Don Jones

Tech | Career | Musings

I’ve been watching something awful build up over the last few years in the IT industry. You know, IT pros – the folks we call “admins” or “sysops” or whatever, as opposed to software developers – have a reputation in the IT industry. It’s a reputation that’s pervasive across ISVs, conference organizers, nearly everyone. Even Microsoft knows it. That reputation: You’re too hard to reach. 

That is, when one of those folks wants to tell you something – about a new service, about a security vulnerability, about an upcoming conference – it’s nearly impossible to reach you.

This isn’t entirely your fault.

Here’s the thing, we’ve all hopped on Google and looked for some solution to some problem. We’ve often gotten a hit on a Web site like TechTarget, or BitsOnTheWire, or whatever. Then we find out that, to read the article we found, we’ve got to sign up for a newsletter. Then the e-mail starts rolling in: “newsletters” filled with little but promotions for various vendors. Then that e-mail address gets shared and rented out, and before you know it our inboxes are awash in things we didn’t ask for and don’t want. It’s a loathsome practice.

We compensate by using one-off, disposable e-mail addresses. That way, we can get the content we need without receiving the spam. We dial up our organizational spam filters to DEFCON 1 levels. And we start getting really, really picky about what we sign up for. Unfortunately, this creates a problem: as professionals, it becomes impossible to communicate with us. As technology professionals, in a rapidly-changing industry, that’s terrible.

Now, I know what you may be thinking: “I don’t need newsletters, I’ll just go find what I want, when I want it.” Bad attitude. In fact, this is going to come across as incredibly rude, but if that’s truly the attitude you or a colleague has adopted, please try hard to leave the IT industry. You can’t learn new stuff that way. You’re just learning in reaction to events. If you don’t know some new technology exists, you won’t go searching for it. You need, for a certain amount of time each week, to just do “pure education.” Learn about new things that aren’t immediately applicable, so that you can have them in the back of your head should need arise.

Perhaps instead you’re saying, “I don’t want push communication; I’l consume my pure education through pull outlets like blogs.” Okay, that’s cool. Provided you’re doing it, and not just reading Engadget or Gizmodo. Nothing wrong with those, but they’re not the “pure education” in your industry that you need.

But here’s the thing: I’m constantly running across amazing new technologies and approaches that nobody seems to know about. Part of that is because we, as IT pros, have gotten ourselves into a dastardly combination of (a) fully locked-down and (b) crazy-busy. With no “push” communications coming into our inboxes, we’re actually not finding out about critical new ideas in our industry. Ever heard of FlashSoft? everRun MX? Two examples of excellent money-saving “killer apps” that just aren’t as well-known as they should be. I’m not saying you should rush out and buy them; I’m saying that you need to know things like this exist, for when a need arises. Excellent events like TechMentor (better education and far more affordable than TechEd, in my opinion) are relatively unknown. All because the only means they’ve got to communicate are, by and large, those e-mail newsletters we all hate so much.

So what do you do?

Well, that’s hard to answer. I’ve got an idea, but you’re not gonna like it. I’d sure like to hear any ideas you might have.

My basic idea is to set yourself up with a free mailbox that you use to subscribe to stuff. Be sensible about what you subscribe to, but don’t be overly restrictive. Remember, you’re not going to have this coming to your main inbox, so when you’re busy it isn’t going to be in your way. Sign up for content-based newsletters, like the one at PowerShell.org or Mark Minasi’s excellent publication. Sign up for a few vendor-y ones, too, especially from companies like 1105 Media (where you’ll get a variety of vendor insertions, not just one or two all the time). Get the info flowing in.

And then skim it. Once a week maybe, go through and just scan. See what’s being described. When something catches your eye, click through and read up on it, or perhaps bookmark it for reading on the train or the next time you’re waiting at the DMV.

You know how you’ll read something like Engadget, kind of skim the headlines, and end up clicking through to a few stories that especially interest you? Same thing. I treat my “spam box” like a big blog. When I see something I want to know a bit more about, I’ll click through. People are constantly asking me how I “keep up” with everything in the industry. Well, that spam box is a big part of “how.” It lets me know what vendors and similar folks are up to, so I can have a kind of “big picture” of what’s churning in the industry at any point. For something especially compelling, I’ll even follow-up with the vendor and maybe ask for a demo or something. I’ll make it clear I’m not buying, but that I’m simply educating myself so that I have a broader solution set on recall.

Although in most cases they’ve given us plenty of reason to treat them as the enemy, we can’t continue to treat ISVs and other vendors like the bad guy. Yeah, they’re out to make a buck – but in some cases what they’re selling might be exactly the solution you need. And even if it isn’t, simply knowing what’s out there can spark other ideas, help you learn effective new search terms (“enterprise SSD” was one I learned that way), and generally be more informed about what our industry is up to. Microsoft does’t (and can’t) include everything you need “in the box,” so you’re going to need to keep up with the bigger world. And even if you’re a dedicated DIYer, it’s nice to know what commercial companies are developing, in case there’s an approach you can adapt into your own DIY projects.

How do you keep up with what’s emerging in our industry?

10 thoughts on “You’re too Hard to Reach

  1. rickvanover says:

    Don, it is a new problem of the era.

    I’m not sure what the solution is. I feel that email is part of the solution, yet most of the problem. I look at my own behavior and I manage 2 email identities, my personal and the work email.

    I manage them totally different, however. Work (on a good day) ends at inbox zero. Home email, well…. Let’s just say I try to keep the Inbox under 4,000 items unread. But I’ve had this email address for 20 years now, can’t give it up!

    I actually find Twitter to be a good way to communicate with me and who I need to communicate with. DMs, Replies, etc.

    Finally, I believe that people will (or already are there) hit a limit on their input abilities, a consequence of us being too connected.

    In situations where I have deadlines and need to get stuff done, one thing I do is work with email closed. (Outlook in my case) By not leaving it open all day, I’m materially less distracted.

    Good blogpost!

  2. Bjorn Houben says:

    Hi Don, I really like your recent posts. Personally I use twitter and technet blogs rss feeds and then store the interesting ones in onenote. Still it’s hard to keep up with all the things happing in ICT. But anything you do manage to learn, is a plus.

  3. Max Trottier says:

    Very interesting and I think it’s a big challenge for marketers and software vendors. Inbound Marketing is a well-known trend and I think is part of the solution.

    I use tools like Feedly, Google Alert, Twitter and Spiceworks to keep up with what’s happening in the IT industry.

  4. ngetchell says:

    Got to go with RSS through Feedly as well as Pocket for a later read. Anything of any use ends up in Evernote.

  5. bad attitude says:

    This article sounded like some sort of bad sales pitch. Information is aquired by genuine interest AND by necessity, not by pushing it into consumers…

    Sorry. Not buying this.

    1. Don Jones says:

      Well, I wasn’t really selling anything.

      So how do you keep up with new things? If you don’t know something exists, you won’t be interested in it? Do you wait until a need comes along and then start looking for things that might be applicable? I know a lot of folks do that, and I do too. But I also like to have a general feeling for what’s out there BEFORE I have a need. That way I can react to the need more quickly.

      I guess you could say that I have a genuine interest in things I don’t even know exist, yet. I at least like to know what’s out there.

  6. Phil Wiffen says:

    I completely agree with you, and this approach. I just wanted to add that I’ve actually found Twitter to be a *fantastic* emerging tech radar resource. Following the right people takes time, but I’ve learnt a lot over the last few months about emerging IT technologies in my areas of interest from people that are using them. I also get direct, responsive, contact with vendor employees through Twitter. Something that I feel is harder to get through email newsletters.

  7. Vin says:

    Good post!
    I use three email Ids, one for work, one for personal use, another for all the subscriptions and newsletters. I also use feedly for RSS feeds and twitter.

    I use work and personal email IDs everyday and some of the better stuff like Minasi ‘s blog makes its way to these. The other stuff are usually filtered out once or twice a week.

  8. Robert Payne says:

    Nice article, I think social media is somewhat alleviating this problem. Why do I need to sign up for a daily/weekly email communication when I can consume the info real-time on a social network? Either shared by the vendor itself, or a peer/colleague.

    The second inbox idea is a decent strategy, however one with a fatal flaw in my opinion. The flaw being, that reminder/task you set every week to skim it, will get overlooked/dismissed consistently. It’s a nice idea in theory but in practice I’ve found it always gets pushed in favor of higher priority things.

    I’d recommend utilizing social channels to stay up to date on new stuff, and subscribe to the things or companies you really care about in your main inbox.

  9. Julie A says:

    This approach has paid off for me. I have leveraged a free training opportunity on learning PowerShell through one of your twitter posts and a free Microsoft certification offer for the new virtualization exam through the Microsoft newsletter.

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