I was being called up to accept one of the national awards for systems engineers. My boss was beaming.
And here’s where this story gets interesting, from the perspective of this theme of careers. Flying back to New York to finish SRI school, I found myself feeling…uneasy. I loved the work at IBM, but all these awards I’d won were beginning to weigh on me. I was starting to feel a subtle pressure about my future, a topic I hadn’t given much thought to. Now I felt a twinge of urgency: Was IBM where I wanted to be for the long haul?
After SRI school, I took the train to Connecticut to visit my old colleague Jim Hefley, who’d been promoted from the Fayetteville office to IBM’s corporate headquarters in White Plains, New York. I wanted to know what it was like to breathe such rarefied air. What I heard was discouraging. Jim seemed to spend most of his days making presentations to various divisions of IBM, trying to convince them to support data processing’s latest product. He was a lobbyist in his own company.
I returned to Fayetteville a wiser man, but not in the way IBM had intended. I’d turned 28 in New York—time was slipping by. I’d always had a propensity for projecting myself into the future. Now I applied the template of time to everything around me: Do I want to be lugging this briefcase to meetings with Walmart 20 years from now? It was an unanswerable question.
But time is elastic. Some days I felt an imminent worry, other days I could banish the questions from my mind. I lived that way for the next six months. Then, in mid-October 1971, I received word that I’d been selected to attend a two-day class in New Orleans. It was a class about how to plan your career, and everyone at IBM knew it was a precursor to promotion. You might not get promoted immediately, but this “career class” was a tip-off that you were on the fast track and would likely receive a promotion within a year or so.
The class was held right before Thanksgiving. I remember nothing substantive about the class itself, but the instructor’s opening words have never left me: “You’ve got to think about the rest of your life,” he said. “All of you are likely to be promoted within the next few years, and you really need to decide what you want to do. You need to have a strategic planning session with yourself. This isn’t a group session, but you do need to coordinate it with your family. Family wishes are key here. So I suggest that the only good way to do this is to get away by yourself for at least one day, with a pen and a notepad, and write down what’s important to you, what the issues are in your life. You’ve got to write stuff down, and you have to articulate it, or it’s not real.”
The instructor’s admonitions about family really hit home with me. The joke was that IBM stood for I’ve Been Moved—climbing the corporate ladder meant that you had to be willing to relocate every couple of years for up to a decade. I was married by then, and I knew my wife would have trouble with that. She was a good soldier, she would go, but she wouldn’t do well at it. So staying with IBM was a domestic disaster in the making. If IBM was my choice, I might as well file for divorce right now, because that would be the inevitable result.
But marriage aside, one thing I really feared was being promoted out of the work I loved. It occurred to me to tell IBM I wanted to stay in the field a few more years and then I would move up the ladder. But would I be ready then? Was I just procrastinating?
When I came back to Fayetteville after that New Orleans class, I took the instructor’s words to heart. I rented a motel room and spent a day in it all by myself. For about six hours I sat in a chair at the little desk and filled several pages in a yellow notepad—what I liked about my work, what I didn’t like, what my options were. I was writing some cool software and tackling meaty tech problems in my present job, but if I lifted my sights for a second and really looked at what my boss did all day, and what my boss’s boss did, the probability of such a future felt downright dispiriting. I imagined myself doing two years in Birmingham, two more in Cincinnati, another two in Tucson, then two more in some place like Armonk, New York—all on my long slog up to White Plains, the crowning glory of IBM Lifers. I saw myself sitting in a sequence of increasingly larger offices and managing bigger and bigger budgets and making more important presentations, but not really doing anything, as in creating something. The more I thought about it, the more terrified I became. I can’t do that, I told myself.
That day I spent in that Fayetteville motel room taking inventory was a real eye-opener. It forced me to face who I really am and what I really love, and it confirmed what I’d been feeling—that I was approaching a crucial crossroads. At moments like this, you either choose what feels authentic to you, or you find yourself on the path to unhappiness. What was I going to do?
And then I thought: Alex Dietz. We still raced motocross together, still talked all the time, but a couple of years earlier, Alex had left IBM for a small startup company called Demographics. Based in Conway, Demographics was a “service bureau,” which means it rented out its computer services to other companies. Alex had tried repeatedly to get me to join him, but I’d told him I was still happy at IBM. That was true, but I also looked down on service bureaus, which for tech companies were the bottom of the barrel. And yet it was a lean young company, entrepreneurial in spirit, still making it up as they went. Hadn’t I flourished in Fayetteville, where I was basically my own boss? In this new light, the service bureau looked vastly more attractive.
To near-universal disbelief, I submitted my resignation from IBM before the end of the year and started my new career at Demographics in January 1972, running the company as a co-equal with Alex Dietz. Our success was anything but certain, and we experienced many, many hard times. But every day when I went to work, I felt alive and in the right place, and the future confirmed that instinct. Demographics was the company we would eventually grow into the blockbuster called Acxiom.
THE YEAR 2022 marks half a century since I made that crucial career move, and I’m no longer a young man worried about my own future. But over these past 50 years, both at Acxiom and now at First Orion, I’ve hired and worked with and nurtured several generations of talented young tech professionals. The world has changed drastically since I was coming up; today’s graduates, and even the self-taught tech whizzes, are brighter and better educated and more capable than ever. And yet I submit that the advice given to me by that IBM careers course instructor half a century ago isn’t just a lesson from the Dark Ages. It is, in fact, a lesson for the Ages: Think about your future. Actively think about it. What do you love? What do you not love? Where do you want to be in 10 years, 15 years, 25 years? I’ve put those questions to many a young hire, and most of the time it just blows their minds. “The future? You mean like next week?”
But let’s talk about why that advice remains so important. There are two parts to that answer—your part (that is, you young up-and-coming tech professionals) and my part (as an employer of young up-and-coming tech professionals). Getting your part right helps both of us. Returning for a moment to my situation at IBM all those decades ago, I was just blissfully going along, doing work I liked, getting raises, having lots of free time…. It was a nice external work situation that I was enjoying without thinking much about it. But here’s the thing about external work situations. They’re a little like being on a carousel: Inevitably, at some point, the music stops. A new boss comes in. A product is discontinued. A company changes direction. You get promoted out of the work you love. And a new external work situation begins.
The reason you need to conduct that written, spoken, consciously-thought-out strategic self-examination early in your career is so you’ll be grounded whenever that music stops. At Demographics, we experienced many a change of direction and of fortune, and yet I never once felt that I should go somewhere else. Early on, I had realized that I like building things, whether it’s an office tower or a mobile phone app or a business. I like leading people and inspiring them to reach higher and try new things. I like getting up every day and solving problems with cutting-edge technology. Demographics gave me all that in spades, so no matter how bad a day I might’ve occasionally had, I knew I was on my right path.
As an employer, I want to hire committed, self-aware people who know what they need from their work to fulfill them and who are convinced that they can build their skills and have a rewarding career at our company. This doesn’t mean they’ll never go to work for someone else, or even change careers; but it does mean they’ll be fully aware of why they’re making those decisions.
The problem hires turn out to be the ones who haven’t asked themselves the hard questions about what makes them want to get up in the morning, so they’re likely to have their heads turned at the slightest new thing. Ask where they see themselves in 10 years, and they’ll say, “I want to be a boss.” Or, “I want to be making a ton of money.” Those aren’t thought-out goals. No telling how many miserable lawyers I know who chose that profession because they could make a lot of money. But money doesn’t bring fulfillment; meaning does.
The happiest, most successful people I know have an internal compass that guides them, and sometimes it takes some casting about before you find your true north. You’ve got to identify that thing that compels you every single day. If you’re pursuing a tech career because you’ve always loved playing video games, well, sorry—you’re not going to get paid a lot of money doing just that. But what is it about video games that makes you love them so? Is it the fast action? The problem solving? The going it alone? Isolate your sweet spot in that process and then channel it into a career that gives you that high day in and day out. Find what you like and then pursue the heck out of that.
There are thousands of technology companies out there today, and somewhere there’s a company or a startup that’s just right for every passion. For example, at First Orion we’re working with a really interesting little company in North Carolina’s Research Triangle that revels in solving extremely complicated software engineering problems. I say “little company”—it’s 14 people, and they know exactly who they want to hire. Their employees are likely to have worked for larger companies and hated it. They detest meetings. They can’t stand teams. They’re repelled by talking to other people, especially customers. All these brilliant tech geeks want to do is be given challenging problems and the freedom to go write software and build stuff they can feel good about building. They just want to go off and do their projects. So whatever you like to do or don’t like to do, there’s a niche for you out there. But the first move—knowing yourself—is up to you.
I’ll close on the crass old subject of money. At First Orion, we give our people stock options. If this company turns out to be as successful as I think it’s going to be, everyone who works here now can eventually be a millionaire. Everyone. I know that’s crazy, but you build long-term wealth by small beginnings. And yet we’ve had people walk away from our big stock option grants in order to get $20,000 more a year in salary.
I understand that; we all have our current pressures. But after tax they’ll make $75,000 but give up $5 million. Just another little reason for taking the long view.
Charles D. Morgan is the CEO of First Orion. Parts of this article were adapted from passages in his book “Matters of Life and Data: The Remarkable Journey of a Big Data Visionary Whose Work Impacted Millions (Including You)”; Morgan James Publishing, 2015