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For a lot of people in the United States, a college degree is more an expectation or simply one more rung on the ladder of success than a desire. Not for me. When I first came to the United States on the heels of the Lebanese war, getting pickpocketed at the airport meant that I’d need to be both a full-time student and a full-time employee in order to survive. I worked during the day and went to class at night, but because my wages were low and I wasn’t eligible for financial aid, administrators constantly pulled me into their office about unpaid class fees. I had no other choice but to graduate with debt.
But unlike in Lebanon, where students are often taught mainly about the theory of certain concepts, here in the US, I could apply what I learned about engineering to real life. I could build circuits at work and bring them to my teacher for feedback. I could go to my day job and use what I had learned in class that day to program and solve real problems. That created enormous excitement in me. When I coupled that with the serious sense of commitment I brought to my work, I was able to advance with persistence, confidence and continuity. I learned that no degree can compare to the expertise gained from experience, curiosity and drive.
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A glimpse beyond the minimum
As anybody who has tried to juggle both school and work knows, it’s no cakewalk. It means long, exhausting hours. And even though the people at my first company were kind and gave me opportunities where they could, the pay wasn’t great — my food budget for an entire week was $20. I only got three vacation days and three sick days a year. I quickly used the sick days, too, both because I had to be exposed to the weather as I rode my motorcycle everywhere, and because I hadn’t built up immunity to a lot of the diseases that are common in the United States.
At the time, I didn’t have the experience to realize that wanting more than the minimum was even an option. Then I had the chance to install some equipment at IBM and other businesses. I saw that some places feed their employees, provide health insurance and more. So, even though I’d learned an incredible amount from my first boss and was grateful, I realized there could be more for me somewhere else.
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More rewritten expectations, improved confidence and industry success
When I was still at my first company, we’d routinely buy motors from another semiconductor company. The people at this company saw what I was able to do in development and approached me about coming to work for them. A little wiser now, thanks to finally seeing what other companies were like, I asked about perks like benefits. Thes were good, so I incentive took a new job with the semiconductor business and stayed in that industry for about two and a half years.
But my concept of expectations was still developing. At both my first and second jobs, I was the only programmer. At one point, I created a compiler — a program that translates code from one computer language into another — by myself. In my mind, I was just doing what we needed to do, because I wasn’t around other software engineers enough to recognize what a feat it was to create the compiler alone.
But someone from Applied Materials saw the compiler work at Semicon West, which is an international trade show for the semiconductor industry. They knew how impressive the work was, and they were excited, because they were buying a robot for the same motion controller I’d developed the compiler for. They ended up contracting me to write all of their robotics code, and after my contract with my current company was up, they hired me.
Nothing about my formal education had changed by the time I got to Applied Materials. It was different there, though, in that I finally was around other programmers for the first time. Despite the fact I was mainly self-taught from books and hands-on projects, I was able to keep up with the other programmers, who were all high academic achievers and PhDs. I started to realize I was just as good as they were. Before long, those same PhDs and high achievers were working under me, and I ended up in charge of new product development. I attribute that to the fact that, whereas they really only understood the code, I had the mechanical engineering experience that provided the big picture perspective necessary to understand how things worked and fit together.
I stayed at Applied Materials for about seven years. My new confidence, however, soon led me to another company, Novellus Systems, now known as Lam Research. There, I eventually became director of software engineering.
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The right idea comes to fruition at the right time
While I was at Novellus, I traveled to Korea. About a week before I was supposed to head home, I noticed my hair didn’t look so great. I didn’t want to pay the absurdly high international call rates to book an appointment with my hairdresser. Back then, besides flight tickets, you couldn’t just hop online to book appointments, either.
My software engineer brain started spinning …
What if you could develop web software for booking salon appointments?
What if you could build an entire business around those kinds of programs?
I did my best to focus on my job at the time, but I couldn’t help but be consumed with the idea. At the time, you couldn’t patent an idea. So, I had to sit and wait in fear that someone else would take the concept. I was particularly anxious when OpenTable arrived — I was sure I’d lost my chance.
Then, in 2009, I got laid off. Was it disappointing? Yes. But due to the looming economic crisis, I’d seen the writing on the wall about it ahead of time, and I saw my opportunity to go after my concept full throttle. I managed to get investment capital from family and friends and went to work. As we got Vagaro off the ground, I didn’t take any dividends for myself until I’d paid them back.
Degrees have value, but experience is priceless
Looking back on my journey, I realize that I learned from everyone. Each experience taught me either how to wear another hat or about an important reality, such as why you need HR or how to read a balance sheet. It ensured that, by the time I had the chance to start Vagaro, I was ready to do it and wasn’t missing what I needed to succeed.
As you climb in your own career or go after your own entrepreneurial endeavors, seek the same kind of aggregation. By focusing on gathering lessons from the real world, rather than on the degree you have or what your title is, you’ll set yourself up to be successful.