Hi. Let me introduce myself. Of course I have a name, but for the sake of my professional career, I'll refer to myself as Mrs. A. I'm 28 years old, currently working as a data mining and software forensics expert - but have floated around virtually every job description within the technology world within my career.
Oh, and I'm also disabled. Of course I am, otherwise why would I be writing one of these? Of course it's an impediment to employment; others before me have written volumes about the challenges inherent finding suitable employment opportunities. It's not something I intend to retread upon. Instead, I offer my own story into the sordid and unique world of technology...
KosAbility is a community diary series posted at 5 PM ET every Sunday and Wednesday by volunteer diarists. This is a gathering place for people who are living with disabilities, who love someone with a disability, or who want to know more about the issues surrounding this topic. There are two parts to each diary. First, a volunteer diarist will offer their specific knowledge and insight about a topic they know intimately. Then, readers are invited to comment on what they've read and/or ask general questions about disabilities, share something they've learned, tell bad jokes, post photos, or rage about the unfairness of their situation. Our only rule is to be kind; trolls will be spayed or neutered.
I was never 'normal'. What is 'normal' anyway? I come from a Ph.D in Physics for a Dad, a mom with a J.D. and a Masters in Psychology. What would I end up doing? Well, after graduating high school, I decided to follow my heart (despite my parent's protestations) - and enrolled in flight school. The economy was just starting to recover after the Dot Com and post 9-11 recession, and I was dead set on flying commercial jets for a living.
I also splurged a little, indulging some of my student loan funds in a light blue 1985 Porsche 911. This would later turn out to be one of the most unwise decisions of my life, but at time I was on cloud nine. Fast forward a bit: I crashed the car, broke my spine, damaged my spinal cord in the process (at T5/6, complete if anyone cares) which nixed any chance I had at doing what I wanted to do for a living, and otherwise set about a completely new direction in life that I had never considered.
Note: I don't really intend to retread on life with a spinal cord injury or anything along those lines. This is more of a memoir if you will, of how things have turned, very differently, and very wonderfully - down a very different path. I've got some limitations, but that's not stopping me from having fun and enjoying life. If you want to learn about spinal cord injury and what that is like, I suggest you poke into Laurie Crosby's excellent diaries.The first few months - it's pretty darn easy to fall into a black hole of despair and let it consume you. I watched many people fall into that black hole, and I fell into it myself. I don't really have a good answer as to what, how, or why I 'snapped out of it' - but what I can say is that attitude is everything. More than everything. I know I sound like I'm spouting platitudes, and as such I'm keeping this whole section short, but attitude determines the outcome, outlook, and is a force that can completely change everything. I was laying awake in bed one night, simply boiling with anger over everything that had occurred - I had just accumulated my multi-engine rating for my license and was out on a 'victory drive' and wouldn't you know it? I overcooked a turn on a mountain back road (Page Mill Road, if anyone knows Palo Alto or the Peninsula at all) - broke the only rule of rear-engined Porsche's - never let off the gas in a turn - I did just that. The rear end snapped out, and I went off the mountain backwards. It was very fortunate that a bicyclist happened to be coming the other direction and see the accident in progress - and have a cell phone on him otherwise I might not be present to write this.
There was that, having sacrificed my whole future over a millisecond of miscalculation. That's what really burned, for me - the whole 'what if'? It's not that I couldn't let it go, it's that I didn't want to. This particular night, three months later, I would have been completing my commercial certificate and shopping myself to the regional airlines. My whole, carefully crafted plan that I'd decided on from the point that I was 12 years old had basically ceased to be an option. What to do now? I had no idea. I was something of a renaissance kid with competencies in virtually every topic imaginable - a generalist. And high school? Oh boy, I had not taken the SATs, nor had been a particularly good student due to my career choices and plans - academic prowess doesn't mean much to the FAA and holding an Airline Transport Pilot License.
So, laying in bed, thinking about all of this - it's going to sound like a cliché, but essentially a switch flicked in my brain. I decided that I had to move on. Very simple calculation that was made, and one that had it not been made, who knows what would have ended up happening? The switch flicked. Light bulb on. All sorts of new possibilities started to filter into my consciousness, as I glanced at the clock - 3AM or so. I couldn't be less tired if I tried, as I catalogued all this new activity, and new energy - more energy than I'd had in months, perhaps even years. Perhaps even as much energy as I'd had since I had figured out, back when I was 12 years old, what it was that I had wanted to do with my life - fly planes for a living. I was filled with a positive energy that couldn't exactly be quantified - just acted upon.
I moved forward, looking for an exit strategy - I knew at that point I had to continue my education in a move conventional setting, and that I had to do something that wouldn't bore me to death. I also needed to put some distance between my (now suddenly overprotective) parents and myself, and managed to, with the help of a friend who knew people in the admissions facility at University of Montana, get myself admitted under a "conditional status". That was a rather interesting period of my life - in which I disappeared off the Silicon Valley radar for a number of years. Me, at the time being Miss Social Skills, kept a low profile, head down in the work, and loaded up on as many credits as possible. Truth be told, Missoula was not a cultural match-up for me - I only had one good friend there, and I wasn't trying to make friends. A little anecdote: I was taking my good friend to the emergency room. Of course, a Mercedes E55 AMG with California license plates tends to stand out just a wee bit in Missoula, as such I was notoriously conspicuous whenever I drove anywhere. As I pulled into the emergency room parking lot, which was really small by Stanford standards, I just innocently asked, "Where's the valet parking?". She quite literally slapped me upside the head. "You idiot! This isn't Palo Alto!" That was when it really hit me... Yes, Missoula's cute, the sushi bar has the cut price Thursday deal, but I really wanna go home.
The whole excursion to Missoula was essentially me puffing up my chest after a major life changing event. I was trying to get some sort of credential to make myself employable - or at least that was how I rationalized it. I am not really sure what the whole Montana excursion was about, other than showing my parents that I could survive on my own - and the cost to my mental health was pretty high on that one. I graduated with a four year degree in 2 1/2 years, and I'm pretty sure I shaved a few years off my life with all the stress and unhealthy diet and habits and such. I gained something like 25 pounds (I weigh 135, so... that's a significant amount), and just let myself go in the quest for a credential which would make me 'employable'.
Degree done. Car packed. I was back in Palo Alto within 18 hours. Thank a number of Ritalins, Red Bulls, an Ill-Advised trip down US-93, a Valentine One and Starbucks Doubleshots for that miracle. And after that, I vegetated at my mom's house for about a week. I needed a few days off, just to relax. I started reconnecting with my high school friends - most of whom has turned into dot com executives, lawyers, or unemployed philosophers or political scientists. The last part didn't bode well for me - I my degree was in political science. One of the guys I reconnected with, Karl - we had lunch at a gyro place on University Ave. Karl had gone to Intel, and had done pretty well for himself, despite only having a year's head start on me. He asked for my resume. I snickered and provided him a (going out of fashion) floppy disk, cataloguing my aviation experience, and political science background. Karl grinned and told me not to worry, that nepotism and cronyism run deep and that they'd find something suitable for a person of my intellect.
Whaddya know, a week later, I have a technology career with a blue chip! I started out doing analysis work for quality assurance teams. Essentially, my job, with zero technical background or training, was to analyse statistical data about component and equipment failure - why certain components were being returned by vendors from raw data that was provided to me, and churn out reports to my superiors. This morphed into data mining and deeper analysis - I ended up getting dragged into meetings with actual engineers and design teams to probe failure rates and such. I ended up lasting about two years with them before I ended up just so hopelessly bored with the Intel Borg. Resistance was futile, nothing I would ever suggest would lead to an improvement in process - there's not much a single person can do at such a large organization. The money was nice. The health benefits were freaking amazing. But, I wanted to be a part of something that I could feel I was having an impact on.
Strangely enough, browsed through the job postings on Craigslist and found something that seemed a bit more interesting: Dynamic startup company, high energy, lots of fun, products that change the world: looking for somebody to take over server operations. Okay, well - I don't know a thing about server operations, but, I do have an over-inflated sense of self importance, and my IQ is at least 3 standard deviations above the norm, which is a pre-requisite for working at a dot com startup. So how hard could it be? I sent my resume in with a cover letter all but assuming I'd have the job handed to me on a silver platter. And I hear nothing but silence in return for two weeks, until I get a phone call at my cell, asking me to come by for an interview. Okay, this should be interesting - especially as I haven't disclosed my situation to them. Anyway, again for the sake of my professional career, I won't disclose who they are - other than that they were at one point linked at the hip to Google, and some of you use their browser.
I showed up for my interview at their campus - that had two floors, and no elevator. The conference room earmarked for the interview was on the second floor. Oops. Well, there were some red faces, mine included, BUT, we managed to hijack a few cubicles and meet anyway. It was a highly informal interview, and when the issue of accommodations was brought up, the CEO announced, "We've been looking for new office space - this makes it all the more urgent that we get it down to a single floor, wherever we end up."... I wasn't sure how to take that. The CEO seemed confident of herself and started talking compensation with the HR person after dismissing everyone else - no discussion of actual skills that would be necessary for the job I would be expected to do. Oh no, that would be too logical. Instead, it was an hour and a half of intellectual elitism so common around here, in which we just affirm to each other that we are as smart as we appear to be. And strangely enough, usually when people are that bright, they can do anything they put their mind to, provided they're given the resources to learn, and the consultants to hire - something I made sure to negotiate as part of my package when they took me on. I was hired on the spot. It was almost surreal - too easy.
And there was a definite down side to this company. It was like being in grade school again - all the genius level technical IQs and their 3rd grade emotional IQs all conflicting, and playing about. I'm no expert in emotional IQ here, but this place was ridiculous. Case in point: There was a particular developer, we'll call him Rod. Rod was a guy who, to put it mildly, loved Acid. His method of taking his LSD was specially treated Altoids. Rod was quite literally high, all the time. Now, we had one of our marketing people from Europe come in - we'll call him Hans. Rod and Hans, and several others, and myself all had to go over to Google for a meeting. Apparently Rod and Hans ended up carpooling together, and on the way, Rod took a few Altoids. Hans saw this, and asked for one. Rod offered three, with a chuckle. The others in the car egged him on. Hans of course had no idea what he was in for. We all reconvened at Google, to an abnormally high amount of laughter and giggling from Rod and his posse. I of course approached and asked, "What's up?" And I got the whole story. Naturally I was mortified, but at this point, telling Hans might cause more trouble than letting it just play out naturally. And so that's what happened. Meeting started... Hans started looking closely at his hands, and then looking at the projector and pie charts. He then was asked a question, as I recall it involved something about Internet Explorer's market penetration in Switzerland. Hans slowly stood from the table, his eyes sharply focused on the man who asked. "In Switzerland, they do not bother with such meaningless metrics! All life has no meaning! It is in the pursuit of meaning that one finds life has none!" Hans then left the room. Rod and his posse started giggling like the funniest thing in the world had just happened, but only half the room was in on the joke. Me, of course - I was busy tapping out an email to the CEO about what had just transpired. As far as I know, Rod faced no repercussions. I started shopping my resume around again. One final note: I find it impressive that LSD turned him into a nihilist in a single shot. He resigned the next day.
I promptly posted my resume on Craigslist - I didn't want to continue to work with those clowns.
Breaking away from the narrative a bit: We're up to late 2007 here in the timeline, and somehow I've managed to get into two high profile technology companies without any educational background for them - it's just sheer dumb luck that I can attribute it to. I'm smart, but, that's not reason enough for my luck here. And that's all it is. It's luck. I'm one lucky ducky to have been employed from college to 2007 without any interruption, especially considering the struggles virtually everyone else in my situation has been through.
Continuing on though, I got a phone call after my resume had been up after two weeks or so, asking me to come in for an interview to take over the operations of Information Systems for Flight Scheduling and Operations at a charter aviation outfit in San Jose. Huzzah! My expired Commercial license comes in handy! I show up for the interview, and things go smoothly. It's a cultural match - conservative, east coast, blue blood. I'm in heaven. They like me. I get a call back later in the day asking to return for a second round of interviews, and after the second round, I get a job offer on the spot. This turned out to be the most technically challenging job I ever had - I didn't have the support of consultants, nor the time to learn things that I had at both Intel and the web browser outfit. I was the administrator of the servers that tracked the whole operation of the airline - where planes were flying, who was flying them, who was crewing them, how many hours they had slept, how many maintenance cycles the planes had left before they were due for checks, how many hours had lapsed between the last training checks, if the passengers on the manifest were on the TSA no-fly list(lots and lots of Abdul's at the very top of it), and so on. I was in my element - I'd finally found something that allowed me to leverage a passion I had along with some new found skills I had acquired and built - and was really a very good gig - up until the economy tanked.
The specific moment that killed the company was when all the auto industry executives flew to Washington in their private jets to beg for a bailout - and the outrage. Suddenly our business went dead, and nobody was flying anywhere any longer. The company managed to hold on for another several months, but we shut down in May, 2009. I was one of the last ones left - as long as there was a plane in the air, I had to be around to verify and ensure the integrity of the system. But in the end, that was that.
Of course I put my resume up and started job hunting immediately, but job hunting in that environment was a non-starter, and companies were not looking to take on somebody like me - which is an extra liability. The simple fact is, I cost extra. In terms of salary, I'm the same as everyone else, but when it comes to healthcare expenditures, I'm pretty damn expensive. I know for a fact that at my current company, a startup of 25 people, which I've now been at for a year - after putting me onto the company health plan, company wide healthcare expenditures have risen 5-fold. That's not an insignificant sum... that's actually a very major sum. It's fortunate that I'm profitable enough to them to offset this - because the company is eating a huge increase in costs (the company is taking 90%, and passing 10% of the increase to the employees) - and also increasing the employee contribution amount this year. Most everyone knows it's me that has done it, and they're quite polite about it. Yes, I'm the reason they're seeing an $80 hit in their monthly paychecks. C'est la vie.
One of the fantastic things that did come out of this job was that I got to travel - and one of these excursions led to me meeting my future husband. The company, right around the time the economy tanked - we were going on a buying binge, eating up other aviation firms and so on. Part of my duties during this involved merging and reconciling their flight management systems into the master system in San Jose - and during one of my trips to a company we'd purchased in Van Nuys, I was very very bored, and posted up a Craigslist personals advert. Notice a recurring thread here - I use Craigslist a lot - and a lot of good things have come out of it for me. Anyway, I met him at a Starbucks to make sure he wasn't Hannibal Lecter, of course didn't disclose anything about myself - I figure I'll slap any guy in the face with it, and if they have an issue with it, best to know immediately. I get to the Starbucks a few minutes early, park in the handicap space, pop open the door to the Merc, and start putting the chair together - transfer out, lock the car up - and I notice my rendezvous is sitting outside sipping a latte, watching the whole spectacle with a smirk. I roll up, and before I can say anything, he tells me, "Nice car." Love at first sight. We spent the next 3 hours talking - before being asked out on a formal date. I put 270,000 miles on the E55 driving between Palo Alto and Santa Monica the next few years before we tied the knot and he moved up with me.
But, anyway, I was unemployed for a year. I had to move back in with my mother - depleted my savings on medical expenses (egads, even subsidized COBRA was expensive), fuel (140,000+ miles with a 5.5 litre supercharged V8 - at $4ish a gallon - do the math - though the hubby-to-be covered a lot of it) and other "Silicon Valley" expenses - iPhone 4, MacBook Air... unfortunately it's a superficial world, and when you live a block away from the Jobs Estate, it's a necessary expense needed to stay relevant.
I finally got a job lead with a company in Sunnyvale - I was pretty desperate at this point - was on my second unemployment extension, starting to give serious thought to selling the car and getting something less expensive to operate. For me, that was the apocalypse - I couldn't fly planes, but I damn well was going to drive something that said V8 KOMPRESSOR on the fenders and could beat a Boeing 737 to 155 miles per hour. And I spent the last years of my life working off the grossly misappropriated student loan that paid for it... I didn't want to let that monument to gross misspending be sold. I went in for the interview. It was a technology sweatshop, and frankly was beneath me. The job skills were menial, the pay was a third of what I had been making prior. At least I had decent healthcare coverage. I was answering the phone taking basic technical support phone calls. Within a month I established myself as a superstar on the team, racking up the highest client satisfaction statistics on the entire team of 70 people, and amid multiple promises of immediate promotion, I kept working and maintaining that. As quickly as I established my superstar reputation, I burned out and established myself as a malcontent. I managed to maintain the client satisfaction numbers, but my throughput fell. I publicly attacked the Russian owned management as the Politburo and things rather rapidly declined from there. After 11 months, I called in sick and declared myself "on disability", and hastily scheduled a surgery I had been putting off. I was able to schedule the surgery as far out as possible - and then call in sick the day before the surgery, and schedule it as far out again. In sum, I was able to do that for about 5 months before the company officially dismissed me, and the day FedEx arrived with my termination papers, I was pumping my hands in the air with glee! Whee! Freedom!
Then my dire reality set in: I had worked 11 months, at a third the pay, after depleting my savings - while my costs had remained more or less constant. I had virtually nothing in the bank. I put my resume on Craigslist immediately and started searching again - another period of unemployment, and this time I couldn't claim UE. I tried, but the company contested it, and won. I barely hung on financially during this time. My fiancé (at the time), fortunately a finance executive who is rather flush with funds was able to keep me afloat. See, there's that luck thing again...
While searching, I ended up interviewing with Facebook. I sort of knew, going into it, it would be exactly like the browser outfit several years prior - but I wasn't in any position to be picky. I went for the interview. It went surprisingly well - sort of like the browser one five years prior. I got asked back for a second round - which again, went really really well. I was asked to a third round. Okay, maybe I'm in? I show up for the third round, we're all congregating around a conference room table - and in walks a former Browser Executive, we'll call him Bob. He never really liked me, and his very last memory of me is of me breaking his Blackberry before I left. Bob made eye contact with me - said nothing, turned on his heel and left the room. Well, that was it for Facebook.
The day after, I got a phone call from the VP and Founder of a startup company, who had found my resume on Craigslist, telling me that he wanted me to come in for an interview. The company was a startup that specialized in data mining and digital forensics - and needed an analyst who had a wide array of experience - and that I fit the profile of somebody who would be a good candidate to do the type of work. He also emphasized that there isn't a single person who comes in off the street able to do the type of work that's done - that there's a minimum of several months of training required to make somebody effective in the role. I kept an open mind, and went in for the interview... and the rest is history. That was a year ago. Also got married a year ago.
What's my point by writing all this?
There aren't any limits, not really.
You can do whatever you want. It's a total cliché, I know it. You have to change and lower your expectations - that's a given. Your expectations do change; what you hope to accomplish has to change. And I also write this from the perspective of somebody with an acquired disability - I can't as easily adopt the stance of somebody who has had a life long condition, and I won't try. But, there's a certain, let's call it Mental Kabuki that I had to do in order to adopt my circumstance and work within the framework I've been given - and make the most of it.
I've acknowledged this before, too - I'm also an exceptionally lucky person, and I've lived a blessed life. I'm not religious either, so understand what it takes for me to acknowledge that. Everything has fallen into place at the right time - but it wouldn't have if I didn't have the mental flexibility to work with what I had to work with. I suppose that's my whole point. I wish I had a more poignant conclusion, but I'll close here: we all have our circumstances, issues, problems and demons. Ultimately, how you choose to deal with the circumstance gives you a greater degree of control than you might think at first blush. Revel in that - and use it. You can create your destiny within reason.