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How Zachariah Bowen rewrote the script to his success

Zachariah Bowen’s professional journey is the kind of inspirational story that could’ve been lifted straight from a movie script.

While growing up in a small Southern Californian town, Bowen didn’t think much about college or even a career. “It just never was really talked about in my family,” he recalls. “We grew up poor. My dad raised four kids by himself in a small town; there wasn’t much work [or] money to be made there. I never thought about what I would do as I grew older.”

During this time, PC gaming emerged. Bowen excelled at playing video games, but he didn’t connect the dots from that to a career in technology. He was content with his early jobs at McDonald’s and, later, Rite Aid. But in a journey reminiscent of a Hollywood plot, a series of opportunities, combined with his innate resilience and curiosity, propelled Bowen from the familiar aisles of Rite Aid to the high-tech halls of NASA, setting the stage for a future far beyond anything he had imagined.  

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Getting a foot in the door

The first major twist in Bowen’s journey unfolded simply enough. His best friend landed a janitorial job with a NASA subcontractor. When he was promoted, he did what best friends do: He recommended Bowen to replace him.

Bowen spent two years supporting NASA in his janitorial role. Then, he had the opportunity to move into IT as a fiber-optics cable technician.

“When I joined the cabling team, I thought this would be my forever career,” Bowen recalls. “I was making more money than I ever thought I would be making. I was good at it; it kept me in shape and was a fun job.”

2012 marked a pivotal year for Bowen in more ways than one. That’s when he got engaged to Giovanna. She saw potential in Bowen that he himself hadn’t fully realized.

“I always saw so much potential in Zach,” Giovanna says. “He is very driven and a problem-solver. When he was struggling with what the next step in his career would be, I encouraged him to go to college. I knew he would excel.”

“She said, ‘I know you are smart enough. You should go back to school,’” he remembers. Initially, he contemplated a degree in theology, inspired by his commitment to the church. But he kept postponing it, finding the contractual nature of the work at NASA unpredictable. 

From NASA to Northrop Grumman

Every few years, the subcontracting agencies that employed Bowen would bid for NASA work. Unfortunately, when agencies were awarded contracts, worker pay like Bowen’s would return to base level instead of reflecting experience, which in Bowen’s case was 14 years.

“The second time it happened to me, I was like, I’m done,” Bowen says. Frustrated, he approached his boss. By highlighting his skill and commitment to the organization, he was able to move into a different, more stable position. 

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This was when his career really began to accelerate. “I started going into security roles, which is a more niched profession, as you have to have different certificates,” he explains.

Bowen earned those certificates, and from there, he started working alongside higher-level technicians. “I started to feel like I was as smart as these people. I could do what they were doing. And they were getting paid more,” Bowen says.

What really got Bowen’s attention was the difference in lifestyle. “Those guys were showing up and going home when they wanted. Their life just seemed a little different than mine, because I was punching the clock.”

During this time, a mentor at work echoed the advice of Bowen’s now-wife, Giovanna. “He said, ‘You need to go back to school.’” With the two cheerleaders in his life telling him the same thing, Bowen listened. One afternoon, he happened to catch a University of Phoenix commercial on television. “The commercial was something like ‘You can do IT, and you can do it,’” laughs Bowen. “I thought, Cool. I’m going to do it!

Yet going back to school wasn’t easy. Balancing career demands with a growing family (including a special needs child), plus the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, stretched out his academic journey to five years. University of Phoenix, however, designs its programs with working adults in mind, so Bowen was able to take leaves of absence when life required. In 2023, he became the first person in his family to graduate from college with a Bachelor of Science in Information Technology with certificates in Advanced Cybersecurity and Advanced Networking (the latter is no longer available). 

Rising like a Phoenix 

By now, Bowen had been working in IT for over a decade, but the degree instilled the confidence he needed to smash through the remaining glass ceiling. 

The industry took notice. Bowen now holds the position of cyber systems architect at Northrop Grumman. In a twist that mirrors the Hollywood arc of his journey, one of the team members directly reporting to him today is someone whose trash he used to take out while working as a janitor at NASA.

This remarkable turn of events is not lost on Bowen. “I’m literally living the dream,” he reflects. “I make my schedule, do my thing. It’s a situation I could never have seen myself in. It feels really good.”

While many things have changed for Bowen, the accomplishment he’s most proud of is the family he’s created with Giovanna and their four children, Westley, Bailey, Norah and Emma Sue (named after his beloved grandma, who passed away in 2022).

As for the future, what does the sequel hold for Bowen and his career transformation? “A master’s degree is definitely going to be something that I do, but right now, I’m stepping back as my wife’s starting school. We just had our baby, Emma Sue, so now I’m going to support her just like she’s supported me,” Bowen explains.

Inspired by their parents’ example, his older children are already thinking about their careers. “They’re picking out majors — my daughter wants to study zoology,” he says proudly.

“Zach’s success in graduating college and accelerating his career has been very motivating to all of us,” Giovanna adds. “It has motivated me to go back to college [and] has sparked conversations among our daughters about how they want to be college graduates and what they want to do with their futures.”

When asked what advice he’d give his children or the teens he mentors at church, he answers immediately: “When any door opens, jump. Like don’t just open the door; run through the door. And if you get burned out, or it turns out that’s not the direction you’re supposed to go, keep going and follow the doors that keep opening.”

Bowen believes strongly in making the most of any opportunity life presents you. “I once thought I’d serve the church by getting my theology degree. Now it’s one of my passions to help the church by keeping their systems secure. When people need IT assistance, I’m the first person with my hand up,” explains Bowen.

While he might be pausing his educational journey for now, Bowen still stars in the better-than-Hollywood version of his life. In fact, he just wrapped up filming: His story is being featured in the latest University of Phoenix promotional video.

When asked what he thinks about how, just a few years ago, a UOPX commercial was the catalyst for his IT degree, and today he’s being featured as a face of UOPX, Bowen answers with his signature sincerity: “It was a cool experience. Once it’s released, it will be awesome to look back on and have that to remember this time in my life.” 

As Bowen steps into his next role, both in life and on-screen in the UOPX video, it’s clear that the best scenes of this story are still being written.

Photo of Claire O'Brien

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Claire O’Brien has led copywriting teams for Hilton Worldwide Corporate’s creative studio and advertising agencies specializing in the real estate, hospitality, education and travel industries. In 2020, she founded More Better Words, a boutique copywriting agency that taps into her global connections. She lives in Costa Rica with her husband and six rescue dogs.

 

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