Piano technician finds he's in tune with technology career
Thanks to Craigslist and a twist of fate, Smith landed an entry-level job with an ideal company. In early 2011 he converted his piano-moving van into a living space, and left for the gig of a lifetime.
“The idea of moving into technical was always on my mind,” said Smith, 48, who lives with his wife and two kids in Bedford. “I would tune pianos for these software developers, and they're sitting at home in a beautiful house, wearing their jeans, and I'm like, “Man, this guy's got it figured out. I want to be in technology instead of sitting here beating on pianos all day.' ”
Smith graduated from Berklee College of Music in the early 1980s and lived in the area through the '90s to perform jazz and funk in Boston's hotels and cabarets.
He also learned to tune pianos at Berklee, and worked for nine years as a piano technician in Boston. After a falling out with his boss he headed for New Hampshire, buying a house in Bedford in 1997 to pursue his own business.
By 2004, Smith had gotten into moving pianos, alleviating himself partially from the rigorous work of tuning. He even developed a self-supported winch system for moving pianos up stairs, and slowly his business swelled to a peak of 2,000 customers.
Before long he was making as much as $100,000 a year. But it was dangerous work. And it didn't allow Smith what he calls “the ultimate” — to make money with his mind. That was to be found in the tech field.
It would also allay his fear that an injury could prevent him from earning money at all. The rise of digital pianos concerned him, too, as he noticed the need for piano services was beginning to decline.
An injury during a moving job would prove to be the final straw.
Searching through Craigslist, he came across a company, Pragmatic Works, a Florida-based network and data-servicing firm.
“I found their website, and I could tell instantly that this company was special,” Smith said. “The people were special. I could tell that their philosophy was in line with mine, just from what I saw on the site.”
Founded in 2007, Pragmatic Works is dedicated to the what it calls the democratization of technology, assisting companies with the planning, execution and support of information intelligence efforts, according to its website.
Smith travelled to Green Cove Spring, Fla., to participate in a free, weeklong workshop offered by the company's nonprofit arm, the Pragmatic Works Foundation.
The program begins with a series of online videos, followed by a quiz. Those who pass are invited to participate in the monthly training on the Microsoft SQL server platform.
The class allows Pragmatic to identify the most passionate, creative people — and those who don't have the qualifications or experience required by most employers.
“Around here in Boston you just don't have that,” Smith said. “There's so many MIT graduates walking around with a computer science degree. I've tried — you cannot just walk into a company and have them take you by the hand and teach you this stuff.”
The company's founder, Brian Knight, said 75 percent of the program's participants end up finding a jobs within three months.
“(We discover) if they have the technical aptitude to learn,” Knight said. “If they don't, they're not going to make it in the industry.”
Some employers report that Pragmatic Works employees are outperforming senior staff in just months, the company said.
Two days into the class, Smith thanked Knight for the opportunity. “I'm just thrilled about this, and he's got to leave that day,” he recounted. “And before he leaves I jump on him and say, 'Thank you for letting me come to your class.' ”
Knight was so impressed with the pianist and aspiring tech geek that he took him aside and offered him a job in IT support.
With no formal background in the field, Smith qualified himself as a power-user and a dabbler. He said the Pragmatic Works training gave him the chance to get his feet wet, and before he knew it he was part of the company.
He decided to move his family to Florida. But with the housing market at rock bottom, he was unable to sell his house in Bedford. So he outfitted his piano-moving van with a bed and a desk and drove to Florida, alone, in March of 2011. His plan was to work as hard as he could while waiting for the house to sell.
Working long hours, he would sleep in a Walmart parking lot one night, another the next, and then in the lot of a 24-hour gym. All the while he was hiding his mobile home from the company.
One night, a neighbor of Pragmatic Works notified the police of the strange, windowless van parked at the building. Smith got a call from HR the next day, and he admitted to having lived out of the van.
“They were cool with it,” he said. “The company was like, 'If you have to do that, you're good to go.' ”
Brian Knight said the company had no idea Smith was living in the van until nine months into his employment. They were floored by Smith's dedication.
“It was a bit of a testament to his passion about getting into the field,” Knight said, “about changing his stars, really.”
“Brad represents the thing we really want out of employees, and he's the main reason that we do this, is to find that passion in somebody and bring it forward.”
Finally, last August, a low-ball offer came in on the house in Bedford. Smith was ready to accept. But his company was looking for a tech sales staffer in the Boston area.
The company's services “required a technical person (in Boston) and a people-skills kind of person, too,” he said. “The idea came up that maybe that would be a thing for Brad.”
Smith related the situation to his bosses, who instructed him to tear up the offer on his house and return to his family in Bedford.
The job is challenging, he said, having to size people up over the phone and convince them to spend around $50,000 on Pragmatic's offerings.
“The ability to understand your data and impact on it intelligently is what we do,” Smith said. And he knew the service — and the need for data metrics — was never going out of style.
Though he was earning an entry-level wage when he first joined the company, Smith said his income, boosted by sales, has come back around to what he was making as a piano mover.
He's happy to be moving back in Bedford. The Jacksonville, Fla., area had little to offer the jazz musician. Being here allows him to stay involved with the scene.
He said unless he gets a gig touring Europe with a big-name jazz act, he plans to stay at Pragmatic as long as fate allows it.
Information about the Pragmatic Works Foundation is available at pragmaticworks.org.
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