[Courses] [Careers] Diverse Hats

Poppy Casper photopoppy at gmail.com
Thu Feb 17 03:29:22 EST 2005

I like to think that I wear many hats. I am a geek and a technician. I
am a writer. I am a photographer. At some point or another, all of
these things have collided.

I started using computers at the tender age of 8, when my father
caught me teaching myself to use the family TRS-80 III to type up the
poems I had written. Seeing opportunity, he bribed me: if I improved
my math grade in school on the next report card, he would help me
learn it. I am still immensely grateful to him for this; not because I
particularly enjoy math or couldn't have figured the computer out on
my own, but for pushing me to work at math and for not assuming that
the computer would bore or scare me.

In short order, after learning to use word processing software, I
moved on to copying games in BASIC out of books and magazines, just
like my father did. One of my earliest memories involving the computer
was sitting in my room across the hall listening to my mother read off
the code while my father typed it in. They entered the programs into
the computer together to ensure that nothing was misread and entered
incorrectly. Copying programs from magazines and books gave me a
fairly solid understanding of the BASIC language, and I was soon
writing my own. I was the only student in the 4th grade at Willakenzie
Elementary School who could write a program on the classroom computer
to generate a MadLib story.

My interests, even on the computer, were always to create a story
line. My last memory with the TRS-80 was in high school, modifying a
program which answered questions with a randomly generated "Yes",
"No", or "Maybe" so that it sent output to the printer instead of to
the screen. A friend and I tested the modification, and came out with
a 6 foot long page from the printer detailing our future lives married
to rock stars.

Due to emotional problems and a tendency towards depression, I
determined in high school that I wanted to be a counselor specializing
in teenagers. At the same time, my high school, seeing a future trend
in computers, started closing all of the non-computer electives. By
the time I was in my third year, my choices for electives were art,
for which I had little talent; photography, which required that you
own or lease an expensive camera; or computers. I took two classes in
programming with LOGO, which provided no additional programming
techniques that learning BASIC in grade school had not already taught
me. I complained vociferously, declaring, "I'm going to study
psychology! Why do I need to know all of this computer stuff, what am
I going to do, psychoanalyze computers?"

For college, I selected a school as far away from home as I could
manage. In September of 1993, I picked up and moved to part of the
country that I had never before seen. I proceeded to get my degree in
psychology, as I predicted in high school. I was also introduced to
the Internet, which had the combined effect of pushing me into
learning HTML around 1995, visiting BBS chat rooms (which upped my
typing speed immensely), and giving me resources to research nearly
anything I wanted. My final year of college, my parents sent me a new
computer to replace one that had died the previous spring. After
playing a single game of solitaire, I could not convince the computer
to boot again. I spent a week on the phone with support at the store
we bought the computer from, poking and prodding and reseating items.
This was my first introduction to the parts inside the box, and I
learned that it really wasn't all that scary.

After college, I worked as a secretary on campus for a couple of
years. My job description grew to include providing technical support
for the faculty in my department and maintaining the department web
site. External events led to me leaving Boston for Philadelphia, where
I took a new job. This time, I was actually doing some counseling,
although not psychiatric, and getting a feel for what counseling
entailed. Once again, I managed to make my job description include
handling technical support, and I found myself as the first level
support for two small networks of 5-8 computers and then, as we moved
into new space, of an NT server based network with 20 stations. The
consulting company that recommended and set up the server gave me what
training they could, including some computer based training CDs
covering NT Server.

Two years after I moved to Philadelphia, I was leaving it. I had come
to the conclusion that counseling wasn't what I expected: a slight
majority of the people who came for counseling didn't actually want
help, and resisted change enough that counseling could do nothing for
them. On top of that, as the junior member of the counseling team, I
had very little creative license in how I performed my job. My
housemate pointed out that I seemed to enjoy the computer and network
parts of my job more than I enjoyed the counseling, suggesting that
maybe I could change careers. I enrolled in an online A+ certification
prep course shortly before leaving Philadelphia, and took the
remaining two portions of the course while job hunting in Oregon.

During this time, I returned to writing, journaling mostly, to cope
with some of the emotional strain of the events which led up to
leaving Philadelphia. My confidence hit a few low points during the
job search, but I relied on my journal to help keep me sane.

Six months after leaving Philadelphia, I started working for my
current employer. I started as a temp employee doing first level
technical support, and was hired full time 3 months later. The
software I support is a Windows-based specialized database. Getting
used to doing technical support took me some time. I was consistently
one of the lowest performing techs on the phone, and for a long time,
I was also the only woman. I didn't truly gain confidence until the
end of my first summer with the company, when we got a new manager. He
met with everyone to get a feel for what we expected, and boosted my
confidence with some of the best professional advice I've been given:
"You are the doctor. They are calling you for help." As obvious as it
may seem, it helped me immensely.

Less than a year later, I started picking up projects here and there.
My tenacity when faced with a difficult problem, and my insistence on
understanding what was happening when the program experienced an error
was noticed by senior technicians. I started with call backs, calls
that had been escalated because we could not find a solution for them.
I also started helping out with training new classes, writing and
giving two lessons to each training class. And then, I asked for and
received, the Beta Project.

The company was trying something new. They wanted to pull three
technicians to assist with the Beta program for a new version of the
program. I did my best to keep my statistics at an acceptable level so
that they couldn't deny me based on that, and asked to be one of the
three. I got my wish. Along with my two colleagues, I spent a year
learning the new program, the bug reporting process, the testing
process, everything that someone new to our testing department would
have to learn. Having access to the program for so much longer than
the technicians not on the project put us in the role of experts.

During that same year, I picked up my journal, which had fallen by the
wayside while I was working and building a network for myself. After a
corporate merger, the office had been extremely stressful with
multiple changes, and I needed a release. I found it in my writing. I
started with creative writing practices, and since then, have written
a travel article which was published in the web magazine "All Things
Girl" (http://www.allthingsgirl.com). I also received, on loan, a
digital camera. An older Olympus, it has 1.3 Megapixels and a modest
zoom, but I could play with photos, and be able to see whether they
were worth printing before getting the roll developed. My creativity
has come out in both of these areas, as I continue to try to write and
photograph, and become better at both.

The new version of the program was released this fall. Based on the
amount of projects that I had been doing: call backs, training, etc.,
I asked for a promotion. When I made my formal request, I wrote a
letter, documenting not only what projects I had been doing, but when
I started doing them. I could only do this because I archive nearly
everything in my work email and calendar. I received my promotion in a
matter of months (probably a record for a largish corporation). At the
same time, I was also placed on a small team of individuals whose
responsibility it is to handle escalated calls and perform call backs
for people whose questions couldn't be resolved by the first level

It's been a stressful few months. On the creativity angle, I've taken
a lot of wonderful photographs, and completed the first draft of a
novel during NaNoWriMo (http://www.nanowrimo.org). However, at work,
the pile of work to be done seems to stack up higher and higher, and
I've been coping with impostor syndrome, feeling as if I don't truly
know enough to be an expert and wondering if they didn't pick the
wrong person for this responsibility. I've just become aware of these
issues in the last couple of weeks, and am working, both on my own and
with my supervisor, who is also aware of the problem, to try and pull
myself out.

What I've learned:
Discover what you need. If you need the room to be creative, you'll
never be happy in a job that doesn't provide that.

Break down what you need and want into things that your job can give
you and things that you have to find elsewhere. Don't expect any one
job, just like any one person, to fulfill your every dream.

Understand yourself. Most of the long-distance moves I have made
(i.e., more than one state away) were because I was running from
something or trying to start over. Each time, I spent 4-6 months job
hunting and borrowing money from anyone willing to loan it to me until
I landed a job.

Ask for what you want.


Please CC questions or comments to photopoppy at gmail dot com :)

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