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Have you ever considered a career with computers? In this interview, a Senior Systems Programmer shares how he has made a second career in the technology industry. His job entails everything from problem shooting to becoming an expert at new platforms, and creating new systems from scratch to meet client goals.

Q: What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How many years of experience do you have in this field? How would you describe yourself using only three adjectives?

A: I am currently employed as a Senior Systems Programmer for an insurance company located in Center City Philadelphia. I have been with the company for 14 years and have held my current position for the last 3 years. Prior to this, I had no experience in systems programming or the computer industry in general. If I were to describe myself I would say I was humorous, intelligent, and competent.

Q: What’s your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you? If you ever experienced discrimination, how have you responded and what worked best?

A: I am a Filipino and was born and raised in Cebu City. I have experienced discrimination only as a pre-teen child when I first moved to America. I was not accepted by most of my peers and it took a number of years to develop friendships in my new home. The experience taught me that regardless of how bad the environment might seem, there are always exceptions to the situation and you should keep your mind open to see them. This has been a very helpful lesson that I still remember as an adult.

Q: How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail? Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?

A: My work revolves around a System i (formerly AS400/iSeries) midrange computer. I started as a support person before moving solely to working on this platform. Initially I was tasked with system administration and making sure the machine ran as smoothly as possible. From there, I did custom programming in a variety of languages and created data warehouses for reporting purposes. A large part of what I do today involves getting at data to help managers with their business decisions.

If there is a common misconception to my work, it is that I am "a computer guy". I've sometimes been asked questions regard PC or network problems that are really beyond the scope of my expertise. I have a better than average functionally knowledge of PC's and networks but that really isn't what I'm involved with on a daily basis.

Q: On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What might need to change about your job to unleash your full enthusiasm?

A: I would rank my job satisfaction somewhere between a 7 or 8. I like what I do but it's the kind of job where it doesn't end just because you leave the office. Sometimes my family life suffers because I'm needed at my job. Personally, I am the type of employee where all I need is the end state or the project goal. I work better when I am left alone to accomplish that goal and at times I feel that meetings to go over the project status wastes a lot of time.

Q: If this job moves your heart – how so? Ever feel like you found your calling or sweet spot in life? If not, what might do it for you?

A: This job doesn't really fit that description. I should mention that I was also a Marine Reservist and saw combat in Iraq. If I could describe a job that suited me very well, it was that job. But from a moral and physical standpoint, it was not healthy and it was hard for my family to put up with.

Q: Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?

A: Yes, I was extremely lucky but not in a passive way. I worked at educating myself and delivered on everything that I said I would. I actively sought out the dirty jobs that were deemed impossible or just unwanted. My reputation as a problem solver opened opportunities for me that I was able to use to my advantage.

Q: How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?

A: I needed a job that was stable in hours and income. I went back to school and started taking computer programming classes. I went on job interviews for any position in the computer industry. I landed a job with my current employer as desktop support. Because the software ran on an AS400, I started learning everything I could about the system and eventually became the system administrator which then led to my current position. If I could go back and do it differently, I would have started in this line of work sooner.

Q: What did you learn the hard way in this job and what happened specifically that led up to this lesson?

A: Weigh questions carefully before answering. One of our sales people promised a reporting system to a potential client that they could use to report and track claims. This system did not exist at the time and I was casually asked how difficult it would be to create one. My answer made it into an RFP that was accepted which in turn became my primary task to deliver.

Q: What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?

A: A lot of school learning is theoretical. Examples are neat and solutions are clear cut. In the working world, answers are not always as simple or easily seen. Sometimes what a client wants isn't exactly what they need but if you deliver what they want, you will be seen as the one at fault for not anticipating their need.

Q: What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?

A: I've had to move our data centers twice in the 14 years I've been with the company. When we move, we have to pull all our equipment, to include cables buried underneath a raised floor in a data center. I've spent some time crawling underneath the floor to trace wires. That's not something I envisioned when I think of a computer job.

Q: Why do you get up and go to work each day? Can you give an example of something that really made you feel good or proud?

A: I get up and go to work because I know there isn't anyone that knows the system as well as I do. One of our clients is a major organization in Philadelphia and they recently won an industry award. In their official press release, they credited the use of the claims software running on my system and reports generated by my data warehouses.

Q: What kind of challenges do you handle and what makes you want to just quit?

A: It frustrates me when people won't take basic trouble-shooting procedures when dealing with an issue. Systems are systems and tools are tools. If something doesn't work as designed, statements like "the program's not running" are about as useful as telling you mechanic "my car is broken".

Q: How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance? How?

A: I don't think my job is overly stressful. It can be time-consuming at times but at the same time I can pretty much work according to my own schedule. There are times where I work straight through the weekend but there are also times that I can just leave during the middle of the day.

Q: What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?

A: My salary range is between $55k to $65k a year. I have full benefits and it allows me to keep my family healthy and well provided. I would say I make enough for what I do.

Q: How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?

A: I take a week's vacation each year. I also spread taking long weekends during the rest of the year. I have enough seniority to have 3 full weeks of vacation but I never take that amount of time in a row. I don't know if it's enough for everyone but it's enough for me.

Q: What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?

A: A four year degree in Computer Science is the prerequisite today for the position that I hold. This was not the case when I was first hired by my company. I was able to progress to this level because I took the time to educate myself on the specific platform our company used and prove myself to my employers.

Q: What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?

A: Don't be intimidated by the pace of change in technology. Learn as much as you can, be as efficient as possible, and understand that your primary task is solving a problem. Computer programming is only the method you are using to solve a client's problem or deliver a service that they need.

Q: If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?

A: I would like to be a full time author and write books. It's not that I don't enjoy my job but after 20 years I think it's time to move on to something else.