This article was written by Rafael Dominguez, a Core Security Services PM at Microsoft. He shares about his career journey from his early days in the Dominican Republic to the US, as he reflects on his 10th year anniversary at Microsoft.
Meet Rafael - this is his story:
With my 10th year anniversary at Microsoft coming up soon, it occurred to me that I should pen down some of the musings I’ve been mulling over for the past few years. I’ve been debating when and where to write about my journey for a while, and the work anniversary seemed like the perfect motivator to get these thoughts out of my head and share them with all of you. Although the pandemic and the West Coast wildfires have distracted me quite a bit, I’ve decided to stop using those events as excuses and just write. After all, my wife had been asking me for quite some time to share some of these stories and events as she finds them very amusing, and I hope you will too. To that end, let me take you on a quick voyage way back to my humble beginnings in the Dominican Republic.
Quick warning though: This is not a story about a poor kid turned billionaire, blah, blah, blah. Trust me, I wish it were :) Instead, I am sharing about my life experience to juxtapose where I came from, and how I got to where I am today in 48 years. A lot has changed in a short amount time and it amazes me everyday. I hope it will help inspire you, too!
Like millions of people, I get up every day and fire up my computer to start my workday. Every now and then however, this almost robotic ritual triggers a memory about a different time in my life before I even knew what a computer was. You see, I moved to New York at 16 years of age without speaking a single word of English and before that, I held several gigs in the local farms in my town.
One of those jobs involved collecting pineapples from the field and loading them into the back of a pickup truck. Yes, you read that correctly. I have no idea how modern farming does this today, but I can certainly tell you that walking through a pineapple field and hand-picking these fruits with very little protection around your legs and hands is something I do not miss. Occasionally I still wonder if a thorn or two are still lodged inside my legs somewhere.
I recently had a project that required me to write scripts in PowerShell, Bash as well as Kusto queries to collect the list of contacts/developers I needed to reach out to. As I went through this process, it was not lost on me how much my life had changed. Writing scripts from the comfort of an office to gather digital information is quite a contrast to those humid and sunny days when I walked the thorny pineapple fields.
From the farm collecting pineapples:
To a standing desk writing Kusto queries:
Moral of the story: No matter your background, you CAN make a transition into tech if you want to. Keep pushing and don't give up on your dreams.
Alt text: Boy taking a battery to be charged. Original drawing by my wife Jane.
For the best part of the last 10 years, my wife and I (later our kids joined too) fell into a strange habit that is now a bit of a family tradition. It went something like this: We go to our favorite Japanese supermarket in White Plains NY, buy some yummy food (rice ball, eel rice, sushi, baked sweet potatoes, etc.), drive to a nearby parking lot behind Bloomingdales and eat inside the car while we listened to the radio or just enjoy the food mostly in silence. One could argue we were training for social distancing way before it became mainstream.
Why am I telling you this? Well, we recently leased a fully electric family car that has a nice screen where my family and I can now watch Netflix while eating take-out in a random parking lot in Seattle WA (we still haven’t found the right spot but we keep looking). The ability to watch our favorite shows from anywhere in our car has greatly enhanced our family tradition.
One day as I connected the car to an outlet in my garage for its overnight charge, I uttered a mild chuckle of amusement. I had just plugged a car into an electrical outlet to charge its batteries so I can drive it (of course it could drive itself if I wanted it to) and watch TV/shows on the road if I wanted to. On its own it’s a trivial activity that more and more people do every day. At that moment though, it brought back memories of my childhood when my family bought its first television.
I am being generous of course when I call it a “television”. It was really a boombox with a small screen at the top and the screen was about the size of a trackpad on most laptops today. Oh and the kicker, because we did not have electricity in my town back then (electricity arrived a couple of years after I left ☹), it required a regular car battery or several D size batteries. Because the smaller batteries were expensive and did not last very long, eventually a car battery became permanent part of our home décor. This was a great couple of days, and we enjoyed the tiny screen tremendously. I recall watching horse races, re-runs of a Duran vs. Leonard boxing match and just about anything that this magical miniature screen wanted to show me.
In just a few days however, the car battery had to be recharged. At this point I should tell you that I am one of 8 siblings and because where I fall in the pecking order, I was quickly volunteered by my older brothers as the battery guy. Before you think this is a promotion of some sort, let me tell you what was involved. I had to take the battery on horseback (sometimes on a donkey, depending on what was available) to a mechanic shop over an hour away just so the battery could be charged. I don’t recall exactly how long the process took but I had to wait around till it was fully charged as my family was waiting for me (technically, waiting for the battery would be more accurate) so we could watch whatever telenovela or show was playing that night.
To some extent I’m still the battery guy in my family, given that it now falls on me to deal with all things electronic including our electric car. This time though, I wear the title proudly as the task is greatly simplified thanks to technology.
A ride in the New York City subway can be quite the adventure. Before a myriad of tiny screens usurped people’s eyes and ears, it was common practice for riders to chat with each other in the subway. These days however, that is the exception not the rule. Luckily for me, a chance conversation with a fellow strap hanger put in motion a series of events that eventually led me to a career in Information Technology.
I met a software developer named Brian on a subway platform (Pacific St station in Brooklyn, to be exact) one cold winter night after on my way back home form a night out in New York City. As we continued to talk, he asked if I would be interested in a job supporting the FOXPRO-based application he was building for a company that served customers in the garment industry. At the time, I worked as an associate in an auto part store in Queens New York. I was immediately interested in the job not just because it was computer-related, but because it was in midtown Manhattan, just a 30-minute or so ride from my house instead of the arduous, almost 2-hour-long train commute from Brooklyn to Queens. However, at this point in my life, I was about 19 years of age and I did not know how to type, much less operate a computer. Brian graciously offered to start right at the beginning by giving me typing lessons a couple of times a week.
After a couple of weeks of training, I was able to land the job installing and supporting the application I had spent a few weeks learning about. Not long after that, I was able to connect one customer factory in NJ to the showroom in NYC via dial-up modems using an application called Carbon Copy. I know, I’m dating myself here.
Side note: I thought I’d make a quick stop to quickly explore how another subway ride completely changed my life yet again almost 20 years after that first encounter. Call it destiny or just coincidence but, one summer I met another traveler at the Union Square station in Manhattan. As we exited the train, that’s when a woman named Jane and I met. We eventually married and have been together for almost 15 years and for the first 2+ years, I was only known to her parents as the “subway guy”! Subway rides can change your life - believe me.
And we’re back. Many years and many jobs later, I received a call from a recruiter about a job at Microsoft after seeing my LinkedIn profile. Back in the farm days, someone usually showed up at my house or sent a message with another person about a job but now this too has been digitized.
Given my background, it’s quite humbling to be part of a team today that creates software and security tools to manage and protect millions of servers around the planet. Looking at the scale of the Azure cloud and comparing it to the time not that long ago when I used to install applications with a few floppy disks and then DVDs, it’s like I’ve time-traveled to another dimension. I suppose that now makes me a cloud guy (instead of the battery-guy).
Looking at my life and career journey, the expression “change is the only constant” always resonated with me. I consider myself an individual with a high tolerance for change, and who is quick to trust people and is often an optimist. In hindsight, it’s no surprise that I felt the calling to IT early on given how quickly things change.
I feel very blessed to be in this industry where I get to enjoy a front seat view of the positive impact technology can have on people, and I am very optimistic about its impact in humanity in the long run.
However, we must remain watchful and engaged to ensure the next advances in technology are equitable and responsible. We ought to pay attention to the development and use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other new technologies. No, I don’t subscribe to the view that big bad robots will be taking control anytime soon. At least not in the way that movies portray it, anyway.
I often see my 5 and 7-year-old children interact with a “smart assistant” to ask simple questions or just to tell them a joke. It’s not quite the scene in the Terminator movie where Sarah Connor is watching her son play with a robot from the future but it is quite profound and I can’t help but wonder how technology will impact their lives 30 years from now and beyond.
There’s no doubt in my mind that AI will have a life-changing net positive impact in our lives but like any new thing, it is up to us to ensure it’s not being abused for nefarious purposes. Given how quickly technology is advancing, my hope is that we hold each other accountable in this journey. We can’t afford not to. I also hope this country remains the beacon of hope it’s always been, so that a poor kid from a rural village out there is able to come here, work hard and forge a better life for herself/himself as I have.
I’d like to end with an ask if you don’t mind: Get engaged to help shape the impact of AI in our lives and our planet. A good place to start is by joining and keeping tabs on the work at the NextGen Network at https://www.aspennextgen.org/ or others like it.
I wish you all the best on your own tech journey!
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