NASA Engineer’s Career Was Launched by BC

NASA's jet propulsion laboratory
It was in the mid-1990s when Al Fenkner enrolled at Bellevue College (then-Bellevue Community College) and entered the Information Technology (IT) program. Before he even graduated, he was offered a job that would open the door to others in the IT field, and eventually land him in a role at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory via Columbus Technologies.

“I knew this was something I wanted to do since my days with a Commodore 64 computer as a teenager,” said Fenkner. “But I felt the need to go serve my country first.”

He did, in the Marine Corps. After leaving active duty, he returned to his education and pursued his studies in information technology. “I enjoyed it so much I even spent time in the lab tutoring other students,” said Fenkner.

Then life stepped in.

“I was in the program when my daughter was born,” said Fenkner. “I owned a home and needed a job to stay afloat at that time, so I started faxing resumes to potential employers. Yes, I said fax! I received an interview request from Asymetrix, an eLearning software company that was Paul Allen’s first startup after he left Microsoft. After two interviews, I was offered a job in technical support.”

Like many students, his intent had been to get a degree and then get a job; the job being the ultimate goal. He was pleasantly surprised when he reached his goal ahead of schedule. An even bigger surprise came when he found out later that he’d never even applied for the job at Asymetrix. Someone from BC had referred him.

For a time he tried to juggle school, fatherhood and work, but being successful at all three was difficult. And besides, Fenkner said, “I already had my foot in the door.” He was on his way up the career ladder, thanks to BC. “Within 18 months I was promoted to quality assurance,” said Fenkner. “I was then quickly promoted to software engineer.

Fenkner spent four years at Asymetrix, and worked for two other Allen companies, Digeo (interactive television), and Vulcan Ventures. “I worked on the Brain Atlas project which consisted of creating a virtual map of the mouse brain from lab mice for future drug testing that would potentially cure many diseases.”

More opportunities came his way, and his career trajectory took him to Google, AT&T, Disney, Getty Images and Nintendo. “I didn’t want to stay anywhere too long because technology was changing so fast; I wanted to spread out and learn from as many great companies and engineers as I could.”

Al Fenkner
Al Fenkner

He now works for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory through Columbus Technologies as an Information Technology Infrastructure Engineer Level 5. “It sounds major, but I’m still just a software engineer doing what I love.”

Fenkner added, “I want to show my appreciation for the IT program and what it has done for me. It laid the foundation for great things to come. It was the building block that jump-started my career, and much of what I learned is still very relevant today. Technology changes fast, but the underlying concepts that I learned in that program still hold true.”

He credits BC faculty as well with his success. “I’ll never forget what one of the professors said to me. ‘You can’t know everything, you just need to know how to find the answers.’ Since then, I have always joked that I’m a professional student because I get paid to learn and that’s what this career is all about.”

“You can’t stand still or you’ll fall behind,” said Fenkner. “I may have stopped going to school, but I never stopped learning and finding the answers. I’m thankful to BC for giving me the tools to succeed.”

Last Updated December 4, 2019