I remember sitting in Dispatch one day back in 2002. I sat with Tim, about number 11 on the seniority list, as he worked one of the Florida desks during the summer. “Thunderstorms pop up a lot in Florida this time of year,” he told me. Part of his job was to plan the flights accordingly, with the best possible route and plenty of extra fuel in case the captain needed to fly around the storms. Wow, I thought. What a cool job.
Soon after that day I started looking into dispatcher school. It was a big decision for me. I was engaged to Jenny, so any significant decision I made affected both of us. This job was especially significant for several reasons. School would be eight weeks of intense study from 5:00 – 10:00 each night, plus a lot of money for tuition. Even if I got my license, I had no guarantee that I’d even get the job due to intense competition. And even if I managed to get the job, I’d have to work some evenings, overnight shifts, and weekend shifts, so we couldn’t have a “normal” life, or at least what I’d come to understand as normal. Although long-term the pay was great, I’d have to swallow a significant pay cut for the first few years. It was a tall order for a couple who was about to get married.
I spent a lot of time thinking that summer, talking to Jenny, and praying as I walked the trail near my apartment. I knew I wanted a change. I was miserable in my current position and had no hope of improvement. I’d even considered applying for a revenue management position, something I wasn’t even qualified for, just to get out. But pursuing Dispatch was a big gamble. Jenny was very supportive, as was my family. I weighed the pros and cons and finally decided to go for it.
School was tough but fascinating, and I got my license in November 2002. Now all I had to do was wait for the position to open up. I knew that it was very rare for someone to get in on their first try, but I had hope. My first day back at work after our honeymoon, I saw the position had been posted, and my heart jumped. It was time.
I applied, studied, and waited for the big day. My interview was in February 2003. I was one of nearly 50 applicants for 8 slots. I told myself I had an advantage because I already knew some of the software through my current job, I was fresh out of dispatch school so I should remember the material well, anything I could do to psych myself up. Finally the big day arrived. I felt good about most of my answers to the interpersonal interview, and I did OK on the technical. I knew I missed some coded aviation messages, but I didn’t know where the bar was. All I could do was wait.
I was playing Baldur’s Gate on our Playstation 2 when the call came. “You did very well and were very competitive, but you were not one of the ones we selected.” That year was a particularly strong class technically, and I just got beaten. They all wanted me to apply again next time. I returned to our video game, trying hard not to cry. It was just a job, right? I could try again next year, or whenever they decided to interview again. I could take another year in my current job. I knew I could. But I didn’t quite succeed. I still remember what level Jenny and I were on, and every time we play it, I remember again.
Soon after my disappointment began, I was assigned to the most difficult, painful, and frustrating project I have ever worked on: redesigning a program used by the entire Technology department. My goal was to work with the users and the process owners to make the program easier to use. Thus began eighteen months of meetings, arguments over the definitions of “frequency” and “responsible” and “Impact Start”, arguments over how each step of the process should work, arguments with myself over the design I was creating with very little expertise. It was hard to drag myself out of bed, not because I was exhausted physically, but because it meant I had to go back to work again.
I wasn’t mad at myself. Or anyone. I had done the best I could to get the job, but it wasn’t time yet. Maybe it never would be. I trusted that, even if I didn’t understand it or like it. I just clung to the hope that one day I’d be able to try again, probably the next February. I clung to it hard. And I studied the things I’d missed on the interview and tried to think of better answers to their questions.
The months dragged on. The fights continued. I was forced to take a leadership role on the project because the bosses thought I had the expertise and perspective to get my part done right. So I led meetings, created designs, laid out pros and cons of different features, and tried to get several different people to work together effectively. In October my tech writing team was dissolved, and I became a member of the team I had been working with. On top of my previous responsibilities, I now started helping with customer calls, leading department-level meetings, and taking a much higher-profile role within the department. Angry and frustrated customers called, and I had to listen, do what I could to solve it, and sometimes even take some heat for decisions I or my team had made. I had to make decisions and defend them knowing that some people wouldn’t like them. I had to defend team policies and actions that I didn’t even agree with.
Because I hadn’t gotten into Dispatch, I kept making my Technology salary, which made it easier to save up for a good down payment on the house Jenny and I planned to buy. I got to spend our first year of marriage at home with my wife at night instead of sending planes all over the country while Jenny sat at home. We paid off some debts and decided that instead of starting with a smaller townhouse, we wanted a normal house with room to grow. We stayed heavily involved with a young marrieds’ class. So there was definitely a good side to not getting the job on the first try, although each day I spent at work made it easy to forget the good side.
As it turned out, Dispatch didn’t need to hire in February 2004 like I thought. Or March. Or April or May. Early that year I noticed an open position for a technical writer in Flight Operations. I thought and prayed about it and discussed it with Jenny. It wasn’t Dispatch, but I wasn’t even positive I still wanted Dispatch. It would let me return to my writing roots instead of designing software, and it would bring me a little closer to the action of our daily operations. So I applied. It came down to me and a guy from outside. They chose him, ironically right before the president imposed a hiring freeze on all outside applicants without her approval. I got this call at work, and I tried really hard not to cry, but again it didn’t work.
I didn’t get the writing job. I wasn’t sure about Dispatch, and even if I did want it, I had no idea when it would open again. I was doomed to finish the software redesign, and I knew the last steps would be especially painful. But the irony of the hiring freeze made me believe that this, too, was part of some broader plan, even if I couldn’t see it.
I finally decided Dispatch was for me. I stuck it out in my job. It was still difficult, but the hope of Dispatch had returned. Rumor had it that interviews would be that fall. I kept studying. Jenny and I built a house that we loved in the suburbs.
I finally interviewed again in October, right before the new software went live. I was one of nearly 60 applicants vying for 8 spots. I’d found out that I was within one or two spots of making it in on my first try, which gave my confidence for my second attempt. I hoped not to become cocky and to prepare mentally for either outcome. I studied hard. I talked to recruiters about how to prepare. I saved up technical questions and asked my dispatcher friends for answers. Something inside me said this would be my time. I also had a feeling that if I didn’t get it this time, I probably wouldn’t try again.
I realized some things before I interviewed. In addition to the financial and personal benefits I’d gained from not getting in on my first try, that time had helped me grow in huge ways at work. I’d become more assertive and confident, like a dispatcher needs to be. I’d taken a leadership role and done fairly well. I’d gained experience dealing with unhappy customers, which I would definitely repeat sometimes when a captain wasn’t happy with the flight plan I gave him. I’d developed the ability not just to follow directions, but to weigh options and make decisions based on my own experience and opinion.
I’d been growing up so I could be a better dispatcher.
This time the call came at work. By then I pretty much knew the answer because it was the end of the week, and she’d started calling the “no’s” on Monday or Tuesday. All she really had to say was, “Congratulations, Andy. I’m so happy for you!” And that was all she needed. I hurried down the hall to Jenny smiling and pumping my fist. I didn’t cry this time, but it was close.