Hometown: Fort Smith, AR
Apprenticeship: Simmons Foods
MY BACK STORY
My family is actually first generation American. We immigrated from Laos in 1986, when I was 6. We were first in Dallas, and I spent the years from kindergarten through third grade there. Then my family moved to Fort Smith, Arkansas, and I’ve been here ever since.
Moving to another country at that young age was exciting. As a child, everything your parents were worried about, you’re not worried about. So it was a very good transition for me. I definitely was excited about the things that America had to offer that weren’t available in a Third World country. I remember one of the simplest memories was having ice. I thought freezing a bag of water in the freezer was the best thing in the world.
I went from fourth grade through high school in Fort Smith, and then I attended UAFS—the University of Arkansas Fort Smith—studying toward a Bachelor’s Degree in Programming. I was also working full time, trying to find out what I really wanted to do in life.
Eventually I had to quit school and go to work. I was able to obtain an Associate of Applied Sciences degree from UAFS in 2004, but I consider it not finishing when Programming was a Bachelor’s Program. I never received a Bachelor’s Degree and have not pursued it. Like many of my classmates that I went through the program with, we were not able to find IT jobs that paid well with just an Associate’s Degree. We pursued careers in other fields.
MY WORK LIFE (Part 1)
Cars were a hobby—I enjoyed working on cars growing up. So I decided to turn a hobby into a profession. That’s when I got into the automotive field and my focus was electronics and electrical. I was the Owner/Operator of Rick’s Automotive from 2011 to 2013. There I repaired cars, ordered and invoiced parts, and invoiced accounts for payment.
In 2013, I joined Automatic Auto Finance as a Service Administrator. In that job I trained the sales staff, provided customers with the information they needed to buy a vehicle, and managed our work order system, including invoice logging and generating service invoices. I also increased productivity through effective hiring, training, and management.
In 2017, I became Service Manager/Technician at JD Byryder here in Fort Smith. There I did a lot of the same things I had done in my previous job. Eventually I got burned out on the automotive industry. I came to realize I should’ve kept it as a hobby.
MY EDUCATION (Part 2)
My original major, when I was attending college, was programming. I had gotten away from that. But after years in the automotive field, I decided that I wanted to be a computer programmer or to write software, and that’s when I really started to teach myself. I started seeking out all the courses that were available and that were basically free, but also that were of good quality—material I could actually learn from instead of just reading and kind of wasting my time.
MY WORK LIFE (Part 2)
In April of 2019 I landed a job at Simmons Foods as a Maintenance Technician. The pay was good and the schedule was great, allowing me to seek out an apprenticeship. While I was employed at Simmons, I actually went through an apprenticeship for industrial maintenance. But still I wanted something that was a little bit more intellectually challenging. I’m one of those people who sets goals for myself. So I told myself, “Hey look, you’re going to go in and become a maintenance technician, but we’re going to move towards IT and you’re going to give yourself two years to do this. Okay?” I wanted an opportunity to break into the IT world.
As I said, the Simmons schedule was great. I worked for Simmons Foods from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. Monday and Tuesday and then 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Wednesday. I only worked every other weekend. This schedule allowed me to also work in my off time as a Web Developer at Cyberspyder in Fort Smith, from noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. I had been studying and practicing, but I needed to gain some real-world experience and was willing to pay the price for that. The pay wasn’t important; I was happy to take less money to gain the experience.
It was a very small staff at Cyberspyder, only five of us, and I learned a lot there. I learned that in programming, it takes a lot of patience to achieve the goals that you want. Because even though the answer may seem obvious, it’s going to take two or three tries to get it right. I also learned that sometimes we make certain tasks harder than they really are.
At the six-month mark, in December 2019, I felt like I had learned all I could learn from Cyberspyder, so I left and became an independent contractor. I wasn’t actually venturing out on my own to get any business, because I still didn’t know exactly what I was doing. At that point, the goal was really to keep learning and growing.
In the meantime, and even up to the present, I am an Independent Contractor specializing in the general automotive field, plus electronics repair and furniture repair. For me, fixing something is second nature. My mind just kind of takes things apart and puts them back together. It doesn’t take much effort.
MY TURNAROUND MOMENT
I was looking on the job board one day—Simmons has an internal job board, and they had listed two positions for a Quality Assurance apprenticeship. I thought, Hey, this is a great opportunity. I can’t believe this opportunity has actually come up. So I reached out to the Simmons recruiter, Stephanie Goodwin, and told her I would be applying for the apprenticeship and she wished me well. And I got it!
The apprenticeship started June 8th of this year, right in the middle of COVID. It’s a year-long program, and we’re soon coming to the end of the classroom instruction.
The course is very well laid out, with a professor who has tons of experience and is very helpful and encouraging. He teaches the course as though we don’t know anything. He doesn’t assume that everyone has a baseline, so that’s good.
My ultimate role with Simmons will probably not be quality assurance. It’ll be full-stack development. And the way that this apprenticeship has helped is knowing how everything is structured, knowing that you have to do “test-driven development,” TDD, that this is the correct way to do things. And so everything we’re learning is going to directly translate to what I will be doing for Simmons Foods, whether it’s full-stack development or doing quality assurance on a code.
And what I’ve tried to convey to my leadership team is that this is something I want to do for the rest of my life. I’ve already had a career, and this will be the start of my second career. I hope to stay with Simmons Foods and finish out the rest of my career as either full-stack developer or any role that they see fit.