Lessons from My First Job Out of College

Young man with a contemplative expression, sitting against a wooden background, reflecting on his first corporate job experience.

My first job out of college was a doozy.

I graduated from Oklahoma State University with a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering, specializing in wireless telecommunications.  In my last semester, I found a job in the technology-heavy Research Triangle Park area around Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.

The company I went to work for was a telecommunication hardware provider building various systems for the telecom industry. The company was headquartered in Ohio and had just opened its “research division” near Cary, NC. The starting salary wasn’t bad for that period, and the perks were decent. They even paid to move me to the area from Oklahoma.

I had done some contract software testing at WorldCom while in grad school, but this was my first real corporate job. I moved from Oklahoma, where I spent most of my day watching Andy Griffith while studying in my apartment, to North Carolina, where I was commuting 25 minutes to work and sitting in a cubicle all day.

The change was an eye-opener—not just the move across the country but the absolute mind-blowing idea that—as a responsible adult—I was being forced to use my company badge to ‘sign in/out’ of work and was expected to be in my cubicle working (and work was not occurring unless you were on-site). Now, this was before the internet was really ‘big’ and everyone was still on dial-up, so the idea of remote work wasn’t really a thing.

So…I went to work every day, sat in my cubicle, and started getting comfortable with life in a corporate setting. I would interact with people and work with others, but for the most part, I worked alone due to the rest of the team I was a part of being in Ohio.

After about two months, I started getting antsy. The project I was assigned to did not look great from a longevity standpoint. They were building a gateway to take incoming dial-up modem calls and route that traffic off of the public switched telephone network onto an ATM network. The idea was to reduce the data traffic on the phone lines.  But – even I – a young, non-experienced kid from Oklahoma – could see that the technology was behind the trend as many companies were already moving from modem traffic to DSL and cable for the internet. It was still early, but those approaches looked to be the long-term winner (and in hindsight, they were).

One Sunday afternoon, I received a phone call from the company HR rep asking me not to go to the office the following day but instead go to a hotel conference room across town. Now, I was young and inexpereinced and had absolutley no idea why they’d ask for this, but…I found out quickly the following day,

That Monday morning, I pulled into the hotel parking lot and saw a few of the people I worked with.  I walked up to one of the older guys who had been a bit of a mentor to me (I wish I could remember his name!). His first (and only words) to me that morning were to “get your resume ready.”

The 50+ employees of the ‘research division’ were milling around the conference room at the hotel when the company’s CEO came out and told us that the research division was being shut down and all employees were no longer employed. Each person got a severance based on their time at the company and would have a few minutes with an HR Representative to discuss their severance package.

When it was my turn to talk to the HR people, I found that I had four weeks of severance and the option to be moved back to Oklahoma. In the late ’90s, there weren’t many technology jobs in Oklahoma, so I opted to stay in North Carolina and look for another job, hoping I could find one in four weeks (and I did… but that’s a story for another blog post).

The point of this post isn’t just to ramble and reminisce but to share my learnings from that experience.

What did I learn?

  • I hated sitting in a cubicle (even though I would be in a cubicle in one form or another for a number of years after).
  • I hated the “ass-in-seat” mentality of most old-school managers.
  • I learned to be adaptable and open to change.
  • I learned that regardless of the situation or length of time at a company, one must always look deeply at the company’s strategy and long-term prospects.
  • I learned to always be prepared for unexpected job changes. Loyalty is no longer a thing in most organizations.
  • I took the challenge of the job loss and embraced it as a learning opportunity.

This is part of a new series that I’m starting called “Has Eric learned anything at all during his career?

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About Eric D. Brown, D.Sc.

Eric D. Brown, D.Sc. is a data scientist, technology consultant and entrepreneur with an interest in using data and technology to solve problems. When not building cool things, Eric can be found outside with his camera(s) taking photographs of landscapes, nature and wildlife.
View all posts by Eric D. Brown, D.Sc. →
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