It was February 1996, and I was serving on the National Board of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). I was a senior civil engineering student at Georgia Tech. Several NSBE regional conferences were taking place, and I thought I should show my support at the regional conference in Miami, Florida. The organization’s president decided that he should be in Miami instead and that my support would be “greatly appreciated” in Stillwater, Oklahoma. I was like…”Stillwater?” I don’t think I’d been west of the Mississippi at that point in my life.
I was the newbie and felt pretty blessed to be serving in a national capacity in a student-led organization. So – Stillwater it was. I went to the conference. I experienced the beauty of Oklahoma State University in all of its opulence. I experienced the smell of the pig farm downwind of my hotel, and I met some awesome engineering students.
I boarded my multiple flights back to Atlanta with the hope of doing a lot of hydrology homework. I sat in my window seat of flight number two, ready to get back to my homework, when my seat neighbor (whom I considered an older gentleman) asked me, “What the heck kind of homework is that?” I explained that I was a civil engineering student (the first of all engineers) and was doing hydrology homework. Of course, I threw in a monologue about water being the most powerful force in the universe.
Well, I’d said too much to Mr. Paul Deal. He was a naturally curious fellow, and that opening led to many different conversations. Thirty minutes in, I closed my book and put up my notebook realizing I would have a long night of homework later.
As our flight started to descend to an Atlanta runway, my new friend Paul asked if he could have my pager number. I remember thinking, “That’s not where I thought this was going.” He must have seen the question in my eyes and explained that he was a Branch Vice President of a company with a major office/distribution center in Atlanta. He thought I might be well suited for their management development program.
I had not started looking for my grown-up job yet. I shared my pager number, and the next morning bright and early, I got a page from an unknown number. I went to the payphone outside of the Civil Engineering building, called the number back, and talked to the head of Human Resources for Paul’s company. He wanted to know if I could come in for an interview that week.
That’s how I went from a plane ride on a Sunday, to an interview on Wednesday, and a job offer on Friday – before I was even looking for a job.
Now that I’m the age of the older gentleman on the plane, I can appreciate how good my first job was and how good of a company the company was. I learned a lot there, even though my time there was short. It was the late 90’s, and we could move around easily.
The biggest thing I learned is that you never know who you are talking to. You don’t know who the person is or what opportunities could be in store. You don’t know who you might bless, and you don’t know who might bless you. Since that time, I’ve met many great people on airplanes. Sometimes we talk a bit, often we don’t. I haven’t picked up any more jobs on planes. But you never know what might happen in the future.