• Cecil Lewis Jr.

The Work Series – Part Three

Updated: Jan 3

Sometimes It’s Who You Know

We have a saying in America, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. This phrase is mostly applied to employment. In its simplest form, it means getting a job or getting ahead in your career is more about the people you know (people who can help you) than your education, experience or skills.

When I was thinking about writing this piece, I tested this concept on a few friends. I wanted to know if there was a person in their life that at some point took a chance on them in a job or possibly helped them through some connections, that positively impacted their career. When I asked this question to my friends, immediately they cited the name of a person who had helped them or gave them a chance in the early days of their careers. For me, I have two people that greatly impacted my career path.

As I began preparing to write this blog entry, I thought about the number of people who I had also helped along the way, by giving them a job or helping someone get hired for a job by giving them a good reference or offering some career advice. I also thought about how many of those people I hired during the years of career in management that I have lost touch with and never heard from them again.

I was always more of a working guy than a school guy. In high school, I basically went to school a few hours a day and would leave school each day at lunchtime to go to my co-op job at a men’s clothing store (German friends - a co-op job is a job that you get school credits for your work time). I took the classes that were required to graduate high school (no more or less) and I fulfilled my requirements one semester before graduation. Hence, I did not attend the last semester of my high school year and only returned on the day of graduation to collect my diploma.

This approach of working combined with education carried on into my college years. I basically worked full-time during the years that I went to college. I started out at the local community college, then I tried the leave home and go away to college thing (Cleveland, Tennessee) and discovered that was not for me and continued my studies attending night courses at a technology college.

This was the early 1980’s and it was a very different time in our world, in comparison to today. During this era, a lot of kids graduating from high school moved directly into the workforce. College was often a luxury for a lot of families and there was not such an emphasis on a college education like there is today. The area of the country I grew up in, it was very common for boys to go to work in the automotive factories after high school (I wrote about in my previous blog, Work Series – Part Two).

On a side note: for those of you who are working on your education or embarking on your career path, GO TO COLLEGE. In my youthful wisdom, I finished the equivalent of 3 years of college and with only 2 semesters of credits needed to obtain my bachelor’s degree, I never finished. I try not to live with regrets, but if I did………..not completing my bachelor’s degree would be on the list.

I continued to work in retail after high school and although I loved selling men’s clothing, as I entered my twenties it was very clear this profession would not provide me with the cash I wanted for my future. My Father is the first, “it’s who you know person” in my life. I plan to write more about my Dad one day, as his story is a very interesting rag to riches story of growing up in near poverty to achieving great success in the automotive manufacturing world. My Dad a strong example and set the bar very high on this thing called work ethic. Work hard, put in the time and success will follow. He also put emphasis on education, but in the end, I made my own decisions in this area. One key point about my Dad is even though he had the position and connections to help me (which he did), he was not going to serve it up on a silver platter. He wanted me to earn it for myself.

In college, I started out with the basics, with an emphasis on business then as I progressed to engineering/manufacturing studies. I knew I really did not want to be an engineer. I wanted to be the guy who sold the stuff they designed. Dad told me that to be able to sell the stuff, you must know it and understand it. So, he opened some doors through his connections to get me jobs in the manufacturing trade.

My first job on this new career path was at a prototype company, working as a die barber. I tried to find a definition from the internet to share with you, but I could not find one. Nonetheless, it was a horrible job. Basically, I worked the 10-hour night shift from 5:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. rubbing a gritty stone on a metal die (dies used to stamp metal into automotive parts to build prototypes vehicles). It goes without saying, that I concluded very quickly, that I would NOT be doing this for the rest of my life.

In that, I had 10 hours a day to think about how to get out of this labor camp. I saw that in the quality control area of the plant I worked at, they were using a new technology for checking parts. It was called a CMM (coordinate measuring machine). I told on the guys working in the quality area that I was taking classes on how to program these machines and “boom” I was no longer a die barber (but still had to work the night shift).

Moving forward a bit in the story, my Dad later got me an apprenticeship as a machinist at the same place he worked early in his career. Now I was learning a skilled trade. This was kind of a big deal in our blue-collar town (German friends – blue-collar town = a town mostly made up of factory workers). While at this job they got some new machinery. These machines were called NC machines (NC means numerical controlled). This machine could be programmed with a numeric language called G code to cut metal. Yep, you guessed it, as I was about the youngest guy in the shop and I had studied this a bit in college and I informed my foreman I was studying this and before long I was programming the code for the machines, which allowed me to leave the gloomy, oil-drenched shop for long periods of the day.

While serving my apprenticeship, I still knew there was no way, I was going to work there for the rest of my life. It was a great job for a lot of people, but it was just not my thing. Well, the economy and the slow crash of the automotive industry took care of that little problem. I was laid-off and had to collect unemployment benefits for a period of time and was only called back to work from time to time over a couple of year period. Now comes my “it’s who know guy #2”.

My Father was head of engineering at an automotive supplier in our town at this point in his career. Dad was always a bit of an innovator when it came to technology. There was a new technology in engineering called CAD (computer-aided design). When CAD first came into the market, these computer systems would fill a large room, required a climate-controlled environment, with a monochrome display. At this time in the evolution of technology, these CAD systems were awesome. Designers and engineers could now design on the computer, and it started the slow death of the drawing board and blueprints.

Shortly after this technology emerged, there was a guy named Bill Gates that release a new operating system to run on this new thing called the P.C. (personal computer - the early version of your laptop). Today, the cell phone that is attached to most of our bodies, has over 100 times the horsepower of these early PC’s. Well with the PC, came CAD for the PC. Of course, my Dad had to have this for his company. As CAD on a PC came with a smaller footprint, it was cheaper and would become the wave of the future.

CAD System

The salesman who sold my Dad his first PC CAD system was a guy named Mike. It turns out Mike had graduated 1 year before me at the same high school in my hometown. I knew who Mike was, but I was sure he didn’t know me. Let’s just say Mike was 100% opposite of me. He was a great looking Italian guy, who played football, drove the coolest car ever, had all the girls and to top it off was very smart. (After high school he went into the Air Force and defused bombs….come on dude…go big or go home!)

My Dad asked Mike if he knew me and I think Mike said he knew the name. Of course, he knew the name, there was only one guy named Cecil in our school of over 500 students. Dad went on to tell him about my studies and experience and inquired if he was looking for any people at his firm. Mike said yes and contacted me. He gave me a PC, some CAD software and a tutorial. He said if I could demonstrate the software to him in a couple weeks, he would hire me. Which I did.

In the early days of CAD on the PC, we demonstrated the software, sold the system, built the computer it ran on, installed the system and provided the training. Mike and I got into the market very early and then it took off…..big time!. We were making money that young guys should not make and were spending it just as fast. It was great.

My 1st Lincoln Continental - Thanks to the early days of CAD

Now some 25 years later, I am still in the same sector of business, selling CAD related software to the design engineering marketplace. Dad and Mike, thank you for believing in me, for mentoring me and for giving me a chance. Actually, thank you does not seem to be enough. Over the years as I would see Mike quite often, I on occasion would take the opportunity to express my appreciation for giving me chance. I too have done this with my Dad, for his guidance, support, direction and opening a few doors.

I could recant a whole lot of stories about the people and family members that my Dad helped obtain jobs during his career. I too can recall the many people that I did the same for. I hired a lot of people in the early days of the PC boom that did not have any idea what CAD was or how to build a computer or how to sell technology. I hired family, friends, children of my customers, guys recently out of the army and on and on. I know that many of these people moved on to great careers and have achieved success in the technology business. Do you know how many of these people I have heard from over the years? Do you know how many who ever contacted me to say thanks for the break or for giving me a chance?..............I cannot recall any.

Please be very clear, in writing this piece I not seeking thanks from anyone I may have helped along the way. I simply gave some people an opportunity and their successes over the years have nothing to do with me. I am proud of you.

If you are embarking on your career path, let everyone you know that you are looking for a job. Look for your “it’s who you know” person or a person that might introduce you to your “it’s who you know” person. Because this is the way it works sometimes (not all the time). And finally, if you have an “it’s who you know person” or a person that had a significant impact on your career and success, take the opportunity to reach out to them with a sincere word of thanks. Trust me, it will make the person’s day.

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