I make no secret of the fact that I have a low tolerance for places of work where I feel under-appreciated. I remember being told that my clockwork like routine of finding a new job at roughly the same time every year would hurt me in the long run as how could employers trust me to stick around for any appreciable length of time? I can tell you now that that’s simply not the case and I can say that every new job that I got an interview for I eventually landed without a hint of them mentioning my apparent employer disloyalty. Interestingly for my latest job my resume didn’t really enter into it and I was introduced to the idea of the “Dickhead Test” method of recruitment.
We’re all familiar with the old adage of its not what you know, it’s who you know. As it turns out this old saying is incredibly accurate as only 20% of jobs are filled through the traditional process of someone sending in a resume, having an interview and then starting to work at said place. This means a whopping 80% of jobs are filled based on recommendations from friends, colleagues and other informal associations. For someone like me who’s gotten every job of his but one through the formal market (the first exception being my current job) I always wondered how this process would go down and strangely enough it’s not that unfamiliar.
Instead of the usual routine of sending you resume off into an unknown abyss of someone’s email inbox you’re instead invited out simply for a coffee and a chat. This initial interview is called the dickhead test and is done just to gauge what kind of person you actually are. Make no mistake, this is the time to put your foot in the door, however instead of getting blasted with questions directly related to the job you’ll likely end up talking shop for an hour or so before it concludes. You see someone who is vastly under-qualified for a position will not do particularly great in this informal situation as they’ll lack the particular skills that would require them to have the casual banter around those particular topics. It’s a pretty effective way to weed out paper cert and brain dump candidates without having to dive deeply into a mess of technical questions that they can simply prep for.
I hadn’t really drawn the parallels between that and the formal process until I read this question over on StackExchange. The question asks why they need to bother with a resume in this day and age where a lot of their accomplishments are available for everyone to see on the Internet. The top answer nails it, saying that the resume should serve as a kind of distilled version of all your accomplishments packaged in such a way that anyone could get a good feel for you with minimal time invested. Indeed the resume is just another form of the dickhead test from the informal market, something that hints towards your capability without bludgeoning your potential employer to death with it. Once you’re past those initial barriers then those kinds of things will help elevate you above other candidates so it’s not like they’re completely useless to the formal recruitment process.
For me I believe services like that are more helpful for discovery of potential candidates from within your professional circle. I can’t tell you how many calls I received from potential recruiters who’s only tenuous link to me was through my profile on LinkedIn. In that regard then these services function as a dickhead test that you don’t have to actively participate in. Whilst I myself haven’t landed any jobs on the basis of such services (although you could argue that the LifeHacker gig kinda was since they asked for my LinkedIn profile) I do know of others who have been approached informally via such services.
I guess the idea I’m describing isn’t too different from the traditional one of “getting your foot in the door” however I feel my nomenclature is far more appropriate for what the process actually entails. Most of the time your long list of potential skills is only part of the equation and the rest is based around general things like your critical thinking abilities, how you integrate with the team and your ability to show up on time when needed (why that last one is so rare still baffles me). Understanding the mechanics of these various forms of the dickhead test will hopefully enable you to be far more effective in finding better employment as I know it’s certainly helped me over the past 8 years.
I don’t know how people keep getting caught up with their online social presence like they do, what with the dozens of stories that seem to come out each week about someone who’s been burned by their social networking activities. I’d like to say that I’m lucky that it hasn’t happened to me but it’s got nothing to do with luck and everything with the company I keep. All of my friends are aware of the impact putting up compromising pictures on the Internet and there’s an unspoken agreement that nothing of the sort will make it up there. However for those people out there who have “friends” who delight in posting embarrassing pictures of them online and haven’t learnt the privacy settings of Facebook there’s a lot you can do to make sure that they don’t come back to bite you in the ass.
The idea I’m talking about is called honey potting.
The nomenclature comes from the IT Security/hacker crowd and is used in reference to a system that’s set up to be attractive to people with less than righteous intents. In essence you’d set up this system so that a would be hacker would target it first and you’d set up alarms in order to alert you to when someone’s going in there. The core of the idea is that not only do you know that the intruders are coming you also control exactly what they see in that honey pot environment. Extrapolating that idea to the world of social networks and the potential for embarrassment contained therein the idea would then be to craft an online persona that’s more easily found via a cursory Google search than those compromising Facebook pictures are.
For me this was done accidentally when I created this blog. My name is tagged on every post and after 3 years of blogging any search for my name usually ends up with this blog at the top or something equally safe such as my LinkedIn profile or Twitter page. Facebook is much further down and contains barely any details on me at all (apart from a few pictures) meaning that the impression that a potential future employer will get will be mostly shaped by what they see on those other sites. Sure it’s not exactly a quick fix that people would be looking for but it works.
This strategy won’t help you too much if your employer asks for your Facebook login upon applying for a job though. Should they do that however I’d advise you to turn tail and run as far away from them as you can since a company that requires that level of invasion will more than likely screw you in more ways than you can imagine. I have no sympathy for people who willingly put compromising information on a public forum but an employer has no right to ask for that level of access.
Of course this doesn’t excuse the questionably ethical process of tracking down all the information on a potential candidate. Whilst the ultimate solution is abstaining completely (although that can lead to the undesirable situation of the Internet making your persona for you in the mind of the searcher) most won’t choose to do that. Hell even if you can manage your friends it’s still a good idea to craft an online persona that looks the way you want it to be, rather than one that constructs itself.
IT is one of the few services that all companies require to compete in today’s markets. IT support then is one of those rare industries where jobs are always around to be had, even for those working in entry level positions. Of course this assumes that you put in the required effort to stay current as letting your skills lapse for 2 or more years will likely leave you a generation of technology behind, making employment difficult. This is of course due to the IT industry constantly evolving and changing itself and much like other industries certain jobs can be made completely redundant by technological advancements.
For the past couple decades though the types of jobs you expect to see in IT support have remained roughly the same, save for the specializations brought on by technology. As more and more enterprises came online and technology began to develop a multitude of specializations became available, enabling then generic “IT guys” to become highly skilled workers in their targeted niche. I should I know, just on a decade ago I was one of those generic IT support guys and today I’m considered to be a specialist when it comes to hardware and virtualization. Back when I started my career the latter of those two skills wasn’t even in the vernacular of the IT community, let alone a viable career path.
Like any skilled position though specialists aren’t exactly cheap, especially for small to medium enterprises (SMEs). This leads to an entire second industry of work-for-hire specialists (usually under the term “consultants”) and companies looking to take the pain out of utilizing the technology without having to pay for the expertise to come in house. This isn’t really a surprise (any skilled industry will develop these secondary markets) but with IT there’s a lot more opportunity to automate and leverage economies of scale, more so than any other industry.
This is where Cloud Computing comes in.
The central idea behind cloud computing is that an application can be developed to run on a platform which can dynamically deliver resources to it as required. The idea is quite simple but the execution of it is extraordinarily complicated requiring vast levels of automation and streamlining of processes. It’s just an engineering problem however, one that’s been surmounted by several companies and used to great effect by many other companies who have little wish to maintain their own infrastructure. In essence this is just outsourcing taken to the next level, but following this trend to its logical conclusion leads to some interesting (and, if you’re an IT support worker, troubling) predictions.
For SMEs the cost of running their own local infrastructure, as well as the support staff that goes along with it, can be one of their largest cost centres. Cloud computing and SaaS offers the opportunity for SMEs to eliminate much of the cost whilst keeping the same level of functionality, giving them more capital to either reinvest in the business or bolster their profit margins. You would think then that this would just be a relocation of jobs from one place to another but cloud services utilize much fewer staff due to the economies of scale that they employ, leaving fewer jobs available for those who had skills in those area.
In essence cloud computing eliminates the need for the bulk of skilled jobs in the IT industry. There will still be need for most of the entry level jobs that cater to regular desktop users but the back end infrastructure could easily be handled by another company. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this, pushing back against such innovation never succeeds, but it does call into question those jobs that these IT admins currently hold and where their future lies.
Outside of high tech and recently established businesses the adoption rate of cloud services hasn’t been that high. Whilst many of the fundamentals of the cloud paradigm (virtualization, on-demand resourcing, infrastructure agnostic frameworks) have found their way into the datacenter the next logical step, migrating those same services into the cloud, hasn’t occurred. Primarily I believe this is due to the lack of trust and control in the services as well as companies not wanting to write off the large investments they have in infrastructure. This will change over time of course, especially as that infrastructure begins to age.
For what its worth I still believe that the ultimate end goal will be some kind of hybrid solution, especially for governments and the like. Cloud providers, whilst being very good at what they do, simply can’t satisfy the need of all customers. It is then highly likely that many companies will outsource routine things to the cloud (such as email, word processing, etc) but still rely on in house expertise for the customer applications that aren’t, and probably will never be, available in the cloud. Cloud computing then will probably see a shift in some areas of specialization but for the most part I believe us IT support guys won’t have any trouble finding work.
We’re still in the very early days of cloud computing and its effects on the industry are still hard to judge. There’s no doubt that cloud computing has the potential to fundamentally change the way the world does IT services and whatever happens those of us in IT support will have to change to accommodate it. Whether that comes in the form of reskilling, training or looking for a job in a different industry is yet to be determined but suffice to say that the next decade will see some radical changes in the way businesses approach their IT infrastructure.
One of the most common bits of career advice that I’ve been given is that you have to make yourself valuable to the company or organisation your working for. The thinking goes that if you’re valuable then it’s more likely that you’ll get a promotion and much less likely that you’ll face the chop if things start going south. It’s a good little nugget of advice however I find that many people get the idea of what constitutes value completely wrong, to the point of thinking that they’re valuable when in fact they’re being anything but. I found this to be especially true in the field of IT, especially in the areas that tend to be more insular and less socially apt.
Most often the idea of being valuable goes hand in hand with the idea of being irreplaceable. Usually this happens when someone either designs some system or process that does what is required of it but for all intents and purposes is a black box for anyone but the original creator. This person, although it can be multiple people, now feels safe in their job as since they’re the only one who knows how it works (and how to fix it when it breaks) and this gives them the feeling of being valuable to their company. For a short time they are but in the long term they’re being extremely detrimental, both to themselves and who they work for.
Their negative impacts on the company are pretty obvious. A system or process that relies on a specific person in order to keep it functioning has a major single point of failure. Whilst the system is working and that person is available everything seems fine, but take the unfortunate notion of them getting hit by a bus (commonly referred to as the bus factor). How long would it take an outside person to deconstruct the system or process in order to be able to understand it to the same level that they did? That amount of time is usually quite high, especially if this kind of behavior is allowed to continue unchecked for years. Thus these people who thought they were invaluable to their place of work are really quite harmful, but not just to their place of work.
Making yourself irreplaceable like this however is extremely toxic to your future career prospects. If you’re the most important cog then it’s far less likely that your superiors will want to promote you, why would they want to take you away from a critical process that you’re the expert on? Quite often people mistake getting looked over for a position as their value not being properly recognized when in fact it’s that same “value” they created which keeps them firmly rooted in their place. This also usually goes hand in hand with a lack of skill development meaning that the skills that were once valuable (like in the creation of said system or process) are now no longer so highly sought after, making them an undesirable candidate on the open market.
This is exactly why I’m always working myself out of a job, which I’ve actually done once before. Back when I was working at the Australian Maritime Safety Authority I was hired with a specific purpose. A year later I had designed, implemented and fully documented the system that they wanted to the point where they couldn’t find any more work for me to do. Since I was a contractor I was under no impressions that I would have a job at the end of it and sought employment elsewhere before my contract finished. In the end they did find additional work for me to do, but I had already signed on to my new engagement. It might seem like a bad career move to make yourself redundant, but if you’re a skilled individual there will always be more work available and the reference from the place you left will speak volumes to your worth.
It all comes down to the misguided notions of value that people tend to hold and the idea that being replaceable somehow diminishes your own value. Realistically given enough time and resources anyone is replaceable so it is far better to assume that your job could be done by someone else than believing you’re immune to being usurped. Personally I find the idea to be quite liberating as it has led me to pursue many different avenues with which to improve myself in order to differentiate myself from the crowd. If I had simply made myself irreplacable I’d probably still be working at the same place I was 7 years ago, and that’s not a thought I relish.
Anyone who works in IT or a slightly related field will tell you that you’ve got to be constantly up to date with the latest technology lest you find yourself quickly obsoleted. Depending on what your technology platform of choice is the time frame you have to work in can vary pretty wildly, but you’d be doing yourself (and your career) a favour by skilling up in either a new or different technology every 2 years or so. Due to the nature of my contracts though I’ve found myself learning completely new technologies at least every year and its only in this past contract that I’ve come back full circle to the technology I initially made my career on, but that doesn’t mean the others I learnt in the interim haven’t helped immensely.
If I was honest though I couldn’t say that in the past I that I actively sought out new technologies to become familiar with. Usually I would start a new job based on the skills that I had from a previous engagement only to find that they really required something different. Being the adaptable sort I’d go ahead and skill myself up in that area, quickly becoming proficient enough to do the work they required. Since most of the places I worked in were smaller shops this worked quite well since you’re always required to be a generalist in these situations. It’s only been recently that I’ve turned my eyes towards the future to figure out where I should place my next career bet.
It was a conversation that came up between me and a colleague of mine whilst I was on a business trip with them overseas. He asked me where I thought were some of the IT trends that were going to take off in the coming years and I told him that I thought cloud based technologies were the way to go. At first he didn’t believe me, which was understandable since we work for a government agency and they don’t typically put any of their data in infrastructure they don’t own. I did manage to bring him around to the idea eventually though, thanks in part to my half decade of constant reskilling.
Way back when I was just starting out as a system administrator I was fortunate enough to start out working with VMware’s technology stack, albeit in a strange incarnation of running their workstation product on a server. At the time I didn’t think it was anything revolutionary but as time went on I saw how much money was going to waste as many servers sat idle for the majority of their lives, burning power and providing little in return. Virtualization then was a fundamental change to the way that back end infrastructure would be designed, built and maintained and I haven’t encountered any mid to large sized organisation who isn’t using it in some form.
Cloud technologies then represent the evolution of this idea. I reference cloud technologies and not “the cloud” deliberately as whilst the idea of relying on external providers to do all the heavy lifting for you is extremely attractive it unfortunately doesn’t work for everyone, especially for those who simply cannot outsource. Cloud technologies and principles however, like the idea of having massive pools of compute and storage resources that can be carved up dynamically, have the potential to change the way back end services are designed and provisioned. Most importantly it would decouple the solution design from the underlying infrastructure meaning that neither would dictate the other. That in itself is enough for most IT shops want to jump on the cloud bandwagon, and some are even doing so already.
It’s for that exact reason why I started developing on the Windows Azure platform and researching into VMware’s vCloud solution. Whilst the consumer space is very much in love with the cloud and the benefits it provides large scale IT is a much slower moving beast and it’s only just now coming around to the cloud idea. With the next version of Windows shaping up to be far more cloud focused than any of its predecessors it seems quite prudent for us IT administrators to start becoming familiar with the benefits cloud technology provides, lest we be left behind by those up and comers who are betting on this burgeoning platform.
My very first ever job was working for the Australian electronics chain called Dick Smith Electronics which I started at the tender age of 14. I got the job in a very serendipitous encounter as after being told that I was no longer allowed to spend my parent’s money (blowing a good $600 on a new computer) we had spent a day driving around to all the various first job places and handing in applications. For one reason or another I wanted to head over to DSE to look or buy something and the sign out the front said they were taking applications. My mother, managing to bypass the incredible amount of teenage angst and my then self defeatist attitude, encouraged me to apply. A couple months later saw me starting my first day of a job that would last 6 years making me the longest serving member at my shop, outliving 5 bosses and countless workmates.
In my time there I had my share of great and not-so-great encounters with various customers. After the first year or so of being a under-confident teenager working in a grown up world I started to come into my own as a technology obsessed geek who knew far too much about all the products in his store. It worked well for the store I was in as we would of attract those people looking for the forms of esoterica that we sold, mostly electronic components. I did my best to learn enough to get by when people asked for certain components and eventually became quite knowledgeable thanks to learning by immersion. That still didn’t stop some people for getting frustrated at me for not knowing something and this is where I started to take offense.
I thought I was pretty damn good at my job, especially after being there for 3 years. Customer complaints about my service were few and far between with only a single formal complaint ever being lodged. I also developed a reputation for being “that electronics guy at the Fyshwick store” who other stores would send problem customers to in order to get their problems solved. Sure there were times when I didn’t know something but realistically I was a teenager working in an electronics chain and I could hardly be expected to be an electronics engineer ready to solve every problem. That didn’t stop some customers from blowing their tops at me for not knowing a certain specification or refusing to design a circuit for them and that led me to develop a simple rule that I’ve applied in every shopping expedition I’ve been on.
It’s simply “be good to your salesperson”.
Working in retail is a pretty laborious job. You’re standing for a good portion of the day, have to deal with all sorts of people with varying levels of understanding of what they want and are expected to be an expert on everything in the store. Sure it’s by no means hard especially if you’ve got a modicum of interesting in the things you’re selling but as with any public facing position it seems like there’s a subset of society that’s out to make your life a living hell. Especially when you try to enforce a company policy that doesn’t seem all that fair but our hands are tied. We’re there to provide a service to you and most of us are good people trying to do a job. You don’t make that any easier if you come in with an attitude.
So whenever I’m out to buy something I’m usually pretty nice to the people serving me. You’d be surprised how far a little kindness can go with these people, especially if you’re coming in at a busy time of the year. The more the salesperson likes you the more likely you are to get a good deal too, as we don’t feel as bad giving discounts to genuinely nice people. Of course I also have a pretty strict rule of if they’re an ass to me I immediately walk away from the store as there’s no point favouring those who won’t return a little common courtesy.
If you’re involved in any form of sales, whether on the selling or receiving end, it pays to be an honest and genuine person with those on the other side of the fence. If you don’t think the retail stores don’t know enough to help you out then stick to online stores since you’ll get a better price, won’t have to deal with other people and won’t bother those poor staff who don’t know as much as you. However if you’re looking for a little bit of product knowledge and maybe want to have a play with a product before buying it remember, be good to those serving you and I’m sure they’ll respond in kind.
I’ve only ever been in a managerial type position 3 times in my whole life, and 2 of those were at university. The first was for the most part a success due in most part to a solid team of people with one star member who was able to complete work in minutes that took the rest of us days. The second was overall a success but my role as a manager was completely and utterly useless and the project would have done much better if I had just not bothered trying to manage my 3 team members at all. Whilst you’d think an experience like that might have turned me off management entirely I still held aspirations of being a project manager some day, only to get into said position and leave it 6 months later. So whilst I may not have been anyone’s boss for an extended period of time I’ve had a taste of the managerial world, so I know when people are, how does the Internet put it, doing it wrong.
For the most part I’ve seen 2 types of managers in my time: those who rose from the ranks of their former colleagues to become the managers they are today and those who were somehow born into management positions, either from an outside company or via qualifications. The first tend to have a good grounding in what it is like for their underlings and are usually pretty attentive to their wants and needs. However they also usually lack any formal managerial skills and tend to be too involved in day to day matters to make them decent managers. The latter are usually better at being managers in the general sense (shielding their underlings from the workplace politics) but will have more trouble interfacing with those they are supposed to lead. It then follows that these kinds of managers aren’t as liked as their rise from the ranks counterparts (and forms the basis of the Pointy Haired Boss character in Dilbert). Overall neither one is inherently worse than the other, they’re just different faces of the same coin.
Despite how they came into their position of power managers at all levels engage in what I like to call management theater. Much like its cousin of security theater, which details security measures undertaken to give the feeling of security without actually increasing security, management theater is the practice in which a manager appears to be managing a group of people but realistically they’re not. The management function that they provide is in some way usurped from either below (I.E. underlings managing their own workloads and fighting their own political battles) or up above (another manager doing the managers job for them). Whilst most won’t engage holistically in this behaviour many will in some way engage in acts that appear to be managerial when in fact that are nothing but.
Take for instance a recent event at where I work. The process was designed to give all the underlings, from the lowest ranks to the just under executive management, a voice with which to communicate their concerns to the entire section. In essence it was a good idea but as always the implementation was extremely lacking. The whole event smacked of management theater as the managers spruiked the fact that the goals set out then would be implemented by management, giving the illusion that the underlings had some power over their current work situation. Here we are over 4 months later and I’ve yet to see one of the ideas actually gain any ground or any reports from management about how all the wonderful ideas gained from the junket are changing the way we do our day to day work. The whole exercise was a pointless waste of everyone’s time that was done as a management theater exercise to make it look like they wanted to do something about everyone’s grievances, when in fact they never had any intention of following through.
I wish I could say that this kind of malarky was limited just to government agencies but it was rampant in the private sector to. A great example of this was back in my days at Unisys we were canvased for an opportunity to become CITRIX administrators with the juicy part being that we’d get sent on week long training for it. Seeing how much of a benefit this would be to both my current position and future career I put my hand up, along with 3 other people. The training was good and I was all geared up to take on some more work as a CITRIX admin but instead they hired 2 specialists to fill the role, neatly negating the need for the training I had just went through.
The management theater performed in this case was then to do with the managers wanting to look good for our client, saying that when the new system was installed they’d have 4 able bodied people ready, willing and able to take control of it. However with the project budget big enough to cover off 2 specialists when the system was in use by less than a few hundred people having a team of 6 dedicated to it was woefully inefficient and thus we were never called on to do any CITRIX administration duties. As time went on our skills in the area began to fade to the point of irrelevancy and my manager scolded me for leaving after they had sunk so much cash into me, oblivious to the fact that I hadn’t used one bit of the training since I received it.
All these reasons have culminated in the realization that I probably won’t be happy until I’m working for the one person I can’t disagree with, myself. The last 6 months have seen me attempting to build an empire out of my own skills and for the most part I’m being successful. Time will tell if I can leave the work a day world completely but when I can easily lose a day working on my own projects I know I’m doing the right thing. I just hope it will be enough to keep the bills paid 😉