The Best Way to Get the Job Experience You Need

Two Men at Computer Terminal

David Kurkowski, a senior application engineer with HealthTrust in Nashville, Tenn., built his career on persistence and continuous learning, as well as hard work. Kurkowski spoke with Dice about how internships, classes and studying on his own helped get him break into tech and develop a successful career.

How did your IT career begin?

When I got out of the Air Force, I wanted to be a firefighter, but I couldn’t really find any jobs–either because there were no openings or because I have some pretty significant hearing loss. I started college to be a history teacher. I was working at a metal forging plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., and I would play with the computers there and really got into it.

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So I went to Lipscomb University, majoring in Management Information Systems,and told them that if there was any internship at all, I’d like to apply for it. They had an internship they’d been trying to fill for a long time with a group called W.O.M.E.N., a healthcare services non-profit. The founder is an HIV-positive African-American woman. Anything I wanted to jump into, she let me do it. I worked at the metal foundry until 7 a.m., went to school, then went there. I would do networking, do DBA work, work on the website. With a non-profit, if you work with computers, they’ll just throw you in there. If I didn’t know it, I got a book out to study it. If I still didn’t know it, I called somebody. It was my first work with databases, with Oracle. I decided to go into DBA work, database design.

What about database work interested you?

I like puzzles. That really lends itself to database work, trying to figure it out. It’s like one big puzzle.

But that wasn’t your only internship.

No. Corrections Corporation of America was looking for a junior developer. It turned out to involve XML and Java. I wanted to branch out and find out if I really wanted to stay in databases, so I learned to do some programming along with it. So I was still working and going to school, working at W.O.M.E.N. and at CCA. Monday through Friday, I only got about three hours of sleep a night. I had really great bosses at the metal fab place who gave me extra time to study.

Then I had an internship with a small computer company that was doing printing. It was also some DBA work, this time on the Microsoft side. That was challenging. They kind of threw me in there and let me sink or swim. And most times I sunk. There’s no two ways about it. But that’s the way you really get into it and really learn your craft.

I understand there was another job where you offered to work for free?

That was at Tractor Supply. I was leaning toward data warehousing–I was reading about it online. It was a way to store massive amounts of data–data for five or six years–and report off of it. It was interesting to me. I wanted to learn more about it.

Tractor Supply was hiring a senior data warehouse developer. I knew I couldn’t apply for the job, but I thought, “Hey, maybe I can learn from these people.” So I just walked in the door with my resume and asked to speak to anybody in IT in the data warehouse/DBA department about some free work. When you say “free,” people come running. All I needed was 60 seconds. I told them, “I don’t know anything at this time, but I’ll know something really soon. You don’t have to pay me. Even if I have to work as a janitor in the off hours, I’ll do it. I really want to do this.”

They couldn’t believe it. It’s high-stress work, with lots and lots of hours. They couldn’t believe anyone would want to do it for free–and even offer to do janitorial work in order to get the opportunity.

Did you do any janitorial work?

No. I worked for free for a few months, then they started paying me. Not a lot, but they said they had to pay me.

So did they hire a senior-level person into that position?

They never did. They had a team of two people in place who played a big role in my career. They were teachers, they were mentors. They got me up to speed quickly. They made me see who I wanted to be 10 years down the line. Over time, I got more comfortable, more confident that I knew what I was doing.

We’ve heard about the changing DBA role. Is the DBA going away?

It’s not just the DBA role, it’s the IT industry in general that’s susceptible to constant change. I don’t believe the DBA role is going away, but it is changing, especially with in-memory applications such as HANA. People want it bigger, they want it faster and they want it in different ways. You have to adapt or you can’t be in the IT industry.

You said you’re always taking courses. How do you determine what to take?

I do a lot of research. I try to learn what’s hot, what’s coming in five to 10 years. A few years ago, before you heard about Big Data on the news every day, I learned that it was coming down the line. That in-memory was coming down also, so I really pushed to start learning that.

So tell me about your new job.

Well, prior to that I was offered a job with a defense contractor where I was a senior database/BI developer. That’s where I really cut my teeth in data warehousing and business intelligence. I traveled to Huntsville, Ala., where they made the Saturn rockets, to New Jersey, to Washington, D.C., to Seattle, to Denver to Dallas. I traveled all the time.

I took my current position because I really wanted to do something different. I wanted to dive more into Hadoop and some of the other BI tools such as MicroStrategy, learn some R. HealthTrust has offered me that opportunity.

What advice would you give to young people about managing a technology career?

Don’t be discouraged. I would say embrace change. There’s going to be a time in your career when you wonder whether this is really the thing for you, but you have to push forward and learn. You have to be ready. There’s constant change in this industry, but there are jobs here. Good jobs. Exciting jobs. And if I could do it, anyone can.

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