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Getting Unstuck: Spence Spencer ’07 Opens Opportunities with His Degree

UMGC Alumni Relations
By UMGC Alumni Relations

After a decade traveling the world as a field services engineer, Spence Spencer ’07 came face-to-face with a disappointing reality: Despite his success, he couldn’t advance in his career without a college degree.

“It wasn’t a glass ceiling,” he notes. “It was a concrete ceiling.”

After watching his less experienced colleagues work their way up the ladder, he had a realization.

“It was clear to me that I had to get a degree,” he says.

A strong start
Spencer served in the U.S. Army directly after high school. It was there that he discovered a passion for working with technology. After separating from the military in 1985 with a wealth of experience under his belt, he found a job maintaining and repairing complex communications systems across Asia.          

After a promotion, he spent several years opening and operating service centers in South Korea, Japan, and other international locations.

“I’m fortunate that I got to see the world on somebody else’s dime,” he says. “I got to travel to places most folks will never get to.”

Life on the road wore on him, though, and he returned to the U.S. and transferred to a new position with his company. The job involved sales, though, which wasn’t the kind of work that excited him. It was here that Spencer realized that he couldn’t take his career to the next level without earning a degree.

The long game
Initially, he enrolled in a degree program at University of Maryland. It soon became clear that he couldn’t manage working full time while attending a traditional university. After a slow start due to his conflicting responsibilities, Spencer transferred to UMGC, which offered a class schedule that was more conducive to his situation.

“All the non-traditional learner stories you hear are true,” he said.

During his studies, Spencer took a position with the University of Maryland where he continued to get hands-on experience running a help desk and working as a systems analyst.

Despite the lengthy process, he kept a strong focus on his goal. In 2007, he finally earned his Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from UMGC, a degree that opened up previously unavailable opportunities to him.

“It took my 13 years, but I got it done,” he says. “I walked across the graduation stage at age 44.”

Rising through the ranks
With his degree in hand, Spencer landed a position with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in 2012. At first, he worked as a software operations manager where he was responsible for providing software support for commercial-off-the-shelf and in-house developed applications, among other duties.

In 2019, he went to work as a Linux team lead for the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration before returning to the USPTO in 2020 to serve as the director of the System Configuration & Delivery Automation Division.

In his current role, he leads a team of 32 employees plus a host of contractors that support 800 developers at the USPTO.

Spencer’s team develops and deploys the various software systems that keep the USPTO running, including systems for filing patent and trademark applications, financial management and payments, search functionality, data storage and more.

“The USPTO is 100% digital today,” he explains. “We don’t take paper anymore.”

His best advice
Sometimes up-and-coming professionals ask Spencer for his best career advice, and he always tells them the same thing.

“Get in front of an audience,” he advises. “If you have any kind of ambition, learn to do public speaking.”

He says it’s so important because this skill transfers from everything to looking polished during a job interview to being able to keep your wits about you during a presentation or business meeting when someone tries to rattle you.

“It’s a life skill, and it’s hugely important,” he says. “You don’t want to lose out on an opportunity because you can’t present yourself.”

Grateful for getting “unblocked”
Spencer says the fulfilling career he enjoys wouldn’t have been possible without a college education.

“I certainly would not have gotten to the level where I am today without a degree,” he insists. “Twenty-five years ago, I found myself blocked, but I got unstuck.”

Since then, he’s enjoying momentum in his career, increasing responsibility and a greater area of influence where his skills are valued.

 “It was a long journey, but I’m happy where I am,” he concludes.

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