This is the next blog in the continuing series of interviews with top-echelon and renowned professionals. In this blog, I interview Simon Davis, Microsoft Career Factor Idol Winner – The IT Manager. All Career Factor Idols will be at TechEd.
Simon Davis lives in the historic city of Chester in the northwest of England. He works as a Principal Software Engineer for Remsdaq Limited, a small company situated just across the England/Wales border in North Wales. Remsdaq specializes in products for security, utility, and emergency mobilization industries. Simon manages a team of 7 software engineers whose primary role is to develop the control center software for the security business unit on a Windows platform.
Simon holds a Masters degree (MEng) in Software Engineering from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST), during which he first began working at Remsdaq. Starting off as a student who they supported in his studies and then following graduation, he has worked his way through the ranks to his current position heading up the master station development team.
In June 2008, Simon attained his Microsoft Certified Professional Developer (MCPD) credential in Windows Development as part of the efforts to allow Remsdaq to obtain Gold Certified Partner status. Since November 2009, Simon has been an active participant in the European group of the Microsoft Learning IT Managers Advisory Council.
Simon enjoys traveling, and his current role has given him the opportunity to travel around the world, meeting business partners and customers for project meetings and installation/commissioning works, stretching from prisons in the Far East to airports and military installations in Scandinavia.
Away from the office, Simon likes to spend his time with his partner and their 3 year old daughter. When it comes to leisure time, he enjoys playing golf at the local club where, prior to the birth of his daughter, he was both a committee member and junior organizer. Alternatively, he can sometimes be found playing his mage Yashid in the World of Warcraft.
Simon, thank you for coming in today to share your insights and experiences with the audience.
A: "Hi Stephen, thanks for the invitation. I hope you and the audience find our discussion interesting."
You have a strong background in software engineering. Can you share how your history contributes to your work?
A: "Well, a strong background is certainly one way to describe my experience. Having been a single company man since leaving University, I have been fortunate enough to be able to spend a number of years working on the very team that I am now managing. This has given me a good insight into our market/industry requirements which means that when requirements are being put forward for our product, I am in a far better position to know what our customers would want and use than if I had moved into my role from another position. It also means that I know and have experienced the pressures that my team has to work under to get software out to customers when they need it."
How, when and why did you get passionate about software development and computing?
A: "In terms of computing, I guess I have enjoyed using them ever since my parents bought me one of the original rubber keyed ZX Spectrums way back when I was a kid; I remember that it took 3 goes at being sent one before we got one that worked! Then it was just a progression, through the 128K model, to an Atari, Amiga and then finally onto a PC. Back in the day, the computer magazines used to include code listings in them for simple games and I suppose it was a combination of typing those in and the influence of my parents that pushed me down a computing career path. I always saw it as a "good income" career and the company that my father worked for employed software engineers on a good wage doing interesting things."
What was the catalyst in applying for Career Factor?
A: "As a member of the IT Managers Advisory council, I was asked to review the auditions email/post and see if any of my team or indeed anyone I knew fit into the categories that were being searched for. It was whilst performing this that I realized that the closest match was ironically myself for the IT Manager's role. I decided to apply as I thought that if nothing else it would encourage me to get my CV up to date."
Can you describe your personal experiences for the challenges and process leading up, winning, and after winning Career Factor?
A: "Prior to finding out that I had been selected as the IT Manager, it was just a case of making sure that I had all my ducks lined up in terms of the application, video and CV prepared. When I found out that I had actually been selected, I was shocked, it took me at least 3 re-reads of the notification email for it to sink in and then I started thinking "oh no, what have I let myself in for". Since then, in a word: Stressful. Anyone following my life on the Career Factor website will have seen that my role is a high pressure, deadline driven one and I guess that with Career Factor, I was adding more into the mix."
How does social media accentuate what you are doing in Career Factor?
A: "I think that social media adds the "real time" aspect to what we are doing in that it gives an opportunity for people to respond to things that you say and do. Rather than simply having some feedback on a blog post, Twitter especially gives a chance for response. A good example of this would be the certification exam that I recently took, sharing the fact that I was about to go into the exam results in messages of good luck from followers, similarly when I declared my result, I got messages of support back. You really feel as though you have a group of people living your life with you on your shoulder."
From your experiences with Career Factor, what tips would you provide to those gearing for IT Management roles?
A: "I think the one most important thing that someone taking on an IT management role should do is actually become a part of the team. Being a part of the group that are doing the actual development/work makes you appreciate more what pressures and problems are experienced on the ground rather than sitting in a "tower" looking down and cracking a whip. Not only does it give you this alternate view, your team will respect you more as they know that you are speaking from experience rather than theory! Another top tip is to lead by example. I knew that trying to get the team certified was going to be tough due to the workload of the team members, so similar to my previous tip, rather than encouraging them to certify whilst I stood by, I encouraged them to certify with me as I attempted to squeeze in study time along with my other tasks."
What are the most exciting opportunities in IT Management that you are working on with Career Factor?
A: "To be honest, for me Career Factor has been all about getting the team certified, and it has been the opportunity to get help and support in achieving this that has driven my involvement. Whilst not exactly exciting, it has certainly been rewarding and also revealing in terms of the attitudes of the different members of the team towards certification and studying for it. Obviously, the "end of season" trip to TechEd in Atlanta in May will offer up more than its share of excitement to make up for it."
As an IT Manager, what are your future career aspirations? What are you most passionate about?
A: "That's a really good question and I actually don't know the answer. Deep down, I enjoy developing and the buzz that I get from solving problems and producing solutions that exceed expectations. If I'm honest, I don't enjoy the "managing" aspects of my current role, rather I see them as a necessary evil to progress in life. As for future aspirations, if the right opportunity presented itself, I would find it very hard to turn down a job in America. I have travelled there plenty of times on business and pleasure and enjoy it every time."
What drives your passion for Microsoft and Microsoft technology solutions?
A: "For me it was what I was brought up on – I use it for pleasure, I use it for work, and it does everything I want it to do and does it well. At this point I actually have a confession to make, forgive me Microsoft for I have sinned, but when I changed my smart phone recently I strayed from the path and was tempted away from the trusty Windows phones that had served me so well for my past 4 contracts by the evil Android. I now have to wait for 18 months before I can return to the flock!"
You have your MCPD credential. How does MS certification fit in your career plans and those of IT professionals?
A: "Before the company took the decision to become a Microsoft Partner, certification was something that I was aware of but never really saw the point in pursuing; I was happy where I was in the world and didn't see the need for it. That changed when it became necessary for me to become certified. I currently still see certification as a partner network requirement rather than something that helps me with my career, but I have issues with the current certification process and how it relates to real world experience. When Microsoft is able to certify against experience and knowledge rather than ability to recall, I'm sure my views will change."
What are your tips, lessons, and best resources for those wanting a career in computing?
A: "Being a very Microsoft-centric person, I would (and indeed do) point people towards the Microsoft learning websites. The resources available these days for people looking for careers in computing make me a touch envious compared to what was available when I was looking. As corny as it may sound, my top tip for anyone interested in pursuing a career in computing would be to be prepared to learn from your mistakes. Nobody is perfect in what they do, but those who learn from their mistakes get that little bit closer every time."
What are your IT Management Best Practices?
A: "When you need to discuss a project, make sure that you involve the people that are going to be doing the work – the pain of time lost in doing this will be far less than the pain of not doing so further down the line. Protect your team as best you can from both distractions and criticisms. There is a time and a place for finger pointing and blame, but more often than not the buck stops at you. If you can't handle the criticism and are not strong enough to stand up for your team then you shouldn't be in the role. Make sure that praise and thanks is shared and passed on – an appreciated team is a happier team and it is important to let them know when they have done good things."
What are your software engineering Best Practices?
A: "Identify the areas of highest risk in a development and make sure that you take the worst case time estimate for this and also if possible tackle it first – better to find out early on if things are going to go wrong than leaving it until last. Reuse code where possible including designing for reuse and extensibility – why reinvent the wheel? Document what you are trying to achieve and how you are going to do it (also known as write requirements and design documents!!) – it makes sure that you know what you are doing, that other people can see that you know what you are doing, and gives them a chance to offer comments before you start."
You serve on the MS Learning IT Advisory Council – what lessons can you share from this experience?
A: "I can't say too much with regard to the council as it falls under a Non-Disclosure Agreement but I guess one of the most interesting things that come out of the sessions is that although the members are coming from different countries, different industries, different teams and different roles, the challenges that we encounter and reservations with regard to the current certifications are surprisingly similar. It has also been good to be working with Microsoft in terms of providing feedback on their learning and certification ideas and seeing how they evolve from meeting to meeting based on what we feed back into their process. It is interesting to hear from the people involved in the development of the learning material what they find challenging and how they want to steer things down the line."
What unique tips can you share from your development team on Master Station Development?
A: "Never lose sight of the bigger picture and always try and put yourself in an operator's shoes. So many times I find myself having to remind the team that they need to think about how someone using the software day in day out would want to use it rather than how "they" would use it; make often used things quick and easy to do and when you are "improving" the way something works make sure that you are not taking away function, no matter how insignificant it may seem."
In all that you do, what are the biggest challenges, and their solutions?
A: "This one is easy, the balancing of development plan and working against it versus the resources available and distractions encountered. The ideal solution is a cloning device so that I can have one copy of my team developing new stuff whilst the other copy maintains and supports. Unfortunately we can never find one of those on eBay, so I have to settle for the next best thing which is task prioritization (juggling) and reliance on the goodwill of the team to work the extra hours when things really get hairy."
Provide your predictions of future IT trends and their implications/opportunities?
A: "Everything seems to be heading to the cloud these days (although I still cannot see how we will ever get our product there), and I think this move is going to open up a lot of opportunities in the virtualization areas, but equally will reduce the role of the more traditional IT administrator. Already I hear of cloud hosted exchange systems which relieve the company of the burden of managing an exchange server and leave them to manage just the user base through a simple UI which the HR department can easily maintain. I can't see the move going as fast as some predict, but nonetheless it will happen. This move also means that development mindsets will have to change as the additional considerations such as bandwidth and data transfer have to be taken into account when developing solutions for the cloud, along with how to use the power that is out there."
Please share 3 stories (something surprising, unexpected, amazing, or humorous) from your IT Management duties, travels, development work, or time with Career Factor?
A: "One of the things I enjoy about my job is the potential to go to different places and do things that you wouldn't normally be able to do. One of these that sticks in my memory occurred a number of years back when we were installing and commissioning a system for a power station in the UK. I spent quite a bit of time there on and off and as a result developed a good working relationship with the on-site staff. We somehow ended up discussing the main chimney in the middle of the site and I said that it would be really cool to go up there...a few weeks later arrangements had been made for a trip up the chimney which is only 41 metres shorter than the Eiffel tower.
Back in March of this year I had business in Malaysia. The gang back at Career Factor HQ was aware of this but I still managed to freak them out by tweeting that I was in a Malaysian Prison, locked up. I was of course working on the security system at a recently built prison, but the reaction from my Career Factor followers was highly amusing as they checked on my well-being. Seriously guys, if I were locked up, would they really have left me with internet access?!!
Finally, one that will amuse or worry the frequent fliers amongst you...a recent trip to work at an airport in Norway meant flying out from Manchester in the UK and then every morning a trip through the scanners at airport security to access our airside working area. I counted 5 trips through the scanners for my laptop bag before I got pulled up and they had a good dig around in my bag to find the drill bit that had secreted itself in the depths of my bag. Doesn't that fill you with confidence in the competence of those people checking for dangerous articles in your hand luggage?"
If you were doing this interview, what 3 questions would you ask and then what would be your answers?
Q1: You have been with Remsdaq for some 15 years; why is that and have you ever considered moving on?
A1: I enjoy the challenge that my job has presented in the roles that I have had since joining through to present day. You never know what the next day is going to bring, what you may have to do, where you may have to go. I have considered moving on – there are a number of policies that I really do not agree with but up to now I have tolerated them as the job rewards outweigh my dislikes. I guess in that regard it would take a really good offer to tempt me away from the enjoyment and convenience that my job currently offers.
Q2: You are nearing the end of your Career Factor experience, what if anything would you change or do differently if you had the chance to do it all again?
A2: I guess that the main thing that threw me off was the lack of resources that exist currently for the .NET 4 certifications. We started off trying to get the team certified on latest technologies but on reflection given the problems we had sourcing materials we would have been far better off targeting the .NET 3.5 certifications instead. The materials are far more readily available for those exams. I would also have pushed harder for people to be studying and preparing for the exams than I have done so far, perhaps even at the expense of some development time.
Q3: What would you consider to be your biggest success and biggest failure during your career?
A3: In terms of successes, I would probably have to say the launch of our latest generation of master station software; this was my baby from conception through to release. I oversaw the whole development lifecycle and to see it out there running on customer sites is like seeing one of your children growing up. A close second was the time spent with a colleague where we rewrote the entire event recording and display mechanism for the previous generation of software when it became necessary to handle much larger capacities than was currently capable. We sat down and designed, coded and tested the system end to end in less than a week's elapsed time and it has not been touched since, which is a true testament to the job done. My biggest failure or failing is not being able to meet development plan deadlines. No matter how much contingency time I put into a plan, no matter how bad my worst case scenario is, we never seem to be able to hit a deadline with all the planned content and it really annoys me!
What three lessons have you learned from your life experiences?
A: "If you get a chance to do something, do it. If you don't there is no going back and you may regret it in the future. Don't be afraid to speak your mind - if you think something isn't going to work, say so, you may not be alone with those thoughts and it is better to find out before spending time trying than saying "I didn't think that would work" afterwards. Always listen to what people have to say, everybody has something useful to contribute at some point!!"
Simon, we will continue to follow your contributions with Career Factor and more broadly. We thank you for sharing your time, wisdom, and accumulated deep insights with our audience.
A: "Thanks for having me, I hope that you and the audience enjoyed our chat and continue to follow both my own and the other participants progress in Career Factor."