jb… a weblog by Jonathan Buys

Consulting in Coralville

In 2007 I spent two months working as a network engineer for a small tech consulting company. The work there was amazing. They had built a long range, city-wide wireless network, and were providing broadband to rural areas. They were also providing a “one stop shop” for everything IT for small businesses in town. The people who built this business were energetic and bright, and I was lucky to have worked there. I could have stayed there longer, made a career out of it, or perhaps launched my own solo career from there. That’s not what happened, I left after two months. The reason: I was scared to death.

I was in the Navy for 11 years. Being in the Military for that long, it starts to feel like a nice, warm cocoon. In the Navy, I never had to worry about what we were going to eat that day, or where my family was going to live. Basic needs were taken care of. After my first four years were almost up, I was planning on getting out and going to college. My wife and I were newly married, and we had our first child, so we decided that now was probably not the best time. I reenlisted again, and luckily, went to England for four years. While in England, the Senior Chief who was in charge of my area moonlighted in the UK as a security consultant. He taught us everything he knew, and pointed us down the right track. He’s the reason I learned UNIX to begin with. After that tour was over, I was going to get out and start my own consulting business. However, my wife and I had two kids now, and we were overseas, and we weren’t sure how long our savings would last, etc, etc, etc… So, I reenlisted a third time, for three years, and went to New Mexico. In New Mexico, I did a lot of networking, and network cabling, and felt like my skills were good enough to get out and give it a go in the real world. But, my wife and I had three kids now, and I had been in for a long time, so we thought about staying in and making a career out of the Navy, and retiring after 20 years. Then the Navy told me that I was going back out to sea, which meant months, and months, and months away from the family that I had grown to love being with. I believe that kids need their father around, so despite the tough times that we knew might lay ahead, I left the Navy.

The original plan was to stay in New Mexico. We had a house, and had started to put some money away in savings. We had connections in the local area, and I had a clearance that may have landed a nice government job. Talking with my wife, it became increasingly clear that Iowa was calling. Her father was ill, the schools were better, and New Mexico was becoming increasingly violent. When the convenience store down the street was the focus of some gang related activity, we decided it was time to go. So, against all odds, we left everything that we knew, and went to Iowa, where we knew almost no one, had no connections, had no home, and no job… and we were expecting our fourth child.

We first lived with my wife’s family for a couple of months. That nearly drove me nuts. We finally found a place to rent, a tiny little shack with a decent yard in Coralville, between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. On top of this, we had taken a loss selling our home in New Mexico, and due to some paperwork snafu, we had lost thousands in the move to Iowa. The Navy will move you, but we decided to move ourselves and try to make a little money through reimbursement. The government calls it a DITY move. That idea went horribly wrong. It was against this backdrop that I met the owner of the consulting company that I would work for briefly.

I went knocking on doors. Asking everyone I knew if they knew a business looking for the skills that I had. I boasted a combination of UNIX, Windows, networking, and security. I also had no idea how I was going to put food on the table. I met the owner of the business wearing a suit and tie. We went into the back and talked for a while, and he explained that he might have an opening in a few months for someone with my skills that he would hire as a network engineer. I was excited. The atmosphere of the place reminded me of my aspirations to own a small business of my own. We agreed to stay in touch, and he would let me know when the position opened up.

That didn’t help for paying the rent at the time though. I was still technically on leave from the Navy, and was getting the last couple of months worth of my paycheck, but that was rapidly running out, and I didn’t have time to wait for that position to open up. However, a position did open up at Yellowbook in Coralville, where I worked as a UNIX systems administrator for four months as a contractor. Towards the end of the four month contract, the owner of the consulting company and myself agreed that I would come and work for him after the contract expired.

That’s a lot of back story to lead up to the main idea. My family and I were still living in the shack in Coralville, my wife was getting close to delivering, and I realized that I was not going to be able to afford everything. The work there was very, very interesting, and also very stressful. I was coming into a network that had grown organically over time, and had some very unique constraints. Working with wireless adds an entirely new level of complexity to the system. The owner sat right behind me, and set about to training me. The first day, I was so overwhelmed by the amount that I didn’t know that I nearly cried when I went home. This was a small business, with all of the network complexity of an enterprise business. The owner had a goal of organizing the IP allocation of the network to make better sense and be easily managed, and also to eventually set up BGP between their two upstream connections. We had lots of routers, all over town and out in the countryside.

As time went on, the owner began to feel like I was making good progress and was becoming ready to take over without his needing to be involved as deeply as he was. I on the other hand, began to feel more and more sure that I was in over my head. I was not making enough money to pay all of my bills and buy groceries without dipping into credit at the end of the month, I was paying for COBRA because the small business did not have a health insurance plan, and on top of that, I felt like I was not earning the salary I was getting at work. So, while I may have been able to ask for a raise, I really didn’t feel like I deserved one. In the last couple of weeks of my wife’s pregnancy, right or wrong, I sent my resume off to a couple of places in Des Moines.

Another thing that I noticed about the consulting business, I learned after I started working there that all of the employees and the owner went to the same church. That’s not a bad thing, I go to church too, but since I didn’t go to the same church, I began to feel more and more like an outsider. I made mistakes, I tried to correct them, and I just couldn’t get my brain in gear. There was too much going on.

I was actually fairly certain that the owner regretted hiring me. So I was surprised at his shock when I gave him my two weeks notice. I joined the business to try to live out some fantasy of mine about working for a small business, and not in a gigantic enterprise. I wanted to make a difference. It turns out that it was just not the right time, and neither I nor my family were ready.

I’ve aged ten years in the three that I’ve been out of the Navy. My hair is turning gray and the lines in my face seem deeper, but mostly the age is in my eyes. The Navy can be a warm cocoon, but real life is hard and demanding. My family has been blessed by God. I have a steady job that’s poised to do well through the recession, and that I’m quite good at, we were able to buy a modest home that’s a perfect size for the family, and is in a perfect place, and I’m once again putting money away for a rainy day. There were a lot of ideas I had about life when I left the Navy that turned out to be fantasy, and it took a long time to get to a point where I understood that.

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