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Hard lessons learned

A major turnaround in alumnus Chris Haney’s life led him to realize the value of a strong support system and hard work.

At one point in his life, Chris Haney was broke, homeless and living on the streets. Today, he’s the director of IT support services for a $2 billion global architectural, engineering and consulting firm. The story of how he emerged from the darkness isn’t easy to explain—even for the fellow who lived it.

“I’ve had this amazing life and sometimes I can’t believe I’ve gotten where I am,” says the 44-year-old Omaha, Nebraska, resident. “I think a lot of it comes down to my wife. Meeting her was the major turning point.”

Inauspicious beginning

Haney spent most of his early years living with his single mother in Winslow, Maine. She remarried when he was 9, and Haney had a father figure for the first time. But when Haney was a freshman in high school, his mother died, and his relationship with his stepfather collapsed.

At the age of 16, Haney was tossed out of the house. For the remainder of his high school years, he lived with friends and relatives. He graduated in 1989 and was offered an opportunity to play baseball at a community college. He turned it down.

“I was living on my own, drinking, partying and making a lot of bad decisions,” Haney says.

Needing a change of scenery and eager to leave Maine, he joined the Army in 1990 and was stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. But a year later, after a brutal fight with another soldier and a positive marijuana test, Haney was given a general discharge. He had nowhere to go and had reached rock bottom.

“After leaving the Army, I stayed in Hawaii. I was working 60-70 hours a week doing security during the day and bartending at night,” says Haney. “But I was angry at the world and wound up living on the street. I needed to get back home.”

A turning point

He emptied his bank account of $360 to return to Maine. But the money only got him as far as Omaha, where he moved in with relatives and began working odd jobs.

Haney’s life turned around when he met his wife, Diana, in 1992. They married nine months later.

“She gave me the motivation, desire and confidence I never had,” he says. “She believed in me and encouraged me and has continued to do that over the 22 years we’ve been married.”

His professional fortune turned as well when Haney took college courses that rekindled his interest in computer programming. As a 13-year-old, he had enjoyed sitting down with his old Apple® computer to write code. It was a boyhood hobby based on an innate skill. His first IT job allowed him to utilize his skills. He explains, “I was good at it, and somebody was willing to pay me good money to do it.”

In 1999, Haney began working as a software developer for HDR Inc. After three years, he was promoted to senior systems analyst, and in 2004, the company sent him to Oregon to be the IT manager on a 10-year, $1.3 billion bridge-building project.

Within 18 months, Haney put together a team of 14 IT professionals supporting 250 employees. He loved the challenge. He considers the assignment a professional crossroads and his first real management job.

“Being a program IT manager, my career started making sense to me,” says Haney. “But I realized I couldn’t achieve what I wanted without an advanced degree.”

Real-time learning

With a bachelor’s in information systems from Nebraska’s Bellevue University already in hand, he enrolled at University of Phoenix in 2005 to earn a master’s degree. At the time, he was working 65 hours a week and had three kids under the age of 10.

He worked during the day, came home, ate dinner, put the kids to bed and began homework, which often lasted until the wee hours. After 18 months, he completed his master’s in Information Systems Management, becoming one of only a few members of his family to earn an advanced degree.

Haney found the coursework particularly valuable because it matched perfectly the job he was doing at the time, for which he had limited experience.

"It was really cool because there were days I'd run into something at work that we'd just talked about at school."
– Chris Haney

"University of Phoenix was almost like a mentor walking me through this learning curve I’d taken on as an IT manager.”

His advice to anyone considering returning to school is to find the institution that’s right for you and don’t listen to suggestions that online courses are inferior.

“I hated going to class, so online study was right for me,” he says. “It bothers me when people say that wasn’t as good as a brick-and-mortar school. The program at University of Phoenix was hard, and I worked hard to get my degree,” he says.

Valuable lesson

Haney, who has spent the last five years as HDR’s director of IT support services, hopes to become a CIO or vice president of IT, a job that will allow him to partner with business leaders to give his company a competitive advantage.

As for his relationship with his three kids, he hasn’t kept his troubled past a secret. He and Diana believe the lessons their children can learn from Haney’s mistakes are as valuable as those they’ve learned from their father’s career and educational achievements.

“I’m one of the few people in my family to earn a graduate degree, and I’m really proud of that,” he says. “Even though we’ve never told the kids they have to go to college, they know it’s the next step after high school. It’s not a matter of if they go, but when and where.”


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