Tech-savvy teen is building his own computer science career in Alabama
Posted on
November 1, 2016

This feature first appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

A small-town teen is forging his own computer science career.

Tuscumbia, Ala., is part of the greater Shoals area and it's steeped in history. It's the birthplace of Helen Keller, America's First Lady of Courage, and the site of the first railroad west of the Allegheny Mountains.

It's also a town that almost became something entirely different. In 1921, automobile magnate Henry Ford announced plans to build a "Detroit of the South." Ford's vision was to build a city that would encompass 75 miles of northern Alabama and employ 1 million workers. His aim was to purchase the nearby unfinished Wilson Dam and two nitrate plants from the U.S. government in order to produce nitrate fertilizer.

Spurred by Ford's dream, the region boomed, with speculators moving in and buying up cotton fields to create housing divisions and farms to feed the expected workers and families. Unfortunately, negotiations stalled after three years and Ford withdrew his offer. The government would eventually finish Wilson Dam, build more dams along the Tennessee River, and gradually incorporate the area as part of the Tennessee Valley Authority — the nation's largest public power provider.

Somehow, throughout all the changes in the region, Tuscumbia has managed to retain its identity. With a population of just 8,423, Tuscumbia remains the quintessential small southern town — filled with friendly, helpful people and a thriving industrial base that offers opportunity for those willing to work for it.

One Tuscumbia resident working hard to build his future is Jacob Manley, a senior at Muscle Shoals Career Academy (MSCA). Jacob, 18, is a friendly and very intelligent young man. He is also one of those fortunate few who seem to have always known what they want to do as a career.

"I always had my mind set on doing something with computers," he said. "Computers are something I'm good at and enjoy working with."

When working with computers, Jacob exhibits a level of patience normally associated with older, more experienced IT professionals. He wanted a powerful gaming computer and had been saving money and researching components for several years. Last year he decided to build it himself. "It was just a rag-tag project, but it helped me learn how to select components and build a computer from scratch," said Jacob.

Building that computer was one of the most satisfying things he has ever done. Working entirely on his own, without any advice from friends or family, he tinkered around until he got it right. "I just put all the parts on the table, looked at my phone for tutorials, and read the manual," he said.

Instead of succumbing to frustration as the day dragged on, Jacob kept his cool. "It took me eight hours trying to get it to work; plugging things in and unplugging them over and over until I had everything in the right place. Finally I turned it on and it worked."

Jacob is definitely headed for a career in IT. He is currently enrolled in the Muscle Shoals Academy IT program, where faculty take their responsibility to help students learn very seriously. As outlined in school promotional materials, teachers at the school view themselves as being "caretakers of tomorrow's humanity ... with an obligation to provide an environment conducive to learning so that their students will grow in prosperity and develop a love of country thus providing a better community, state, nation and world for all mankind."

MSCA offers student-centered instructional programs that are technically innovative and industry-based by integrating academic concepts into the context of real world learning experiences that are related to student career objectives.

MSCA has been very successful in helping its students, particularly when it comes to certifications — MSCA students have earned more Microsoft Technology Associate certifications than any other program in the state. These certifications include Windows Operating System Fundamentals, as well as software and gaming development. Students also gain skills in computer maintenance, software development and programing.

Although Jacob knew he wanted to work with computers, it was at MSCA where he first saw the value of IT certifications. "My instructor told me all the stuff I would learn and how I would have the knowledge to back up what was on my resume," he said. "I got really interested when I realized how certifications would help with my IT career."

To say that Jacob was "really interested" is an understatement. His drive to succeed and willingness to learn led him to complete three certifications during his junior year: Microsoft's Information Technology Fundamentals, Microsoft Software Development Fundamentals, and TestOut's PC Pro.

His work ethic and maturity are also helping him become a leader among his peers. "Jacob has set the standard in my IT courses with his desire to become a successful IT professional," said Tiffany Stonecipher, MSCA's IT instructor. "He has gone above and beyond the call of duty to earn all of the certifications our program currently offers. He serves as our TSA President this year, and I look forward to seeing him grow in the field of Information Technology."

As part of MSCA's efforts to provide hands-on work experience for students, the school has teamed up with local organizations to offer internships. Jacob currently works as an intern with the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC), which develops fertilizers at its plant in nearby Muscle Shoals for use by smallholder farms in more than 100 countries.

Jacob's duties include updating iPads, installing programs and Ethernet cables, and fixing computer problems, and he enjoys his work. "Every organization needs skilled IT people, even fertilizer companies," he said. "IFDC is doing important things. It's a good place to work, and I like helping people."

It was Jacob's impressive maturity and willingness to learn that helped him land the internship with IFDC. Ricky Isbell, IFDC's information technology coordinator, spoke about partnering with MSCA, and how pleased his organization is to have landed Jacob Manley.

"This is the first time we've done anything like this," Isbell said. "In the interviews, Jacob just stood out to us. He is very eager to learn and grow — you can tell he is ready to take the next step. He is not your average high-school kid; more mature than most, knows what he wants to do, and is already laying out his plans for college."

Jacob's future plans include graduation in May 2017, learning several programing languages, and then completing a degree in computer science from the University of Alabama at Huntsville. With an eye on the job market, he is also considering earning the Networking Pro and Security Pro certifications offered by TestOut. "A lot of companies are looking for people with these skills," he said.

Like all good certification students, Jacob not only knows how to work hard, but also how to slow down and relax. He enjoys video games — particularly strategy-oriented games like Sid Meier's Civilization and Stardew Valley, an indie farming simulation. Jacob's future plans include graduation in May 2017, learning several programing languages, and then completing a degree in computer science from the University of Alabama at Huntsville.

He also enjoys reading. His favorite book is the Douglas Adams sci-fi classic Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. "I enjoy British humor, it's clever, and the book is filled with it from start to finish, which makes it one of the most enjoyable experiences I've ever had reading a book."

A small-town teen is forging his own computer science career.

Jacob says that he and his family are "pretty tight-knit." He is the oldest of five children in a blended family and has lots of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins living in the area.

He also appreciates the family's ability to pull together when needed. They recently experienced a crisis when his 5-year-old sister, Alyssa, underwent emergency brain surgery to remove a tumor. Fortunately, she is undergoing treatment and doing well. "It's good to have family you can count on. Everyone really helps out," said Jacob.

For such a sharp young man, Jacob comes across as unusually laid-back. "My main goal is to be content," he said. "I want to be content in my career. I'd like to work as either a software developer or programmer, and just help others out."

Jacob also enjoys music. (Tuscumbia is home to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, which includes such luminaries as Hank Williams, Lionel Richie, Nat King Cole, Percy Sledge, Tammy Wynette, and the Temptations.) His favorite artist is rap star Kendrick Lamar, he said, because "his verses are so smooth and fluid. His soul is in his music and there is real meaning behind the lyrics."

You know the reasons, but still won't ever know my life is a lyric from one of Lamar's songs that resonates with Jacob: "To me, that line means that people judge too quickly and never look at a person as a whole."

Not judging people too quickly is good advice. Jacob Manley may have been raised in a small southern town, but he has a lot of talent for IT and a strong grounding in family — two advantages that will serve him well in his career and, more importantly, in life

About the Author

Calvin Harper is a former associate editor of Certification Magazine and a veteran of the publishing industry.

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