This feature first appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
In September 2017, as Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm, was making a beeline for Florida, I grew concerned for the IT instructors I work with who had homes and livelihoods in the Miami area. Fortunately, most of them pulled through without sustaining too much damage.
The rest of the state wasn't as fortunate. As the historic storm — one of the largest ever tracked at the time — rolled northward, the devastation and flooding became horrific in many areas. The total estimate of the destruction caused by Irma ultimately rose higher than $77 billion.
After the storm passed, I reached out to my Florida instructors to see how they had fared. One of those I contacted was Charlie Thompson, a mainstay at the time at Middleburg High School in Middleburg, Fla. Situated about 45 minutes southwest of Jacksonville, Middleburg still has that quaint small-town America feel.
Most people wouldn't even know it was there, unless they are fans of the band Lynyrd Skynyrd (founding member and original lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant lived on Brickyard Road in Middleburg at the time of his death in an infamous plane crash).
Charlie and I have chewed the fat many times over the years, talking about the area's population growth, his recently completed man-cave, his IT students, and his love of fishing. I have a standing invitation, whenever I'm in town, to get out on the river and join Charlie in drowning some worms. (I still need to take him up on his offer.)
People helping people
In the aftermath of Irma's destructive rampage, I eventually managed to reach Charlie by phone. He let me know that he and his wife were well, but that their house had flooded — and it wasn't just water in the basement. By "flooded," Charlie meant "water to the roof line." (You can see what that means from the photo on this page.)
Once the storm had passed, Charlie took his boat back to the house to assess the damage. He was grateful that he and his wife had gotten out safely, and were even able to salvage a few treasured possessions — including his wife's Bible.
Speaking with Charlie about his loss, I was amazed that he was his usual positive self. If anything, he was more concerned about his neighbor — who didn't have flood insurance — and what would happen to their home.
During our conversation, Charlie told me that many of his former students had reached out to him immediately after the storm. They were all asking how they could help. For more than 20 years, Charlie had been teaching these kids and helping them launch their IT careers and excel at their jobs.
These former students never doubted his concern for and commitment to them, and they were all ready to help him in any way they could. It was great to hear how moved Charlie was at the offers of assistance.
Oftentimes, we don't realize the impact our actions have on the lives of other people. Over the course of his teaching career, Charlie had mentored thousands of students. In doing so, he made time for them and now they were determined to make time for him. There is a strong sense of community, mutual respect, and honest concern for others in Middleburg — because of good people like Charlie.
Natural disasters have a way of bringing people together. From all over the country, communities reached out to alleviate suffering and help repair lives damaged by Irma's ferocity. Whether it was through financial donations, cleanup-oriented service projects, or just looking out for bereft neighbors, people came together in wonderful ways.
I'm fortunate to work for a company that enables me to work with people like Charlie and his students. Our goal is to make a difference. Every day when I come to work, I know I can be a part of making a difference in a teacher's classroom, in a student's learning environment, and in the lives of people who will use our products to improve their education and employment prospects.
Back to Florida
In early March, I had an opportunity to return to northeast Florida. When my trip to the Sunshine State routed me through Jacksonville, I knew I needed to find my way to Keystone Heights, where Charlie has not only retired, but also continued to build his life. He has a beautiful oasis in the area, a home that kids and grandkids will be thrilled to visit.
Before stopping by Charlie's place, I was privileged to accompany Mary "MeMe" Hall to visit with some of the students at Middleburg High School, where Charlie formerly taught. It was great to see the school's IT education programs carrying on, anchored to the foundation that Charlie and others like him established.
I had the opportunity to talk to the students about careers in IT, as well as the role that certifications can play as they progress toward a professional career. We discussed how the things they are learning and doing are the skills that will benefit them moving forward.
As I visited school districts throughout north and central Florida, I found a common thread and need. All school districts are being tasked, in conjunction with their workforce service boards, to create internship, mentorship, and apprenticeship programs. These programs are intended to help the current generation of students become the next generation of IT industry leaders.
Charlie for years offered his students the mentorship to help them accomplish their goals. Because of his influence, his former students have gone out in the world and made a mark in their own unique ways. Many of his students decided to also stay at home, and now work for Clay County Public Schools, state-based utility companies, and other local businesses.
My experience with Charlie and in Middleburg got me to thinking about the importance of the internship, mentorship, and apprenticeship programs the Florida and other states are putting place to benefit and mold the rising generation.
Everyone needs someone to look up to. We all need role models and difference makers in our lives who can show us the way and provide us with support. We need people who see our potential and can help either start or continue our most important life journeys.
Steve Jobs said, "My job is not to be easy on people. My job is to take these great people we have and to push them and make them even better." We should all be asking ourselves, who can I mentor today who might help others tomorrow? How can my influence live on through the people I interact with? Who needs to learn what I know?
Industry partners can play a huge part in helping mentor students. Professionals can sit on school advisory boards, offer to speak to students, provide tours of workplace environments, offer mock job interviews. These and other acts of service are essential to instilling confidence in young learners and helping them unlock their potential.
Internships and apprenticeships
Many school systems are tackling the goal of internships with industry partners. This natural marriage of talent-hungry employers and the educational systems benefits everyone. An IT internship has the potential to equip students with critical technical and professional skills that will be the foundation of their entire career.
It can also assist students in building their résumés and broadening their network of industry connections. Perhaps most importantly, an IT internship provides an opportunity to instill a priceless "I can do this" mentality.
Internships are a key part of how the tech sector will eventually get a badly-needed boost to the number of skilled workers. Even passive industry observers can't miss the growing need, especially in the cybersecurity field, to bring in new blood. Internships where students can nurture their skills while gaining professionalism and building confidence are a win for everyone.
On my way through Florida, I stopped by to visit with Charlie and his wife. Despite recovering from a recent surgery on his neck, he was kind enough to take a break from throwing a ball to his dog, Murphy. Our visit reminded me how badly we need more Charlies in the world.
We need educators and employers to work more closely together to foster the growth of the next generation of IT and cybersecurity professionals. Our influence on others will have an undeniable impact on the success of the young learners everyone is counting on.
Ask yourself: Who was the Charlie Thompson in your life? Who showed you the ropes? Who helped you create the skill set you have today? Who believed in you and helped you see that you could succeed, both professionally and personally.
Maybe it's time to thank that person for their influence in the best way that you can: Follow their example and find the person or, ideally, persons who need a critical boost that you can provide. All of us need to play a part in building a better tomorrow. Take a detour from your busy schedule. Stop by and say hello to your Charlie Thompson, and then pass it on. Someone out there needs your hand on their shoulder.