I’m Tom Pendergast … and I’m a writer

This page will soon get a major re-write–see the “Getting Off the Bus” blog post!

Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer … and in some ways I always have been.

I “wrote well” in high school and college, enough to stand ever so slightly apart from those who didn’t like to write at all, but nothing really special. I told people that I wanted to be a writer and they assumed that I meant fiction. I didn’t. I’ve never had stories and characters running around in my head–at least not ones I’ve made up. But I like to observe the world and make sense of it. I like to look at big, messy complicated things–things like cultural transformation–and try to find the simple things that tie it together. I like to explain the world to myself and to others. And I’d like to do that better.

When I finished my Ph.D., I was so grateful to have another path available to me than the “expected” path toward being a professor. That path sucked in 1998: the job market was terrible, especially if you had a degree from a mid-tier school like Purdue. The prospects were a series of temporary or adjunct jobs which, if everything went well, might eventually evolve into a full-time gig and eventually tenure. But I hated that path. I came out of my first interview for a professor job and said to Sara: “I’ve got to do something else.”

Luckily, we had something else in our back pocket, something we could do together–a small writing and editing business we had created to pay the bills while I was in grad school. We decided to commit ourselves to this fledgling book packaging business we named Full Circle Editorial. We ran it from the second bedroom of our 700-square-foot, metal-walled apartment in married student housing at Purdue. Sara was all business acumen and process, I was a speedy writer with a sharp eye for editing the work of others. Together, we edited 26 reference book collections over the years and I also wrote (with a bunch of input from Sara) 6 other books (in addition to publishing my doctoral dissertation, Creating the Modern Man). So yeah, I was a writer. (You’ll find stories of how we managed to work together in my blog at some point.)

To run our business, we hired underpaid academics and freelance writers to research (in libraries, FFS) and write essays for our reference collections. And in 2001, Wikipedia came along and made all of that free. I remember saying to Sara, “This is the end of our business.” And yet for several years, it wasn’t. The publishers we worked for continued to take books to market and continued to pay us to manage their production–though the budgets tightened, and we had to pay contributors even less than we had before. Writers began to plagiarize from the Internet. It couldn’t go on and it didn’t. I left in 2007, Sara 3 years later. It was fun while it lasted.

In 2007 I joined a company called MediaPro. It was a custom eLearning development shop, founded by Steve Conrad, with long-time management from my oldest friend, Scott Urstad. I joined to help on a Boeing project supporting the new 787 Dreamliner. Instead of writing and editing books, now it was online training–but it didn’t feel all that different. As far as I was concerned, it was all about making complicated things simple to help people learn.

With time, though, I began to manage others (did you hear that sinister music come up?), taking leadership of a really talented team of instructional designers. As we found ourselves doing more and more work in privacy and security, we saw an opportunity to expand a “product line” of courses for sale to an increasing number of companies that saw the need to deliver training in these areas. It was this commitment to building an online product that started to accelerate the growth of MediaPro after 2010, leading to expanded revenues and employee counts–and expanded responsibilities for me. More and more, my work was devoted to building the business, supporting sales, reviewing financials, managing people … and I spent less and less time on the content development stuff that really floated my boat.

But MediaPro (now MediaPRO) thrived, and Steve sold a controlling interest in the company to a Charlotte, North Carolina-based private equity company, Frontier Capital, in 2017. Working for a founder/owner brought one set of demands on an executive (me, that is), but those demands intensified even further under private equity ownership. When Steve left, I told the new CEO, appointed at the start of 2018, that I’d like to work my way back to doing things that I loved. 26 months and 2 CEOs later, I finally made it back to the kind of work I find most meaningful.

As of May 1, 2020, I’m still the Chief Learning Officer, but my focus is on writing and speaking about cybersecurity and privacy, and especially the problems that employers are trying to solve as they seek to align employee behavior with their data protection goals. It’s wonderful work and I’m deeply committed to it and to seeing MediaPRO succeed. But we’ve designed it as a half-time job to free me up to pursue improving my craft as a writer.

That’s what this website/blog is all about: giving me the room to write.