Category Archives: Career

Beyond mere engineering

Finding the layout of a network, the What and How, is straightforward, as networks (usually) lean toward order. The hard work is uncovering the historical reasons behind the design (the Why).

The History of Why doesn’t get written down. Instead, it’s common knowledge, and lives in company memory. But, the Why reveals all: why the network is the way it is, how scalable it is, if it’s flexible, and whether it’s responsive to evolving business needs.

The network is no longer just an expense; it’s enabler of business, a competitive advantage, and done right, a bridge across and between organizations. Network engineering alone is not enough. You want to be a Network Bridgebuilder.

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Turn your assumptions into questions

All of us have assumptions. About everything. Sometimes they help us, and get us to good decisions faster. Other times they hurt us, because they turn out to be wrong, and we start out on the wrong foot.

In new environments where you don’t have a good grasp of the history of the situation (a new job, for example), check your assumptions. How do you do this? Turn them into questions. And use the word assume, even if some wise-cracks with the old ass-of-u-and-me joke.

“I assumed that the situation is X because of this and this and this. Is this accurate? If not, why not?”

Questions like these, asked with respect and transparency will generate conversations about  the history of the environment, which are crucial. Questions about the ‘Why’ of a design can shed light that ‘What’ and ‘How’ won’t.

CareerWise: Interview questions to uncover company culture

Corporate culture is important. Don’t think it isn’t. You can’t work where you don’t fit, and in my experience, I’ve never been able to make a manager or department adjust their style to fit me. When considering a job, the decision isn’t “Can I change this manager/department to fit my style?” but instead “Do I want to participate in this culture?” That question is black and white, yes or no, a binary decision. No grayscale or floating points here. Culture is so important, it’s number two on my Three Binary Decisions list. I’ve got to get to yes on compensation, culture, and opportunity before even considering working for a company.

However, culture is not an easy thing to determine. Nobody airs their dirty laundry on a first date interview. Instead, they trot out their best marketing. Sometimes you don’t discover the information that would have affected your join decision till months on the job.

So, in that first interview, here are some probing questions that I’ve used to help ferret out the details of culture. And don’t forget to pay attention to your gut feelings. If your Spidey sense starts tingling, there’s usually a good reason why.

1. “Who does this position report to?”
Your manager will have a personality all her own, and it will drive the culture of your team or department. This micro-culture will affect you more often and more strongly than the broader company culture. Find out who you’ll work for first, then drill into them.

2. “Given that you adjust a little bit for each team member, what is your preferred management style?”
Pay attention to their initial response. As a first reaction, it reveals more about their default behavior than a long, drawn-out academic explanation (though that’s useful too). Take notes on this one, literally. You’ll need to refer to it in just a few questions.

3. “What kind of culture do you try to develop on your teams?”
This shows how the manager likes his team to operate, what he thinks is most important for his group in general, and how he likes to supervise, interact with and provide resources for her team. Is he a ticket watcher, running reports to see who’s the most productive, or would he rather the team just solve problems first and do paperwork later? Inside of a couple sentences, you’ll know if his style will mesh with yours.

4. “Assuming technical competence, what professional traits are important for success in this role?”
I love this question. You’re asking for specifics, and what they say gives you great drill-down questions. If they say that good communicator, good collaborator and open to alternative solutions are important traits, you can follow up with something like this: “I agree with you about collaboration (or communication or whatever). It’s crucial for effective teamwork. Based on your experience and viewpoint in this particular company, what does good collaboration look like? How does the best player on your team collaborate?” Their answer will give you a concrete example of the kind of “collaboration” they value (and expect).

5. “What is your preferred communication style? How to you like to receive information from your employees?”
This is similar to question #2 above, but it acts as a consistency check, so I leave it for a little later in the list. If their answer to #2 and this question doesn’t roughly match, something’s amiss. For example, if earlier they say they’re a macro-manager, and like to take a mostly hands-off approach, but then tell you they like to receive updates frequently (more than once a day), they reveal both marketing and truth. You’ll have to decide which is which.

6. “What would your team members/subordinates/employees say about your management style?”
You’ll rarely get a really honest answer to this one, but it’s worth asking anyway, especially useful if answers to the previous questions are inconsistent. It’s the analog of when they ask you “Tell me about your biggest weakness.” You don’t tell the complete truth on this one either, but any sincere attempt at an answer is informative, and will give you another datapoint for detecting trends.

7.“What are your expectations of the person who fills this role?”
Many times I’ve worked for weeks in a new position (sometimes after a promotion within a company), only to complain to myself or my wife, “I just don’t know what my manager wants! In some situations it’s X, and in other similar situations it’s Y. It’s so confusing!” Clarify their expectations as much as you can upfront so you can get to a go/no-go decision. As with all the other questions, how your direct manager answers this question is telling. Does he/she KNOW what they expect? Can they communicate clearly? And are their expectations reasonable? If they’re not clear, or have unreasonable expectations, things will not improve after you’re hired. Once you’re onboard, and a known quantity, the Take-You-For-Granted disease sets in.

“Forewarned is forearmed.” It was true in 1592, and it’s just as true today. You’re considering a new relationship here, and should both of you get to yes, you’re going to give 40 hours a week (minimum) for the foreseeable future to this partner – no small commitment. You’re joining them as much as they’re joining you, but you’re going to need them way more than they need you, which reduces your flexibility in the relationship. Make sure you want to join them!

In this speed-dating called Interviewing, grill ’em! Ask smart, tough questions, and if they flinch, followup with direct, probing questions about why they flinched. Don’t be shy about uncovering their weaknesses. Questioning like this may be a little socially uncomfortable, but a little discomfort up front can save you a truckload of pain down the road.

CareerWise: How to approach IT

How DO you approach IT? You approach it by knowing it’s an endless learning cycle. And the sooner and more consistently you commit to this, the more successful you’ll be.

Without getting too far afield philosophically, The same natural laws that affect Life affect IT.

“We cannot become what we need by remaining what we are.”  – John C. Maxwell

“Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.”  – John C. Maxwell

Bigger and bigger challenges are bound to come, and the work you do now will prepare you to embrace more complex challenges in the future. In your 20’s, you can probably conceive of projects that would take four or six years to finish (think Bachelor’s or Master’s degrees). This helps condition you for later in life, when you may undertake projects that require 20+ years to complete (think raising kids).

IT, like Life, changes at a phenomenal pace. And you need to keep up, not only with your technical skills, but with those oh-so-important soft skills as well. How do you adjust your communication depending on who you’re talking to? How well you can persist when trying to solve the seemingly Unsolvable Problem? Do you think calmly, and contribute effective, problem-solving action during a severe IT crisis? How well can you manage multiple, complex tasks all with different deadlines and priorities?

All of these contribute just as much to your professional success as  your technical knowledge.

  • Communication. This is crucial. After all, what do networks enable? Communications. All sorts of communications: written, audio, video. If communications are that important, shouldn’t you be good at it too? Of course. You are going to talk (email/text/IM/twitter/blog) to a wide variety of people, all of whom have different levels of technical understanding, come from different disciplines, are different ages and have different backgrounds. You can’t explain the something the same way to everyone: Annalisa from Accounting will NOT comprehend how an MTU mis-match is affecting SQL Report Viewer’s behavior over the VPN to the branch office. So learn  the differences of your audience, and communicate to them in terms they best understand.
  • Persistence. After the flash of inspiration, persistence is the other 99% of Genius. And it will carry the day. One of most common traits I’ve found in very good IT folks is that they don’t give up when faced with difficult problems. They may get frustrated, but they don’t stop. Resources abound to help you. When syslogs and debugs and Wireshark fails, Google is a great place to turn. Senior techs will appreciate you a lot (trust me) when you come to them with a problem AND the solutions you’ve tried so far. They’ll much more inclined to help you knowing you’re a self-starter who tries to solve problems on your own. Persistence isn’t something you learn through books, it’s a habit you develop by practice.
  • Thinking. This is Big Kahuna. It’s vital, especially in emergencies. In the day-to-day office mode, your critical thinking skills are important, and you use them all day long: root cause analysis, cause and effect,  process sequencing, scientific reasoning. Heavy stuff, but in an everyday environment, you can take as much time as you need. In an emergency however, everything is compressed and accelerated. How well you can weed out the extraneous (like you boss who’s freaking out) and identify the essential problem and laser-focus on its solution separates you from the competition. And it makes for great stories when prospective employers ask you “Tell me about a time when…”.
  • Task Management. In an ideal world, you’d only get one project or trouble ticket at a time, they’d never overlap, and you’d have more than enough time to do what’s needed. Of course, that never happens. Ever. More likely you’ll have multiple projects at once, in addition to super-complex trouble tickets piling up and all due at the same time.  You will NEED a personal task management system (a personal knowledge base would be a great idea too). There is just too much information to remember. It really is that simple.  Everyone develops their own personal system -over time you’ll find what works best for you. For me, Outlook Tasks work well. You can make them as complex as necessary, include Due Dates, customize Reminders, and most important, everything is archived and searchable – for the future, when  you won’t be able to remember the details…

This list is of course not complete. Each of these items could become a post by themselves. Like any profession, success in IT requires a host of skills, both professional and personal, these included. But, like any athlete, musician or artist, you longer you work at it, the better you’ll become. Daily reading and study will pay dividends you can’t anticipate. Each day builds on the other, and over time, you’re better than you’d expect.