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Kevin: Welcome to SolarWinds TechPod. I’m the host for this episode, Kevin Sparenberg and we had so much to talk about in our last episode about futureproofing IT, that I invited the guests back for a second session. With us today is Jez Marsh, founder of Silverback Systems.
Jez: Hey Kev.
Kevin: And Brad Cline, director of IT here at SolarWinds.
Brad: Hey Kev, how are you doing?
Kevin: Doing all right. So, last time we talked about futureproofing really more where it talked about hardware and software and vendor requirements and making sure you go out and speak to people about how you do futureproofing. But I wanted to kind of, I’m not gonna say turn that conversation on its head, but I wanted to change it by a couple degrees. What about futureproofing yourself in your IT career? Because a lot of us have dealt with infrastructure changes, or technology shifts. or these things. So, what does futureproofing for your career mean for you guys?
Jez: Well, far be it to me to parrot what I said last time, but again, it’s flexibility. For me, I was a Microsoft man, as I said last episode, but the person who was looking after the monitoring tool left and that just happened to be the Orion® Platform and they said, “Who wants to volunteer to look after it?” And I was like, “Me! I’m fed up looking after Exchange, I’ll do it.” And that pretty much, that decision there is basically what got me here. Because I decided to be fluid and take a different direction rather than just specializing in just one thing. My take on it, is you’ve got to try and keep yourself relevant, but also you need to enjoy it.
Kevin: Okay. I can do that.
Brad: Yeah. Passion is definitely a huge part of this career. I mean, I think that goes for a lot of careers, right? But one where it’s constantly changing and evolving. You have to be excited by the new changes in technology, what’s coming down the pike. If not, you’re not gonna be able to dedicate that time because I mean we all work, we all have our other things that, you know, occupy a lot of our time and you’re going to have to cut out a little bit of that in order to stay up to date with everything that’s coming around the next turn, you know?
Kevin: Okay. So, before we talked about kind of watching the bleeding edge, and it applies here as well, there’s a lot of discussion around new tech, whether it’s cloud-based services or new ways to do hyperconverged infrastructure. There are new things you’ve got to keep on top of, and, for me, and this is going back a couple of years, but for me one of the things we used to look for people was certifications. Do they have a certification and does that mean this person is qualified to do the job? And I mean that in the nicest way possible because I don’t know what you guys have seen, but I’ve seen the industry person with a laundry list of certifications and on paper they look great and they can’t troubleshoot themselves out of a wet paper bag. [laughter] Am I wrong?
Brad: No, you’re not wrong. I mean, I’ve seen both. I’ve seen both. I’ve seen amazing talent that had no certs. They were so busy and so deep into the tech and just had such a lust for that they never had time or never took the time to go and get the certs and probably because their career was growing and advancing with their passion around it. Now, I mean I’ve seen others with a ton of certs that also had an amazing skill set and they applied that and combined it with certs and then, there’s a third where I’ve seen a stack of certs, like you talked about and they couldn’t get out of a paper bag.
Jez: Yeah. The Straw Man of IT.
Kevin: Really. Seems a good way to put it. Now, it’s one of those things that we talk about continuing your education and making sure you’re up on new tech. Make sure you’re up to date on your existing tech, make sure you have that forward-looking vantage. and some of that it’s, you kind of have to pick and choose though, don’t ya? Like what do I want to spend my time on? Is it something that excites me for me? Is it something that excites me for business? Is it something that my boss told me I need to care about?
Jez: That’s a dangerous place to be in, right? If you get told you need to learn something. In my experience.
Kevin: [laughter] Are you stubborn that way?
Brad: He started his own business, he’s got to be a bit stubborn.
Jez: I mean, you’ve got to back yourself and you also have to believe in what you’re doing. Which can be a double-edged sword because if you’re employed, right? And you’re working for somebody else and they say, okay, we need some more XYZ to keep, you know, ABC partnership next year. But, if you don’t enjoy it, not only are you potentially going to fail to try and get this certification you’ve been asked for, but it won’t stick because you don’t love it.
Kevin: You’re not going to live it.
Kevin: Okay. I can see that. So, the tail end of that one though is how do you choose? And I mean this because I, for one, and Jez, like you, we came from, I didn’t realize our backgrounds are so close, we did Exchange and then we did monitoring. Monitoring requires more of an IT generalist. And one thing certs always seem to me, depending on which stack of certs you have, is you’ve specialized in things. So, open up to the room here, is the way future for most IT careers and for you guys in specific, is that more IT generalization or IT specialization?
Brad: That is a tough call. And I think that’s a flip of a coin almost. It really depends on, I think it depends on where your passion is and where you really want to build your career, right? Because let’s say take networking, right? A network engineer. Those guys definitely—certs are pretty much a part of their life, right? I mean you’re kind of setting your different tiers and Cisco has really done a good job in the industry of making their certs very well respected and very indicative of the level of the person. But I have seen people at that top tier amazingly that have been through the troubleshooting and have CCIE and all that amazing body of work there and are not the best practical kind of engineers. Now, they’re great engineers. They know the CCIE world and they know everything on Cisco, but they’re not thinking outside of that bubble. If it’s in the book, they know how to do it—but if it’s not, they really don’t. And I’ve seen the other, right? I’ve seen guys with that cert that are just incredible generalists and can go everywhere, jump from Microsoft over to Cisco. So, it’s really tough to I think pinpoint or really put that in a bottle as far as real clean of what it’s indicative of, but you really have to fill that out with people. As far as career planning from that standpoint, it comes down to you. I really think as far as your passion and where you want to go, because you can take a minimal cert, and you can almost take a no cert, and you can run a great career in IT if you’re a really good engineer and a really good worker. And you can have a whole dozen certs and not get hired. Or not really go anywhere, you know? So, it really depends, I think on your passion and how you apply it. But cert yes/no, and specialization yes/no, is going to be really hard for us to put in a box in 20 – 25 minutes here.
Jez: Yeah, exactly. It kind of depends, right? Which is a really weak answer to that.
Kevin: Everyone hates the “it depends,” but that’s why we have these kinds of things so we can discuss it out.
Jez: One of the most gifted network engineers I ever met didn’t have a single certificate. Right? But he had such a broad knowledge of networking, not just Cisco, Palo as well. He literally was making serious money doing this because he was that good. And he never struggled to find another contract. He never struggled to continue to keep relevant because what he did was basically, he had a passion for networking. And so, he read the blogs, he read the whitepapers, he had his own lab. I’m not entirely sure where he got the firmware from having no certificates, but he had his own lab. But by the same token, if he went for an employed position instead of a consultant’s job, he would’ve struggled because a lot of people still today are looking for those badges. Not necessarily because they want those badges because they think that person’s good, but because it goes towards their partnership. Now, I think that’s the downside of certification, is that it’s not necessarily used by businesses for picking out good talent. Sometimes people are hired simply because they got that badge that’s rare and they need it.
Kevin: They need to fill a quota, to maintain a partnership of some kind.
Jez: Yeah, exactly.
Kevin: It seems like a lot of box-checking for the sake of box-checking. But you bring up an interesting point, if that guy was hired on somewhere as an internal employee and then the company said, “You know what? You’re great at networking and you’ve helped us architect everything and next year we’re going to SDN.” And all of a sudden that is a complete change. Did he specialize himself out of a job? Now, not that guy specifically, but the network engineer. It’s grumbling, I’ve heard for about four or five years now at conferences, it’s like, you know the companies hate network engineers, that’s why we’re doing software-defined networking. So, programmers can be network engineers and I just shake my head at the idea. I think that might be like a 20-year plan. Not that we get rid of network engineers, but that they learn new skills. But is it something that concerns you looking at the landscape ahead? Because SDN is still a relatively young—is that even the right word to use? It’s not as prevalent as running Cisco gear at your edge or running your infrastructure on still separate storage versus compute versus networking. You know, is it something that we’ve got to worry about?
Brad: Yeah, I mean we’re facing the same revolution as we did with VMware. I remember back in the mid-2000s, we were first looking at virtualization and the biggest thing my boss at the time, my leaders at the time, little older school than I was, they were extremely concerned and just horrified of the concept that if one piece of hardware goes down, I lose five boxes, or 10, or 15, or however dense your cluster is.
Kevin: Sorry. That was, that was me at that time too. The newfangled virtualization stuff is too scary for me.
Jez: All the eggs in one basket.
Brad: I mean, I was all excited about it because I had my data center sitting there with all these things running at 5% you know, it made amazing sense. But from their standpoint, and also a bit from mine, there was being the guy that was going to get called at 2 in the morning when things went down.
Kevin: To repair five machines, not one. [laughter]
Brad: There was some definite fear there. I think that’s where we’re at. Or at least that’s where I feel I’m at and maybe I’m behind or whatever, but that’s where I feel I’m at. Whenever we look at SDN, I have a little fear of the thought of one piece of hardware sitting out there and I’ve got my firewall, I’ve got my edge, I’ve got my core all sitting on this one piece of hardware. But then I look at the potential for savings, and return to service, and failover, and our return to operational time, and all that stuff. It seems like it’s going to be a no-brainer, but there’s gonna be some hiccups on the way because we had the same thing as we bumped through VMware in the beginning.
Jez: Yeah. It’s like, do you want to get involved in that right now? When, later on it could end up being, they could go somewhere else or it could be another way? I mean this could be the way it is right now, but some clever person, at MIT might come up with something which supersedes all that, but that’s always a risk, right? If you wait too long, you risk being obsolete. Like we said in the last episode with the infrastructure getting too old, it’s a tough one. I mean, you just need to make the right decision for you and try not to let other people’s pressures make the decision for you.
Brad: Yeah. From a career standpoint, I think that’s the key. And then you are gonna, you know, let’s say you love your company and everything else and potentially that guy we’re talking about as a hypothetical before, let’s say SD-WAN comes in and he decides he doesn’t want to embrace SDN. So, that’s where he has to make the call of, “Do I want to stay this course with this company potentially, or do I want to go somewhere that still respects and is still running old school hardware?” Going back to that Cobalt we were joking about before. Right? So, that I think is definitely a personal choice. But I think for full-career lifecycle, you know, everyone that I’ve seen really maintain and stay, even fully, really specialized people, they’re always specializing, right? They’re never specialized and stop. I mean, IT is not a rest career, right? It is one where you’re continuously learning. There’s never an end of school. And so, I think that’s kinda one of the key points with IT and being in this world is: you can specialize, sure, but tomorrow you’re going to most likely be specializing in something new.
Jez: Yeah. It’s like you said, Kev, you don’t want somebody to specialize themselves out of a job because they’ve decided to be inflexible in the new technologies and thinking, “Oh, well that’s never going to happen.” But you can’t afford to do that. You’ve gotta be aware of it. You’ve gotta know at least the entry level of the new technologies so that you continue to be relevant. So, if somebody brings it up in a conversation, you kind of can at least have an informed opinion on something.
Kevin: Even if that opinion is, “We’re not ready for that yet.”
Jez: Yeah, exactly. You’ve got to be flexible. I keep saying it, but I honestly believe that’s key.
Kevin: Well, you gotta be flexible and you have to expand your knowledge. You both hinted that you’ve got to basically make time for yourself to learn. This is going to be a sticky question, is it in the best interest of your career to have your company give you a little bit of that time, pay for the trainings, pay for the certs, help you out with that? Or is it something you need to take on for yourself?
Brad: Well, I mean, it’s always great when somebody else pays a bill. It always gives you the time, right? I mean, that’s always the best. I mean, it depends on your culture and everything else. Luckily, I mean, I’ve been lucky to have been a lot of companies that did believe in that and were helping out the pros to stay relevant. You don’t always see it though, you know? And that’s where you have to decide: are you the right place? Or are you willing to do this in the time that you have out of your personal time to make these things happen? Hopefully you got a supportive management team that’s helping you reach those goals.
Jez: Yeah, it’s a balance, right? You need to support what the business is asking you to learn, but you also need to be brave enough to say, “Right, okay, that’s great, but I’d like to go and learn this instead.” Without pigeonholing yourself into something. So, again, it’s a balancing act: your career in IT.
Kevin: Well, it’s a tradeoff. How much of your career growth do you put on your own shoulders? How much do you let your organization define for you? I’ll be honest, I didn’t want to learn any more about Exchange after I was handed Exchange. I was done with it, but I continue to learn because they needed someone to fill that role. And so, I went out, I took the classes, I went to the global knowledge, I sat down for the week-long seminars on upgrades, and all that stuff. And I ended up really advancing my knowledge and found other stuff I love and have built on that, but that was self-directed. My company gave me the first start and then I was able to choose my path after that. And it was tricky. We were a very small team and I’m sure both you guys work with insanely large teams—Jez being the only employee. So, I’m sure you work with insanely large teams where there’s plenty of time for everyone to get everything done, and then some. Or am I speaking out of class? Because I’ve always been told do more with less—less people, less resources, less budget. And that’s when we looked into things like automation and CICB and for me, it was PowerShelling as much as humanly possible. Do you have to make it a personal priority to stay relevant technology wise? Considering most IT is “do more with less.”
Brad: Yeah. I mean I’ve been around this game for a little over 24 years now and I have yet to be someplace where we had too many people and not enough work to do.
Kevin: Just the opposite?
Brad: It’s generally the opposite and you’re always looking for a way to automate and you’re always looking for a way to get that time back. I think that’s what it comes down to. You have to be able to work with your management team to get that time, and hopefully it’s a company policy, you know, but if not, it’s hopefully not frowned on and at least your management is helping support you. Because if not, you know, you’re going to be doing that on your time. And when I did my first couple of certs, I was doing them at home in the evenings, but I was a single guy back then. I was young in my twenties. I had the time. Now, I would be hard-pressed to find that time. The wife wouldn’t let me be sitting there for a couple hours every night studying a book.
Jez: Yeah. Well I have the same issue at home. Although the wife does support, the kids, not so much.
Kevin: She has to support you, she’s doing the books.
Jez: Well, we went to France this year and she’s got to make sure we can afford. Right. It’s the kids…and the cat.
Kevin: Yes. You mentioned the cat earlier, wherever you’re trying to do anything, it’s immediately on the keyboard.
Jez: Oh yeah. The number of times I’ve been sat on, either on a Skype conversation or even on podcasts like this one, and the cat’s walked across my keyboard and muted me. And I didn’t know. So, I’ve sat there going “blah blah blah,” thinking I’m sounds amazing,
Kevin: I’m sorry Jez, I’m not catching you right now. [laughter]
Jez: But, nobody can hear me and you gotta love families, right? That’s why you do it all.
Kevin: Well, yes, and this, although not specifically part of what we’re talking about, really ties back to your work life balance as well. Because I, for one, at my last company was on call 24/7/365 as one member of a seven-person network team responsible for all of the sites in North and South America—like 39 or 40 sites.
Kevin: And me and one other guy knew Exchange. I was in Baltimore, he was in San Diego, and we were both named Kevin. So, it was East Coast Kevin and West Coast Kevin.
Brad: Sounds like a rap band.
Jez: Kevin: Coast to Coast.
Kevin: But I got called, this is no lie, I got called three Christmases in a row. While sitting at my folks house ready to open presents and my wife said, “You maybe need to start finding something else.” And for me that was choosing where to spend my time to learn more. Now for me, that was PowerShell and it helped me a lot. And of course, I dove headlong into the monitoring stuff because it put me in contact with a lot of the other teams so I could determine where I wanted to spend my time. You know, was it pure networking? Was it systems management at a larger scale? Was it enterprise-level hardware and troubleshooting? That wasn’t the storage stuff. So, having those conversations allowed me to determine my career goal because I actually had a chance to talk to those teams.
Jez: Yeah. I mean ultimately life changes, right? What you can do when you’re in your 20s and you’re unattached, you can’t do when you have a wife and kids or a partner and kids to look after. My wife is really, really supportive because, as the principal consultant for my business and having customers that are based in the states, sometimes I have to work late at night, because of the time difference, to interface with the relevant teams to get the jobs done. It comes back to being flexible, again. If you’re lucky enough to find somebody who allows you to be flexible, you’ve got a much better chance of being successful than if you have somebody who isn’t. That’s a little bit out of scope for this conversation.
Kevin: It is, but it’s a great life lesson. I think some of us had to learn it the hard way. I know I went through stuff like that, career choices specifically. But we’ve talked a lot about specialization and making sure you go down a path, you choose a path. Does the organization matter a lot in that? Like if you have a team, you’ve got management and that supervisor has 20 people working for them and you say five are network engineers, five are system engineers, five are database people, and five are emerging technologies or what have you. Are you pigeonholing yourself? Or are you having too many people responsible? And if you overspecialize, I will not lie, there was a guy in my last company who knew the wireless—and when I say he knew the wireless, he knew everything about the wireless. So, if there was a problem with wireless, he was the one we had to call and when he left the company, we had no one to call.
Brad: Yeah. That’s really tough from not only a corporate perspective—how do you manage that of having like a one person that knows that thing. But also, from your career perspective, right? You’re talking about getting into a pigeonholed spot, right. Maybe, let’s say he’s an amazing wireless guy at the company. What happens if the company goes away from wireless? For whatever reason that may be. Decided it’s too big of a security risk or some craziness—besides move away from it. Well, if he only knows wireless, he doesn’t know a little bit of something else.
Kevin: Or just change it, that’s something I’ve seen before.
Brad: Yeah or just change it. Yeah. Go to Aruba to Aerohive to 15 others, right? Yeah, I think that’s a place. But in general, majority of the people I’ve worked with in IT, I’ve maybe run into one or two. They’ve, a lot of times, have come up through a certain career path. You know, they’ve been a generalist, they specialized and then they kind of stayed in that vein of a general kind of systems or network or UC-type person. Where we have the blur now is with SD-WAN, and some of the other technologies we talked about previously, is with the network team. Looking at the team that I have here is excellent guys, amazing engineers, very, very Cisco focused. They’ve learned a lot of the other technologies. When it comes to SDN and that type of setup, how is their scale and their world going to change? They’re going to need to start understanding virtualization technologies in a different OS and a lot of different things. No doubt, all the engineers I work with will be able to ace that no problem, be able to roll with that. But if I was in their position, if I looked back 10 years or 15 years of my career, and was a focus Cisco guy, I’m trying to think and put myself in their shoes daily. How scared, or would I be scared of those things coming and how would I prepare for it? Because it’s definitely something as a manager, of trying to understand how to prep them for it and get them ready for it and get them amenable to the change and moving away from a platform that they may have been really attached to. I joke a little bit about the Cisco tattoos, but it definitely comes. And you pour that, your lifeblood, into learning a thing and reading these bound volumes. They’re amazing, you get kind of attached. So, that’s a tough one. And I think it’s really the thing that everybody has to think about from a career perspective is: how are you, going back to Jez’s point of, how can you stay flexible and how can you be ready for that next thing? You just can’t get too attached to any one tech or any one knowledge piece that you’ve learned. You’re never going to be the guy that knows it all.
Jez: No, I mean, in a way we’ve got a virtualization 2.0 with Docker and containers. There’s a lot of people who are in the same position as we were going back 15 years ago or whatever it was, where the hypervisors first came out and people, like you said earlier Brad, “Do I want to do that because of, you know, putting all my eggs in one basket?” And then you’ve got the container stuff, which is again, it’s kind of miniaturization of VM. A lot of people are starting to think about, “Do I move from VMware to this instead?” But, that’s the glory of IT. There’s always something cool to learn, but it can be a bit scary.
Kevin: Yeah. I think one of the things that I love about IT, and I think we all have, and we’ve mentioned it before, is that there is that next new thing. Now, that next new thing may be, a flash in the pan and gone and it’s like, yeah, that never materialized. But, enough of those things come to fruition that you’re like, “Yeah, I should have started looking at that sooner. I probably should have been on board.” I was the guy that fought virtualization for almost a year. I’m like, no, no, no. Don’t virtualize my stuff. I’ve gotta do all of these things and all that stuff and I did all this stuff and I read the documents and they don’t want it—and I realized, I turned into that guy that was like in the basement complaining that they moved off Cobalt.
Jez: Having a tantrum, “I don’t want it!”
Kevin: Yeah. “I want it! I have to have it!” And I realized, you talked about being flexible, that’s the time when I realized I was being inflexible to the possible detriment of my career.
Jez: Yeah. You don’t want to be brill.
Kevin: Yup. And I finally sucked it up and I, no joke, took the guy who knew the most about virtualization, the way we were setting up and we had dinner and drinks. I said sell me on this. Don’t sell me on the business. Don’t tell me that kind of stuff. I don’t need you to tell me dollars and cents. Sell me on the tech. And we had a conversation because he was the one who took that time to read up on that, while I was the one still reading the old documents and he said, “Here’s where your information is diverging from what actually is happening.”
Jez: Yeah. Why should I be excited about this? Sell it to me. Like, I want to stay on my on-prem, change my mind.
Brad: I’ve gotten attached to a lot of technology that you just had to turn around and walk away from. And going the point of on-prem, right? That was a bit of a thing. You know, I first looked at cloud as it’s just a new buzzword for outsourcing. Right? I’m moving what would’ve been a skill set that we had in-house that we had control of out to somebody else’s data center.
Kevin: We’re already doing that. It’s called a remote data center, a no-hands data center. Right?
Brad: Right. Yeah, exactly right. I mean this is the same thing, we’re just putting a different label on it and calling it a different thing, but yeah, when it came down to it, there’s a certain level of time and everything else that you’re getting back by moving into that environment, particularly like, let’s say a move to 365, or G Suite, or one of those. Well now my Exchange guys, they may have been a little scared about it in the beginning, but now they realize how much time they had back that they’re going and learning other things and they’re able to pivot their careers to other things. To your point of being kind of stuck on Exchange and ready for a new thing, they’re able to do that now and they’re able to learn new stuff. And so, it definitely comes to being agile and flexible when you’re in your job. Yeah.
Jez: But even though being, talking about futureproofing, the one thing about the cloud, which I keep reminding people, is that it still runs on kit. It’s not some ephemeral thing that lives up in the clouds. Literally. There’s always going to be somebody who needs to schlump around the data center and fix something if it goes wrong.
Kevin: You still got Bob down there, swapping out hard drives when they blow. So, we’re starting to run out of time, but one last question. We’ve kind of hinted around about, succinctly, what advice would you give to people trying to futureproof their career?
Brad: I know Jez’s. [laughter]
Jez: You can’t be blinkered, right? You need to accept change because it’s going to happen, but you need to be excited about the direction you take. If it’s pushed on you by somebody else, you either need to accept that and get excited about what you’ve been asked to learn or you need to have the strength to say to that company or that boss or whatever, “No, but what about this?” Give yourself options before you become inflexible.
Brad: Yeah, I mean I definitely went into it a little bit earlier, but it’s that desire to learn. It’s being excited about tech and then it’s figuring it out, within your ecosystem, your management environment, everything else, how you can learn the new thing, how you can provide time, free of time within your daily schedule to learn and move on to that new piece of tech. You always have to be forward-facing and be excited by what’s coming, not scared of what’s coming.
Jez: Yeah. Because it’s coming, whether you like it or not.
Kevin: Alright, well thank you gentlemen for joining me. That has been SolarWinds TechPod. I really want to thank you again, Jez Marsh from Silverback Systems and Brad Cline from SolarWinds IT, and we’ll look forward to speaking to you next time.
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