A Theme of Learning with Erik Gross (1/3)

As a boy learning about computers, as a Nuclear Engineering student and instructor, and as a franchise owner and successful salesperson…the early career experiences of Erik Gross, a senior technologist and our guest this week in episode 267, contain a theme of learning. Erik learned resilience, adaptability, mental toughness, business operations, empathy for the beginner, how to teach others effectively, and when it makes sense to leave a job.

Original Recording Date: 02-17-2024

Topics – Meet Erik Gross, Pursuing Naval Service, Perception and Reality of the Nuclear Engineering Program, Abstract and Concrete Learning, Selected as an Instructor, An Unexpected Career in Sales, Deciding to Make a Change

2:32 – Meet Erik Gross

  • Erik Gross is a senior technologist with 3 principal activities:
    • Erik is a Cloud Transformation Consultant, he helps run a software developer boot camp, and he consults technology entrepreneurs on building scalable businesses.
    • If you would like to follow up with Erik on this discussion, you can contact him using one of the following links:
      • Career Architect – helping technology entrepreneurs launch and scale knowledge-based businesses without risky investments and years of trial and error, using an engineering-based approach to design, testing, launch and growth.
      • The Tech Academy – a licensed trade school which helps people transition to careers in technology through delivery of online and in-person coding boot camps

3:13 – Pursuing Naval Service

  • Right out of high school Erik went into the Navy’s Nuclear Engineering Program. It seemed an odd choice to others after growing up in Northern California.
  • Erik says the Navy is where his formal technology education began, but it isn’t where his love for technology originated.
    • Erik remembers the day his dad brought home a VIC-20 vividly. He was 11 years old at the time.
    • Erik’s father had programmed IBM mainframes in the 1960s, and at that time people wondered what it might be like one day to have a computer small enough to sit at your desk. When home computers came out, Erik’s dad got one right away.
    • “And he did something that changed my life…. He unplugged it, turned it over, pulled out a screwdriver, and popped off the back. And then over the next hour or so he proceeded to teach me EVERYTHING about the fundamentals of the internals of a computer…. Every bit of mystery about computers was removed from me in like an afternoon. My dad is a very patient, phenomenal teacher. And that’s where the journey really began.” – Erik Gross, on the first time his father taught him about computers
  • Erik’s choice to go into the Navy is really due to an overeager Navy recruiter, which he appreciates to this day.
    • Erik would tell you his grades in high school were not great and did not reflect his intelligence. They are also not necessarily a reflection of one’s future career trajectory.
    • Erik scored well on the ASVAB test for military service. Based on Erik’s scores on this test, the Naval recruiter gave Erik a second test covering math and science. Though Erik is not 100% certain how he really performed on it, he did get accepted into the Nuclear Engineering program.
    • “And it changed my life. So no, it was not originally what I was intending, but the things I learned in that program, I use them every day now…decades later.” – Erik Gross, on the influence of the Nuclear Engineering Program
    • A normal enlistment was 4 years, and it was 6 years to go into the nuclear program (2 years of school and 4 years of service in the fleet). Erik did not believe he was college material but was excited for training in electronics, physics, nuclear engineering, heat transfer and fluid flow, chemistry, higher math, etc.
    • The focus on technology was really what convinced Erik to agree to participating in the program.
      • Erik remembers his father getting kits from Heathkit like their ham radio to build together component by component. Erik’s dad was able to communicate with people in Eastern Europe in the early 1980s as an example.
      • “From a very early age, anything technology related, anything logic problem related…I would eat it up.” – Erik Gross

8:10 – Perception and Reality of the Nuclear Engineering Program

  • Was the Naval program what Erik thought it would be when he originally enlisted?
    • Erik’s father had served in the Navy (in Vietnam and other places), and his grandfather also served in the Navy as a pharmacist. Based on this, Erik had at least some idea of what the culture might be like.
    • The technology aspect that was laid out to Erik at the beginning was exactly what was covered, but getting used to the culture was an adjustment.
    • “The level of professionalism, discipline, communication required to operate successfully in that environment…that I did not know was coming, and I found very helpful. And it was quite the adjustment when I got out of the service to be in the civilian world.” – Erik Gross
    • Boot camp lasted 2 months, and Erik then went to 6 months of electronics school.
      • Six months of education on “Navy hours” (60 – 70 hours per week) is about 1.5 years of education anywhere else.
    • After electronics school came nuclear power school, and after a month or so they got into higher mathematics. Erik did not do well in math in high school.
      • The Naval Nuclear Propulsion school is rated the most difficult to go through in the military, holding the highest dropout rate and a nonzero suicide rate.
      • If you did not make it through the school you still had to serve your 6 years, but it would have a great impact on the job you were given.
      • The pressure was intense, and at times Erik wondered if he could actually succeed.
      • “I had to really look inside myself and decide, ‘what do you do when you get knocked down? How tough are you?’ Again, I’m an 18-year-old kid, and I decided there was no way I was giving up. And I push through and mastered that and now actually love math. But that was a rough, rough moment for me….” – Erik Gross
      • Instructors wanted people to succeed but also knew the students must have their own internal drive. Erik said they would keep you in the material and force you to spend more time on it if you were not doing well. In Erik’s class there was a low dropout rate.
    • After electronics school and nuclear propulsion school you get sent to something called Nuclear Prototype (a number of working nuclear reactors stationed across the country) for a period of 6 months.
      • These were operating nuclear reactors but were not at sea. Some of the “at sea” aspects were simulated.
      • Erik tells the story of being stationed at one of these in Idaho (an actual submarine) and being given the chance to do practical drills based on the theoretical knowledge he had learned.

14:00 – Abstract and Concrete Learning

  • Erik mentions two things came out of this which influenced the fact that he teaches people now as well as how he tries to help people when he teaches.
    • Students were given a book of over 400 items which composed a checklist of things they needed to practice and know.
    • Students would have to learn different systems by drawing them and then going to trace them throughout the nuclear prototype facility. There were 70-80 systems. requiring study. Each of the systems were things Erik had essentially learned in isolation from seeing them in a submarine.
    • “I remember looking at what I’m studying and all these things right next to it going through the wall. And all of a sudden this mental shift happens where I realized that not only did I know what almost all of those other things penetrating the wall were related to, what systems they were part of, but I saw how all of the systems I had studied so far were actually interrelated, where they actually met, and how one could affect the other. And all of a sudden my mind snapped open, and I got a grasp of the whole system…. And from that point forward every system I would study would…just add to the understanding of an already cohesive model of everything going on on that boat.” – Erik Gross
    • At different times in his life Erik has been in charge of teaching others. One example is his work to develop a well rounded software developer boot camp, which can be extremely difficult when there are so many different technologies to learn.
    • Nick mentions this is a lot like zooming in on a specific technology or system and zooming out to see the larger picture of how they are connected, much like we might do concrete example problems in math to help lead us to an understanding of the higher level abstract idea.
    • Erik says as engineers / technologists we should strike a balance between abstract principles behind something and concrete implementations of concepts. This balance between the theory of something and the practical application of the theory is something Erik and those he works with at The Tech Academy have needed to keep in mind when helping people get into the tech industry through avenues like software developer boot camps.
    • Nick feels it’s harder to go from the abstract to the concrete than in the opposite direction.
    • Erik mentions having spoken to friends who teach computer sciences and the challenges they have striking this balance.
    • Nick mentions technical certifications that may require one to study and take a test without forcing a practical application component as part of the test. Not that we would not learn some practical application while studying, but there could be a mismatch in theory vs. practical application.
      • “With certain rare exceptions when we’re teaching people technology, copy and paste is not your friend at the beginning. Type it out. Get your hands dirty. There’s no better way to really get that understanding…. Although, actually there is one better way…teach it to someone.” – Erik Gross

20:15 – Selected as an Instructor

  • Upon entering the Navy, Erik was not sure if he would stay in beyond his 6 year commitment. He imagined spending 2 years in school and then 4 years on a boat, but it turned out differently than he thought.
    • Erik had done well in electronics school and to his surprise was in the top 10% of his class at nuclear power school. The nuclear prototype (practical training) was when everything came together, and Erik did extremely well there too.
    • After graduating from the program, Erik was selected to be a classroom teacher for the very same program. He was scared at the proposition of teaching a class of people who were roughly 4-6 months behind him.
    • “Something happened about an hour into that first class. I don’t get to talk about this a lot. I’d found my home. I didn’t know that I had a gift for patience, for breaking down complex subjects, for paying attention to what’s going on in the learner’s mind, trying to grasp their point of view…and it just clicked and it came together.” – Erik Gross
    • During our discussion, Erik has a realization that this comes from his dad, a patient and effective teacher like none other.
    • Erik fell in love with teaching and even worked as part of a team to improve the overall program curriculum.
  • To graduate from the nuclear program, students were subjected to a panel interview.
    • The panel interview was 1.5-2 hours long.
    • The interview’s outcome would determine if they passed or failed the entire program.
    • The interview was with 3 experienced nuclear reactor operators who had been in the program 20 years or longer, and they can ask you anything from the last 18 months of your education in the program.
    • “I’ve experienced pressure at various points in my life, and sometimes that pressure has exceeded that hour and a half. But very few things come close.” – Erik Gross, on the panel interview to exit the nuclear program
  • Erik coaches people today on how to get into the tech industry, and when it comes to going through interviews, he has tremendous compassion and understanding for them.
    • It’s very easy to lose sight of what things were like at the beginning of our journey into technology, especially if we’ve been a technologist for many years.
    • In his coaching Erik tries to help people
      • Calm themselves for job interviews
      • Answer questions they do not immediately know the answer to
      • Showcase how they think to an interviewer
    • Nick says we were all learners once and continue to be learners. Remembering what it was like to be interviewed could motivate the interviewer to work harder to set the person being interviewed at ease and calm nerves.
    • “Any work you can do in any aspect of your life to be able to be willing to see something from another person’s viewpoint is time well spent.” – Erik Gross

26:17 – An Unexpected Career in Sales

  • Erik served as an instructor in the Navy’s nuclear program for 2 years and then as part of a group called the reactor controls division, he served on a nuclear powered cruiser for his final 2 years of service.
  • Erik left the Navy after getting tired of working with machines.
    • “Ultimately I wanted to move into something where I had more people interaction, and I didn’t see that as part of the career trajectory.” – Erik Gross, on leaving the military
    • Erik says as a way to foreshadow that technology kept creeping back into his life as his career as a civilian progressed.
  • After leaving the Navy, Erik went into sales for about 7 years. After first thinking he had no sales experience before this, Erik reflects on his time in Boy Scouts many years ago.
    • Many Boy Scout troops hold a yearly event called Scout-O-Rama, which is also a big fundraiser.
    • Erik and his troopmates were encouraged to sell tickets to Scout-O-Rama, and whoever sold the most tickets would get a new 10-speed bike.
    • “I found out that for the right motivation, I’m fearless. That’s not true. The fear is there, but I don’t care.” – Erik Gross, on being motivated to win a fundraising contest in Boy Scouts
    • Erik would knock doors near his Northern California home, and he even stood in front of the local Safeway for hours sometimes after school or on a weekend.
    • Erik sold 888 tickets and won the 10-speed.
    • When reflecting on what he wanted to do after the Navy, Erik thought back on that experience with Boy Scouts.
      • He believed in what he was selling and was passionate about scouts at the time. Because of that previous experience he knew he could pursue a sales role and succeed.
  • How was the job interview for the role in sales compared to what he went through in the Navy?
    • Erik had settled in Portland, Oregon after his Naval service.
    • Erik worked for a company that would work with manufacturers of home improvement products, create infomercials for them, put them on a looped video tape, and then ship a tv and vcr out to the different retailers (Home Depot, Lowe’s, etc.) to display on an end cap with the products in question.
      • Erik was hired to work for this company specifically to sell vcr tape duplication services.
      • Erik was not excited about the job and did not perform well in it.
    • One day, a lady who had helped get Erik the job asked if he would like to make some extra money on the weekend working for her husband’s sunglasses business. The job was manning a roadside booth selling sunglasses to customers.
      • Erik agreed. He drove up to a tent at a busy intersection in Portland and would there meet one of his future best friends. This person showed Erik what to do and turned him loose to sell to customers.
      • “Within a half an hour I realized the entire course of my life changed. I fell in love with that activity. Never saw this coming…at all. You get to meet person after person after person from all walks of life. You have a 2 to 5 minute sales cycle. You learn wonderful, new things about people. They walk away super happy. And, I was making bank! And so that’s how it started, and for the next 7 years, that’s what I did.” – Erik Gross, on selling sunglasses on the roadside
      • Selling sunglasses enabled Erik to travel across the Unites States and even to Australia at one point.
  • How did this activity of selling compare to how Erik felt when teaching for the Navy?
    • Erik eventually became a partner in the business and had to train people they would send to him in the field. It was very similar to when he was an instructor, requiring patience and an understanding of what it was like to be new.
    • Erik says the business was somewhat unusual and that they would refer to themselves as “roadside warriors.” Erik and others would be in a town for 7-10 days at a time, sell as much product as possible, and then move to another town.
      • Erik said those who worked this type of job would have to handle all logistics such as finding a new location to sell product, speaking to the property owner, securing permits and licensure to operate, and performing all setup.
      • He had a lot of compassion for new employees who suddenly relocated to a strange area to start this type of work.
      • “Teaching is teaching. You’re adding value to the person. You’re helping them accomplish their goals. And if you make it about them, you succeed.” – Erik Gross
    • Nick says this sounds like Erik was learning a new system when he had this role (all the logistics, interacting with people, etc.).

34:16 – Deciding to Make a Change

  • When does someone decide they want to stop doing this kind of work?
    • Erik got married young and had kids young. Two of Erik’s children were born during his time in the Navy, and one more was born during his time as a traveling salesman.
    • “I would leave March 1st to go on the road and come back around October, and I might fly home once or twice or three times during that period. It was brutal…. You’re making a good amount of money, but it’s brutal on home life.” – Erik Gross
    • Each year for a while Erik and his wife would tell themselves it was going to be the last one in the sunglasses sales role. While he had tried a few other things several times during the off season, once February came he would prepare to go back out on the road again.
    • Erik worked in this role from 1994 until 2000. After that he transitioned into flooring sales (an entirely different chapter).
    • Erik shares a story about finishing up his work in Hawaii and being told he would go to Australia next. Within a couple of days he had an operation up and running. These types of situations taught Erik a lot about himself.
    • The role was very much like being a franchisee in that there was a lot of freedom to run the business as long as they conformed to certain guidelines. This allowed for keeping the lion’s share of the money.
  • Nick feels the dynamic of knowing something needs to change or that continuing to do something is not a good idea can play out with any job. Maybe a listener out there doesn’t think what they are doing is wise to continue, but the motivation is not quite there yet to make the change. What did it really take for Erik to decide to leave and do something else?
    • Erik reflects back on the summer of 2000 when he and his wife told each other this was to be the last year in the sunglasses business.
    • Despite there not being a single moment of clarity, Erik started to look at what he was doing and wondered where it would end. He remembers seeing people working for the companies still doing the job in their sixties.
    • “As much as I enjoyed it…there were so many wonderful… moments of meeting great people and getting incredibly comfortable with sales. I couldn’t see myself doing that. It was this gradual shifting of that scale…and it just gradually shifted over.” – Erik Gross, on realizing he didn’t want to continue in his role as a traveling salesperson
    • Erik points to an internal struggle he had been having. Each winter when he wasn’t selling, he would try to start something new or make a change, but nothing seemed to succeed. He tried appliance repair, different sales endeavors, and even one idea related to DSL.
    • Erik works a lot with technology entrepreneurs and mentions it can be very difficult when we try to start something several times and fail.
      • “When you set out to start something and fail, especially if it’s a side activity or whatever…you do that two, three, four times…it can really hit you.” – Erik Gross, on failure
      • Erik lacked some confidence to make a change and rely entirely on himself to make it be successful, but despite that he decided to leave the sales role and trusted he had the toughness to transition into something else.

Mentioned in the Outro

  • Special shout out to listeners in Poland and Singapore for putting us inside the top 200 on the Apple Podcast charts in the business and careers categories!
  • People leave jobs for many reasons such as
    • Toxic culture / stressful environment
    • Poor management
    • Not getting pay raises
    • A mismatch in what the job expectations are compared to what you signed up for
    • Being on call all the time
  • It was a mixture of knowing the situation as a sunglasses salesperson was not sustainable for Erik’s family and looking at the end state with the understanding he did not want to be doing it for the rest of his career.
    • If you know you want to make a change but do not know how, you may need to talk to a trusted friend, a mentor, an industry peer, or a coach to get some clarity and some help building a plan to move forward.
  • We can all be mindful of people who are new to a situation or experience and have empathy for them. Let’s remember that in our interactions with others!

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