Darnell Otterson: a study in perseverance

Meet Darnell Otterson, a forty-something student juggling his academic responsibilities with work deliverables as a full time student and a security engineer working for Ameriprise Financial. With a schedule as packed as his, he runs a tight ship, splitting his time between work and school very carefully and yet with enough flexibility to change plans when necessary. But come May 2022, he will be able to cast off his student garb; Otterson will accomplish his long cherished dream of becoming a computer engineer. It is a dream that he has worked very hard to achieve, overcoming the many obstacles that were stacked against him. 

How it all began

Growing up in foster care as a young child, Otterson noticed that his foster father spent a lot of time working on computers (he worked for Control Data Corporation). Fascinated by what he saw, he decided that he too wanted a career working with computers. He was seven at the time, and the road ahead was not going to be easy.  

When he closed in on his eighteenth birthday, Otterson found himself homeless. The situation brought along with it enough problems that he found it hard to keep up with school. He ended up dropping out, and sleeping on a couch at a friend’s home. He eventually joined Job Corps, earned his high school diploma, and although he had his heart set on their information technology programs, for personal reasons he ended up earning a certification in building and home maintenance. 

He did not lose sight of his childhood dream however, and in due time, embarked on an associate’s degree in computer science. Once again, personal circumstances prevented him from completing the program. Ultimately, he earned a certificate from Brown Institute, and prepared to look for IT jobs. However, even as he was preparing to pursue a career in IT, things took a turn for the worse. Otterson lost his car and most of his personal belongings in a fire. Suddenly he did not have the luxury of searching and waiting for the right job. He had to take on anything that would keep him afloat. As he worked on putting his life back together again, he took on a variety of jobs including daycare provider, and theater technician. Five years later, at the age of 25, with the help of a friend he finally landed that tech support job he had hoped for. Always an eager learner and avid DIYer, Otterson taught himself several programming languages (he built a Linux server) while working full time at this new position. His self-taught skills helped him move from an internet tech support position, to a tech lead position, and then a trainer. But during the economic crisis of 2008, Otterson was let go. With no engineering degree, he was worried about his prospects. But build and release engineering was just beginning to find a foothold, and with his experience and a hearty dash of luck, he managed to find a position as a build and release engineer.

For Otterson however, the road did not end there. He had the nagging feeling that he should be doing more, that there was more to learn, and more that he could contribute. He tried changing jobs, but none of the changes gave him any satisfaction, and he finally figured that what he really needed to do was head back to school. School would be a place where he could nurture and quench his curiosity. It would also provide him with the practical advantage of a formal education that would keep him up to date and competitive in his field of interest.

Emphasizing the importance of getting a four year degree, Otterson says: “I recently had the opportunity to move from a release engineering position to one in security engineering, The move was possible thanks to classes I have been taking towards the computer engineering degree.”

He spent the next three years taking courses at Century College with the intent to transfer to the University of Minnesota. In fall 2019, he started in the computer engineering program at the University.

At the University

Balancing his personal life (Otterson and his wife are also guardians to his late sister’s children), with the responsibilities that accompany a full time job, while also pursuing a challenging degree program as a full time student, is no mean feat. Otterson credits his success to managing his time carefully while also adapting as the situation demands. 

While things are not always smooth sailing, his resilience has helped him move forward. Although initially Otterson was keen on becoming a software developer, he noticed that as a person of color, he had a harder time breaking into the field and moving into positions that he was ready for, as compared to his friends. So he shifted his focus, and embraced computer engineering as a career field. Despite the focus not being on programming, he is enjoying the analytical challenges it presents: “I am enjoying the analytical aspect of computer engineering. That’s my strength. Programming has always come naturally to me. So as a computer engineering major I enjoy seeing the two aspects work together.”

As an undergraduate student in his forties, Otterson is keenly aware of the age difference between him and most of his classmates. Joking about it, he says, “I feel like Pierce Hawthorne from the show 'Community.' ” (In the television show 'Community', Pierce Hawthorne is a character who takes classes at a community college when most people his age are considering retirement.) Jokes aside, Otterson has found that he and his younger classmates make a good team on their projects. He brings his experience and hands-on knowledge to the table, and his teammates bring fresh ideas and a cautious approach to problem solving. 

He says, “The students around me are very smart. But their youth makes them more worried about getting everything just right, which makes them more cautious. It’s great because while I contribute my work experience based knowledge to help the team move quickly through projects, their caution helps us make fewer mistakes.”

The road ahead

Otterson is keen on a master’s degree, but for now, he would like to take a step back from school after earning his undergraduate degree. He plans to engage in activities he has been keen to take on for a while: teaching and mentoring at a community college, and supporting other first generation students on their journey to a four-year degree. For now, Otterson has plenty on his plate: working at Ameriprise Financial, and engaging with professional groups in computing, development, and operations. 

It has been a long and complicated journey through homelessness, separation from family, joblessness, and illness. But even as Otterson navigated the rough terrain, he did not lose sight of his boyhood dream

Reflecting on his journey, Otterson says he would tell his younger self to be patient: “I’d tell him that waiting till he is ready is critical for success.” As for folks out there thinking and wondering about their pathways ahead, he advises: “Break it down into short bits. Look to community college classes to prepare yourself. But above all, persevere, and be kind to yourself.” This last point was critical for Otterson too: he took whatever job he could find to keep and preserve his dream of going to college. And in spring 2022, all his efforts will culminate in a degree in computer engineering.