How I spent my summer: The (almost) 40-year-old TNW intern

I spent a decade in the armed forces and five years providing tech support as a customer service agent for a company that I won’t name in this article; then I decided it was time for a change. This is the story of how I became a 39-year-old intern for one of the largest technology websites in the world.

In fact, you might know me already, if this is familiar: “Hi! Thanks for calling (company name), my name is Tristan and I’m located in Illinois. How may I help you today?” I used to answer about 50 tech support calls a day.

Before that, though, I spent a decade in the US Navy – the vast majority of which I was deployed at sea. The latter half of my naval career was spent conducting counter-narcotics operations. I was part of a crew that intercepted drug-runners trying to sneak cocaine and heroin into the US via the ocean.

Due to an illness I was discharged from active duty. It came as a bit of a shock and I didn’t have a backup plan. Had I known then that I would end up in customer service, I probably would have paid more attention during the first part of my career: I was an information systems technician.

In 2001, before 9/11, I was stationed at the Uniformed Services University Hospital where, without any formal education, I was allowed to work on military servers and maintain a network.

That’s my technology background, of which there isn’t very much. As a navy IT I ended up traveling with a helicopter squadron, deploying aboard three aircraft carriers, and losing a lot of friends. As Private Gump would say “And that’s all I got to say about that.”

There’s no need to bum anyone out, because since you’re reading it means I have a pretty cool job now. I’m a working journalist!

I published my first news piece 21 years ago as a correspondent for a local Southern newspaper. It was a shitty article – literally, it was about human waste being used to fertilize corn. My second article was published earlier this Summer right here on TNW.

Now you know my journalism background.

Last year I had a baby. This is a perfectly normal thing for people to do, I’m told. It was hard for me to have a normal perspective on the situation though, because the company I worked for, at the time, was purchased by a larger more asshole-esque company who sent most of us packing.

I cashed out my 401k, emptied my savings, took out a loan, and filed for unemployment.

This is the definition of starting over.

Sometimes a hoodie isn’t enough.

The plan was to update my LinkedIn profile, apply for ‘management’ positions and hope I could work from home. There aren’t many serious companies (in the Midwest) that will hire someone with tattoos on their hands and neck, so an office gig isn’t really in the cards.

I never expected I’d have to get a serious job, as long as there’s seas we’ll always need sailors. Besides, I don’t drive anyway – if you’ve read my optimistic AI articles you know I can’t wait for self-driving cars.

The best laid plans of mice and men can go to shit pretty quickly when there’s not enough cheese.

January came around and nobody hired me. Things started looking a little bleak and then tax return season floated us a bit longer. Finally, after hundreds of applications, I was hired!

Not long before I heard about the TNW internship I found a new job in tech, working for a company that worked for a company that worked for YouTube. It was a sweet gig watching videos on YouTube and flagging them for inappropriate content.

I was immediately replaced by AI. After training for eight hours on a Friday, then working five hours on the following Monday, I was let go. At the time they didn’t tell me robots had stolen my fucking job, but I learned later.

Instead of being bitter, hate-filled, or seeking revenge: I decided to get on board with the revolution. I officially walk the AI beat for the US editorial team here at TNW now, and I’m as proud of this work as I am of anything I’ve done in the past.

But I’m rough around the edges, like an octagon that wants to be a circle. When I first applied to the TNW internship I got a very polite response from the US editor. He wasn’t outright dismissing me, but there was a general feeling that my short-lived dad blog wasn’t enough of a portfolio to impress him.

Apparently hundreds of people applied for the internship, several ‘cuts’ were held. I never thought I’d be chosen, but recognized that even a snowball’s chance in hell was better than no chance at all. At the time I completely believed that working for TNW would be the opportunity my family needed.

I was faced with a fork in the road and, if I’m being honest with you, I wanted to quit before I started. It seemed stupid (still kinda does) that anyone could make a living writing. Jobs are supposed to be soul-sucking and hard; that’s how a red-blooded American knows they’re taking care of home.

My fiancee gave long speeches and ranted at me, seeking any way to build me up and make me feel confident. At every turn she reassured me that we’ll always find a way to make things work, but opportunity doesn’t come along every day. She convinced me that my age was a benefit — a reason they needed me — not a drawback that would make it hard for me relate.

I’m here to support my family because I couldn’t do this if they didn’t support me.

I followed through, became an intern, and started writing for TNW.

As corny as it sounds, this is the email that changed my life.

It seemed like I immediately jammed one foot in the door and the other in my mouth. For the entire month of June I felt like a tiny little worm on a big ass hook. I made mistakes with the frequency and temerity of an inherently-stupid-jackhammer, and with each I convinced myself that I’d be asked to leave the island any minute.

During that first month every misstep felt magnified to me. My editor would point out a wayward comma and I’d feel like a Samurai who had dishonored his family and his emperor. When I accidentally Tweeted one of my stories twice — the first time (of many) — I was ready to walk the plank.

Every single night, after work, I was either downtrodden and prepared to accept my fate, or elated and incapable of wrapping my head around the sheer ridiculousness of one of the best websites in the world giving me a pulpit.

If I’ve worked everything out correctly this story will by my 200th post on TNW. My son is turning a year old in a couple weeks; my fiancee turns 35 on Halloween; and I’ll be 40 the day after Veteran’s Day. It’s an interesting time in our lives.

Starting over is terrifying and exhilarating and changing careers — to become a ‘creative,’ at that — gets harder the older you get. I’m comforted to know I’m not the only one. This 48-year-old mother was also an intern this year (my hats off to you!) and her story inspired me.

It doesn’t matter how much adversity comes your way, as long as you’re willing to fight for what you want.

At the end of my internship I wasn’t ready to give up this crazy dream. I’ve been walking on a tight-rope without a net, mainlining technology, and studying harder than I ever thought I could. Maybe I don’t deserve a position, but every path looks the same when you decide nothing will stand in your way.

The military taught me what being a good leader means, it also taught me how to follow. The incredibly talented editorial staff at TNW, from the junior reporters to the editor-in-chief, are all amazing people. They should all have degrees in teaching, because I’ve learned from each of them. I try to respect their effort and the company’s culture by soaking up that knowledge and working to get better. I’m a deep learning network being fed data.

I’m the happiest sponge in the world, and that’s because for the first time since I was boy off fighting wars: I feel like I’m doing something important.

Since I’ve been at TNW I got to interview my hero Professor Nick Bostrom, I’ve spoken with the CEO of Hyperloop One, and Luke Skywalker liked one of my tweets. My inner-child would never speak to me again if we had to give this life up now.

I don’t know what comes next for me at TNW, but you can rest assured that while I’m here I’ll be exploring the cutting-edge of technology and providing insight that comes from, perhaps, a different point-of-view than our readers might be used to.

Thank you for reading this, for joining me on this insane adventure, and for letting me dream while I’m wide awake!

My name is Tristan, but if you were in our TNW Slack chat with me for the past few months you would have seen me write “I’m Charlie Bucket, I’m just happy to be here” a dozen or so times.

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