Michael Duncan

Age: 45
Occupation: Data Center Infrastructure Engineer
Resides: Newton
Family: Christina (Wife), Gabriel (Son)

What's your occupation?
I am a Data Center Infrastructure Engineer. I'm responsible for the main systems that drive everyone's work. Employees connect to the servers that I keep up and maintain and they do their work through those servers. I just make sure that the servers are up and functional and doing what they are supposed to do.

How did you end up getting into this line of work?
Well, I've always loved IT. I've had computers all the way back to the 8086 processor, Tandy 1000. A long time ago, I purchased a computer and I've always been working on one ever since. Back in the day, you received a book with your computer and you had to write all the code. I've been doing it ever since and just fell in love with it. A lot of people find computers come naturally to them, and I'm one of those people.

Originally, I started as an intern developing circuits and circuit designs. I got very good at being able to create circuits that do different functions. That was fun, but I realized there's not much work in automotive in North Carolina in general. I went back into computers because I knew all about them and I had a Computer Engineering degree. I've been going down that road since.

What do you love most about the work you do?
The intimacy with the computer systems, because there's a lot of things about them that most people don't understand and I do. I can manipulate them and make them do pretty much anything I need them to. That's the beauty of working with computers. Even though you have software and different aspects within that hardware, it's always a challenge—it's always a learning experience, and it's always fun. I enjoy it.

How did you come to HSM (Hickory Springs), and how long have you been there?
I was originally working contract to contract out of Charlotte. My wife and I had our son, Gabriel, and once we had him, I felt the need to carry insurance instead of working a contract job. I finally switched from contracts to full-time. I had a full-time position, working for GreenFiber LLC in Charlotte, when at that time HSM offered me a position.

The fact that I'm less than 10 minutes away from work versus an hour and a half drive, it was a no brainer to move back home. I've always lived here in Catawba County. I have been driving to Charlotte for the last 10 years. I was finally offered this opportunity and no longer had to drive to Charlotte anymore. The traffic and the delays driving back and forth every day equaled a month of my life wasted sitting in traffic. I received a month of my life back by accepting the position from HSM. Working for HSM is in my blood. Both of my parents worked for HSM and I am following in their footsteps. HSM is in the top five largest job providers in Catawba County and is privately held which made the job more appealing.

Were you born and raised here in Catawba County?
Born in Hickory, at Catawba [Valley Medical Center]. I was raised here by my parents, James and Frances Duncan. My Mom and Dad both worked for Hickory Springs for years. My Mom worked for HSM for over 20, my Dad was with them as a secondary job. His main job was as a Mechanical Engineer repairing machines for Hickory Dyeing and Winding. I felt that I owed HSM so I had the urge to come and work at HSM.

What did your education path look like?
I was not a very good student back in the day. I dropped out of high school. I decided to try to pick up my high school diploma through the military. That wasn't an option, I discovered fairly quickly. I came back home and took a job as a grill cook. Once I had worked the position for some time, I applied as a kitchen manager working with Sagebrush Steakhouse. I did that for years and it was fun but then I was laid off at the Greenwood, SC location, and I moved back home. Once I came home, I went to CVCC [Catawba Valley Community College] and invested my time into a program called Workforce Investment Act, or WIA. WIA took me in and sent me back to school at CVCC and since that was the first opportunity I had ever had to go to college, I tried to do the best I could.

I excelled and picked up two associate’s degrees, one in Computer Engineering and one in Electrical Engineering. I was doing so well with my GPA at CVCC, that UNC Charlotte (UNCC) offered me a free ride to get my bachelor's degree in Computer Engineering. That’s exactly what I did and I took out student loans to live—to pay the rent, water, power and all that. I commuted back and forth and picked up bachelor’s degrees in both Computer and Electrical Engineering from UNCC.

Both degrees are paying off in my new role at HSM, being an Electrical Engineer dealing with this million dollar equipment as well as a Computer Engineer to make it work properly. It fits perfect because I have to know all the math and logic of how the electricity works, as well as the systems using it.

It sounds like you were really excited to be back in school and it was a good experience for you.
Yes, it was indeed. But I was also petrified. I've never had the opportunity to go to college, so I was scared of what to expect. When I did start back at CVCC, I was behind on math because as a teenager, life was a priority at that point and not school. Life was different back then. If I would've had the opportunity to go to college, I would have taken that opportunity—but I was never given an opportunity at that time.

When I checked into the WIA program, everything for school was lining right up. I continued down that road because I love computers and everything about them. It was easy for me except, of course, the math. They say that it's not rocket science math, but yes indeed it is rocket science math. You are doing mathematics with imaginary numbers, matrices and stuff that I've never heard of. I loved it, I never knew math was so fun. I would have loved to have picked up a minor in mathematics, but I stuck with my Computer and Electrical Engineering, which was hard enough.

What advice would you have for that middle school or high school student interested in pursuing a career like yours?
I would tell them it's definitely something enjoyable. It's challenging, there's never a dull moment. There's always something on the horizon. It's for people who like to be challenged and like to be forced to think. Critical thinking is very crucial in this position because you have to think outside the box most of the time. You have to think about what the issues could be, compare them with what you already know and try to think of what else it could be especially with new technologies and the new way hackers can get into systems and so forth.

Math is key. If I was telling anyone, I would say make sure you continue down the math path because it's the most logical thing out there. It's always going to make sense. It always comes to an answer and it always resolves. If you know the math, it can be applied to virtually every aspect of your life. I did not realize this as a child. I was like, "Math? That’s nothing. Why bother with all this? I know how to talk, I can add, I can do multiplication." I didn't realize how important math was until now.

Tell us about your family.
After I moved back home and went back to school in 2001, there was a young lady that I had known for years, through a friend of mine. She was his girlfriend for a long time, and we met up and became friends again. We have everything in common. With time, we ended up getting married July the seventh of 2007 – 7/7/7. We had our son Gabriel on June 5th of 2008, and I was still in school at the time. I finished up CVCC in 2007 and graduated from UNC Charlotte in 2009. At that time, Gabriel was one year old.

The homework for my classes kept me at school 12 to 14 hours a day. I was very fortunate that my classmates would all get together after class to get the homework and everything done together so we were all on the same page and understood it. That helped a lot, but homework did take a lot of time away. My wife, bless her heart, she's wonderful. I mean, without her I would not be here nor would I have had the time to succeed in school without her help.

My wife was a vault teller for years. Once we had Gabriel, we made the decision, together, that I would go to school and, once I graduated, I would work and she would stay home and take care of him. He’s autistic, so it’s a challenge. It’s like having four children within one child.

Do you find there's a lot of good support for children with autism in this community? Have you been able to find some good networks to plug into for him?
Conover School is second to none, as far as being able to help and support our son. They've been fantastic and has always being there since Gabriel was 3 years old. They have great support plans and different programs that really help a lot. Gabriel is autistic and doesn't have any type of acknowledgement of our reality whatsoever. He lives in his own little world. Anything we take for granted, like eating, is a very big challenge for him. It’s very challenging to help him understand how our life and our reality works.

He is living in his own scripting reality. What I mean by scripting is that he has a photographic memory. Anything and everything he ever watches or sees he remembers completely. If you make a change in the living room, even moving a wire, he is complaining about it because familiarity and repetition is how autism works. If you make any changes, it’s very hard for our son to cope.

As a result of his photographic memory, he memorizes all the lines of anything he watches on television. My son’s head is full of SpongeBob scripts, and he is constantly rattling off these scripts for all of the SpongeBob episodes. The hard part is for Mom and Dad as we don't know these lines in the script, and he expects us to know everything. We Google the transcript of the episode and try to follow along with his memory, one line at a time, as he knows the scripts verbatim. It's scary that he is so brilliant in that aspect. I wished I would have had a photographic memory.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?
Play on the computer. I do try to distract myself from work, because I work with computers all the time. When I get home, I try to do things outside with my son, play around and do things that aren’t computer-based. But ultimately at any point, I'm always back in front of a computer.

When you know everything that I know about computers, you're everyone's tech support. Everybody calls you for anything they need and can't figure out on their own. You're always on the phone helping people. I'm always on call in the position that I'm in, because if there's ever anything that happens at work, power blips or anything at all, I'm the first on call to be there. It’s a very hectic life in that aspect but as long as you do your job right and you make sure the systems are taken care of, you do not have to worry about it.

You could have decided to move to Charlotte, because obviously there's a lot of work in your field in Charlotte. What made you choose to stay here?
Outside of the fact that my Mom and Dad raised me here and moved here long ago, the geographical location is a good one because we're in the foothills. Most of the weather blows over because of the mountains and most of the weather gets pushed away because of the front, so it's an ideal location from the geographical aspect. Plus, I've always lived here. I know the roads, I know the landmarks, I know where everything is and I've been around this county all over, up and down. I just enjoy living here. I have lived in other places, like Columbia, SC, and Greenwood, SC, and several other places ,and they just don't compare.

I love Catawba County. You've got the lakes and mountain areas and camping areas. There's just so much to do here. It makes for a relaxing environment when you can come home and know you can just go out on the lake or spend some time at the park or go hiking or camping. There's a variety of different things you can do in this county and you don't find that everywhere. There's a lot of rural areas, there's a lot of populated areas, but it kind of blends together and makes for a nice environment.

What do the next 10, 15, 20 years look like for you and your family?
Providing stability here, where I intend to grow my family. For the first time I bought myself a vehicle that is considered to be a nice vehicle instead of what I had to buy to get back and forth to Charlotte. I'm also planning on buying a house before long as well. An ultimate goal is to retire after working to make this place better and then build my life outside of work. Have a home, land, a place where my son can have fun and my wife and I can enjoy life.