This feature first appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
One of my favorite crooners is Bob Dylan (aka Robert Zimmerman), the "musical Shakespeare" of his time. As a young man, his tunes spoke to me in ways that, at that tender and unknowing age, I was completely unable to fathom.
Now, with six-plus decades under my belt, Dylan's lyrics make a little more sense; especially that oft-repeated line, "For the times they are a-changin'."
He wrote the song by the same name in 1965 to be an "anthem of change for the times." And boy, was it appropriate! The Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union was constantly in the headlines, the Vietnam War had been raging for 10 years, as well as the protests against it, and the assassination of President Kennedy was still on everybody's mind. It was indeed a crazy and "changing" time.
Kids were different during that era too, especially me and my two brothers who spent most of our time doing dumb things and doing really dumb things — like that one time that involved matches, an old shed, the police, and fortunately, a timely and efficient fire department. Who knew that kerosene was so flammable?
I remember the look on my father's face when he showed up at the police station. We got a pretty severe "talking-to" once we got home. It was something about "the three of us combined, lacking the cognitive ability to pour water out of a boot with the instructions written on the heel." But said with a whole lot more color.
Launching into Linux
As boys, my brothers and I never gave one serious thought to our futures — maybe that's why my younger brother went to prison, my older brother wasted his life doing illicit drugs, and I went to law school. In some ways, I'm still not sure which of us got the worst deal. Today's youth are different, especially those involved with computers. These kids are focused, highly intelligent, curious, and determined to achieve.
One of these young people is Avery Andrews, age 16 and a sophomore enrolled at the Essex North Shore Agricultural & Technical School in Hathorne, Massachusetts, a village on the scenic north shore.
Andrews recently completed the CompTIA Linux+ certification, something few high schoolers dare attempt. It is a difficult certification to earn; those who sit for the exam are required to answer 90 questions in an all-too-brief 90 minutes.
When asked why she chose CompTIA Linux+ rather than a lower-level certification, her response was, "I had already gotten my IT Fundamentals (ITF+) cert and thought that since I already knew a lot about Linux, I'd go for it."
Although she admits to "hardcore studying" for two weeks to pass the exam, gaining the skills and knowledge necessary to master CompTIA Linux+ actually took several years. "I had been learning Linux for a long time," she explained, "watching videos and trying things out by myself and just absorbing knowledge slowly."
Andrews' first venture into the operating system occurred at age 14. "I got a Raspberry Pi and realized that although it couldn't run Windows, it could run Linux; so I kind of went down a rabbit hole learning how it works and experimenting with what it could do," she shared. "There are so many different pieces to Linux that you can go as deep into it as you want, incredibly deep."
Her experimentation was coupled with near-daily use. "I used Linux on an almost daily basis for a year," she said. "Mostly tinkering and learning more about how it works. I enjoyed it."
In addition to constant exposure to Linux and an intense period of study, Andrews had to do a lot of memorization, and it did not come easy. "The most challenging part for me was memorizing things like file paths and command options," she said. "Unlike the real world where you'll always have a manual page to look at, on the test, you don't have one."
Instead of purchasing expensive study materials, she spent a great deal of time on free practice exams. "Quizlet cost money, so I just went through everything numerous times and did practice tests to drill it into my head,” Andrews explained. "LabSim was pretty helpful in getting all the specifics into my head; it helped me learn a lot of specific commands."
After all that time and effort, passing the certification exam meant time to celebrate, something Andrews also did in a subdued fashion. "It was the biggest relief ever to see my passing grade. I think I got an ice cream when I got home."
Along with CompTIA Linux+, this future IT professional has earned the CompTIA ITF+ certification and is currently hard at work on CompTIA Network+. "I'll be taking the exam at the end of the month, but I'm not as confident as I was with Linux. But if I fail, I'll try again if needed," she explained.
For one so young, Andrews is very aware of the benefits of certifications, and she plans to complete a few more. "They're an important signifier of your skills and what you've had to study hard for," she explained. "I plan on getting as many as I can while in high school; it's an opportunity that I'm going to use as much as I can now because when I get to college, I may not have as much time to invest in earning certifications."
She is also grateful that the school bears the burden of paying for certification exams. "I'm so glad my school had vouchers in the budget and feel sorry for kids who don't have access to them."
Environmental science to IT
As a young child, Andrews had a strong streak of curiosity, particularly as to how things functioned. "I have always liked to find out how something works," she said. "At age four, I dissected my Thomas the Tank Engine toy just to see its circuits, and at age five, with my dad holding my hand, I used an Arduino to build circuits."
Despite the proclivity and interest in technology, her original plans were to become an environmental scientist. "I had a great middle school teacher who got me interested in it," she explained. "I always liked being outside and doing field studies, and one day, the teacher took the class to a nearby salt marsh where we took different readings of things—it was so much fun."
The environment lost a full-time scientist when Andrews entered high school and went through Essex's Freshman Explore program—an incredible idea that definitely should be implemented in all high schools.
Explore is mandated by the state and takes place during the first half of ninth grade with students spending one week investigating the various programs offered by the school. The process serves as a way to help students discover their interests and to visualize potential career paths.
Andrews, of course, went heavy on classes that dealt with nature, enjoying her weeks in natural and environmental science and arboriculture (the cultivation, management, and study of forest flora). She also dabbled in culinary arts, but her future path became clear when she spent a week hanging out with Elaine Batzer, the school's information technology (IT) services instructor.
"I was not necessarily pushed to study IT, but I was strongly nudged," Andrews joked. "I liked Batzer. She was a good teacher, and I was interested in Linux and wanted to go for Linux+. So, I signed up."
Once enrolled in the IT program, Andrews very quickly realized she was on the right path. "I've learned so much about things I didn't even know I was interested in and about all the wonderful opportunities I have before me."
Batzer enjoys having Andrews in the classroom and appreciates her zeal for learning. "In a little over a year, she has not only kept up with her schoolwork, but used TestOut to study on her own for the CompTIA Linux+ exam. Passing this exam, on her first try no less, makes her the first ever student at my school to earn this credential," she said proudly.
Jody Norton, Essex's lead teacher for IT, is equally impressed with Andrews' know-how and leadership qualities. "She is one of the program's lead students and an asset to her classmates, readily sharing her knowledge and skills with peers to help them improve."
"Avery is well-versed in the Python, Rust, C, and Zig programming languages and is constantly coding new projects," said Norton. "She recently created her own start menu for a Linux operating system."
Recharging the batteries
Even the most interested IT students need some time away from the subject to relax and unwind. Like millions of other people, Andrews enjoys popular tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder.
Her choice of video games is the Rogue Lite type, where characters who get killed don't respawn at their point of death, but rather all the way back at the beginning of the game. "I play those games as a way to let my mind wander, and each time I restart at the beginning, I take it as a learning experience. It's a lot of fun," she said.
She is also a fan of horror podcasts. Not the garden-type horror that tries to jump scare or gross you out with extreme gore. Her tastes are more along the lines of Edgar Allan Poe's tales of mystery and macabre, which are filled with highly detailed imagery, symbolism, and simile. "I really like listening to podcasts that use words to describe a scene so well that you can see it in your mind, like ooze dripping or sounds," she explained.
Her fondness for imagery and descriptive phrases make her a natural for the school's drama club. "It's a cool club," she exclaimed. "I enjoy working with the crew setting things up, and I was even an extra in our recently finished Addams Family play."
Family and hiking
One of Andrews’ favorite pastimes is hiking with her parents and siblings who are all very supportive of her and her interests. Dad is an electronics and physics contractor with the federal government and Mom works in a bank.
While Andrews said she doesn't have any heroes, she does look up to her parents. "They are both really great. I like the way my mom approaches problems and is a good communicator, and my dad is always friendly to people and a good problem solver. He certainly tries to comprehend me when I ramble about things like the history of UNIX and other things," she laughed.
The Andrews family is an avid group of hikers, and their favorite trekking location is the White Mountains in nearby New Hampshire — home to some of the "most rugged and challenging terrain" in New England as well as some of the highest peaks. "I will hike every chance I get, especially on scenic trips," said Andrews.
Mount Washington (6,288 feet) and Mount Jefferson (5,712 feet) are two of the more renowned White Mountain hikes, and the family has summited both. "They had stellar views, and it was worth all the effort," said Andrews.
"I wanted to hike Mount Adams (5,774 feet) too, but going down Mount Jefferson was so steep that it put a lot of stress on my knees; like falling two-thousand feet one step at a time," she joked.
Older people have often claimed that "youth is wasted on the young." This is their way of complaining about teenagers living carefree lives. Now that I'm older, I see a bit of truth in that statement — many teens seemingly live only for a fun time, avoid responsibility, and give nary a thought for tomorrow.
Andrews is not like those kids. She has a plan and is actively working on it. "After high school I'll go onto college to study either computer science or computer engineering (both if I go to Northeastern University)," she said.
She even has a career goal in mind. "I want to work on low-level operating systems and virtual machine development, because I love exploring the stuff closest to the hardware, the stuff that makes other stuff work," she said.
Those are some solid goals, the kind that a talented and driven young IT pro like Avery Andrews is certain to achieve.