June 02, 2010, 3:17 PM — Anne Marie Schar went from being an English and History teacher, to being a network administrator. She found her current career path through a very unusual and lucky turn of events, first becoming a network admin in a school simply because she "knew where the 'on' switch was on the server."
Anne Marie's experience is one perfect example of how experience outside of technology helps to land a job in technology—and how companies benefit by having techs with knowledge about their particular industry. She found that school districts want admins who understand things like curriculum development and teaching methods, what it means to be a teacher, and how to work with them. Because she had been a teacher first, she knew what made them tick—and was better able to help bring technology into the classroom more effectively.
Going from working with kids at school, to working with computers at school is quite a difference. You must have gone to school first to become a teacher?
Actually I didn't. I'm still not sure why I went to college. My undergraduate degree is in International Studies, with a double major in German. All I knew was that I wanted to travel, and my career goal would have been to work in the foreign service.
What university was that?
West Virginia University. I'm actually a Michigan native and did two years at Michigan State, but they did not have an International Studies major at the time so I went down to West Virginia. Then I found one of the great realities of life is that if you're living in West Virginia and you have an International Studies degree with a second major in German, you need to move if you want a job. I didn't have the resolve to move. This was back in the mid '80s and there weren't a lot of jobs anyway, and definitely not for that kind of major in West Virginia. So I thought, I'll get my Master's Degree, because if you can't do anything else, just keep going to school. So I got a Master's in teaching foreign language. I finished my Master's at WVU and got a job teaching English as a Second Language at a small university called Salem University in Salem, West Virginia.
Tell me about that job.
This was my first full time job, and I was proud of being a full time college instructor. Who does that right out of college? Then one of the other jobs I took to make a little extra money at the school was working at one of the computer labs. They had a Mac lab and an IBM lab. In the IBM lab, we had this one great piece of software that helped ESL students practice vocabulary. I discovered that you could not only use the programs that they had, but you could actually write your own. It had a WYSIWYG feature where you could input your own vocabulary to your own story. I got my first email account while teaching at that university, so it wasn't quite as cutting edge as we are in California.
So you made a big switch from West Virginia to California.
Yes, in the middle of all that, I met my husband, got married, and moved to California. I moved out here, and getting a job teaching college full time is not easy anywhere, and definitely not easy in L.A. I thought this is my chance to change my life, and I'm going to go corporate. The first thing I needed was a job just to have money, so I got a job in two weeks as a telebanker, which was interesting, because that gave me real insight into using a complex computer program and about how databases work. I lasted only about two weeks in training, then the bank was bought and the program was disbanded. Luckily, I had another job, and went to work as a conflict checker at a law firm. Meanwhile, I was still trying to finish up my doctorate, and I began working with a guy out at Saddleback College. My next job was doing sales training for Casio PhoneMate, which was more where I was headed with my background in education. I thought corporate training would be a great field to get into. It was at Casio that I learned to use Microsoft Office, became very familiar with computers, and became comfortable using a computer in my everyday life, which was great, because I needed to use it for working on my dissertation.
So you were still pursuing the degree at the same time?
I worked on a program with the director of instruction, where community colleges in California at the time were just starting to look at online classes. We covered a lot of stuff for Saddleback, and one of the things we came up with was to design a program to teach Saddleback teachers how to take their traditional coursework and put it online. It was something that was really unusual at the time, and that's what my dissertation was on. So through my Doctorate program, and then through this job at Casio PhoneMate, I ended up having a lot more computer experience than I normally would have had.
How did you feel about the corporate world?
The sales training, working 8 to 5, was not working for me. I had been at Salem for over seven years and I was used to summers off, and a little more flexibility. When my job was done, it was done. With corporate, I found it a little restrictive, and I found it unusual that if you didn't have work to do, you were supposed to hide it. If you offered to help other people, that got very tense, if you had your work done and they didn't. I had one guy start to use me as an assistant, and then he would get mad when I actually had my own work to do. So corporate wasn't working for me.
Then what did you do?
I thought, well, what can I do? I hated commuting, and doing the road warrior routine in the LA college system was not going to work for me. I picked three private high schools. I never wanted to teach high school, but I just had to get out of there. So I chose the three closest high schools near to my home, and sent out my resume with a very nice cover letter about what a great History/English teacher I would make. I really had no desire to teach English in any way, shape, or form. I have to admit, it's not a favorite of mine. I lucked out with a high school that was three blocks from my house. Their History teacher had just walked in one day and quit. He taught World History all day long, five sections of World History. I went in for the interview, and for two years, I taught World History, and it turned out I really liked teaching high school, which was a huge surprise to me after fighting it for so many years.
Then what happened to change all that?
About midway through my second year, the principal called me in, and said, "I want you to consider a career change." I was surprised, because I thought I was good at my job. She said, "No, no, you're great at your job. I want you to be the Director of Technology." I knew that our current Director of Technology was leaving, and I knew they'd be looking, but it had nothing to do with me as far as I was concerned. I said, "I don't have a background in computers. I guess I know where the 'on' button is on a server." She looked at me, and she said, "Well, you do know there's a server involved, right?" I said I know there's a server, and she said, "Okay, because I don't know that. What's a server?" I said, "I'm not sure." She said, "Great, can you learn?" I said, "Well sure, it can't be that hard. I can figure out what a server is. Do you want me to run one?" She said, "We have outside people to help you. That is what I want. I want someone who is a teacher to be the tech, because I can teach you to be a tech, but I can't teach a tech to be a teacher." And, because things like this matter to me, it was more money. LA is a very expensive place to live, and I knew the extra money would certainly help. I thought it could be fun, an adventure. So I took over, and they were in the process of upgrading the computer lab, so I worked with the outside tech. He did all the work, and just gave me some background on it. My first tech I worked with was very unwilling to let me take over, so we had a good two-year Battle Royale. He taught me a lot, but getting him to actually teach me, versus him actually doing it for me, was kind of an interesting process. He set up the whole system and eventually taught me how to work it. I learned how to work with server folders. We had a Microsoft system and PCs. I know some people don't love Microsoft, but I really do. I think that Microsoft really made accessible for someone like me with no computer background to be able to run an entire network. I learned a lot during those first two years.
How did you end up in Mid-Peninsula High School right in the heart of Silicon Valley?
My husband needed to move for work, and I figured coming up to Silicon Valley I would have to go back to teaching History or English, if I was lucky enough to get a job doing either. But the Director of Operations at the time wanted to bring someone in who had more of a teaching background with curriculum development, and bring someone in to work with the faculty. Not only would I be the network administrator, which I am, but also to teach faculty how to use their computers and integrate them into the classroom.
A lot of your knowledge of technology is from actually learning through experience, rather than taking classes, right?
I think that the greatest moment in my tech career was when one of my outside vendors said, "You know, if you go to the Microsoft web site, you can type your question in, and they have an answer for you." And it tells you how to do it. I still do a lot of online searching for answers. Teachers are also a great way to learn about technology. They don't have quite the broad spectrum that you need, but high school boys will have an interest. And if they have an interest, you can take that knowledge. I had a boy the other day just for one of the teachers, and he wanted to set up two screens on the computer. I had never done that. I could've cared less about it, except that now I had a teacher who wanted it. I could have simply gone to Google, looked it up, figured it out. Instead, he's like, "I know how to do this." I let him do it, and he showed it to me. There are a lot of different ways to learn this job. Most of my learning has been hands-on, and with the help of other people. Just asking questions. It always amazes me that people will not ask questions for fear of looking totally ignorant. When I came to my job interview at Mid-Pen, one of the things I wanted to make perfectly clear was that I was nervous about taking a tech position in Silicon Valley. In retrospect, I shouldn't have been as nervous as I was. I'm amazed sometimes at the lack of progress around here. One thing I did really make clear at the interview, is that it is imperative for me that if I can't figure something out, I need to be able to go out and hire someone to do it. A big part of my job is working with outside vendors.
That's very interesting. I've talked to a lot of people high up in corporate IT, and a lot of them don't have a strict IT background. Some have very broad liberal arts backgrounds, even in fine arts, which you wouldn't expect at all from someone in such a position.
I have a theory that you can learn to do anything. I think education is important, clearly. I have three degrees and I've spent a lot of time studying and learning, but I think that if you're willing to take the time you can learn anything. We were having a discussion about brain surgery once. If you just had one type of brain surgery, and that's all you needed to know how to do, you could have a surgeon who does that teach you to do that one type of surgery, if that's all you're going to do, over and over again. If you're just doing one thing over and over again, you can do it. If there's an emergency and something goes horribly wrong, you can call in an expert. That's kind of what I do. I'm doing the same things over and over again, then I call in an expert when I need one.
What do you think is your favorite part of your present position?
One thing I really enjoy is still working in the classroom. I'm lucky that there are a number of teachers who will invite me in and we do some teaching projects. In some ways, it's nice not to be in the classroom, because when the day ends, the job ends, and I don't have prep work to do for the most part. I also don't get the fun of spending the time with the kids, and I have to say, one of the reasons I stuck with high school is because I really enjoy this age group. I think they're interesting and certainly daring, and have a lot of great ideas. I work at a progressive school, so we work very hard to make sure if a student has an interest or idea, that idea gets heard and explored. I still really enjoy the classroom touch, but the advantage is that I don't have to spend all the hours correcting papers or preparing. So I have the best of both worlds. I get a little bit of classroom time, and then some days the best part of my job is that I get to sit in a closet for hours on end.
Is there a downside, or a least favorite part of the job?
Being a little more out of touch with knowing what's going on at the school. Schools are about the students, and not being in with the kids every day, you really don't have that touch point. You kind of miss out on that.