I’m going to attempt to make this as brief as possible, but for any of those who know me or have heard me publically speak before, you know that I tend to ramble and tell stories. However, I thought this would be a GREAT way for those of you getting to know me to understand my background and how I got to where I’m at today.
I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago as a child. My father was a carpenter during the summers and did HVAC in the winters when he was laid off due to lack of work in construction. My mother, from what I recall, worked evenings cleaning offices and what not. We lived a suburban blue collar family life…and it was great! Flashlight tag and endless summer nights running around the neighborhood with friends. Not a care in the world.
It wasn’t until my parents divorced, when I was 9 or 10, that my childhood took on a different direction and shaped me to what I am today. I lived with my mother which is a proud Italian. She never wanted to admit the fact, or at least show it as a parent, that we were poor. We moved every year from apartment complex to apartment complex. Each year, we progressively moved down the socio-economic food chain. She worked several jobs just to provide for us. We couldn’t afford the brand name labels but she always did the best that she could. As an adult looking back, I am eternally grateful. As a child, I’ll always remember not being part of the “in crowd” and living in government assisted housing.
I started programming when I was a sophomore in high school. I did all different types of languages such as RPG, Cobol, Assembler, Basic, and Ada. I tend to think of my age group as the first wave of structured programmers going through the public educational system. I was a mediocre student at best. I was “middle of the pack; not really excelling at any given subject. Ironically, math was a subject which I struggled with the most. Was I just a modest student which did enough to get by or was I just not engaged in my learning?
As I look back, I recall some of my classmates going down to their guidance counselors to speak about college. However, I don’t have any memories of having those conversations with mine. Was it that I knew or my counselor knew that I wasn’t “college material” or couldn’t afford college? I never really thought of college because I knew I nor my mother could afford it. None the less, I graduated 1002 out of a class of over 2000 in 1985.
Now that I was out of school, I needed to shoulder my weight in the household. My father got me a construction job as a manual laborer. I did that for a year but I knew in my heart that this wasn’t my destiny in life. I worked with a guy who was a Marine in Beirut. We spoke a lot over lunch about his life as a U.S. Marine. In 1986, I enlisted into the United States Marine Corps.
I wasn’t in the Marines to gain any tangible skills. Heck, I shot things and blew things up being part of an infantry unit. The skills which I learned as a Marine was the motivation, drive and discipline which was inside of me. They honed and worked these muscles until they had laser precision. I wanted to make this my career until during my second enlistment I was discharged medically.
With my “new found skills”, I returned back home and went to college. Looking back at what I enjoyed, I pursued a degree in Computer Science and Criminal Justice. An odd combination, don’t you think? Not for me! I enjoyed how computers had evolved and the notion of “protect and serve” a community was a noble cause I drew from as a Marine. These skills would take me on a journey towards a life goal of going to law school for computer software patent law.
As I did my undergrad, I gravitated more and more to the computer lab where I spent hours coding and thinking about structured programming in C and C++. I spent two years in downstate Illinois at Western Illinois University and then returned home to finish up my degree at Northeastern Illinois University. However, my “second two years” took me ten earth years. You see, life happens. I worked in various public school districts over those years, taking on larger and more challenging roles during the day and attending college at night. What I found is that I was doing some really bleeding edge stuff during the day only to return to an institution which was teaching archaic stuff at night. Again, I found myself not engaged in my learning and doing what I needed to do to obtain a piece of paper; in this case, it was a bachelor’s degree. It was a means to an end.
Knowing that I wasn’t getting what I needed in a formal institution, I started learning on my own and blazing that trail. I was working on Apple computers, NeXT computers, Novell networks and working on a new kid on the block called Microsoft. During the 90’s, Novell ruled educational networks but this Microsoft thing had me intrigued. So I took on the challenge to learn more about it. I received my first certifications under Windows 3.5 and TCP/IP.
From a career perspective, I went from a central office clerk, to a high school technology technician, to a director of technology for a K-12 district and one of the first webmasters for the Illinois State Board of Education. It was working within education which I found my passion! It wasn’t just about learning but how technology could changes one’s life! When I was a director in the K-12 district, it was one of the poorest districts in the State of Illinois. I related to these kids! I knew what it was like struggling at home but still trying to go to school to get to a better place in your life. I was living proof! I was learning by leaps and bounds as well as a career and salary to prove it!
That’s when the second light bulb went on. Not only did I enjoy technology but I loved sharing my knowledge! I looked forward to the staff development training days where I had educators learning about ways to integrate technology into the classroom. I engaged and mentored students on how learning, inside and outside of the classroom, could get them ahead in life. That’s when I started doing more public speaking, pursued and obtained my Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT), and wrote technical / taught curriculum.
The “classroom” hasn’t been kind to me over the years. Now I found myself challenged as a trainer. I was delivering 3 to 5 day classes or even taking these classes and being overwhelmed by information! You know it if you’ve ever been to a week long class! By the third day your nodding off! That’s when I decided to flip the classroom and allow the learner to be in charge of their own learning; much like I had done over the course of my career thus far. You see, it’s not about how much information you can retain at any given moment in time but the ability to have “just in time” knowledge to address what’s happening in your life at any given moment. So, I started a task-based, online video training company called LearnSMS.com.
At that point in my career, I had become a Microsoft MVP (Most Valued Professional) and thought leader in systems management. Life was good! I was consulting, free lancing, had a successful online company….what more could I ask for??!! Remember the part about me being a Marine? Yeah…. well, I don’t sit still for very long! I started to question all that I had done and what could I do better? I could either work implementing solutions for Microsoft or I could work for Microsoft.
Fast forward: I worked within Microsoft for my first 5 years or so within the corporate enterprise accounts space. I received awards such as Top Gun, Microsoft Insiders and such, wrote a book, designed and worked on a team for a solution accelerator but I was always doing volunteer work in schools. I enjoyed working in schools! So, when the opportunity opened to work on the US Education Team at Microsoft, I was there! (…and still am there!)
So, how does this story all tie together? If you’re still with me, there’s some personal lessons from my life that I draw from every day. Students learn in various ways, traditional and non-traditional. My son, for example, is not your traditional student. (Did I forget to mention I got married and had two kids along the way in this journey?!) I use a blended approach with him. He, like myself, is very much a geek. What gets him engaged is the use of technology. We’ve enrolled our children at a progressive STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) school which allows the students to produce work projects in various modes. My daughter, on the other hand, is very much a “traditional” student and self motivated. She excels at the typical classroom and board work which has been the mode for years. I believe if we get children invested and engaged in their learning early, they will succeed. Using the WIIFM (“What’s in it for me?”) approach and just in time blended learning is becoming more and more embraced. (Think about how we learned area of a rectangle in math. “You’re pouring concrete and you need to know how much concrete you’ll need” versus “You’re constrained to a creating a Minecraft world of a certain area”. I hated “pouring concrete” but I’m sure if I was a kid now, I’d be all over that Minecraft world! That’s WIIFM in a nutshell.) Sir Ken Robinson has one of my all time favorite videos which he covers how we need to change the educational paradigms. From my perspective and journey as a life long learner, this is the foundations and why I do what I do.