Michael Hutchins has Microsoft certifications in hardware, networking and programming. He also has certifications for Word, Excel and PowerPoint and is a licensed instructional trainer.
He is 24 years old and previously served in the army as the Air Missile Defense Command and Coordinator for the 11th Brigade, tracking aircraft and missiles and instructing his people on which units and which missiles to shoot down.
He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
And he is homeless.
Actually, I shouldn’t say that he is homeless. He was homeless when I met him two years ago.
I was working on a project for my Advanced Journalism course as a junior in college. Many classes at Santa Clara University, my alma mater, require service work. This project was rewarding because, as committed journalism students, we were able to see how the skills we were developing could help the homeless in our community.
In short, we were learning how journalism could make a difference.
My conversation with Hutchins stood out because a) he was only two years older than me, b) he had served in the army and c) he had all these Microsoft certifications and can’t get a job in the Silicon Valley.
Unfortunately, I never had an opportunity to turn in a paper on Hutchins. We were asked to provide a modified transcript of an interview we did with a homeless person on the last day of class.
That was it.
I can’t remember what my final paper was on—it had something to do with one of Santa Clara’s sports teams—but let me tell you, I remember my interview with Hutchins like it happened yesterday.
After meeting Michael, I had an eerie thought:
I could be 22 and jobless, even with my degree in Communication.
It’s been two years now and here I am. Save for my part-time gig at an auto shop, I’m 22 and don’t have a steady job.
Hutchins began serving in the army at age 17.
“I joined because my parents were going through a really messy divorce,” he says. “I just got tired of being put in the middle of it. It had been going on for almost two years at that point.”
As the Air Missile Defense Command and Coordinator for the 11th Brigade he tracked aircraft and missiles and told his people which units and missiles to shoot down. He was discharged after two years of service due to injury.
“My medical injuries prevented me from doing certain tasks required of me,” he says. “I could sit behind a desk and say, ‘Shoot this down,’ but I couldn’t run and I had trouble climbing things.”
Following his stint in the army, the Redwood City, Calif. native moved to Las Vegas where he worked towards a Network Associates degree at ITT Technological Institute and worked a part-time job at Starbucks to keep his apartment light on.
After over a year in Vegas, he got a call from Apple.
“They had a job opening for me,” says Hutchins, a non-gambler that was a misfit in Sin City.
“I didn’t have a whole lot of money. I had enough to make a one-way trip.”
He arrived in San Jose and was offered an interview.
In his interview with Apple, they had the head of their Information Technology (IT) department sit next to the person conducting the interview. The IT head acts as a fact-checker.
“When a 22 year old sits down in front of you and knows more than your head of IT, that looks pretty bad,” he claims. “I have to talk myself down, but I need to be careful not to talk myself down too much where I sound like a moron.”
Hutchins is able to troubleshoot computer problems, plan the network layout (where the cables go, what walls, what conduit to use) and set up a server.
“I know my computers inside and out,” he says. “I can take them apart and put them back together in about 45 seconds. Just like a soldier prides himself on how quickly he can tear apart and reassemble a weapon, I can do that with a computer.
“It takes me an hour to figure out almost anything, no matter how complex it is. If you leave it with me for an hour I can explain it to you inside and out. Anything from networking, web servers, domain hosting, all the way down to cell phones: you name it I can probably do that with it.
“I can open car doors with cell phones.”
That’s right: Hutchins can open your car door with a cell phone.
While he was in the army he had a lieutenant who was in a meeting and left some notes in his car. “He called me and was trying to describe where his spare keys were,” says Hutchins. Instead of trying to find the lieutenant’s spare keys, Hutchins told his superior to pull his keys out and push the open button. “He pulled them out, pushed the button, the car unlocked, I grabbed the notes and drove them across the base to go give them to him.”
The signal from the car keys had traveled across the airwaves via cell phone.
“He asked me why he had to hit the button,” says Hutchins.
“I said, ‘I had to get into your car.’”
It is not uncommon for army veterans to be well qualified and out of work. The Daily Show recently had a bit where host Jon Stewart sat down with two unemployed Iraq veterans that, according to civilian protocol, were “not qualified” to be a nurse’s assistant or even a school nurse although they had healed injured soldiers on the battlefield.
You would think that if someone were able to save Jim Conklin’s life while bullets were whizzing overhead, they could give Sniffling Sam some Motrin and call mommy.
The difference between Hutchins and an army vet in the medical field is that he has his certifications. He has his A+ hardware certification, his net-plus in network, C++ in programming and is certified on all operating systems and servers. He’s also a Microsoft Certified Instructional Trainer (MCIT).
Most MCITs begin at age 30. He claims he’s youngest one registered.
He posits that it is insecurity that keeps a young person like him out of a job.
“During sports don’t you try to outdo the other guys who are playing [against you]?” he asks rhetorically. “Same thing happens in the IT world. You want to be the best and you get the highest position by being the best. Are you going to hire someone who’s better than you?”
So a man that can break down and rebuild a computer in 45 seconds and is able to open your car door with a cell phone was not hired for an entry-level position at Apple.
“I didn’t have a whole lot of money,” he says. “I had enough to make a one-way trip and…Apple ended up giving that job to somebody else and left me high and dry. I had given up my apartment in Vegas and everything already so I didn’t have anywhere to go back to.”
And that is how a man with Microsoft certifications becomes homeless.
There are many similarities between journalism and the IT world.
While many journalists may not be army veterans, and there are not any certifications required to write a column, two important parallels stand out:
- There are many qualified writers.
- Very few of them are compensated for their work.
Many people in the mainstream media ostracize bloggers or writers on sites like Bleacher Report or SB Nation. They are a bane on journalism: they don’t wait for their content to be published, it doesn’t appear in print and many write columns without doing interviews.
While many of their trepidations may be justified—writers still need editors, many print sources remain credible, access is vital to breaking news and accountability is paramount in journalism—many mainstream writers confuse good journalism and establishment.
They claim that “If we’re not doing it the way we’re doing it, you’re doing it the wrong way” when really what they are saying is “Your content is generating as much viewership as ours and this is making us uncomfortable.”
After all, like IT, journalism is a Machiavellian industry. Before journalism moved online, writers would move from one small town paper to another, trying to stand out in order to move onto a larger platform.
This was done out of necessity: the papers controlled the printing press, ergo access to the masses, therefore the writer had to join a paper in order to be read.
Now that sites like Bleacher Report have incredible viewership and newspaper jobs in small towns have become scarce, the formula has changed. An aspiring writer must work their way up the ladder on that site, or start a successful blog—or do both as Bethlehem Shoals of The Classical did—in order to garner readership at a young age.
The problem is that you get the perception that even after all the work is put in and your reader base is built, a glass ceiling remains above your head. Either there are no jobs available or, if there is something there, you’re not going to get it because you got your start online.
An established journalist has an arsenal of inside sources and has developed sound fundamentals during their years in the field. The newcomer is usually better able to use social media and search engine optimization to get their content read. Both could use each other: the established writer isn’t getting enough reads and the beginner needs credibility.
Unfortunately, ego and entitlement get in the way—the established writer may become condescending because they moved up the ladder and are perched upon the apex of the industry, the novice demands a paycheck for all the reads they have accrued and feels abandoned by the writers they look up to and websites they read.
It’s a similar dynamic in IT.
“The IT business is a cutthroat business,” Hutchins says. “You step on people to get where you go. The guys on the top want to stay on the top so they beat down the good ideas. That’s why we’re so far behind other places in the world (in regards to IT).”
He does not repine his desolate situation without offering a solution to the problem.
“Get rid of currency,” he says. “You have no currency, nobody owes anything to anybody. I think [America would work without currency]. Granted, in the first few years it would not be pretty. There would be a lot of people that would sit around and not do anything.
“I think after the second year people will realize that without people doing these other things, like farming or building the cars people want, the country will just collapse on itself.”
He is serious about this.
“Let’s give it a try. There will be people who work the dirty jobs and do things they don’t want to do just because it’s what is going to make things work.”
Neophyte journalists have taken Hutchins’ philosophy to heart in a way, however, by joining together to form blogs or joining websites like Bleacher Report. They are saying, “Well, nobody is paying us anyway, so we might as well have our voices be heard.”
And they are.
Bleacher Report just sold for under $200 million and has as much online readership as Sports Illustrated. Bethlehem Shoals has built The Classical into a respectable blog and has been published in ESPN The Magazine. Former AOL columnist Bill Simmons is now the world’s most read sportswriter and is a multimillionaire.
So while guys like Rick Reilly are falling asleep at the Ryder Cup,there are thousands of writers working tirelessly to build a reader base, earn credentials and have their voices heard.
In the end, if writers didn’t feel that the world needed their craft, they would stop doing it altogether.
San Francisco Weekly’s Joe Eskenazi recently wrote a diatribe lambasting Bleacher Report. It read like many anti-B/R screeds on the Internet, only it used credible sources and an educated argument structure to relay its message.
He concluded the piece with an anecdote from a young man that had moved from B/R to a paid gig.
Bleacher Report alum Lukas Hardonk is one of those writers who’ve gone on to paying gigs elsewhere. He’s now the managing editor of the Maple Leafs Central blog and a contributing editor of TheHockeyWriters.com. “As bad a rap as Bleacher Report gets, it’s really tremendous what they did for me,” he says. Hardonk wrote three years for the site, but found there were only so many slideshows in his system. By 2011, he realized he’d outgrown Bleacher Report. Still, “they kickstarted my career.”
It’ll be interesting to see where that career goes after the 17-year-old finishes his senior year of high school.
Eskenazi appears to not only uses the anecdote to mock B/R—a teenager had outgrown the site—but also the writer who at 17 is now better read than almost any other high schooler was only a generation ago.
Similarly, Hutchins feels held back by his age.
“I basically need somebody who is in the IT field, who is looking for an employee, to look at my resume and say, ‘Take a chance on this one,’” he says. “As it stands right now companies are not willing to take big risks. I’m 22 years old. What do I know?”
In essence, he’s saying don’t paint all young people with the same brush.
“At the same time you sit me down with another 22 year old who knows just as much as I do and the maturity level is different because I’ve been in the military,” he adds. “I’ve seen things most people haven’t seen in their lives or have experienced things that most people won’t get to experience.”
He’s right. Many young people have not been in the military and seen what he’s seen. On top of that, he’s been homeless and there are aspiring journalists living comfortably—for now.
The thing many young people have in common with him is that many toil away at minimum wage jobs—Hutchins worked at Toys ‘R Us and taught an IT course at the shelter—and are probably overqualified for the job that they have.
It is not a lack of talent, education or motivation that holds them back.
It is the system.
After all, I didn’t meet the youngest Microsoft Certified Instructional Trainer in a corporate office, an Apple store or even a Best Buy.
I met him at a homeless shelter.
Tom Schreier writes for TheFanManifesto. He can followed on Twitter at @tschreier3. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.