While Leon beat me to it
, I was inspired by this Twitter post by @Gabsmashh
to write a more involved post about what I learned from past work experience that has helped me in IT. When I first became a Head Geek, I wrote about my journey from retail to now. I think every experience is valuable, even if it’s short-lived and even if it’s only to discover a job isn’t for you. So, taking Leon’s cue, I’d like to go into a bit more detail on some specific jobs I did in the past, and what I learned from them. So, I present to you, essentially my resumé (non-IT) not in chronological order.
Now, I wasn’t part of a babysitting club, and I didn’t even babysit “regularly,” but I did babysit a couple of my cousins for long stints in my teens. At the time, there were four kids in the house. Two of them were in their teens, then there was a three-to-four-year-old and a baby. I was mostly there to watch the two young girls as the two older kids (the boys) weren’t home much of the time due to shared custody with their dad and school. I babysat these same kids off and on for years; even after I had my own kid I would stay with the girls when their parents were out of town until their grandma moved in with them.
When you care for other human beings, you learn things like how to negotiate with immature humans, how to incentivize people to do their work (in this case, chores), how to have fun together—and when to draw the line of separation as “boss” again, how to keep your cool in a crisis (real or perceived), how to answer questions you don’t know the answer to or direct their attention elsewhere when you don’t want to answer, etc. You learn many of these skills as a parent, too, but it’s different when they aren’t your own children. Most of these help foster what everyone likes to call “people skills.”
I learned other things as well like why you don’t put gas in a diesel vehicle (big oops!), why you don’t let small kids have sugar after like 7 p.m. (and don’t feed them after midnight!), how and why car seats work, how to cook with “helpers” who are more a distraction and potential danger than help, etc. These are exceedingly useful things I learned, and maybe one of the biggest was learning how to be treated as an adult when I still didn’t think of myself as one.
All those “people skills” at least have helped me in many capacities work with other people no matter what I thought of them personally or professionally. It doesn’t matter if they’re a customer, colleague, manager, or a stranger. I learned so much dealing with those four kids of varying ages at that time in my life which carries me through many potentially difficult situations.
Convenience Store Worker
My uncle has owned and still owns several businesses. One of those is a convenience store in a small town. When he first bought the convenience store, it was right at the beginning of summer vacation when I was 18. I frequently helped my uncle back then in various ventures because I like spending time with him and all of it was interesting to me. So, he offered me a gig doing inventory for this store he purchased—helping organize and other odds and ends. It was a short-term job, about a month all told, but I still carry the experience with me.
This was the first job I had where I had to learn new software that wasn’t a video game or Microsoft Office. I had to learn this inventory software (I genuinely don’t remember what it was called), use it daily, and troubleshoot my own issues with it. Surprisingly, this isn’t the spark that lead me down the path to IT, but I’ve already told that story. I also stocked and re-stocked shelves, ran the register, provided customer service, cleaned, and did whatever else needed to be done.
I learned how important keeping an accurate inventory is, how to log inventory from scratch, how to use inventory software—and double-check it’s accurate—and how to ask people how old they are without blinking. We all know how the inventorying bleeds into IT, so let’s talk about why I brought up people’s age.
So, obviously, I had to card people for tobacco and alcohol product purchases when I worked the register. In the U.S., at least, the reactions for the ask are myriad and diverse. You may get an offended response, you may get someone who doesn’t care, you’ll definitely see a fake ID or two, and the occasional claim of “I left it at home.” All these require a different response (or non-response). For the offended, you remind them it’s the law often accompanied by an apologetic smile. It doesn’t matter how offended they are, you must insist on checking—after all, it’s something you can lose your job over, at the very least. For those who don’t care, thank them, proceed with the purchase (once ID is checked), and move on. Fake IDs are an interesting one, and I won’t go into detail, but depending on where you are, I suspect a specific response is required—maybe involving police. Lastly, the claim they forgot it at home. Sorry, I can’t help you.
This teaches you how to say no, how to insist on credentials, how to stand firm in your process and protocol, and why those credentials are important. These critical non-technical skills are essential in customer and managerial interactions.
Server at a Bar and Grill
I worked at two different bar and grills as a server, and I feel it’s important to specify it was both. This means I did usual food/customer service and I got to deal with lots of interesting
people due to the bar. One of the things you learn working in a bar is how to cut people off when they’ve had too much. The reason the bar does this (at least in Texas) is to reduce liability and culpability of the establishment for overserving if an accident/incident occurs. Now, the key and real skill in this task is accomplishing this and leaving the customer at least contented, if not happy. That skill comes in handy when dealing with difficult situations or even just telling a customer, “No.”
I also learned no task is beneath anyone. Everyone had their turn performing the distasteful tasks like cleaning the bathrooms and the menial tasks like sweeping. It was all our responsibility to keep the restaurant looking and smelling nice to keep the customers happy and tips (reasonably) well. For those outside the U.S., tips are VERY important to servers here: you won’t make enough money for much of anything without them. THAT’s a whole other discussion, though. Even in IT, I don’t take for granted I won’t need to do something, and even as a lead I never asked someone to do something I wasn’t willing to do.
Cooperation was also key. I learned early on being kind and sharing your rewards with the people who prepared the food/drinks meant they were kind in turn. When I made mistakes, I could rely on those people to help me recover from them. In IT, cooperation is what makes the wheels go ‘round. A project’s success or failure often depends on the ability to cooperate with members within your team and from other teams. Kindness in the face of stress can make a huge difference to those you’re working with.
As I’ve written about my transition from retail to IT
previously, this will be short. I worked in retail for several years, and the prime lesson I carry from those experiences is how important customer service is. I believe in customer service—no matter what your job, it’s a useful skill. I’ve talked about this several times now, including at THWACKcamp 2020
(Call Them “Soft” Skills One More Time
). I worked with computers there, and quickly started tackling administrative and management level tasks without being in either role because I was competent, willing, and able. I helped the other employees with tasks when they needed it. I had a love for computers already, so these forays were little breadcrumbs leading me to IT.
Of all the jobs, I’ve worked over the years, this one is easily my least favorite. I worked in phone collections for a furniture store that did their own financing. I managed to transfer to a store after three months (see my retail experience), but I have very vivid memories of working in the collections center. I met some incredibly fun people in the cubes there, and we had a great time when not on the phone. I also learned a lot
in my short time there.
The first major thing I learned there is to never take anything personally and keep your sense of humor. This may come as no surprise to you, but people are generally not nice to collectors. I only worked phone collections, so I, thankfully, never experienced what some of my friends in physical collection did (for the furniture). When you could get someone on the phone, many would express their negative emotions from being in that situation to the collections agent—some resulting in slanderous talk, obscenities, and sometimes truly horrific stories. On my side of things, those other collectors I worked with are some of the kindest, most humane, funniest human beings I may ever meet. They help you collect yourself after a particularly bad call, commiserate with you, and generally all work together to keep our spirits up in such an unfun job.
In IT, this has served me well in many capacities. When something goes wrong in a project or on the job, and its IT—stuff goes wrong, everyone looks for someone to blame. Sometimes it wound up being me, or one of my engineers at my past job, and it was a responsibility and a pleasure to be able to remain calm and civil and have conversations with people despite the need to drag others down, cast blame and aspersions on people’s characters, and generally lash out at the easiest person to get rid of—the contractor. My experience in collections prepared me for dealing with negative emotions, confusion, responding to a lack of facts, and more from everyone from a SysAdmin to the CIO.
Maintaining a sense of humor and a sense of humanity when dealing with others can (and has) made all the difference to collaboration, communication, and general workplace wellbeing. People want to work with you more when you can keep things conversational and fun, but when you can also be serious and calm as needed. We’re all humans, and you never know when someone’s just spent all weekend on a terrible outage and maybe isn’t in the best mood, but they need you to recognize their humanity. I’m not advocating for treating others badly because you’re tired or in a bad mood or accepting that from others. What I’m saying is that sometimes people just…need a minute. Ask them about it, or if they don’t want to talk about it, ask them if they want to step away for a second. In a rare case where they accept neither, you can ask them for a quick break which may force them to step back for a second.
Another thing I learned is how to recognize the BS. Unfortunately, there are people out trying to take advantage of others. I may not have a 100 percent success rate on recognizing the BS, but I have a tried and true desire to verify the facts and the data. This has also helped me in my career. Again, working as a contractor, you learn you’re the easiest to get rid of, so people may find mistakes to attribute to you, to prove you’re inefficient or unprepared. I understand the need to protect their own career. I am, however, a big believer in following up all verbal communication with written communication and having data to calmly back myself up at all times. Nothing wrong with using data to secure your position.
I’ll end this with homework. (I hear the groans) Take a few minutes and really think about your past non-IT jobs or even hobby projects. Think about the things you subconsciously or consciously took away from those. What has helped you?