Dodging Bullets and Conquering Mountains: The Story of Alan Garza Becoming a Spectral Analysis Wunderkind

Thank you to our sponsor, Appian for supporting this Perspective article.

In a special bonus article for OGGN Perspective, contributing writer Stephen Forrester had a chance to talk to Alan Garza, Product Marketing Manager for Advanced Analysis at Endress+Hauser, about his childhood growing up in Houston, his winding path through education and a variety of interesting jobs, and how he ended up moving to Bloomington, Indiana with his now-wife to pursue a career in one of Endress+Hauser’s most specialized product lines.

Climbing a 13,000-ft mountain in Idaho Springs, Colorado in 2018.

Alan Garza was born in Monterrey, the capital and largest city of the northeastern state of Nuevo León, Mexico. Monterrey, as it were—which loosely translates to “king of the mountain”—informed a lifelong love of climbing. “I have this weird fascination with climbing mountains and getting to the top of them,” Alan says. “I love challenges, so anything that involves a challenge, I really get into.” Reaching for the top, both in his personal and professional life, has been his motto since those early years in Mexico, the sweltering heat doing little to stifle Alan’s desire to seek adventure.

Alan’s father and the family’s mule, which they used to pull a cart holding the young Garzas, in Monterrey.

When he was in the third grade, Alan recalls that the teacher asked the students who intended to go to college—an interesting choice of question, perhaps, for an educator to ask a group of children who had just learned reading, writing, and math, but something he remembers to this day. “I grew up in the inner city, and we had drive-by shootings weekly on the street by my house,” he says. “There was one gang on one corner, and another gang on the other corner. Long story short—school was never a really big thing in my neighborhood.” His mother and father, who had a ninth- and sixth-grade education, respectively, had brought the family to the United States in pursuit of a better life, wanting their children to have opportunities they never did. His father held a steady job his entire life, but he wanted more for his son and made sure Alan knew that.

“So, I raised my hand in that classroom and said I was going to go to college,” Alan recalls. “I knew, even then, that I had to do something to move forward. As an immigrant, that’s what we’re always trying to do—enable that progress for the next generation. That’s who we are.” Alan’s parents, he said, wanted the same thing for his sisters, and so the whole family grew up with this desire for them to lead successful, fulfilled lives. Raising his hand that fateful day in class—one of the proud few to do so—may very well have been the first step on Alan’s journey, but as with most things, it wasn’t necessarily easy.

The Garza family, with a young Alan at top.

As a person more driven by emotion and a desire to act, Alan says that even though he was passionate about learning, traditional schooling never really clicked for him. “I was never really the best student,” he admits. “I would get incredibly bored in class. I could study afterward and learn the information then, but during class, it just didn’t keep my attention.” The one subject he was excited for was physical education, with Alan getting involved in sports throughout high school. “I was an All-District football player at Reagan High School, playing as a defensive end/linebacker,” he says. “I also played basketball every day. I was really into athletics, and that helped motivate me to come to school every day and get the grades I needed to get to pass.” When he tore a ligament in his left wrist, a less-than-stellar doctor wrapped his hand up, had him skip a game, and let him back on the field for the rest of the season. Thankfully not his dominant hand, the injury—and subsequent recurring pain—nonetheless ended any thought Alan might have had about sports being more than a hobby.

Alan on the Reagan High School football team.

Growing up, Alan didn’t really know that his life in the high-crime neighborhood was different than what most people usually experience. “I realized that I didn’t know that gunshots weren’t normal,” he says. “For me, it was normal to hear gunshots every day.” He describes a harrowing moment where a brush with death was a little too close for comfort: “I was playing basketball one time with my neighbors, half of whom happened to be Crips, and as I was laying up a shot, I looked to my right and saw a Chevy Impala coming around the corner. When they pulled up and stopped, we knew something was going to happen, so we scattered. I ran as fast as I could, and as soon as I took off running, I heard gunshots behind me. I mean, I was running so fast I tripped over my own feet and basically did a front roll. My mom had a pretty low fence around the house, so I hopped over it and hid behind the house and prayed that I wouldn’t get hit.” Where did this happen? “The North Side of Houston,” Alan laughs. “Yeah, I know.” It should be no wonder that the teenage Alan, who grew up watching Power Rangers and practicing high kicks, took up martial arts to learn to defend himself.

After high school, Alan’s college dream seemed oddly distant, as those years in secondary education showed him that he wasn’t a typical learner. After working a few dead-end jobs and making enough money to get by, however, Alan says that he knew he had to take control and do something with his life. Briefly considering joining the military, Alan instead opted to stay home and help his father through some health issues he was going through at the time, remembering how important family was to him. He then decided to give community college a chance, but a placement exam for his starting coursework revealed the problem with skating by in his earlier years.

“You know how they say some people started at the bottom?” he asks. “Well, I started from hell.”

Making his way through the slog of remedial coursework, Alan took it one class at a time—and lo and behold, after starting three classes behind in mathematics, he found that he actually did like math, his analytical mind and quick thinking a good combo with putting the intricacies of calculations and equations into practice. “I started doing really well, and I surprised myself,” he says. Working at what he says was a “sketchy” check cashing business—located smack-dab in the middle of a crime-riddled neighborhood—Alan was approached by a friend who worked at a gym to come work with him. Thankful to be free of checking the ATM machine by himself and wondering if he was going to be held at gunpoint, Alan found himself working at Kicks Indoor Soccer.

Alan and the team at Kicks Indoor Soccer.

Interestingly, his colleagues were very much like him. “Everyone there was either an engineering student, computer scientist, or philosophy major,” Alan explains. “It was odd, but it actually motivated me to transfer to the University of Houston.” Starting in computer science, he quickly realized the program wasn’t for him. The difference in ability between Alan’s community college coursework and that of his peers was readily apparent, and the learning curve was significant, with Alan behind from the get-go. Sealing the deal was the fact that sitting at a computer and coding for 12 hours at a time wasn’t the kind of fulfilling work Alan had been looking for.

But what was the magic ticket? Alan didn’t really know, so he took a year to take a bunch of unrelated classes in the hopes of finding something that inspired him. “I went to business school, I took geology courses…I just took a bunch of weird classes,” he says. “I also took weight-lifting classes and worked out with trainers from the football team. I was really just trying to keep myself in school and figure out what I wanted to do.” When he reconnected with his best friend, whose family was doing missionary work in Central America, Alan decided to look upward instead of inward. “I asked God, ‘what should I do?’” Alan remembers. “I just didn’t know what to do with my life at this point. And you know what He said? He said that I should be an engineer.”

Transferring first into the Cullen College of Engineering and then to the College of Technology, Alan immersed himself in the degree, which he admits was more about physics and less about math than he’d been led to realize. Regardless, at that point there was no turning back, as time was flying by and student loans were looming in the distance. Working nights at Kicks and going to school during the day, Alan was stretched a bit thin. When Kicks was sold, Alan feared the worst, as he’d been putting his earnings towards his education. A lucky break with a soccer player at the facility found Alan’s financial stability saved, at least temporarily. “This guy, he wanted to start an importing company,” Alan says. “He was going to import cars from Japan, like Nissan Skylines and Toyota Supras, and sell them in Houston. I’d been playing video games my whole life, and I loved the ‘Need for Speed’ series. I was all about it, even though I didn’t know much about cars other than how they looked.”

Alan and his team at UH developed a prototype electric vehicle for their capstone project.

When the importing business failed, the owner decided to turn the facility into a shop for performance cars. Given the opportunity to stay on despite the change, Alan decided to take the offer. As it turned out, the time at the performance shop was a blessing in disguise. “I learned to sharpen my engineering skills while I was at the shop,” Alan notes. “Figuring out how to upgrade normal cars to have 1,000 horsepower and how to order the parts and project manage each vehicle, it helped me develop in a professional way that I never thought such a job would. I was working on $60,000 projects and helping people who had the money build these crazy cars.”

Alan in one of the owner’s imported cars.

Things took a turn when Alan was honest with the owner and told him that he intended to get an engineering job after college. “I told him I wanted to put my engineering degree to work, and he said, ‘OK, cool. You’ve got two months to find another job. Appreciate the time you’ve been here,’” Alan says. “It was quite a shock because I’d helped start that business from the ground up twice. I’d done the marketing for it, the social media, everything. So, I was kind of hurt, but being a believer, I knew God was going to bring me something better.”

When his girlfriend, who’d just finished her master’s degree, had an opportunity to get her doctorate at Indiana University—basically a full ride—Alan decided to try and go with her, hoping to find a job in the new state. Alan applied to multiple jobs in Indiana and Houston, but with competing offers from Honda, Endress+Hauser, and a drafting company in Indiana, the path forward was clear. With the payments from a new car coming in and a savings account that was rapidly approaching $0, Alan had to make a choice between the options. When he met Don Cummings at Endress+Hauser, who was then managing the rotational engineering program, the path was made clear. “He was just awesome,” Alan says. “We saw eye-to-eye even though he was a much higher level than me. He inspired me to truly be an engineer, when I’d mainly done it because I thought that was what God wanted me to do. He looked at me and said, ‘This is the best decision you’ll ever make.’ So, I kind of figured I was going to get the job at that point.”

The Endress+Hauser facility in Greenwood, Indiana. Image courtesy of Endress+Hauser.

Fast-forwarding a couple months, Alan did indeed get the job, a Houston transplant to Indiana working in Endress+Hauser’s rotational engineering program at the US headquarters in Greenwood. For those that aren’t familiar with the company, Endress+Hauser might be one of the largest companies you’ve never heard of. A global leader in measurement instrumentation and services for industrial process engineering, the company provides process solutions for flow, level, pressure, analytics, temperature, recording, and digital communications. A global enterprise with sales exceeding $3 billion, Endress+Hauser operates across a broad range of industries, including chemical, food and beverage, life sciences, power and energy, mining, minerals and metals, oil and gas, and water and wastewater.

Alan remembers that at the time, he would hear murmurings about not working on anything marked with an “SS,” which stood for SpectraSensors, one of the company’s recent acquisitions. Due to the newness of the business and relative lack of information on its advanced systems and processes, most of Endress+Hauser’s people were still mastering the specialized skills and knowledge necessary to operate the technology. Alan, however, was curious from the start, and when he emerged from the rotational engineering program after 6 months and was brought to inside sales engineering, a chance encounter with a SpectraSensors employee brought him one step closer to the mysterious systems. “It was my first week in the new job, and I went to get coffee, and I was talking to this guy there,” Alan remembers. “And as we were talking and I was telling him about wanting to know more about spectral analyzers, it turned out it was John Schnake, who was the general manager for SpectraSensors. He laughed and told me that you never know what could happen, that I might have a chance to work with them sooner than I thought.”

No sooner than Alan had went back to his cubicle did his manager stop by and let him know about a product champion position opening in gas analysis—with SpectraSensors—that he thought Alan should apply for. “He said it would be a challenge, because the product line was still being integrated and the knowledge just wasn’t there yet,” Alan explains. “Then he asked me if I’d be interested in taking on that challenge. I thought it was destiny, so I said, of course I’ll do it. Then I began to learn about the product line from the ground up.” With how new the acquisition was, Alan had to do a lot of digging to get up to speed, as there were limited resources available. Pressing forward, he flourished in the role for 2 years, covering the Midwest in applications engineering and passing along knowledge to inside sales engineers across the company. “I wanted to help create a network of people in the US who knew what was going on with this technology,” he says. “I wanted us to rely less on the engineers in the factory and be able to work on the products ourselves.”

Alan at the SpectraSensors office in California while working as an inside sales engineer.

Spectral analysis, and spectroscopy when it comes to Alan’s work, is an advanced form of chemistry and physics that studies the interaction between matter and electromagnetic radiation as a function of the wavelength or frequency of the radiation. If that doesn’t make a lot of sense to you, don’t worry, as the field of study is incredibly specialized.

SpectraSensors is considered the industry pioneer for their advanced spectroscopy, which is called tunable diode laser absorption spectroscopy, or TDLAS. “The SpectraSensors’ TDLAS technology was actually developed by NASA at the Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory,” Alan explains. “It was originally designed to measure moisture on Mars, and when I heard that, I nerded out a lot on that aspect. We were the innovator in bringing laser technology to gas measurement.” After pipeline accidents caused issues with moisture and corrosion to come into greater focus, the need for advanced solutions like those that SpectraSensors offers was made apparent. “Our analyzers are working at the molecular level of the volume of gas,” Alan continues. “The near-infrared laser’s wavelength is specifically tuned to look for the H20 molecules. When the light source hits the molecule, the H20 molecule will absorb some of the light intensity. Whenever the laser is reflected back through a mirror into the detector, there will be a subtraction of that intensity, showing a direct relation between the amount of moisture molecules and the measurement.”

In high-risk applications, even a single molecule of H20 could be a major problem. Of course, SpectraSensors’ TDLAS technology isn’t just looking for one thing. The company, which operates as a business within Endress+Hauser, describes its offerings as follows:

Utilizing proprietary extractive tunable diode laser absorption spectroscopy and other spectroscopic technologies, SpectraSensors delivers accurate and robust measurements with extremely fast response times. [Our] gas analyzers measure moisture (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), ammonia (NH3), acetylene (C2H2), oxygen (O2), and more.

Though these systems are often used with natural gas pipelines, there are quite a few areas where spectral analysis makes a lot of sense. “They can also be used in biogas, as there are contaminants that must be removed before the biomethane gets transferred to the natural gas pipeline and to the electrical grid,” Alan says. “Really, anything that has to do with natural gas with the proper sample condition, we can measure specific contaminants in. We also use the technology in hydrogen recycling systems in refineries and can also work with the recent addition of hydrogen in select natural gas pipelines.”

All in all, life has turned out pretty well for Alan after immigrating from Mexico and learning English when he was 3 years old from cartoons; and certainly, after his close encounters with inner city violence and his meandering path through traditional education. Once he settled down in Bloomington, Indiana, he ended up marrying his girlfriend, who’s still in the doctorate program for music theory, and gets to watch with a bit of wonder as she plays six instruments and plans her path to being a professor in the not-too-distant future. He gets to help manage one of Endress+Hauser’s most interesting and differentiated product lines and spread knowledge of what the group does and why it matters. He works with incredible people day-in and day-out and considers every new adventure a blessing. And, when he has some free time, you may just catch him playing a game of Apex Legends, which he’s gotten pretty good at through what he admits are way too many hours of playtime. It seems it would be better to meet the optimistic Alan, with bright eyes and a big grin, outside of the game—if you want to protect your own record, at least. 

Alan and his wife.