Monday, September 26, 2011

Remarks to students at the Henry Viscardi School

Today, I want to spend most of our time just talking and answering questions. Before doing that I want to give you a quick idea of who I am and where I’m coming from. Since Antoinette talks much faster than I do, I’ve asked her to read my opening remarks.

It’s great to be back on Long Island. I grew up in Coney Island and went to college just down the road from here at Hofstra. At Hofstra, I managed their Rolling Dutchmen Wheelchair Basketball team. I remember several games were held right here at Abilities School.

I recently retired from Wells Fargo after 29 years. I started my career at Wells Fargo as a
COBOL / Assembler language programmer. I worked my way up the corporate semi-accessible ladder. I ended my career there as a Senior Vice President in their IT area where I had hundreds of people in my area in 5 states as well as India. I spent at least 7 hours every day in meetings. I truly felt listened to.  I must admit, throughout my career at the Bank, I enjoyed going to large meetings where few people knew me. It was great seeing the tension in the room rise as people looked at me. They squirmed in their seats avoiding looking at me. As we began talking about the topic of the meeting or the problem of the day, it was fun watching the tension go away. There was always someone in the room who I could watch and gauge how well I was being understood by their expression. More often than not, they would automatically and naturally say, ‘Neil, did you say…’ My point here is that people will listen and understand if you give them the reason and the opportunity to do so.

Another example of this is being on call. Working in IT for a Bank is a 24/7 commitment. When a computer system crashes in the middle of the night and the Bank is losing literally thousands of dollars per minute, you would be amazed at how quickly computer personnel learn to listen and adapt. For me they quickly learned to give yes and no and multiple choice questions when they called me at odd hours.

Working for the Bank was truly wonderful. I really got that if you work hard and do a good job, it really didn’t matter what you look like, where you’re from or what you sound like. Focusing on the bottom line is a great equalizer! The same is true when it comes to reasonable accommodations. Managing IT developers, you quickly learn that every IT developer always wants the latest and greatest gadget or software or access to a website etc. As a manager, you decide who gets what by how much more productive that person will be if they had that new tool. Same with reasonable accommodations – they are productivity tools.

I want to tell you a little about my work history. My first ‘job’ was as a volunteer librarian at my high school when I was a junior. First period 3 days a week I would check out books and restack books on the lower book-shelves. My first paying job was as a pool hall attendant at Hofstra. I’d collect quarters from students who wanted to play pool down in the basement of the Student Center. I did that my 1st semester. 2nd semester I became a security guard on the Thursday night graveyard shift at my dorm. I’d work 11pm to 7am, grab breakfast, go to my 8am class and my 10am class and then crash. I did that for 2 years! I then worked in the Housing Office and then I got to actually develop the first automated system for the Housing Office. My last summer at Hofstra, I was one of the shift managers for the Housing Office. Groups, including the NY Jets football team, would use the dorms at Hofstra as their summer camps and my team would staff the front desk, clean rooms, provide security etc. Can you imagine me telling a 300 lb. football player he broke curfew and could not take his girl up to his room!

The point I want to make is that if you want a career, you must work. It doesn’t matter what you do or how much you make but you must work.

After Hofstra, I went to U.C. Berkeley to do graduate work in computer science. After being in Berkeley 4 days, the Center for Independent Living (CIL)  hired me to work on a federal grant to do a study of the state of literature and disability. Two months later, IBM came to CIL with the idea of training people with disabilities to be computer programmers. CIL hired me and another person with a disability to put the school together and teach.  For the next four years I was the director and the teacher of Computer Technologies Program (CTP). It was the best job ever. Imagine, I had an entire class of students who had to listen to me all day, 5 days a week for 9 months. They had to laugh at my bad jokes and do all the assignments I concocted. I figured anyone who did that deserved to get a good job and 92% did!

After 4 years at CTP, I figured I’d get a ‘real job’ at a big company for a year or 2 so that when I returned to CTP I’d be able to more honestly be able to tell my students how great it is to work. I stayed 29 years! At Wells Fargo I moved to a new position every 3 to 5 years. I also got to hire many people. When I hire, I look for someone who is excited, enthusiastic, engaging, and eager to learn. Skills are secondary. I figure anyone with the four E’s can pick up the required skills but without the 4 E’s, the skills are somewhat irrelevant.

OK! That’s my story. Now what would you like to talk about?

Thank you!