IT Ops Career 2015: Where to Point Your Eyes

In my new role at Pluralsight, I’ve been spending a ton of time looking at IT Operations, broadly, as an industry. Part of my job is to figure out where the industry is going, and help get our authors lined up to create effective training in those areas. But I can also share those areas with you… so that you know where you should be looking over the course of 2015.

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The Most Inspiring PowerShell Story Ever

I recently received a wonderful, humbling e-mail from a fellow who’s given me permission to share his story. I hope, after reading this, that you’ll do your best to pass it on – even to your non-technical friends. It has a wonderful ending, but it’s a really important cautionary tale. Share this with your co-workers, your user group, your Tweeple, and even your Facebook friends. It’s a technology story, but the moral is much more broadly applicable.

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How to Get Kids into Technology Careers

First of all, get them to consider it [technical careers] in the first place. That’s key. Even considering the thing. They need to understand that they’re in a land by themselves. Don’t look for your buddies to be helpful, because they won’t be. You’ve gotta step away from the crowd and go do your own thing. You find a ground; cover it; it’s brand-new; you’re on your own — you’re an explorer. That’s about what it’s going to be like. Explore new vistas, new avenues, new ways — not relying on everyone else’s way to tell you which way to go, and how to go, and what you should be doing.

Jerry Lawson, inventor of the first cartridge-based video game console, the “Fairchild Channel F.” via engadget Lawson’s advice was meant for young black men and women, but I think it’s quite applicable to any young person.

Making a Help-ier Help Desk: Is This the List?

Your comments in a previous blog post were a huge help in identifying some of the areas where you think incoming entry-level help desk job candidates need education. My basic question is, “what should a new help desk job candidate know on day 1?”

Communication skills was a common item on many lists, and although that’s certainly a difficult topic to teach, it’s included in the below attachment. I’m calling that one out specifically because… well, there’s a lot of personality involved that just can’t be taught easily. Some people are just naturally more patient than others, whether by genetics or by upbringing. But, there’s no doubt that it’s important to cover.

Anyway, have a look at the attached. Ignoring Linux and Mac for the moment (not that they aren’t important, just that they’re not where I started), let me know if this draft list seems to be missing anything major.

Keep in mind that we’d all love for new job candidates to show up fully educated and ready to roll – but we mostly know that doesn’t happen. That’s why they’re called ‘entry-level’ jobs, of course! So I’m trying to not make this list comprehensive, but rather include just the things that a brand-new, young IT person could be expected to know their first day on a new job.

If there’s anything missing, drop it in the comments. I know some of these don’t have a super-ton of detail, so if there’s a majorly important detail that you think might be missing, feel free to leave that also.

Audience-wise, I’d love for this material to be available to high schoolers, anyone considering a two-year career college (in IT administration, of course, not other tracks), and so on. So I’m trying to keep the material at that kind of level. Not that a high schooler is dumb, but I’m not going to hit them with the full ITIL right out of the gate, either.

I’m not trying to target the material to someone who’s merely enthusiastic about computers, but not necessarily considering a job in them. This is for someone who’s goal is to get a job in the IT department of a company or other organization.

Technology Fundamentals Draft

Don’t Get Stuck in Your Job

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.




Are You Connected?

Every been out on a boat? You’re supposed to wear a life jacket, right? You might not need it, but just in case.

Does your career have a life jacket?

That is, if you run into a day-to-day technical problem, to whom would you go to for help? Google? Online forums? That’s kind of like forgoing the life jacket and just hoping the dolphins will save you if something goes wrong. They might. It’s not impossible. 

Or maybe you rely on your coworkers. That’s kind of like relying on the other people in the same boat, though, isn’t it? If the ship’s going down, it’s kinda every man for himself. I’ve always relied heavily on coworkers to make sure the job gets done, and they’ve relied on me; but when it comes to dealing with real problems, I’d like my safety net to be a little more expansive.

I find that software developers tend to grasp this concept pretty well. Most developers I know regard the entire software development industry as their “career,” regardless of what their current job might be. They actively participate in the broader community:

  • They reliably respond to questions on forums. They spend a lot of time correcting each other, but that’s part of community, too.
  • They attend conferences. They go to classes. They watch instruction videos. They really learn. 
  • They go to user group meetings. They do stuff after hours and on the weekends that’s development-related.
  • They blog a lot. Even if it’s on something either other people have blogged on. For any given problem, you usually get a range of opinions on how to solve it.
  • The complain a lot. Loudly, about things they don’t like in technology. This results in more fixes from vendors.

I don’t know why, but I find that fewer IT pros engage in some of the same behaviors. It’s tougher for us to get to conferences, I feel, because we’re often needed more from minute-to-minute than developers, who tend to work on projects more than “fires.” But I see fewer IT pros engaging in community. 

Community isn’t just asking a question on a forum. It’s going back to that same forum later and seeing if you can offer any answers. Of all the various IT pro-focused forums I’ve engaged with over the years, fewer than .01% of the question-askers ever come back to offer answers, or an alternate approach, or an additional observation. Most just show up when they have a problem, and then vanish when it’s solved. But think about the advantages of coming back. You get to know the other people who post there. When you’re in real need, you can ping them in an e-mail and ask them to look at something a bit quicker than usual. 

And this isn’t just forums. There are all kinds of ways to engage and become a part of community. Get on Twitter and watch relevant hash tags. Frequent some blogs, and comment on their articles. Attend a user group meeting – every time they have one. Heck, start a virtual, online user group around a specific topic. Attend a conference and actually network, instead of just soaking in all the education. Make personal connections. Get to know people. Those people will become your colleagues. They will support you when you need an answer, and they will recommend you when you need a job. They will offer suggestions when you need to find a solution, and they will be there when your current job isn’t.

If you don’t have connections then you do not have a career. You have a job. I’ve written before about the distinction, and I think it’s an important one. Yes, it can be difficult to begin, and it can be time-consuming to maintain. But having a career is a life jacket for when your job starts to sink. When your job has a fire, your career helps provide the extinguisher. If your job becomes vexing, your career helps offer the way out.

So consider spending the effort to get connected. Find colleagues, and keep in touch. Find ways to meet people virtually, if not in person. Form a network. Make a career.

Losing Your Religion

It’s fairly well-known that I use an Apple Macbook Air laptop when I’m on the road. I’m frequently the target of friendly jokes about it, which is fine. But I’m also frequently put down by people who claim I’ve “spent too much” on it, and who insist they can get “the same laptop” for much less.

(As an aside, I always find it odd that many of these folks drive fairly expensive cars instead of a cheaper model that does the same thing – drives them to work.)

There are two reasons for their comments, and it’s important that you be able to recognize both reasons, both in yourself (so you can knock it off) and in others (so you know what you’re up against). This is as true in professional IT as it is in your personal life, although the professional consequences can be more dangerous and annoying.

The first reason is justification. If you make the same decisions I make, then I was right; if you make a different decision, then I might have been wrong, and I hate being wrong. Americans in particular have got real problems with diversity. We tend to migrate ourselves to communities where folks feel more or less like-minded, and we’re not often confronted with radically different things. When we are confronted – well, you only have to turn on cable news to see how well we don’t deal with it. Technology is no different. I spent almost half an hour one time, whilst setting up for a lecture, listening to a guy harangue me about how I’d spent too much on my laptop (he clearly had access to my credit card statements). He argued dollar-per-GHz, dollar-per-GB, you name it. He was pushing hard to have me “admit” that I’d made the wrong choice – thereby justifying his.

The problem is that you can be right without other people having to be wrong. My choice in laptop is driven by some very specific factors and compromises that are important to me; that choice won’t necessarily hold true for someone else. For example, my laptop is literally my lifeblood. It’s my only computer, and it’s where all of my work happens. I need it to be reliable, and when it breaks I need reliable service. I’m tough on a computer: in the past, I’ve ruined HPs by running too many VMs too often, causing the CPU to overheat. I eventually got those laptops to the point where they could barely run at all. I also personally dislike cheap, plastic-y laptops covered in manufacturer logo stickers (“Intel Inside”). That’s not a functional choice; it’s aesthetic. I like my aluminum laptop. It feels sturdier, and that makes me feel more confident. I also compromise entirely toward portability. I don’t need 16GB of RAM; I need a laptop whose weight is measured in ounces, not pounds. I travel up to 40 weeks a year, and I feel every single ounce. So I have the 11″ Air, despite its lower hardware spec.

None of those reasons might matter to anyone else. They might prefer a glossy black plastic laptop with a 17″ screen and shoulder-destroying weight – that’s fine. I’m happy for their decision and wouldn’t dream of convincing them otherwise. But that’s the trick with justification: you need to recognize when someone is doing it, and dig into why. Why do you feel your solution is best? Do your reasons apply to the current situation? In business decisions, how many of your reasons are aesthetic, and does that really matter to the overall direction?

The other reason is fear. People dislike change, and as a long-time advocate of Windows PowerShell I can assure you that many professional IT people loathe the idea of having to learn something new. So they’ll often campaign for solutions that fit within their existing scope of knowledge, or they’ll stay willfully ignorant of other solutions. For example, I help run, and it’s based on a LAMP-stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP) web server running in Azure. That shocks folks… but I love LAMP as a web stack. I understand the alternate WISA (is that a thing? Windows, IIS, SQL Server, ASP.NET?) stack, but it wasn’t the best tool for a WordPress-based site. I could have made it work, sure, but it would have involved a lot of hackery up-front and ongoing. Azure, happily, doesn’t care what I run with it, and the Azure folks I know were happy to help me get my CentOS server up and running. They believe in the right tool for the right job, too. I don’t know Linux terribly well, so I had to learn a lot in order to get things configured properly – and it was kinda fun. And now I know a bit more about Linux than I did.

There’s a trick in “right tool for the right job” that a lot of folks don’t get, which is that you need  to (a) know what the job actually entails and (b) know what all the possible options look like. A lot of folks fall down on (a) and most fall down on (b). If you don’t know Linux, for example, you might argue for Windows simply out of ignorance. That’s willful ignorance, because the resources certainly exist for you to inform yourself. I would never, ever, ever choose or recommend a solution without learning as much as possible about all the choices – that’s one reason I enjoy heading up the research paper projects my company produces. I love learning about new tools, and figuring out their strengths and weaknesses.

Both justification and fear are often wrapped up into something we colloquially call “religion,” as in, “I’m a religious fan of Windows.” Formal religion, for some folks, certainly has aspects of justification and fear. Many religions are evangelistic, meaning they seek to bring more people into the fold – that’s not entirely like someone trying to convince me I’ve picked the wrong laptop. Many religions are also resistant to change, and to incorporating new elements. Many religious adherents are also willfully ignorant of the “competition.” As a kid, I spent a lot of time learning about different religions, because I simply didn’t want to live in a world where I knew nothing about what the rest of the population was thinking. Knowing didn’t necessarily change my choices – but at least I made informed choices.

And that’s an important note: simply because you know about choices doesn’t mean you won’t make the same decision you would have made before knowing. For example, in an organization with zero Linux expertise on staff, the WISA stack might be the right answer simply because there’s nobody to support the LAMP stack. If we needed to roll out something fast, it might be worth hackery (if needed) to run on Windows, because we’d have the hackers lined up and ready, as opposed to having to spin people up on Linux skills. That’s definitely a consideration. It isn’t the consideration, though. It’s one of many, and in some scenarios it might be outweighed by others, and someone might be tasked with coming up to speed.

Regardless of your personal religion, when it comes to professional IT, you should lose your “religion.” Your only truth should be, “the right tool for the right job,” and your crusade should be to clearly define what the “job” is, so that you can best select the tool that goes with it. If that means you have to learn something new… well, so be it. Hopefully you got into IT because you were excited about constantly learning new things, not just because it offered a bigger paycheck in the mid-90s. After all, the more you know, the more situations in which you can be useful – and that’s just good career advice.

We’re coming up on the new year. Consider making a resolution that, in 2014, you’ll never make a recommendation or product/solution argument without being fully informed about the requirements and about all the possible choices. Be an analyst, a consultant. Recommend things that you might need to learn more about. Be flexible. Not “religious.”

Do you have a job? Or a career?

I meet lots of IT folks at classes and conferences, all around the world. I’m struck by the marked difference in attitude that some folks have about what they do for a living.

Now, before I go further, note that this is just an observation. I’m not pinning one attitude as “good” and another as “bad;” they’re just different. They do result in different outcomes, and so long as your attitude is getting you the outcome you want – great! It’s when your attitude doesn’t match your desired outcome that you might think about why.

And the big difference is basically this: some people have jobs in IT, others have a career.

For me, a job is something you do, get paid for, and go home. Some folks will categorize these as “blue collar” workers, although I don’t think that’s an especially helpful term. But it means you don’t really take your job home with you. Sure, you might be on call or something, but when you’re not at work or dealing with an on-call problem, you’re playing with your kids. You’re watching a movie. You’re cooking dinner. Work time, in other words, is different from life time.

A career (and I realize I’m just kind of using these words and then defining them in a way that you might not agree with, but it’s helpful for the conversation) for me is someone who… well, kinda does take their job home with them. Maybe not their job per se, but the career. Ugh, that doesn’t make sense, does it? But in IT, it’s the guy who has a home lab, where he plays with new tech that his company isn’t using, yet. Or the gal who has a side business that’s tech-related – maybe Web design or something. Someone for whom technology is a hobby, something that continually fascinates them, something they’re passionate (hate that word, but there it is) about. Yeah, they play with the kids, they cook, they do all that – but they might do it a bit less than the “job” person.

Someone with a job does what the job demands. They learn what the job needs them to learn. But that’s as far as it goes. Someone with a job updates their resume when they’re looking for a new job. Someone with a career, on the other hand, always has an updated resume. They’re constantly learning new things, because they want to, not necessarily because it applies to their job.

So what about the different outcomes?

When a problem comes up at work, I find that career people are more likely to be efficient at researching a possible solution and then working to bring that solution into the environment. They did to have a bit of a longer view. They’re not necessarily convinced they’ll be at their current workplace forever; their career is IT itself, not the guy who’s paying the check this year. An employer that treats them right gets to keep them, but they’re not terrified of moving on, either. These career folks are more likely to be involved with a broader community: they’ll start a local user group, earn a vendor award (like MVP or vExpert), perhaps have an independent blog.

Job folks are more likely to fight a fire with whatever’s at hand – many of them tend to be less skilled (or willing?) when it comes to researching new technologies and trying to convince the boss to adopt them.

The disconnect I sometimes see is when someone who behaves like a “job” person gets annoyed that they’re not getting the outcomes of a “career” person. Why don’t I have an MVP award? Why don’t more people visit the blog I started, but haven’t posted to in eight months? Why is it so hard to find a job now that I’m laid off? The “career” folks have some definite advantages. They’re more flexible in the jobs they can hold down, in part because they’ve learned more. They’re more likely to be “recognized,” which helps too. But the “career” folks pay a price for their advantages: they’re more likely to spend less time with family and on hobbies. They’re a bit workaholic-ish. They may not even have a family.

So I’m not necessarily advocating being a “career” person. There are sacrifices to be made, no doubt. Yes, there are advantages. I’m just suggesting that you review your situation. Are you a “job” person who wants the “career” advantages? Then you’ll have to make some changes. Are you a “career” person upset that you have too little free time with the family? Maybe you’ve got some changes – although they may come with downsides, too.

The point, really, is to actively look at what kind of worker you want to be, knowing full well the pros and cons of different approaches to work.