In 2008, the United States entered the great recession. Shady mortgage practices and a culture of keeping up with the Jones’ led to a glut of borrowers reaching beyond their means. The US became reliant on a housing bubble. When that bubble burst, so too did the lenders around it. The US was sent headlong into one of the worst economic conditions it ever experienced. Lenders, now reeling from past malpractice, tightened their purse straps.

As a college kid at the time, I was directly impacted by these practices. Lenders were suddenly more strict with loans, to include student loans. Financing school became a bit more difficult. Most students were able to bear down and grit through the financing process. Not this guy, though. As mentioned in part two of my journey, I was a little shit and had a laissez-faire attitude about the whole thing. I wasn’t diligent enough to fight for financing, and was consequently boxed out. I was suddenly out of school.

I worked on side projects for a while, while also working full time in a restaurant. It was filled with long days, uncomfortable conditions, and a toxic culture. It was terrible. And it was all my fault. After grinding for a year, still resting on my laurels and expecting everything to work out, I hit rock bottom. I came to a realization. Things will never change without catalyst. I needed to make the change.

Quickly realizing the value of education and my lack of discipline, I decided to join the US military. It would give me the discipline I needed in my life while also providing a solid education funding source. I opted to enlist in the US Marine Corps since it had the reputation of being the toughest, most respected branch. If I were to benefit from this experience, I wanted to earn it.

Headshot of Keith Richards in Marine Corps dress uniform I spent the next five years in the Marine Corps, learning Arabic, leading teams, and becoming a better person. I went in undisciplined and cavalier. I came out a better person. I don’t like the person I was before the Marine Corps. I do like the person the Marine Corps crafted.

As a military linguist, I was expected to understand and follow geopolitical climates throughout the Middle East and northern Africa. I read the news. A lot. And in order to prevent bias, I read a variety of sources from a range of nations, with a diverse set of perspectives.

By the time my Marine Corps career came to an end, I was used to reading the news. It was a habit that I continued throughout my civilian transition. While reading the news one day, I realized that reading from a variety of US news sources was tiresome and should be automated. I wasn’t sold on any one particular RSS feed aggregator, so I decided to make my own. I came full circle, back to engineering.

For the next few months, I spend nights and weekends hacking away at a PHP news aggregation app. In theory, the idea was simple; Pull news together and group them by topic. In practice, it was very, very hard. The English language is incredibly complex. Without advanced natural language processing techniques and deep learning, topic modeling is really difficult. It’s even harder when RSS feeds are poorly formatted, short in length, and contain attribution. The project eventually died because my naive keyword inference (explode(' ', "My title");) was trash and didn’t accurately model anything.

While the app never took off and didn’t make me a millionaire, it rekindled my engineering flame. Fortunately, it was also enough for me to land my first software job. We’ll talk about that in the next episode. Stay tuned!