Or: How I Almost Tanked My Career
There are three things you can get from a job — good pay, learning, and fun. If you’re not getting at least two of those, then it’s time to move on. — former boss
I was a web developer. I worked for the psychiatry department of the local medical school, creating a new online system of forms to be filled out by patients. Painstakingly created by researchers in the field, some of the questionnaires went well beyond the 100-question threshhold. They attempted to give a pre-diagnosis of Substance Abuse, Depression, Schizophrenia, and other afflictions.
My job was to create the web pages that presented the multiple-choice questions, accepted the answers, and then fed the answers into a database. To accomplish this I built on the web technology skills I had developed as the systems administrator/webmaster (yes, it was a legitimate job title) at the same school’s library. A carefully crafted algorithm in the background figured out whether or not the patient had a tendency toward a given condition.
At about the time the product — NetOutcomes — was ready to go live, my six months were up. My boss printed out a letter saying “time’s up!” and I signed it to acknowledge same.
Perhaps I should have gone a little slower.
I often wonder what would have happened had I not signed it. I was a state employee, subject to all the protections and pitfalls that entails, and in my previous job I had seen that instead of shedding under-performers, supervisors typically added personnel to do what was not getting done. That didn’t describe me, and the job description had clearly stated the expectations. Still, I wondered just how much trouble I saved them by signing that paper.
I decided it was time to leave the computer geek field and try something completely different. I saw an ad for a reporter/photographer at a weekly newspaper in northwest Arkansas. Coincidentally, my wife’s family had just been laughing at the police reports in that same paper on an extended weekend vacation to the area.
I drove up and interviewed for the job and, with only a paid photojournalism internship between my freshman and sophomore years in college for formal experience, I landed it. It was scary, knowing I would be paid exactly half of what I had been earning. Finally, I would be doing for a living the two things I loved most — writing and taking pictures. And, as luck would have it, my wife got a job at a local bank, so we might actually eat a few meals here and there.
The scenery behind our rented house was breathtaking, a heavily wooded ravine that featured barred owls calling out to potential mates. A beautiful hiking trail with large bluffs and a clear stream was within a mile of the house. We finally had been delivered from a trailer home and the daily commute to Little Rock to a scenic backdrop only a three-minute drive from our respective work sites.
I quickly found that my passion for writing and photography did not translate into the mindset needed for reporting. I was assigned all the sports reporting and the property owners association (POA) meetings (it was not an incorporated city). Sure, I enjoyed the fact that satisfying my curiosity was not only encouraged but expected, and got an adrenaline rush when racing to the scene of a large structure fire or seeing evidence from a drugs and weapons bust spread out on a table. Ultimately, the columns and feature pieces were the only times I truly enjoyed the writing.
Despite my disillusionment, I stayed on and moved to the company’s nearest daily newspaper, where I was a frustrated business reporter. I say that because Wal-Mart, locally headquartered, consistently ignored my calls when David Glass stepped down as President and CEO, until after it had broken in pretty much every major news outlet in the country. I found that ironic since Jim Walton owned 51% of the paper’s publishing company.
I returned to computers in a job literally across the street, in city hall. I liked my boss, and this fast-growing city’s government was run by a bunch of hard-working people. Sadly, the pay was dismal, and within six months one of my former co-workers called to tell me she had joined a different daily paper and thought I might be interested.
We had been struggling financially, so any little bit of increased salary sounded great, and I thought I would get more satisfaction in a more general reporting job for a company not mostly owned by the world’s largest retailer. So, I left computers again for the lure of the written word. This time, photography was not an official part of the job, but neither was reporting on a privately held POA that could reveal exactly what it wanted to the press.
I quickly discovered that, yes, I would be reporting on that same POA, but there were was a small city government beat, too. Oddly enough, my former computer boss served on that city’s council. I found that I didn’t care a thing about being the one to press local figures with tough questions. I admired and learned from those who did, but it just wasn’t for me. Although I got to report on an election ultimately chosen by a coin flip, only the features truly appealed to me, and this time I didn’t have a column.
One day as I left a city council meeting, my former boss stopped me in the parking lot. “Hey, Mark, I’m about to add a Systems Administrator position. You’d get more pay and more responsibilities.”
I ended up taking the job, and it was good. Most of the PC break-and-fix and help-desk duty was being done by someone else, leaving me to concentrate on servers and network projects. My boss said, “There are three things you can get from a job — good pay, learning, and fun. If you’re not getting at least two of those, then it’s time to move on.”
That time I stayed in computers and, remembering that quote, have been in the field ever since. My job-hopping slowed considerably, and never since that first jump into journalism have I taken a job for less pay. I often wonder where I would be professionally right now had I not taken that plunge, but I also would have far fewer stories to tell, and no accompanying tightly-written narratives and professional photography to go with them.