Cliff Chism

Location: Haskell, Oklahoma, USA
Age: 51

Back in 1975, a young Cliff Chism read about the first personal computer in Popular Electronics magazine. This early exposure to computing would have a lasting influence on his life and work. He also made some job moves that had nothing to do with computing whatsoever, which is why, at age 51, he finds himself taking loads of Udemy courses in order to update his programming skills and, perhaps, settle into a long-term career.

Cliff’s first job out of vocational school, where he studied electronics, was painting loud speakers for a company in Arkansas. This was “a happy time in my life,” not least because he happened to start chatting one day with a technician who realized Cliff had a natural curiosity about and proclivity for engineering. The owner literally gave Cliff the keys to the company’s huge engineering library, where Cliff immersed himself in self-education by studying all night and asking his colleagues questions in the morning. “Anything is possible when you don’t know the limits; the engineers would teach me the limits,” Cliff recalls fondly.

Thus began a string of jobs leveraging Cliff’s innate engineering skills and programming talent. He taught himself some early programming languages and moved to different states for a series of companies that were sold. Still young and seeking adventure, he was an engineer without a formal degree, but “people just knew that I knew my stuff.” But then a company in Ohio hired him as a technician, not an engineer. Cliff needed the work so took what he could get. Yet again, the company got sold, but he was happy for an excuse to move back to the South.

Cliff describes this period as “the beginning of the decline” in terms of his job prospects. He got bored and didn’t know what he wanted to do next, just that he was sick of computers. He was actually fairly content in a gig at a sawmill in Arkansas until it turned out he was allergic to pinewood.

His next job was another turning point. A friend at Boeing in Huntsville, Ala., got in touch when they needed someone with Cliff’s skill set on Unity, the first module of the International Space Station. Returning to engineering felt like “getting back to my roots.” Still, after Unity was launched in 1999, Cliff swore off engineering for good. He’d been working 120-hour weeks, and his health had deteriorated to the point where, instead of driving home one day, he went straight to the hospital. Worried about what the doctors had told him, he quit the very next day.

Cliff launched into a string of odd jobs until he eventually met a woman from Oklahoma and it was time to settle down. When Cliff went looking for a new job this time, “I found out how old I am.” Currently, he’s working in a factory but yearns for something more intellectually stimulating.

Which brings us (finally!) to Udemy, and Cliff’s search for more interesting work with a better salary. Necessity has reawakened Cliff’s interest in programming, but he’s been out of engineering a long time and “the world has passed me by.” Unlike when he was young and could sit for hours at the computer, “my mind has gotten full over the years, and it’s hard to learn something new when I’m working a minimum of 10-hour days.”

Cliff found Udemy in 2015, saved a bunch of courses to his wish list, and is in the process of “drinking from the firehose.” He praises instructors  Tim Buchalka and Rob Percival for offering courses that are comprehensive and of high quality. He appreciates how they both participate in discussion and respond to student emails. “You develop relationships with the instructors you’ve come to respect,” says Cliff. “I need a little bit of structure, and Udemy instructors offer that but on my own schedule. I still have to apply myself and get it all working together.”

With the help of Udemy courses, Cliff is preparing for the day “when I’m good enough to say to a prospective employer ‘I can come work for you as a programmer’ and not be laughed out of the office.” He’s also weighing the possibility of using what he’s learned about app development to become his own boss, something he’s always dreamed of.

Whichever way he goes, Cliff’s next act won’t be dull. In all of his travels and adventures, he’s always stood by the motto: “if you live an interesting life, you don’t have to lie about it.”