- The Washington Times - Friday, September 23, 2005


Going by every conventional career-measuring variable, Gene Skonicki is a perfect job candidate. He’s a headhunter’s dream come true. By all accounts, it seems like Skonicki has everything going for him. He’s young — only 26 — which means his prime creative and earning years lie ahead. He’s only had two full-time jobs in his adult life, and he’s personable and well-liked by everyone — bosses, co-workers, clients and vendors.

And I haven’t even touched on the technical stuff: schooling, accomplishments and job responsibilities. When it comes to technology — the computer, specifically — there’s nothing he can’t do. He graduated from the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, which boasts a distinguished reputation for training gifted students.

Skonicki has been using a PC since grade school. By the time he graduated high school, he was an accomplished programmer, developer and problem-solver. His job: Skonicki is manager of technical operations at Siteworx, a Reston, Va., company that builds Web sites for nonprofit organizations and media companies. But his title doesn’t do him justice. Technically, he’s a project manager overseeing 20 developers, supervising every phase of a project, from concept, drawing-board and creation to installation.

Skonicki sounds too good to be true. Well, he is. Yet with his incredible abilities and accomplishments, he’s had to overcome a handicap that will never go away. He’s blind, and he’s been that way since birth. “I was born with a weird recessive gene,” he says with disarming candor.

By the time Skonicki started college, he realized he had to make some big career decisions when it came time to pick a major. By then, he had to face his disability head-on. He was different, and there was no getting around his obvious limitations. “I would never drive and get around easily, and have the same experiences everyone else has,” he says. “By my late teens, I felt pretty isolated. It was very frustrating.”

As Skonicki saw it, he had two career choices: medically related human resources, a field that attracts many blind people, he says, or technology. It wasn’t much of a decision. Technology was it. Not because he was blind, but because he loved it — and equally important, he excelled at it and felt he could make a contribution.

A self-confessed computer nerd, he had mastered screen-reading software in his early teens. “These are programs that read computer source code to you,” says Skonicki. “A sighted person would find the process incomprehensibly frustrating.”

Not Skonicki. He stuck with it, and it wasn’t easy. It took intense and obsessive concentration, but he was relentless. He didn’t stop until he could do more with a computer than most talented sighted techies will ever do in a lifetime. But the bumpiest road lay ahead: getting a job.

Skonicki knew he was talented, as well he should. So he applied to top-name consulting companies such as Arthur Andersen and McKinsey & Company, along with hot and trendy technology companies like Google and Yahoo. He was rejected by all of them. And he had struck up what he thought was great rapport with many of his interviewers, walking out of meetings convinced that strong connections were made. But they weren’t strong enough to yield a job offer - even with his superstar credentials.

Looking back, he jokes and says that walking into interviews with his yellow Lab seeing-eye dog didn’t work in his favor. But he knew that everyone was afraid of potential liability suits. After eight or nine rejections, an out-of-the-gate startup company named Siteworx hired him. The CEO probably questioned whether he had made the right decision. But after talking to him, testing him and grilling him, the CEO knew he had all the magical ingredients. Skonicki’s limitations wouldn’t impede his performance. That was three years ago.

Skonicki was the second person Siteworx hired. The company now employs 35 people and is growing aggressively. Looking back, he says he learned a great deal about what it takes to be successful. Talent, he insists, will only take you part of the way. But tack on persistence, and you’ll go the distance.

And technology? Skonicki deems it “the great liberator” for technically gifted blind people. “It has given me autonomy,” he says. “If you are blind, it is an incredibly equalizing tool.”

Doubtless, thousands of blind programmers and engineers would nod in agreement.

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