Michigan IT pro perseveres in spite of physical ailments
This feature first appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Lois Alger’s favorite fictional character is Emily Pollifax, the heroine of a series of spy novels by Dorothy Gilman. Mrs. Pollifax is a widowed senior citizen who accidently becomes a successful agent for the CIA. “I would love to be an unexpected agent because, like Mrs. Pollifax, I love my country,” said Alger. “I also enjoy being a bit quirky and different.”
Alger, 61, is certainly not typical of the dramatically male-skewing ranks of IT professionals. She is a woman who has overcome tremendous physical challenges and disabilities to build a life filled with service to others, while becoming one of those rare individuals possessed of grace, eloquence and just flat-out likability.
Born in San Francisco, and raised in the small coastal town of Pacifica, Calif., Alger was taught to be hands-on in life. “I grew up in a family where Mom taught us to not just sit and watch, but learn to do,” she said. “Learning to do” meant listening to and learning from professionals.
When Lois wanted to learn more about circus clowns, her mother arranged lessons for her and her older brother — lessons taught by Ruffles and Buffles, actual clowns who had been with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Alger also has a strong sense of reverence and honor for history and people who serve their country and others. As a girl, she remembers listening for hours as one Mr. Cahill, a brother of her judo instructors, would relate his experience as a small boy during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Alger listened wide-eyed to his “first-hand account of how the bombs were falling and the beach shaking.”
Cahill’s storytelling made a huge impression on Alger. “Mr. Cahill dealt with a pretty severe disability. I think it was Cerebral Palsy, which limited his personal mobility,” she said, “but the way he was ‘wired’ left him with an amazing memory.
“He could relate a story in a way where you could feel the sun on your face, and the rough sand beneath your feet. He taught me to understand that a visible disability is only one aspect of a person as a whole.”
Carrying on a legacy of service
With a notable family history, Alger seems to have been destined to value history and service. Her ancestry includes Winston Churchill and two signers of the Declaration of Independence. Her family has also paid the price of service and duty.
Both of her parents and all of her father’s male family members served in World War II. She lost a cousin, an inspector for the New York City fire department, to wounds sustained in the heat of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
This same sense of service led Alger, at age 19, to join the U.S. Navy. Upon graduation from high school, she studied computer programming at a local college, and later found work in Hawaii as a ticketing agent for an island holiday company. She soon realized that she needed more training to achieve her goals and saw the Navy as a solution.
While in the Navy, Alger was trained in aviation electronics. But her talents as a problem solver with a soothing personality — coupled with her impressive ability to type 100-plus words per minute — led to an assignment as the assistant to the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Command at Cecil Field, Fla.
After her hitch in the Navy, Alger worked with information systems for the U.S. government in Frankfurt, Germany, where her late husband was assigned to headquarters for the U.S. Fifth Army. Upon returning to the United States, Alger, self-trained in desktop publishing and soon discovered a niche creating parts catalogs for the snowmobile, motorcycle, watercraft and ATV industry.
Overcoming personal challenges
One inspiring aspect of Alger’s personality is how she has successfully dealt with severe physical disabilities and chronic health ailments. Alger has no spleen, which results in her having an incomplete immune system.
She has dealt with chronic pancreatitis, blood clots, asthma, heart arrhythmia, and Chiari malformation, a brain condition that occurs when the brain stem herniates or extends down into the spinal column. This condition affected her balance and ability to walk for many years.
Although there is no known cure for Chiari malformation, Alger eventually underwent surgery whereby her brain was repositioned. She learned to deal with the symptoms of her conditions and is doing much better now.
In spite of such challenges, she remains amazingly positive by not focusing on her health problems. “These are speed bumps — not hurdles, and certainly not brick walls,” said Alger. “You just have to keep moving ahead towards your goals.” And moving ahead is something she has done quite successfully.
Alger’s entry into IT is a great example. She tried several different ventures, deteriorating health and various disabilities kept her from finding regular employment. Eventually she came across an ad from the Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids in Grand Rapids, Mich.
“They were looking to train individuals with disabilities for IT help-desk positions,” she said. “I’m ADD and hyper-focused, which worked to my advantage. When I’m hyper-focused on computers I’m happy as a clam. I knew I had some physical issues, but I wasn’t ready to hit the ‘glass ceiling’ yet. I had more to do.”
Getting IT done with certification
Initially, Alger’s interest in certification was primarily aimed at fulfilling the requirements for a particular job. Although she had more than 38 years of experience with computers, Alger realized that she needed to know their newer aspects, and that certification would be a great way to get her skills up to date.
She also had to deal with the preconceptions of others regarding her age. “There is a real sense that older people can’t keep up or that they don’t function well with computers,” she said. “I realized that working towards a certification was an ideal way for me to target my training to suit my interests and goals.
“It’s also perfect for keeping my skills up to date and authenticating them with possible employers. Certification helps validate that I know what I’m doing.”
Alger took to Goodwill’s IT training with her accustomed zeal and soon passed her 801 and 802 exams to earn CompTIA’s A+ certification. “It took me five months to get my A+ certification. I could have done it sooner, but I stretched it out a bit to give myself time to do some practical applications instead of just reading a book,” she said.
Since completing her A+ certification, Alger has been employed by Peckham, Inc., a nonprofit community vocational rehabilitation organization, as an IT-Tier 1 help-desk technician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“The Department of Ag has projects around the world, and you never know where a call is going to come in from,” she said. “I enjoy helping people because it allows me to exercise my IT skills and constantly requires me to learn and grow.”
Alger’s future IT ambitions are to earn the Network+ and Security+ certifications offered by CompTIA. She praises the focus and speed of earning an IT certification versus the longer and more expensive route of a college degree.
“Certifications allow me to investigate other possibilities without all of the flotsam and jetsam that a conventional college piles on students,” she said. “I admit to being hard-headed, and often struggled to see the logic in being required to study economics and medieval literature while I was trying to learn the basics of computer programming.”
Fast and furious pastimes
In addition to IT, Alger has a bevy of quirky (and totally cool) personal interests. She has a penchant for motorcycles and is the proud owner of a Hondamatic 400 cc, which she is presently reconstructing. Alger and her partner, Craig, have also made a hobby of rebuilding Z1R Cafe Racers.
Cafe racers are the 1960s precursors of the bullet bike — lightweight and optimized for speed and handling, instead of comfort. They were made famous particularly in British motorcycle subculture by leather-clad “Rockers,” who used the bikes for short, quick rides between “transport cafes” (generally known in the U.S. as truck stops or travel centers).
Like her lickety-split spiritual forbears, Alger also feels the need for speed. She currently rides, when it’s not snowing, a limited edition 1982 Kawasaki 750N Spectre. The bike has an inline-four engine motor and, according to Alger, “it hauls (tail)!”
In her younger days, Alger was a regular participant in bracket-racing — a form of drag racing that enables different types of cars to compete in head-to-head races. Commonly referred to as “run what ya brung,” bracket racing relies more on skill and knowing your car’s abilities over money and power.
Her vehicle of choice was a midsized, red and black muscle car, a 1968 Chevy Nova with a 427 cubic inch motor.
When not working at her job, Alger enjoys reading sci-fi, fantasy and fiction. “I get more entertainment from a book than a movie or TV show,” she said. “An author can put you inside the head of the character — that’s something you can’t get from a screen.”
In addition to reading, her other interests and activities include a passion for writing songs, especially about Christmas, and creating jewelry.
Mother and pet owner
Alger lives north of Grand Rapids in a tiny house with her partner, Craig Byrnes, who she describes as “specializing in being an unexpected individual and the funniest person I’ve ever met.” Their house is full of pets: two large Great Danes, Darcy and Georgie Girl; a small rescue dog named Nugget; and Rascal, “a constantly confused cat with the personality of a surfer.”
They won’t all be crowded together under one small roof indefinitely — Alger and Byrnes are building a house inside of an old dairy barn. As part of this building project, they are harvesting the timbers from another barn built in 1859.
When asked about the accomplishments of which she is most proud, Alger immediately claims her daughters. “My pride is invested in my daughters and the wonderful people they’ve become,” she said. Her eldest daughter, Beverly, is a rigger for the animation industry in Los Angeles and part-owner of a company that allows users to create physical miniature representations of their gaming avatars.
Her younger daughter, Pennie, is a recognized attorney in family law. “Her work ethic and dedication to clients amazes me,” said Alger.
Respectful of the past and energized by the futureHearing Alger speak, you soon realize a singular aspect of her personality is her attitude of service and a deep and abiding reverence towards those who serve. Her favorite vacation spot is Bastogne, Belgium, location of the Battle of the Bulge.
“I love the attitude of service, and people in the military have that attitude,” she said. “When you see the memorial to the soldiers it is amazing. It’s the most moving of experiences when you read the inscription, ‘The Belgian people remember their American liberators.’ Reading the words of soldiers describing their fear of an attack by German tanks and their sense of relief when General George Patton’s 3rd Army broke through enemy lines to relieve the defenders is truly amazing.”
Alger is second to none when it comes to wearing patriotism on her sleeve. “I love my country more than anyone can possibly imagine. If you want to raise ‘Old Glory,’ I’m gonna be the first to help you put the post in the ground,” she said.
Although she humbly claims to not have the words to describe how she feels, Alger is most profound when she says, “Service is very important for me. People who serve others get all my honor and esteem. For me, the privilege of serving is the most amazing thing I can think of.”
Alger has definitely thrived from pursuing her mother’s “learn to do” ethic. She realized the importance of an IT certification for her employment and, with her customary drive, jumped in and accomplished an A+ certification. “I needed it for my employment,” she said. “Certification has been a great way to validate my IT abilities and has opened a lot of new possibilities for my future.”
Cervantes said, “The road is always better than the inn.” Espousing a similarly adventurous philosophy, Alger brims with optimism about her future. “Who knows what the next turn in the road will reveal?” she said. Regardless of where IT takes her, it’s a good bet that Lois Alger will travel that road with gusto, dedication, respect for those who went before, and a fierce commitment to serving others.