Sometimes I feel as if I’ve lived my life out of order, like the character Billy Pilgrim in one of my favorite novels by Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five. Other times, I’m not so sure my life didn’t play out exactly as it was supposed to. Either way, sometimes it’s worth looking backward to see forward, and that’s where I find myself this week as I struggle with defining my “personal brand” …
In 1995, while pursuing my Master’s degree in Creative Writing, I used some of my stipend money to buy a computer on which to write the short novel that would be my thesis. I distinctly remember it was a beige Packard Bell (because I think there was a law on the books that said all computers had to be beige back then), and that the chunky CRT monitor had enormous speakers strapped to the sides of it. By that point in time, it was the fourth computer I’d ever owned. The first was a Commodore VIC-20 ( learn more about that) and the second a Commodore 64. Both I owned during high school, and spent countless hours teaching myself to program in an early language called BASIC, typing out hundreds of lines of code, mostly games, and saving them on an unreliable tape cassette drive.
The third computer was a beast of a PC (also beige) made by a now-defunct company called DEC. I was required to buy it, in addition to paying tuition, when I entered the engineering program at Stevens, a prestigious (read: “pricey”) and competitive tech college located in Hoboken, NJ. Choosing to go there was a notion I got in my head after reading Tracy Kidder’s great book The Soul of a New Machine the year before, and it turned out to be a huge mistake. I certainly liked computers and coding well enough, but they really weren’t my passion. At least not yet. Writing fiction was. So much to my mother’s chagrin, I dropped out after one semester and transferred to a liberal arts school to become an English major, dragging the DEC in a giant cube of a box along with me. Ironically, while it never saw much engineering action, I did end up writing my first novel on that computer, and then eventually gave it away to a friend who needed it more than me in 1990.
By the time I bought the Packard Bell five years later, a lot had changed for computers. Namely, some British scientist named Tim Berners-Lee had gone and unleashed something called the “World Wide Web” on us, and everybody was going crazy for it. So, for better or worse, the Packard Bell came with a 14.4Kbps modem installed, as well as the Netscape Navigator web browser (an early ancestor of Firefox) and software for three dial-up services: Prodigy, Compuserve, and everybody’s favorite, AOL.
To be honest, up until that point, I was only vaguely aware of this new thing called “The Internet” and hadn’t really interacted with it much, having been too busy in the early 90s with classes and working and driving across the country and writing stories. But once introduced to the sound of that modem squeaking and squealing as it connected to what seemed a bottomless well of information via the phone line, I was pretty much hooked.
I won’t bore you with the details of every dial-up account I had in that first year but will say that I probably changed mine more frequently than most people get haircuts, always on the lookout for faster connections and less busy signals. Grudgingly, at some point I ended up settling on an AOL account that I held onto for almost the next decade, mainly because they seemed to have the most (and most reliable) local dial-up numbers, with coverage all over the country. Plus, I wanted to have a short and stable e-mail address. It was a big deal for me in 2004 when I finally gave up email@example.com for a Gmail account (which I’ve held onto ever since). Change doesn’t always come easy for me.
As a creature of curiosity and an ex-coder, among the first things I did once exposed to “The Web” that year was dig through the Netscape Navigator drop-down menus to find the “View Source” option that revealed the code behind the pages. Which opened up a whole new everything for me. While HTML is a markup language, not a programming language, and therefore a different animal than anything I’d dealt with in the past, it didn’t take much poking and prodding to figure out how it worked. Before long, I was cobbling together rudimentary web pages and teaching myself new tricks every day by dissecting the code of every website I could get my mouse on.
Early on, I also taught myself just enough graphic design to be dangerous. Of course, back then, modem speeds being what they were, less of my time went into making images look good than making the image files themselves smaller and thus faster to load for a pre-broadband audience. I bought a cheap handheld scanner and learned how to do photo editing. A friend of my who was an art major taught me a few things about color theory. And I got crazy good at creating “animated GIFs” (which, for the record, I pronounce with hard G, no matter what anybody else says).
Before long, I returned to my roots and taught myself a new programming language, Perl, which was used quite a bit at the time for web applications but has since become largely obsolete. This opened up a whole new dimension for me, as I could now create not only web pages that looked good but also interactive web solutions — things like forms and interfaces. Programming in Perl was a rabbit hole that I fell down for what seemed a very long time, keeping me up late at night and often stealing hours that should have been spent on my thesis. Or, you know, sleeping, so that I wouldn’t nod off during seminars or while teaching eager freshmen about the basics of creative writing.
The years I was in grad school are a blur for me now. I did end up finishing the short novel thesis and successfully earned my MA in Creative Writing. But I already knew by the time I had the diploma in my hand that I probably wasn’t going to pursue a career as either a writer or a professor. The Packard Bell and “The Net” had seen to that. Interestingly enough, the irony wheel had come full circle. This time, instead of buying a computer for tech education reasons and writing a novel on it, I had bought a computer on which to write a novel and ended up using it to develop what were essentially technical skills. Funny how life works like that.
Fast forward another couple of years, and while passing my time as perhaps the most over-educated assistant manager in Blockbuster Video history, I continued to hone my web design and programming skills in my free time. Then one day, a friend of a friend asked my friend if they knew anybody who did this kind of work, and my friend gave them my phone number. I immediately jumped on the opportunity, and next thing I knew, I was getting paid to do something that up till that point I had only considered a hobby. Not paid enough money to live on by any means, but enough extra that I could afford to replace the Packard Bell with something newer and more powerful (but still maddeningly beige).
And that’s how it all started for me. Web design and programming remained a steady side gig for me until the year 2000, when I landed my first salaried position as “Webmaster” (remember those?) for a media company in NYC. That led to a “Corporate Web Marketing Manager” role at another company where, after six years, I eventually became Director of Marketing. Soon after that, I made the decision to return to the freelance contractor arena in order to recharge my batteries and teach myself more new tricks. Then I re-emerged as a “Senior Web Developer” at yet another company, where I did far more than develop websites, and stayed there for half a decade before striking out on my own again earlier this year as Randy Heller Digital Solutions.
So what, if anything, did this romp down Memory Lane teach me about my personal brand? Maybe that I am not one thing but many things. Right brain and left brain. Creative and logical. Flexible yet structured. My strength has always lain in my ability to play in both yards. In many ways, the kind of “digital solutions” work I do now — a combination of web development, programming, marketing, and strategy — is an ideal career track for somebody like me. Had web design existed yet as a college major when I graduated high school, perhaps I would have pursued it and started my career much sooner than I did. Or not. Maybe it had to happen the way it did.
The moral of this story, if there is one, is that you never know where life is going to take you. Coming out of high school, based on my grades and my SAT scores, it was clear that I had an aptitude for math and science. But I had a passion for writing and being creative. So I pursued that instead, and just at the point when I became really good at it, found myself drawn back to something that relied on those old math and science skills … yet required the creativity I’d fostered as well. And later, when I became part of a marketing team, I relied quite heavily on that MA in Writing, and still do to this day.
Aptitude, passion, talent, knowledge … these things are not set in stone for any of us. They are informative road signs, like “30 Miles to Albuquerque,” not prescriptive traffic signs like “Stop” or “Yield” or “One Way, Do Not Enter.” What’s more, they can and do change over time as we grow and change, and at any point, we may feel as if, like Billy Pilgrim, we’ve lived our lives completely out of order. But the aliens (real or imagined) in Vonnegut’s book, who have the ability to look at every moment in a person’s life — -past and present and future — as easily as we can look at the Rocky Mountains on Google Maps, have a different take on things. When Billy, wondering why the aliens have chosen to make themselves known to him, asks, “Why me?” their matter-of-fact response is, “Why you? Why anything? Because this moment simply is.” Words to live by.