Certification takes IT instructor to Afghanistan and back
This feature first appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Rosa Mattress was trimming and raking shrubs on a hot summer day the first time she met Chelsea Johnson. “I looked up and two ladies in a car were driving up,” Mattress said. The driver was Johnson, who had come to learn more about a job at the preschool Mattress operates in Greenville, S.C. “The other lady in the car with her was a total stranger who needed help,” Mattress said. “Chelsea took this lady to the doctor, got her medicine and sat with her at the hospital.”
Mattress thinks that Johnson’s kindness, her love of people and eagerness to help, is one of the first things people notice about the striking New England native. Johnson was raised in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, but she’s followed her adventurous spirit and certified IT skills to places many people wouldn’t dream of visiting. Johnson herself probably wouldn’t have dreamed some of the things that have happened to her since growing up as the oldest of 10 children — which in itself is pretty remarkable.
“Chelsea has always been very generous,” said sister Kim Johnson. “With so many kids under one roof, we all had to get along.” As the oldest child, Chelsea was frequently in charge of things like cooking meals, Kim Johnson said, and watching the other children: “She was a great sister. One time she brought me the most beautiful bird in a glass ball. She always keeps me in mind on her shopping trips.”
In addition to wrangling her siblings as a child, Johnson took an early interest, as young as age 5 she said, in finding out what makes things work. “I have always been a tinkerer,” Johnson said. “I loved taking things apart and putting them back together again. I was still playing with Lincoln Logs in my preteens.” At school, she liked to read, especially the Weekly Reader magazines. Reading about the future and how computers would change it, she said, solidified an early interest in technology.
Now 54 and an IT instructor for an education company that operates a nationwide string of career colleges, Johnson teaches skills to others that she used to only imagine learning for herself. “My first ‘computer’ was an old-fashioned black typewriter that my grandfather gave me when I was 7 years old,” she said. “I played with it and pretended it was a computer. I pretended that I was creating commands for a computer.”
(Johnson didn’t own an actual computer for the first time until many years later: a Kaypro IV Plus 88. “I bought it used in 1989,” she said.)
Like many people do, Johnson learned the value of work at a young age. “My very first job was sweeping the inside and outside of a little general store in New Bedford (in Massachusetts),” she said. “I was 11 and I made $5 each week.”
Another important formative experience for Johnson was reconnecting with her birth father as a teenager. “My mother and father separated when I was a little girl, so I really didn’t know him personally; we became reunited when I was 14 years old,” she said. “I kind of kept it a secret, because I didn’t want to hurt my mother’s feelings.” Johnson enjoyed “stolen moments” of getting to know her father until finally acknowledging the relationship to the rest of her family at age 18.
“My father was a very educated man and a musician,” she said. “One day when I was around 19 years old, he showed me his portfolio of his diplomas and achievements.” For Johnson, it was like finding a missing piece of herself: “I finally knew who I was. I understood why I was different from my siblings, why science, reading and photography were interesting to me. And most importantly, why learning and teaching have become my lifelong commitment.”
Between dealing with nine younger siblings and a complicated relationship with her parents, Johnson’s childhood was far from simple or straightforward. On the other hand, sorting it all out played an important role in making her who she is today. Lovee Watts, a fellow career college instructor, recalled talking with Johnson once about her childhood. “I saw the link between her experiences and her determination to share with others that, no matter what you have encountered in life, success is yours if you desire it and work hard for it,” Watts said.
BUILDING A CAREER
Teaching was still many years in Johnson’s future as a teenager, but her interest in learning stayed strong. “My first goal was to be an electronic technician,” she said. “I would have been the first black female to graduate from Rhode Island School of Electronics, but I did not finish because I had to work and help my mother take care of my siblings.”
Johnson’s next ambition was to be a nurse. It seemed fitting because she frequently spent time caring for others. Eventually, however, she ended up working at New England Telephone. She started out as a directory assistance operator before moving up to become an office supervisor. The next turn in that phase of her career, however, was a less predictable one. “I became a service splice technician,” she said, “climbing telephone poles, pulling cable, working in manholes and installing residential and small business telephone service.”
It was an unusual undertaking for a woman, even in the early 1990s. “The guys in my garage definitely let me know I was going to do my own work,” Johnson said. “I struggled to learn how to pull cable with a come-along, and how to snake cable through a conduit.” But Johnson had a special secret weapon: She knew (and still knows) how to get along with people.
“Chelsea can take care of herself, she is very independent,” said Kim Johnson. And critically, probably as much in a family of 10 children as in a delicate workplace situation, Johnson understands people. “She is very diplomatic,” Kim Johnson said. “She gives as much support as is needed, but she is not pushy or bossy.”
After her male coworkers at New England Telephone saw that Johnson wasn’t afraid to work hard, and wasn’t afraid of them, they warmed up to her. “It wasn’t long before they were asking me for help,” she said, “and giving me useful tips on how to work smarter.”
As her career was moving through its initial stages, Johnson also transitioned from being a big sister in charge of her siblings to having three children (all now adults) of her own, and eventually becoming a single mother.
As the ‘90s wore on, Johnson moved to a job at UPS, where her long-held interest in computers resurfaced. “It was there that my IT skills were discovered and cultivated,” she said. Over several years, Johnson honed her IT skills and progressed rapidly until banging into a bit of glass ceiling. “In 2005, I began to realize that my counterparts were doing the same job as me, but were being paid more,” she said.
It didn’t make sense. Johnson’s professional demeanor, positive attitude and work ethic were well established. It’s the same way that people see her today. As Watts put it, “If I was asked to give a professional reference for Chelsea, the following qualities come to mind: integrity, knowledgeable, adaptable, passionate and team player. I would want a potential employer to know that Chelsea has intrinsic motivation that translates to passion in everything she does.”
Realizing that she wasn’t getting equal pay for doing the same work as similarly qualified coworkers didn’t sit well with Johnson, and things eventually came to a head. “During an annual assessment, I was given an outstanding rating, but the pay raise didn’t match,” Johnson said. “When I asked my manager why, he responded that the one thing the other technicians had that I didn’t have were certifications. Well that lit a fire!”
Determined to make up ground, Johnson committed herself to certification with the same boundless energy that she had used to tackle every other challenge in her life. She devoted her free time to studying, and pressed through despite some initial confusion. “I didn’t know where to begin, so I think I started in the middle, made it to the end, then (went back to) the beginning,” she said. “It was exhausting, but I was determined.”
That same determination also fueled Johnson’s drive, at about the same time, to pursue a university degree. It was one more thing that she didn’t really have time for, but where there’s an iron, indomitable will, its name might well be Chelsea Johnson. “It was physically draining and absolutely time-consuming,” she said, adding that “there were many times I wanted to give up.” Instead she graduated with honors in business management from Southern Wesleyan University, eventually adding a master’s degree in information technology from the University of Phoenix.
IN THE ARMY NOW
Certification turned out to be an important key to one of Johnson’s greatest adventures in life. After helping a colleague troubleshoot a technology problem, she ended up with a business card from a military recruiter. “I didn’t call the recruiter right away, and I bumped into the guy who gave me the card a few weeks later,” she said. “He asked me if I’d called, and when I said no, he said, ‘I really think you should call — this guy is offering life-changing jobs.’ That piqued my curiosity.”
Johnson made the phone call and sat down with the recruiter. “He said, ‘Before we proceed, I have to ask you a few questions, one of them being, do you have the CompTIA A+, Network+ and Security+ certifications?’ ” When Johnson responded that she did, the conversation quickly progressed: “I was offered a job supporting the Department of Defense in an IT position.”
Some Defense Department contractors probably do IT support work in safe, normal places like maybe Washington, D.C. From October 2012 to July 2013, Chelsea Johnson handled U.S. Army technical troubleshooting, hardware configuration, network infrastructure support, phone support and much, much more in one of the most intimidating locations on Earth: Afghanistan.
“I was so afraid for her,” said Kim Johnson, “but with constant communication, that fear receded a little.” Kim Johnson would worry whenever she saw Afghanistan in the news, but gradually the very technology that her big sister had gone overseas to support made the prolonged absence easier. “Chelsea would e-mail a lot, and eventually she got a phone,” Kim Johnson said.
Watts said that Johnson’s time working with soldiers heightened her self-discipline and tenacity, but also impacted her in other ways. The experience of living and working in a third-world country, Watts said, increased Johnson’s ability “to handle difficult situations with calmness and wisdom.” At the end of her time in Afghanistan, Watts returned to Greenville, S.C. (where she lives and works), and settled back into her career college teaching position.
Almost immediately, Watts said, Johnson was asked to deal with a series of network problems. “Chelsea did not fret,” Watts said, “but called a meeting and created a ticket system (so) she would be able to diagnose the problems efficiently and effectively. The issues were handled expeditiously and soon dissipated.”
Although she’s not the sort of person who has loads of free time, Johnson still enjoys a variety of non-IT pursuits, including painting and photography. “I’m a people watcher,” she said. “I take pictures of people I don’t even know.” She also enjoys nature photography, and finds time for boating, zip-lining, visiting the beach and walking. And, occasionally, games — favorites include UNO, Head Bandz, Scattergories, Family Feud, Pictionary and Backgammon.
Despite not being afraid to tackle almost any challenge, Johnson has always been willing to learn, something that’s helped her succeed as a teacher. While working through her master’s program at the University of Phoenix, she had to immerse herself in the school’s well-known system of having students work together in learning teams.
“I’ve worked independently most of my career, being self-managed and speaking with my managers sometimes only twice per year,” she said. “Suddenly I had to work in, and become part of, a team.” That made a big difference, Johnson said, when she started teaching IT, because she learned a different method of preparation. When you’re directly involved with other people, you can’t just fly by the seat of your pants based on what you already know.
“To teach,” Johnson said, “I have to be organized and prepared on paper, not just in my head.”
Mattress thinks there’s another reason that Johnson will succeed in teaching for many years to come, and it boils down to how she feels about people. “For all people of any race, age, or income, Chelsea is a workhorse,” Mattress said, “never stopping ’til the job is completed. She makes you feel smart and gives everything to help you understand.” Johnson’s students get things, Mattress said, because of the way their teacher explains them.
Whatever life has in store next for Chelsea Johnson, she’ll be ready to engage, learn and share her new knowledge with others. It’s a pattern that’s taken her a long way in life — all the way to Afghanistan and back — and seems likely to help her conquer whatever lies beyond the next horizon.
Job Title: Lead IT Instructor
Certs: A+, Network +, Security+, Server+, Cloud Essentials, Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS), Exin ITIL-Fv3
Lives in: Greenville, S.C.
Graduate of: Southern Wesleyan University (bachelor’s degree in business management), University of Phoenix (master’s degree in information technology)
Favorite vacation spot: Wilmington, N.C., and Holden Beach, N.C.
Favorite leisure activities: Painting, photography, games, brain training exercises
Favorite TV shows: “I watch The Big Bang Theory, The IT Crowd, Friends and The King of Queens. Yes, this is why I have U-Verse.”
The certification advice she gives her students: “Don’t assume that because you’re doing a job, you will pass a certification exam. A lot of exams are not just about what you know; they include policies, procedures, protocols and relates security responses. Make sure you study, and ask someone who has already taken the exam what you should expect.”