Escaping Poverty through Education – Leading at Cisco

Growing up in the South Bronx, NY – I didn’t have access to the Internet, cable TV, or even a telephone. After school most days, I took the long way home to avoid the drug dealers, gangs, and addicts. During summer and winter breaks, my aunt took me and my cousins to the free lunch program at a nearby school. You might think it’d be easy for a kid in that setting to get “lost” or find the wrong crowds to hang out with; you wouldn’t be wrong.

I fought boredom with a pencil, a stack of loose leaf paper, and my textbooks. Education became my escape from poverty, and I absorbed every ounce of knowledge that was passed my way. Once, while reading a few pages out loud to my English teacher Dr. Wells, I was gifted a valuable lesson. The book was about a man that died and his will, and after reading the excerpt Dr. Wells told me that I didn’t understand the details of what I was reading.

We argued for ten minutes before he handed me the dictionary and asked me to define the word EXECUTOR.  It was only then that I realized EXECUTOR and EXECUTIONER were two completely different words!  My embarrassment was quickly snuffed out by Dr. Wells who praised me for seeking the truth and accepting my mistake. Despite my socio-economic hardships, I credit much of my success to my teachers who stood by me and fed my appetite for knowledge.

Seeking the truth and accepting my mistakes are two lessons that enabled me to soar.

Life after high school was another journey as, like many, it took a long road for me to find where I was meant to be in this world.

I attended a top-ten business school because of its reputation. The high-level Economics courses, luckily, helped me realize that I didn’t want to study Business. I tried Computer Science at a community college and got bored of HTML and Java.  My grades were still good enough, however, to get me into an Ivy League University to study History.  I thought I could be a History professor and live a life in academia, until I realized that history books made me sleepy.

From there, I tried Networking at a technology school.  I discovered my ability to troubleshoot networks with Cisco routers and switches during lab practical exams and graduated with High Honors in my degree program.  Without any previous internship or co-op role with the company, Cisco hired me the Tuesday before I graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology with a degree in Applied Networking and Systems Administration.

Yes, it took me a while to define what I wanted for my life. Trial and error are key in life, and they help anyone to grow – more importantly, finding a company that believes in your potential and will develop your skill set is paramount. This is what Cisco did (and continues to do) for me, and I am proud to say that I have been with Cisco for over fourteen years now!

As a Customer Support Engineer, I have taken advantage of every opportunity to build my brand. Across my career, I earned roles such as being a Technical Lead (twice), a global Liaison, and what would be my last technical role as an Escalation Engineer. With a decade of experience supporting Cisco customers, it was then that I realized I wanted a change.

I wanted to lead as a manager. And if there are two things Cisco supports wildly, it is the ability to change the course of your career – and to develop leaders.

But despite my technical leadership excellence, I had to re-brand myself as a people leader first. I enrolled in leadership training, manager rotations, and projects while still working as a support engineer.  If you are interested in transitioning from technical to management, understand that it isn’t easy.  I was seen as the “technical expert” in my field for over a decade.  I had to prove, many times, that I was qualified to lead people and specialized projects without having direct authority over my teams.

Three years later, I was nominated by my manager for the Aspiring Leader Program.

With the help of my Cisco Career Advisor, and some luck, I graduated from the Aspiring Leader Program and am now a Manager with the Customer Experience Academy where I manage network support engineers, consulting engineers, project specialists, and interns.  I am presented with new challenges every week as I am directly responsible for Cisco’s success and the careers of over 35 direct reports across three delivery groups within the Customer Experience organization.  The Academy is the highlight of my career!

Every stage in my life required sacrifice and determination. This included lateral moves, salary decreases, and failures throughout my career.

I have come this far in my life by setting goals for myself, supporting others working on their goals, and not only not being afraid to ask for help – but leaning on those who support me when I need it most.

Success isn’t a job title or salary. Rather, it is a positive state of mind that took me from the South Bronx to the suburbs.  As a child, my attitude helped me accept the long way home as the best way to remain safe.  As an adult, it also helped me enjoy the journey from student to IT expert to Cisco leader as a unique success story worth sharing.