The transformative power of a career in tech
- Posted on February 8, 2017
This article originally published on University of Washington.
When Tom Rochat, ’13, purchased his first home in the sleepy, waterside town of Kingston, Washington, he wasn’t caught up in the three bedrooms or the endless backyard or the wood-burning stove. He was concerned about one thing, and one thing only: signal strength. He did his homework — complete with maps and diagrams — and calculated exactly where he’d get the strongest Wi-Fi connection. Only then did he sign the papers.
When you work from home as an operations service owner at Avanade — a test bed for the latest Microsoft technologies — Wi-Fi is key. Rochat, a magna cum laude graduate of UW Tacoma’s information technology program, made sure solving global IT problems from his remote office wouldn’t be an issue.
But before he found his way at UW Tacoma, Rochat was faced with a much heavier issue than a weak Wi-Fi signal: how he and his family were going to escape homelessness from one month to the next.
The four-story fall — and a knack for hacking
Rochat was supposed to be a construction worker.
He’d always found solace in working with his hands, so after the Poulsbo, Washington native completed his tours of duty as a paratrooper in the Army, the decision to go to Olympic College for welding technology was an easy one. He earned his associate degree, with plans to hop on a construction site — then the economy tanked. “I was ready with my tool bag and my welding hat, but suddenly there were no more jobs,” he says.
So he went to work in apartment maintenance instead, painting walls, unclogging toilets and, in a cruel twist of fate, upgrading the downspouts on a four-story building’s shiny metal roof. He slipped, fell and crushed his knees, already beat from years spent jumping out of airplanes. “I was literally on crutches trying to hold up sheets of drywall and patch roofs so I could put food on the table,” says Rochat. “But I was too injured to work and didn’t have health insurance, so I got laid off.”
His $12,000 annual salary — the salary that supported his family — was slipping. He needed a new job. One that would keep him off his feet.
Enter Office Depot, or maybe Staples.
“I decided maybe I could be a tier one help desk guy,” says Rochat. “The guy you call when your device is broken who says, ‘Turn it on and off again.’ I’ll be that guy.”
It made sense: Rochat had loved computers since he was a kid. When he was 6, his father convinced his mother to buy one for the family. By 8, Rochat was writing his first program thanks to hours spent poring over books with his dad. At 15, he traded teaching a company how he’d hacked them in exchange for dodging prosecution.
“I had no idea I had all this computing power,” says Rochat. But he knew computers made him happy, and he knew he needed a job. So he went back to Olympic College and earned a two-year computer science degree in nine months, armed to join an office supply company’s customer service team.
His instructor, says Rochat, had other plans. “He looked at me and said, ‘You’re writing papers for me on chipset compliance for wireless security. You can do so much more.’”
With that encouragement, Rochat applied to UW Tacoma. “In a million years, I never thought I’d be accepted. UW Tacoma was the pinnacle,” he says. “Two weeks later, I was sitting in my first class. I didn’t even know how I got there.”
Top of the class at UW Tacoma — and beyond
Rochat’s cohort was one of the first to go through UW Tacoma’s brand-new information technology program. “I thought I was going to be a bottom-rung student and need everybody’s help,” he says. “I quickly found myself near the top in almost every class. I didn’t realize what was common sense and easy to me was actually an extremely valuable skillset.”
Rochat threw himself into campus organizations, joining the Safe Secure Computing Research Group and becoming the chief technical officer and eventual president of the computer security–focused Greyhat Group — all while selling foraged chanterelles for gas money just to make it to class every day. “I took every possible opportunity because it was a massive opportunity for me to even be at UW Tacoma.”
Seizing those opportunities paid off; Rochat wrote a white paper about next-generation security systems with the Safe Security Computing Research Group, and UW Tacoma flew him to Florida to present his work. An employee of Avanade, a Microsoft partner and test bed, saw Rochat’s presentation, called his boss and said, “You need to hire this guy right away.” Rochat had a phone interview with Avanade that day, and they hired him as an intern on the spot.
Six months later, his status changed to senior analyst. He was working full time before he even graduated from UW Tacoma, switching between homework and work work. Three years and five promotions later, he’s an operations service owner up for another promotion — this time, to manager.
“UW Tacoma didn’t just give me an education that led to a career,” says Rochat, who plans for a long future at Avanade. “They improved my life and my health. They gave me the means to support my family. The ways UW Tacoma has transformed my life, and the ripple effect that that’s had has been incredible. This place has completely changed everything.”
Now, Rochat pays it forward, purchasing school supplies for families who are struggling, lending a helping hand to family members when they need it most. He mentors the next generation of UW Tacoma graduates, guest lecturing on campus a few times a year. “If it wasn’t for the support UW Tacoma gave me, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’m happy to give back to UW Tacoma any way that I can.”