The Desert Years

In 1996, I ended my association with the US Navy as a contractor and found a new position as an engineer with Raytheon. The newly minted Associate’s degree was a great help in getting me in the door. Note that the degree was in Liberal Arts, not engineering, but the fact of having a college degree was one of the deciding factors in getting hired.

My newest assignment was in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. If you thought my previous assignment in Italy was disconnected from the real world, this was another planet. I went from pitifully slow Internet connections in Italy to non-existent Internet connections in KSA. It took me over a year to get an email account set up.

Obviously, continuing college courses under these conditions was a challenge. There was no University of Maryland campus here. On the bright side, there were fewer distractions.  Western entertainment (books, magazines, television, bars, movie theaters) were banned. Computer and engineering books were among the few non banned items available.

I had the great good fortune to work with another engineer, a Brit by the name of Mick Ashwin. He was a brilliant guy and he started me on the course of obtaining a Microsoft Certified System Engineer (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) certification.  It turned out that this was one of the few educational opportunities available in the Kingdom. The books, software and the testing centers were available to complete this course.

Mick started studying for the MCSE by purchasing the books and reading. He had the type of mind that absorbed knowledge easily. I investigated training courses, but once again the job schedule was too hectic to allow me to attend classes. So I emulated Mick in studying by ordering the manuals, reading the material, and taking the quizzes. At the time, there were a lot of “braindumps” on the internet that purported to show the types of questions that the individual exams covered. Most of these were crap. I got more from my conversations with Mick. We would quiz each other daily about our current studies.

Soon Mick and I were not alone in attempting to obtain the MCSE. The certification bug took over our group of expat engineers. There were about six others in our group who wanted to do the same. We tried to get together for study groups, but one by one, they dropped out of the team. Even with the lack of western entertainment, there were still many distractions.

I was dropping too. I took the first exam and passed by the skin of my teeth. I started the second of the six exams, but kept delaying taking the test. Meanwhile, Mick kept studying and taking courses. One day I was whining to Mick about how hard it was to squeeze study into my schedule.

Once again he proved his brilliance by saying, “Quit whining, schedule the test for next month, prepay the test and tape the damn receipt to your television screen!”

It was the best study aid I have ever used and I use it to this day. In a world filled with distractions you need something tangible to help you reach your goal.

Set goals. “MCSE by 2000”
Announce the goal, “I will complete the MCSE by 2000”
Set interim goals, “I plan on taking one exam every two months to complete the entire course by 2000”
Use competition with your peer group in a positive way.
Have a punishment for not achieving your goals, i.e. prepay the exam so that the loss of money acts as an incentive.

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