Don Jones

Tech | Career | Musings

I hope you’ll take a moment to share this post with your coworkers, colleagues, peers, and even friends. Whether they’re in IT or not, there’s a strong lesson here – one that’s easy to lose in the day-to-day madness.

I have a good friend who’s not terribly happy at his current job. He’s stuck in a more-or-less dead-end position, and while they pay and benefits are fine, he feels a bit like he’s rotting in place. The world of IT is moving around him, and he’s worried about growing more irrelevant by the moment.

So he did the right thing: he started interviewing. That takes a lot of guts, and it’s the step where probably 80% of people will just give up and suffer in a job they don’t love. Interviewing is hard, it can feel humiliating, and practically nobody enjoys it. But he did it.

And had a problem, because for much of his career he’s been in larger companies that tend to “silo” people into a specific technology. So, he applies for this job, and told me:

I recently interviewed to take over a position at an Internet company and I failed… That was a pretty tough pill to swallow, considering the main skill they wanted was someone to manage their PowerShell / Desired State Configuration approach to configuration management on Windows servers.  That’s pretty much my bread and butter right now.  I was told that the reason for being turned down was that I don’t have enough experience with IIS and SQL.

Ouch. Perfectly qualified for the job’s main requirement – in fact, he’s probably one of the top people in the world for that job. But he didn’t get it because he didn’t have SQL Server and IIS skills.

This is such a common refrain. Folks, while your current employer might be happy with your skill set, nobody else will be. There’s a reason your employer isn’t “investing” in your skills by training you up in “unrelated” technologies – it makes it easier to keep you. Your employer has no reason to help solidify your career – they just want to make sure you can do your current job. And unless that job is the only one you ever want to have, you have to take the initiative on your career.

Technologies like SQL Server and IIS are as fundamentally important as understanding DNS, IP networking, and using a mouse and keyboard. Sure, if you’re in a non-Microsoft environment, you can substitute “SQL” and “IIS” with something else, like “MySQL” and “Apache,” but the point is that these functions are essential to everything. Knowing core infrastructure – Active Directory, DHCP, a bit about routing, all that – is lowest-common-denominator knowledge. If you want any kind of decent position, you need to know it all.

I get so frustrated when I teach things like PowerShell DSC and hear comments like, “this looks cool, but I’ll never get to use it at my current job, so….” Why should that stop you? If you don’t work for a leading-edge-tech company – and few folks do – then it’s up to you to invest in your career. You have to keep up, even if it’s on your own… or you’re going to be stuck in your current job. Maybe you’re okay with that – maybe your current job fits you perfectly, in which case, congratulations! But I’d be terrified of being stuck with no options.

People bemoan how difficult it is to “keep up,” but it isn’t always that hard. Buy a book, or subscribe to one of the many video training services (I like Pluralsight these days) out there and watch a video. My Month of Lunches series has IIS and SQL Server books for a reason. You need to identify the lower-level platforms and technologies that power everything, and make bloody sure you know about them. Yeah, it’s harder when you’re not using them for a living at work – but man, it’s so easy to get stuck otherwise. Yeah, books and videos won’t give you experience – but it gives you a start. A home lab helps fill that in. Nothing replaces on-the-job experience, but if you can speak intelligently about a technology in an interview, you might clinch it anyway.

But you gotta learn.

And you know, it’s funny – but think of some of the “religious IT” arguments you’ve heard others make over the years. Linux is better than Windows, IIS is better than Apache, nobody ever needs IPv6, VMware is better than Hyper-V, whatever. Those arguments are rarely founded on technical merit. They’re often based more on the person’s desire to avoid learning something new. Not always; sometimes those arguments are genuinely made in a “what’s the right tool for this job” vein, in which case they’re not “religious” arguments. But way too often, they’re just people defending their turf because they don’t want to learn something new – even when the opportunity arises in their current job.

Never turn down an opportunity to learn something new. Make those opportunities for yourself by learning outside the job. You have to. Because someday you might need to move on, and you need to make sure you’ve got the skills that the marketplace is looking for.

No matter how m@d your sk1llz are in your chosen area of specialization… you’re stuck if you don’t have the breadth needed to fit into a variety of other environments. Please don’t be stuck. Invest in your career, so that you’ll always have options when it comes to a job.

 

 

 

17 thoughts on “Don’t Get Stuck in Your Job

  1. Thanks for posting this Don. A similar rant that you did the last time you were on the PowerScripting Podcast helped me to decide that I needed to make a move from the company I had been with for many years. I needed you to “smack me upside the head” to realize that I could be hurting my career by staying where I was.

  2. I realized that point of view a few months ago! Many of us “IT workers” don’t want to accept it! IT in general is moving forward, is changing and we (the IT workers) need to understand that we need to follow up with! Because of this I decided to follow that way and prepare myself for my next steps and I realized that I really need to expand my skills. I’m a fan of your books and I bough all of them and, step by step preparing myself. In an early past, I only want to know about Cluster, DNS, AD and all of that stuffs. Thank you very much Don, for everything that you’re teaching to us!

  3. Ricky A Day says:

    Great article Don, Spot on!

  4. Tom N says:

    I have to disagree a bit on this. If you friend was truly one of the top DSC guys on the planet then in this case I’d blame the employer and the folks interviewing him for being clueless. First there are not that many DSC experts out there yet and if that is the main skill set they needed they should know he can come up to speed on the other skill sets. It is probably good that he ended up not working for that type of manager/employer.

    For full disclosure I have every Manning book in the lunch series and they are great. Quick shout out to Manning for their great deals. However what you are describing is what I’ve heard as the “fake it til you make it” syndrome. So I’ve read Jason’s IIS book and gone through labs. Starting on the SQL book and yes I can “talk” IIS/SQL and fake it. I’ve never heavily used either at work. Now I get in and fool them and I’m asked to solve a really tough IIS or SQL problem and I’m stuck.

    Look at how Microsoft has their PFE and Microsoft Consulting Services setup. While yes there are many PFEs or MCS folks that know about a lot of technologies Microsoft has them specialize. There are Exchange, SQL, Platform, SCCM, PFEs and consultants…that list is much longer but that is a good sampling. Now one thing that is consistent there is PowerShell…again thanks Don and Manning for all the great resources there too.

    I think it isn’t fair for an employer to think a candidate should have 400 level knowledge in all those.

    Having said that it is an excellent Sunday and I’m inside watching videos, labing things out, Azure virtual machines. I’m faking it until I make it 🙂

    1. Don Jones says:

      Unfortunately, “fair” don’t enter into it. My broader point was, if you think you’ll ever have to interview for a job, you can’t afford to be a specialist in a lot of cases. If you’re a super-narrow specialist now, it’ll make it a lot harder to get a job if you don’t add some breadth on your own. It doesn’t have to be fair… it’s just what is.

      1. Tom N says:

        Tell your friend to interview for a Microsoft PFE or MCS role…always looking for specialists.

        I also get life is not fair but your friend will have multiple job offers in no time. This company will be calling him begging for help when their generalist fails.

  5. Rob Simmers says:

    I’d swear this was written about me. I was stuck not just focused on a product, but a component of a product (SCCM: Operating System Deployment). During 1 on 1, midyear and end of year engagements I would ask to diversify and work on other projects coming from a very rounded technical background. Management would agree but what did I do for 4 years (of the 5 at the company), fricking OSD. I had a skip level with my Director and said I didn’t like how Active Directory was split across like 6 different teams. My skills were becoming irrelevant because no one lets you touch ‘their’ stuff. “Well, that’s just how things are, so if you don’t like it maybe you should look elsewhere” Three weeks later I was working as a consultant which encourage certification and learning. I was lucky enough to find this job and have been to numerous interviews that would ask, “Do you work in Active Directory?” and I would respond “I have at company X and X and did X…”. “Oh, so you don’t own AD now (writing notes on their paper…probably ‘this guy wasting my time’).

    The last gig was work at home full-time too and everyone including my wife thought I was crazy because the money was comparable. So, I just asked, would you hire a OSD specialist in SCCM or a consultant working on SCCM, Virtualization, Citrix, etc. In two years, I may have switched teams and worked on one other silo’ed product or I can have skills and certifications plus all the networking (people) consulting locally. Hmmm, let me think…

  6. Btil Entrails says:

    “A home lab helps fill that in. Nothing replaces on-the-job experience, but if you can speak intelligently about a technology in an interview, you might clinch it anyway.”

    Great point all of it, then upon reading the above quoted, it is so depressing for me. I agree with what you have shared and is why I subscriber to TechNet. I used it for my personal lab, and was a great value by doing so. Minus having TechNet today, I am one that is slipping into what you are sharing in the article. The man that use to keep up with stuff, but have done less since I do not want to rebuild my lab with evaluation product that expires and 6 months down the road (when I have time play to be in the lab, when not coaching or doing real life things), I find I have to rebuild everything just to because the eval keys are dead. Oh, well… Its all gong to the cloud anyways, I will just sit on a call with MS and have them do for me what I use to do… Maybe? 🙂

  7. Steve B says:

    Excellent article .. and Excellent point! I consider myself a lifelong learner because I see the new shiny object and gotta learn about it and put my hands on it. (Not always possible to touch)

    I have been teaching myself C# and Python in an attempt to do more with the big database programming background I have and prepare for my next move. I hate sitting still and I hate feeling like I am stagnating in a position. You gotta keep learning .. in the long run .. it will make you more marketable and you never know if that new skill you are learning will come in handy.

    Just because you THINK what you are learning will never be used in your current job .. doesn’t mean that’s the case. I got the opportunity to re-write data collection programs for the production floor because I took the time to learn C#.

    You just never know.

  8. Tony R says:

    I agree that we need to take it upon ourselves to continue to expand our skills to avoid finding ourselves with unemployable with a niche skillset… Just ask any Novell administrator.

    That being said, I disagree with the assessment that AD/IIS|Apache/SQL/Routing/etc is lowest common denominator knowledge that everyone should possess.

    The bigger issue in my opinion is the ever expanding job descriptions. Ive applied to Windows Admin positions that part of the listed requirements was, must have Linux/Apache/MySQL experience.

    Job descriptions in IT have gotten out of control. I remember reading an article somewhere that tried to take a typical IT job description and turn it into a career in another field. I dont remember where I saw it or exactly what it said but I do remember how comical the list of requirements were for a “truck driver” which included requiring experience driving race cars among other things

    My favorite IT related job description is the “Must have 5-10 years experience in Server 2012” or RHEL 6 or cloud computing.

    Based on the limited information we have, it sounds like your friend should have been hired for the position however, the company wanted to have its cake and eat it too…

    Unfortunately, someone with knowledge but not experience will likely be offered the job at pennies on the dollar to what it should pay and they’ll end up taking the position reinforcing the belief the company can demand knowledge of unrelated technologies

  9. GregP says:

    There is also the other side to this story. If you are in a smaller shop and wear all the hats then enterprise jobs will want enterprise experience. Is the only answer to go from small company then big then small and keep repeating that cycle?

    In any big enterprise I’ve been part of it is segregated. There is the networking team that usually has a CCIE or more. Windows teams which are split out etc. VMWare if that is used. Storage Team (NetApp or EMC usually).

    Are you saying you know someone that is pro or expert level in all those technologies. I’ll hire that person tomorrow!!

    1. Don Jones says:

      I’ve worked in both small, jack-of-all-trades environments, and in large you-only-do-one-thing environment. Neither of those stops you from becoming familiar with other technologies, even if some of that happens on your own time. And, you’re missing the point of the article – I didn’t say “pro or expert level.” My point was that it’s valuable to have some strength in a wide variety of technologies, even if you specialize and have deep knowledge of only one or two. My other point was that you can’t rely on your employer’s environment to prepare you for a successful and flexible career – it sometimes also requires personal investment, because as you note, what you do at your job today might not translate well into the broader job market.

  10. I fully agree that you have to invest in your own professional development. It’s your life, your career, if you don’t take it seriously, who will? I think a home computer lab is an absolute minimum and blogging is also very important. It’s a great way to help yourself better retain and digest the information you’ve learned and to build a professional portfolio. I’ve also found taking certifications very motivating.

  11. Daniel says:

    Excelent post and I agree that you can’t get stuck with the technology you already know and live happily ever after.

    Still I find it frustrating while I learn PowerShell and other technologies (at my own time) and do the labs the whole routine. Within a few months I usually forget the details and have to use time to recall it all. Alltough I guess things come back to my mind more quicker than learning from scratch.

    For example if someone would ask me to explain all the FSMO roles and their basic functions and which are domain wide and which are forest wide I could not recall them correctly. I don’t need this kind of information at my daily job or even yearly. But I am sure that you will run to this question in nearly every job interview.

    Maybe I should just learn the basics of the technology and learn more only if I can come up with a solution that I’ll use it at work / production…

    Anyway thanks Don!

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