How I Went From a Gas Station Clerk to a Systems Engineer

Written By Nathan Clarke

So, I’ll start out with this: I didn’t get into IT the quickest or smartest way that I could have — but with a lot of perseverance, I made it happen.

I was a part-time clerk at a gas station company called QuikTrip making $8 an hour. I ended up having to get another part-time job at Kroger just to bring home about $300 a week.

One day, as I was mopping the floors at work, I realized something needed to change. I got honest with myself and accepted the fact that I wasn’t happy with barely making enough to get by and doing a job that I loathed, only to fill the pockets of corporate executives.

I needed to change how I thought and start to grow my knowledge in something that felt fulfilling. I knew I had to get away from the retail world and move toward something I actually enjoyed.

Step One: Educate Yourself

First, I started looking at subjects I could study at the local community college and came across a cyber security program.

I got inspired to pursue a career in tech when I started to learn more about cyber security. I pictured myself solving complex problems and keeping people’s information safe. I’ve always wanted to make an impact on people’s lives, and I believed cyber security would be a great way to do that.

At this time, it seemed like a new data breach was being reported at a big company each week. I thought to myself, “The idea of being able to fight hackers and protect people’s information sounds exciting!”

I then looked up how much the average salary was in cyber security and got even more excited—so I started the cyber security program at the community college that fall.

It’s important to do as much research as you can about the subject you’re interested in. I know a lot of people who just picked a subject that sounded good, and most of them didn’t even end up working in that field. You need to know if you will actually enjoy the subject you’re studying when it comes time to do it for a living.

In college, I had to take about as many “core” classes as I did computer classes, and I was able to take only a couple of classes per semester since I worked full-time. These things, along with major life changes such as getting married and buying a house slowed down the process.

The benefits of taking classes at a community college are that it is inexpensive, a lot of classes are offered online, and you can get helpful information and connections through your classmates and teachers. I would also suggest looking up videos on YouTube and maybe taking some online courses in the subjects you’re interested in. There’s a wealth of knowledge in any subject on the internet.

It is important to educate yourself when changing careers because it takes a lot of work to make the change. You want to make sure you will enjoy the work, and that there is a good market for the field that interests you in the area you want to live in.

Step Two: Find Entry-Level Positions

Work experience is the most important thing on your resume. It is imperative to start working toward an entry-level position related to the field you want to work in as soon as possible.

I started looking for an office job because I thought it would get me closer to IT than working at a gas station. Being in the proximity of what you want to do and the people who are doing it will boost your chances of getting your dream job.

For me, working in an office gave me the chance to be on the end-user side of IT since I needed support from the IT department there. This allowed me to interact with people in the field and get a feel for what they do. It’s a good idea to work toward getting as close as you can be to the environment you want to be in.

A few months into college, I went to a career fair and came across a booth for a hiring agency. After a few weeks, I interviewed for an administrative assistant position at a small company called Korkat and ended up getting the job. The company sold playground and recreational equipment to parks and schools.

I was working full-time making $12 an hour and going to community college. After about a year, I switched from studying cyber security to computer networking, because I had been doing some research and realized cyber security was more of a senior position in IT. I decided that it would be easier to get any entry-level IT position and transition gradually into cyber security rather than go straight into cyber security.

At work, I went from being an administrative assistant to a cost estimator and eventually transitioned into computer-aided design (CAD). We used AutoCAD to design playgrounds.

Being a CAD designer was a lot of fun, but I wasn’t able to feed my passion for working with new technologies and solving complex problems. Because of that, I knew I didn’t want to be a CAD designer for the rest of my career: IT was still where I wanted to be.

Step Three: Apply, Apply, Apply

After I had about six months of CAD experience, I started looking for higher paying jobs because I was making only $15 an hour.

I got a job offer for a CAD position at a truss manufacturing plant making $16.50 an hour and ended up taking it. Eventually, I was working at the truss plant full-time, making about $18 an hour, but I was still sending out my resume for literally hundreds of IT positions.

I got bored really quickly at the truss plant. I did the same thing every day and worked with people that didn’t seem to have zeal for life. If you don’t like your job, do something to change it. Don’t just up and quit, but start working toward something else. Life is too short to do something you don’t enjoy. You can make changes. Therefore, I kept searching for my dream job.

Every month or so, I’d get a phone interview, but never received a job offer for an IT position.

After sending out hundreds and hundreds of applications over the span of two years, I started getting discouraged and thought I might never get into IT. Maybe I should just make a career out of CAD.

But something in me said to keep searching the job listings and putting myself out there — so I did.

I just kept sending my resume. Eventually, I got a call from a small company called PeopleStrategy for a network operations center technician position. I went through a round of about five phone interviews and felt like I had the job in the bag. A week went by, and when I sent an email to the hiring manager to follow up on the status, they told me that the job had been filled. I didn’t get it.

When you get close to success, it makes you hungrier to succeed. I learned that each resume I sent out was a new opportunity to break into the career field of my dreams. Because of this change in thought, I became motivated to look at job boards every day and keep plugging in my resume.

Step Four: Push Through Rejection and Failure

At this point, I was used to rejection and just kept sending out more applications.

But, a couple of weeks after I was notified that I didn’t get that job at PeopleStrategy, something happened.

I got an email from the CTO asking if I was still looking for a job. I excitedly replied that I was available, and we started talking about the position.

The job title was Junior Systems Engineer and the description was basically what I had dreamed of doing IT. I ended up getting the job offer and making a few thousand dollars more a year than what I was making at the time. Not only that, but I could work remotely.

At the time of the job offer, I still hadn’t earned my Associate’s degree and had no professional IT experience. I am still in shock that they took a chance on me. God must have been smiling on me in order to get the job.

I will say that I had been studying and trying to get as much basic knowledge in IT that I could so I could communicate the basics of IT during interviews.

This experience has taught me that no matter how many times I hear “no,” as long as I get one “yes” it’s worth it. Being able to push through rejection is one of the greatest tools I’ve been able to use in my life. Giving up gets you nowhere.

If you’re in a similar situation where all you’re hearing is “no,” don’t stop pushing forward. Keep the momentum going, continue to learn and grow, and keep putting yourself out there — one day something will come through and change your life.

What I Wish I’d Done Differently

So there’s my story. In hindsight, it took me longer than it could have to get into IT, so here are some things I would have done differently to speed up the process.

I would have studied only the computer classes at the community college before taking any of the core classes. I got the IT job without having an Associate’s degree, and if I had taken the computer classes before the core classes, I would have had the basic knowledge that I needed sooner.

If you don’t have access to a community college, just use the internet. There’s a multitude of resources for every topic. Start by searching the subject you want to learn about and immerse yourself in research.

I also would have tried to get a basic certification, like the A+, because I think I would have gotten a job a lot quicker with it. I did not pursue this certification, though, because when I found out about it, I was already deep into community college and didn’t want to stop taking classes to study for the certificate exam. But looking back on it now, I’ve seen a lot of job postings asking for the A+ certificate that didn’t require any college degree.

Lastly, I would have tried to meet more people in the industry. I didn’t really do any networking and had no connections at any of the places where I interviewed. If you already have connections at the company you’re applying to, you will most likely move to the top of the list for interviews if your connections put in a good word for you.

Perseverance Pays Off

To sum it all up, it took me over two years of community college and hundreds of job applications to get my first IT job — but it was worth it.

I think the biggest takeaway from my story is to never give up. Eventually, something will work out for you. Do something every single day to get closer to the job you want.

Search for jobs, send resumes, call the companies you’ve applied to and follow up on your application, read books about the field you want to work in, figure out a way to make a connection in the industry you want to be in, and you’ll be working at the job you want in no time.