Your career isn’t win or lose anymore, it is win or die. The days of guaranteed work, pensions, and sticking with one company for fifty years are gone. Success has returned to something Cro-Magnon man would recognize: if you’re good at what you do, you get to eat.
I recently spoke to university graduates about their future as new Microsoft engineers. For the first time, that meant organizing my beliefs. It distills four simple pillars: discipline, technical powerhouse, communication, and legacy. In the tradition of Eric Brechner and in honor of Labor Day, I’d like to share my philosophy.
Learn constantly, not just when life is forcing you. Read every trustworthy article you can get your hands on, before you need to know it; the time to learn AD replication is not when its failure blocks your schema upgrade. Understanding architecture is the key to deploying and troubleshooting any complex system. If you get nothing else from this post, remember that statement – it can alter your life. For Directory Services, start here.
Don’t be good at one thing – be amazing at a few things, and good at the rest. We all know someone who’s the expert on X. He guards X jealously, making sure he is “indispensable.” Notice how he’s always in a lousy mood: he’s not allowing anyone to relieve his boredom and he lives in fear that if anyone does, he’ll be replaced. Learn several components inside and out. When you get jaded, move on to a few more and give someone else a turn. You’ll still be the expert while they learn and if things get gnarly, you can still save the day. Over time, you become remarkable in many areas. Keep your skills up on the rest so that you can pinch hit when needed. Surround yourself with smart people and absorb their knowledge.
Admit your mistakes. The only thing worse than making a mistake is trying to cover it up. Eventually, everyone is caught or falls under a career-limiting cloud of suspicion. Now colleagues will remember times they trusted you, and won’t make that “mistake” again. Plead guilty and start serving community service, where you help the team fix the glitch.
Get a grip. It’s never as bad as you think. Losing your composure costs you concentration and brainpower. Remaining emotional and depressed makes you a poor engineer, and a lousy person to be around to boot. Learn how to relax so you can get back to business.
Never surrender. Your career path is a 45-degree angle leading up to infinity, not an arc – arcs come back down! Keep learning, keep practicing, keep refreshing, keep growing. Keep a journal of “I don’t know” topics, and then revisit it weekly to see what you’ve learned. IT makes this easy: it’s the most dynamic industry ever created. In my experience, the Peter Principle is usually a self-induced condition and not the true limit of the individual.
Figure out what makes you remember long term. There is a heck-of-a-lot to know when dealing with complex distributed systems – you can’t always stop to look things up. Find a recall technique that works for you and practice it religiously. You’re not cramming for a test; you’re building a library in your brain to serve you for fifty years. No amount of learning will help if you can’t put it to good use.
Be able to repro anything. When I first came to Microsoft, people had fifteen computers at their desk. Thanks to free virtualization, that nonsense is over and you can run as many test environments as you need, all on one PC. “Oh, but Ned, those virtual machines will cost a fortune!” Gimme a break, it’s walking-around money. A lab pays for itself a thousand times every year, thanks to the rewards of your knowledge and time. It’s the best investment you can make. Study and memory are powered by experience.
Know your dependencies. What does the File Replication Service need to work? DNS, LDAP, Kerberos, RPC. What about AD replication? DNS, LDAP, Kerberos, RPC. Interactive user logon? DNS, LDAP, Kerberos, RPC. Windows developers tend to stick with trusted protocols. If you learn the common building blocks of one component, you become good at many other components. That means you can troubleshoot, design, teach, and recognize risks to them all.
Understand network captures. It’s hard to find an IT system talking only to itself. Notepad, maybe (until you save a file to a network share). There are many free network capture tools out there, and they all have their place. Network analysis is often the only way to know how something works between computers, especially when logging and error messages stink – and they usually do. I’d estimate that network analysis solves a quarter of cases worked in my group. Learn by exploring controlled, working scenarios; the differences become simple to spot in failure captures. Your lab is the key.
Learn at least one scripting language. PowerShell, CMD, VBS, KiXtart, Perl, Python, WinBatch, etc. – any is fine. Show me an IT pro who cannot script and I’ll show you one that grinds too many hours and doesn’t get the bonus. Besides making your life easier, scripting may save your business someday and therefore, your career. An introductory programming course often helps, as they teach fundamental computer science and logic that applies to all languages. This also makes dependencies easier to grasp.
Learn how to search and more importantly, how to judge the results. You can’t know everything, and that means looking for help. Most people on the Internet are spewing uninformed nonsense, and you must figure out how to filter them. A vendor is probably trustworthy, but only when talking about their own product. TechNet and KB trump random blogs. Stay skeptical with un-moderated message boards and “enthusiast” websites. Naturally, search results from AskDS are to be trusted implicitly. ;-P
Learn how to converse. I don’t mean talk, I mean converse. This is the trickiest of all my advice: how to be both interesting and interested. The hermit geek in the boiler room – that guy does not get promotions, bonuses, or interesting projects. He doesn’t gel with a team. He can’t explain his plans or convince anyone to proceed with them. He can’t even fill the dead air of waiting… and IT troubleshooting is a lot of waiting. Introverts don’t get the opportunities of extroverts. If I could learn to suppress my fear of heights, you can learn to chat.
Get comfortable teaching. IT is education. You’re instructing business units in the benefits and behavior of software. You’re schooling upper management why they should buy new systems or what you did to fix a broken one. You’re coaching your colleagues on network configuration, especially if you don’t want to be stuck maintaining them forever. If you can learn to teach effortlessly and likably, a new aspect to your career opens up. Moreover, there’s a tremendous side effect: teaching forces you to learn.
Learn to like an audience. As you rise in IT, the more often you find yourself speaking to larger groups. Over time they become upper management or experienced peers; an intimidating mix. If you let anxiety or poor skills get in the way, your career will stall. Arm yourself with technique and get out in front of people often. It’s easier with practice. Do you think Mark Russinovich gets that fat paycheck for his immaculate hair?
Project positive. Confidence is highly contagious. When the bullets are flying, people want to follow the guy with the plan and the grin. Even if deep down he’s quivering with fear, it doesn’t show and he charges forward, knowing that everyone is behind him. People want to be alongside him when the general hands out medals. Self-assurance spreads throughout an organization and you’ll be rewarded for it your whole career. Often by managers who “just can’t put their finger” on why they like you.
Be dominant without domineering. One of the hardest things to teach new employees in Microsoft Support is how to control a conference call. You’re on the phone with a half dozen scared customers, bad ideas are flying everywhere, and managers are interrupting for “status updates”. You can’t be rude; you have to herd the cats gently but decisively. Concentration and firmness are paramount. Not backing down comes with confidence. Steering the useless off to harmless tasks lets you focus (making them think the task is important is the sign of an artist). There’s no reason to yell or demand; if you sound decisive and have a plan, everyone will get out of the way. They crave your leadership.
Share everything. Remember “the expert?” He’s on a desert island but doesn’t signal passing ships. Share what you learn with your colleagues. Start your own internal company knowledgebase then fill it. Have gab sessions, where you go over interesting topics you learned that week. Talk shop at lunch. Find a reason to hang out with other teams. Set up triages where everyone takes turn teaching the IT department. Not only do you grow relationships, you’re leading and following; everyone is improving, and the team is stronger. A tight team won’t crumble under pressure later, and that’s good for you.
Did you ever exist? Invent something. Create documentation, construct training, write scripts, and design new distributed systems. Don’t just consume and maintain – build. When the fifty years have passed, leave some proof that you were on this earth. If a project comes down the pipe, volunteer – then go beyond its vision. If no projects are coming, conceive them yourself and push them through. The world is waiting for you to make your mark.
I used many synonyms in this post, but not once did I say “job.” Jobs end at quitting time. A career is something that wakes you up at midnight with a solution. I can’t guarantee success with these approaches, but they’ve kept me happy with my IT career for 15 years. I hope they help with yours.
Ned “good luck, we’re all counting on you” Pyle