The student I'll be profiling in this issue of Certification Magazine, Alex Mitov, is 19 and hails from Bowling Green, Ohio. Also, spoiler alert: Alex Mitov is not your typical IT student.
Alex does have a lot of the same characteristics and accomplishments as any up-and-coming future IT professional: He's highly intelligent, a hard worker, he enjoys challenges, and is enamored with the potential of information technology. He holds a bundle of certifications attesting to his computer acumen, and he has even won a few computer competitions.
Alex spends his down time like most teenagers, watching YouTube videos, being with friends, and listening to music. He enjoys kayaking with his dad on Lake Erie and he even has a snappy catch phrase when things fall his way. (More about that later on.)
He often puts his IT skills to good use messing with phone and tech support scammers. He once spent an hour on the phone punking a fake agent — from the Drug Enforcement Administration who claimed Alex was under investigation as part of a smuggling ring.
Yes, in many ways Alex is like most of the young people I've written about. There is one key difference, however, that distinguishes him from other IT aficionados — Alex is blind. Other than being able to distinguish some light levels, he has been completely sightless since birth.
Unlike someone who loses their sight later in life and who can remember what colors look like, as well as the shape and function of everyday objects, individuals born blind have no frame of reference from which to recall anything. They have so much more to learn.
The world's most famous blind person, Helen Keller, once said, "Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it." And overcoming the challenges of sightlessness is something Alex has done since day one.
A supportive family
Alex's parents, Boyko Mitov and Mariana Mitova, emigrated to the United States from Bulgaria in 1999. In many ways, it's because of his parents' boundless patience, love, support, and encouragement that Alex is the accomplished and poised young man he is today.
A birth defect in a newborn is generally a shock to parents and, to help them handle that shock, medical professionals are trained to use tact and empathy. That is something Alex's obstetrician had little of. "The doctor was so cold when he told me," said Mariana. He just said, "You have a blind baby."
Bulgarian moms are apparently tough and, upon getting the news, Mariana vowed to herself that Alex wasn't going to miss out on a normal life. "I made a commitment right there that Alex would live a full life, get married, have kids, and a fruitful career," she said.
Since that day, his parents' determination to help their son has impacted every decision they've made. They have coached him to do his best and never quit trying. Their guidance has also helped Alex develop a strong and positive self-image. He does not consider himself a victim.
"No. I'm not a victim, I'm the hero in my story. I don't want to sit around like an entitled brat and blame everybody else for my challenges," he said.
Receiving and following parental direction has placed Alex on the road to a rewarding life. In addition to holding 17 (seventeen!) IT certifications, he recently graduated from the Penta Career Center in Perrysburg, Ohio, and is currently attending Bowling Green State University.
Careful — and confident
So how does a blind guy repair computers? Obviously with great care and preparation. What Alex lacks in sight he makes up for with a prodigious memory. "I was always fascinated at how much he could remember as a child," Mariana said. "He would hear something once and could recall it whenever he wanted."
Alex also has an ability to completely immerse himself in learning subjects that interest him, like computers. "Alex lives, eats, sleeps, and breathes IT," explained Penta Career Center IT Instructor Kenneth Nelson. "Instead of simply reading a certification book and trying to memorize things, he always dove head-first into the actual application of knowledge from each of his certifications."
Alex says he absolutely loves fixing broken computers, and his study habits have shown it. Instead of going home and playing games or watching TV, his idea of fun is to drill down into IT assignments — typically going way beyond what is required.
"He would often come into the classroom the next day and excitedly explain a hundred things that I didn't even know," said Nelson.
Deep dives into various IT subject matters also enabled Alex to help classmates resolve tough IT issues. "Because I had studied the subject thoroughly, I knew what I was talking about, and was frequently asked to help other students," Alex said.
When repairing a computer without seeing it, organization and knowledge of tools and components is crucial. Alex is always careful to place tools and parts within easy reach. He also has a gentle touch, thoroughly knowing the feel and configuration of each component and their capabilities.
"I do have to be really careful," he explained, "and I'm a lot slower than others at first — but it means that I don't break things as often as other students do."
Penta Career Center students regularly perform troubleshooting for school and community computers — a task at which Alex excelled. Being extra careful meant repairs occasionally took a bit longer to complete, but with determination and stick-to-it-iveness, he often achieved a completion rate for repairs as high as, or even higher than, his peers. As a junior, Alex completed more client jobs than all the other students.
He doesn't just swap out failed components either. Alex adeptly utilizes technology — a narrator screen reader and headphones — to identify and remove malware from infected devices. "The narrator screen is in every version of Windows," he explained, "and it works well for what I need it to do."
A hunger for certifications
During his time at Penta Career Center, Alex went after certifications like he was getting paid by the hour and he understands the value of professional IT credentials to young people. "Anyone can claim they can do something, he said. But a certification is validation that I do in fact know what I'm doing."
Alex's biggest challenge with certs was digital lab simulations. Unable to view questions and diagrams, he relied on a non-IT proctor to sit with him and describe what was on screen. Alex would then provide detailed instructions walking the proctor through completion of the lab.
Alex is also capable of impressive innovation when necessary. As a participant in a cybersecurity contest, he had to secure a server using GUI tools. Although the simulation was programmed to score based on use of the GUIs, Alex got creative and used a cross-platform task automation and configuration management framework to complete the task, performing at a higher level than even most experienced professionals.
Alex was able to do that because that is how he "sees," said Nelson. "Blindness isn't a disability for Alex, it's a superpower."
The preferred choice for certification exams for Alex is TestOut courseware. He already has several TestOut certs under his belt and would like to earn more — but finding someone to sit alongside and follow his instructions isn't always easy.
"I wish TestOut had a feature that could describe what is on the screen," he said, "so I could do more certifications on my own. Unfortunately, now that I'm out of school, I don't know anyone who has that kind of time to help me."
Becoming a national champion
Like any talented IT whiz kid, Alex isn't afraid to strut his stuff in cybersecurity events. And he does well in competition. In 2019 he placed first in his region for the Business Professionals of America Computer Security competition.
Informed that he had to now compete at the state level, Alex was reluctant, and his initial inclination was to skip the event or, if he had to participate, not take it too seriously. "I was really focused on finishing a couple of more certifications before the school year ended," he said.
Alex's willingness to attend dwindled even more when he learned that the winner of state event would go to a national competition in Anaheim, Calif. "I was honestly hoping to lose at state so that I wouldn't have to go on," he explained. "I really just wanted to continue completing my other certifications."
Alex's attitude changed on the day of the state event when he read the competition's questions and realized that he could handle them with ease. "I just couldn't help myself," he said. "The answers were sometimes so obvious that I had to do well because I couldn't have lived with myself if I had gotten them wrong on purpose."
Pride goeth before the fall, and although the questions were simple for Alex, another student took first place — a result Alex didn't like at all. "I was furious with second place," he said. "I was supposed to be the best at this."
It turned out the second-place finisher was also invited to compete at Anaheim. Stinging from his runner-up status, Alex decided he wasn't going to attend. "I was so mad that I didn't want to go to nationals just to lose again," he explained.
Sometimes, of course, the littlest thing can pierce one's ironclad convictions and for Alex that little thing came from close to home. My brother said, "Second-place winner is really just the first loser."
There's nothing like a brotherly taunt to get the competitive juices flowing and Alex's juices became a raging torrent. "I decided I was going to nationals and I was going to win," he said. "I had to prove to the world, my family, instructors, and most of all, myself, that I really was the absolute best in computer security."
Alex shifted his preparation for the competition into high gear, spending all his spare time studying. "I was powered by rage," he said. "I wasn't much fun to be around, but I didn't care. I had to win at any cost."
In order to cram in as much IT information as possible, he listened to tech videos at double their normal play speed and it seemed to help. "It took some getting used to, but I found I was even beginning to think faster," he explained.
On a fine May 4th in Anaheim, the intense preparation efforts paid off as Alex was crowned the Business Professionals of America national champion for cybersecurity. Winning was a great feeling for him. Unable to contain his excitement, standing on stage with tears streaming down his cheeks he raised the winner's plaque above his head and screamed his aforementioned catch phrase, "LIKE A BOSS!!! YEAH!!!"
"The 4th was definitely with me that day," laughed Alex. (May 4th is often informally celebrated as Star Wars Day: May the 4th be with you.) (Get it?)
Knock-knock, it's reality
As so often happens to all of us when we think we're on top of the world, Alex soon learned an important lesson. "Coming home from California, I felt like I was floating, that I was set for life," he said. "People were telling me over and over that people in high places like the FBI or NSA were watching, that if I won (the competition) my life would be on the fast track."
A few days after returning, Alex walked into an interview with a potential employer. It did not go well, and Alex placed blame squarely on his attitude. "Looking back on it now, I was probably the cockiest, most narcissistic jerk the man had interviewed. I don't blame him for not hiring me."
Figuring it was just a bad interview, Alex continued interviewing for tech jobs — without success. "I got less and less prideful, and humbler as time went on," he said.
Alex doesn't give potential employers a heads-up about his blindness beforehand. I know I can do the job and I don't want them to dismiss my application before they meet me, he said. Interviewers are always surprised and often a bit uncomfortable. "I sometimes wonder if they think I'm messing with them," said Alex.
Despite any interviewer discomfort, Alex plows ahead with confidence as he presents his portfolio. He tells his interviewers to ask him the same questions they would ask of any other candidate and they quickly realize he knows his IT. During two interviews he was given a technical test, acing both with scores of 100 percent.
"The interviewers were amazed at my scores, but I still didn't get the job," said Alex.
Despite not landing a job yet, Alex remains hopeful. He knows his certifications are proof of his skills and he would like employers to know that working with him isn't going to be that different than working with a sighted person. "I love when they give me a situation and I tell them how I would handle it. They are impressed with my answers, because there is no way I could fake it."
For every person, life is a struggle; more so for some than for others. Prospering in life requires discipline, hard work and sacrifice. More importantly, it requires the vision to dream of what one can accomplish. Alex Mitov may be blind, but in his heart he has the kind vision that really counts — along with the courage and faith to make his dreams come true.