Education, honesty, determination:
Derek Hess’s transformative journey
From prison cell to Excel
Despite six years of imprisonment for a conviction involving drug offenses, firearms and a stolen vehicle, former Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) offender Derek Hess is now living a successful life employed as a contractor for a global oil company. Education and faith helped him create a new life, and he voluntarily uses his story to encourage other Texas prisoners to also make a change. Today Hess says he can earn $650 per day, and he is blessed with marriage, family, a new home, a potential promotion -- and the opportunity to give back.
“They say success comes when hard work meets opportunity,” says 34-year-old Hess, who maintains his new life with persistence and personal honesty. Change, however, has not been easy. His story comes with a warning: persistence is the key to success, and be prepared for setbacks.
First incarcerated in TDCJ at the age of 22, Hess served two sentences before taking a different route to success.
“I had been making bad choices for a long time,” says Hess, who was a 17-year-old high school dropout from Grapevine, Texas. He left school at the beginning of his senior year and “tumbled about aimlessly” for a few years before earning a GED.
“I ended up doing and being involved in things that I never would have thought I would,” Hess says. “I was pursuing a career in drug sales and misusing the abilities I had been blessed with. A real work ethic was not something I possessed.”
Not until he was enrolled in classes behind bars did Hess value education.
“I was locked up for six months before I signed up for classes,” he says. “I was able to take a Business Computer Information Systems class (BCIS) offered through Windham School District and also an Alvin Community College class. I heard you could get your Microsoft certifications after completing the Windham class.
“My goal was not just making parole,” he insists. “I wanted to make sure I had the tools I needed to be successful whenever I got out. The ultimate goal is getting out, living a real life – productive and law-abiding -- and being successful. If your only motivation is parole, then you have all your priorities mixed up. That parole certificate isn’t going to ensure your employment, or keep you from coming back to prison. Training opportunities were not just given to me; they were made available during incarceration. Degrees and certifications are something everyone has to put some effort into to obtain.”
Seeking more knowledge of computers, networks, and systems management, Hess led his BCIS class in earning all four Microsoft certifications: Word, Excel, Access, and PowerPoint. The young man’s work ethic and intelligence impressed Windham instructor Leslie Koroma.
“Microsoft certifications are not easy to earn; it’s a challenging, time-consuming process to earn all four,” Leslie Koroma says. “It takes a lot of determination, ambition and interest in the subject matter to accomplish this, especially in the limited time frame offered by the class.
“Hess was very intelligent and driven. He wanted to be a successful professional, and he set a new standard for our class. Before long, the other students wanted to complete all four certifications like Hess had done.
“Industry certifications open major doors in the work force,” Koroma explains. “Microsoft certifications are recognized by the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), the IT industry trade association. This really makes you more eligible for jobs. When you show up with these certifications, the employer knows you have the necessary skills and also a commitment to your education and career.”
Hess successfully completed the Windham BCIS class, earned his associate degree, and held multiple TDCJ jobs to develop his work habits and work ethic.
Despite these notable employment preparations, Hess was nervous when his release date came in 2013.
“I was scared, because I had gotten used to the prison environment,” he says. “I had known offenders who I thought would get out and do well – but they had instead gotten out and come back. My transition was a little difficult at first, but I had a lot of family support.”
Though armed with credentials, Hess was about to experience a setback: his past conviction. He revealed his criminal history during a job interview with an electronics retailer and was placed in a warehouse position. However, the company let him go “on the grounds that whoever signed off on my hire should not have-- because of my background,” Hess says. “This was pretty frustrating, but it is also part of the process. It was a setback, but persistence can change the story.”
The night of his job loss, Hess was scheduled to speak to church youth and share his story. He shared the fact that he still had to answer for his past choices, but he also had faith that God had a plan for him.
Two days later a friend with a plumbing company called, and Hess was offered $10 per hour to come to work. He took the job but continued looking for a different opportunity, “something more fitting to my computer strengths,” he explains. What he found was a position requiring proficiency in multiple Microsoft skills, offered through an industry consulting firm.
“I sent in my resume and all of the certifications that I earned in BCIS,” Hess says. He shared information about the hours of training he received in prison, and was later told his resume stood out above others thanks to the professional certifications. However, his criminal background was still part of the equation.
“After they selected me, I realized my background had never really been discussed. I had a decision to make – do I tell them about my past at the risk of losing my job opportunity, or not say anything and hope the truth never comes up?”
Hess decided to come clean with potential employers and placed a call to make sure his history was clearly understood.
“The consulting company interviewer put me on speaker phone with the owners of the company, and I told them about my past. It was not easy,” he says. “They requested the name and number of my parole officer and then asked me to meet with their group in person.”
Hess made the trip to see his potential employers, including the company president. They talked, and the consulting firm’s leadership appreciated his honesty “because I was willing to tell them about my past before I was asked,” he says. Hess told them he was no longer willing to compromise for money. He then reminded them about the four computer industry certifications he had earned in prison and the fact that he had worked diligently in prison without compensation.
“I asked them, ‘How hard do you think I am going to work for $650 a day, since I worked so hard with no wages?’” he says. “Based on my honesty, certifications and work ethic, they offered to do everything in their power to make this hiring situation successful,” including holding a meeting with Hess’s potential oil company employer.
After opening employers’ eyes to his potential, Hess was hired and joined the consulting company in 2013. He is still enjoying his work and generous compensation, including “full health benefits and a 401K.
“Money’s nice,” he says, “but it’s not all about the money; it’s still about doing the right thing. I try to stay focused on God, and be thoughtful about how I deal with success,” Hess said. “Temptation will always be around at work and in my personal life, so I just try to resist it and keep making the right choices. My supervisors all know my story, and they are still expecting me to do the right things.”
Hess works on a rotational schedule (two weeks on, two weeks off), and his responsibilities involve keeping track of all site expenditures.
“I deal with vendors, call companies to come set up equipment, create spreadsheets, and track costs. I work on different sites entering information into various programs. I do a lot of work in Excel at this job.”
Along with computer duties, Hess said he is quick to help however needed at his job.
“If the trash needs to be taken out, I take out the trash. If the floor needs to be swept and mopped, I’ll do it even though it’s not my job,” he says. “I worked for free for six years [in TDCJ], so I really appreciate what this company is paying me. I feel like I need to earn my money; I’ll go above and beyond. The idea of working for free while incarcerated doesn’t tarnish your integrity. When you get out of prison, you have to be willing to work hard for whatever type of pay scale is offered. Sharing your eager spirit to work builds character.”
Hess tells those preparing to seek jobs to, “value employment itself above all else and broaden your horizons. The money will eventually follow, setting the tempo for employable expansion.” In fact, Hess’s work duties and salary are facing potential employable expansion as his company considers him for promotion to a senior position.
Meanwhile, he is appreciative of his good fortune, counting his blessings and citing preparation as the key to meeting success. He sends these same sentiments to his former cellmates and classmates:
• Sign up for the extra hours of education.
• Get your certifications because they will open doors when you get out.
• While you are in TDCJ, you have plenty of time to do things that there just is not time for out here.
• Habits are formed, and how you do your time does make a huge difference.
• Go to college, take whatever trade you can and make yourself employable.
• Be persistent.
• Prepare for the setbacks.
• Also, use your past as an asset; don’t try to hide it as a failure. Failure is not falling down -- it’s found in refusing to stand.
Though now a free man, Hess voluntarily returns to prison and juvenile facilities to speak to students in Windham classes, to talk to incarcerated youth, to serve as a correctional education graduation speaker, and to encourage participants in TDCJ’s Bridges to Life program, which was also a motivating force in his transformation. He is testament to Texas programs that give incarcerated men and women an opportunity to rebuild their futures, and he encourages everyone to take advantage of opportunities to learn new skills.
“I appreciate everyone who has helped me, taught me, encouraged me and had faith in me, especially my teachers at Windham and in Alvin Community College,” Hess says. “I want to tell them that being an educator in prison may seem like a thankless job sometimes, and it may seem like you are not making a difference, but there are people who get out and remember what they learned in prison. Your efforts make a difference and help change lives.
“Education and training are so important to all of us -- especially men and women in prison,” Hess says. “How much does it cost a year to keep an offender incarcerated? How much does it cost to take them to trial the next time they get in trouble because they lacked the necessary education? How much does it cost to feed them, clothe them and house them? We’ve got to spend money one way or another, so some of it might as well be in a way that helps offenders transition back into society.”
Hess’s transformation is ongoing, and he has proudly traded incarceration and “doing time” in state prison for financially rewarding, challenging employment in the oil field. He continues to demonstrate persistence, faith, and personal commitment to everyone he meets. Prepared for any setbacks, he’s convinced that it’s up to each individual to rewrite their own story.
“The real challenge is to make things work out rather than to hope they will,” Hess says.
“All of the education in the world cannot transform us into something that we don’t want to become.”
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