Recently, I read Gary Wisniewski’s essay on things old programmers need to remember. I loved his perspective, and as I head into my third decade in IT, the reminder that the things that made me get into a career in technology remain the things that keep me here, but also what make me good at what I do.
Now, unlike Gary, I didn’t manage to get sidetracked by starting my own company or raising buckets of venture capital dollars. But even so, I think it’s worthwhile to list the things that have always been true as an IT professional.
To help me, I engaged with friends, colleagues and fellow SolarWinds Head Geeks Patrick Hubbard, Kong Yang and Thomas LaRock to get perspective from each based on their respective areas of specialization: networking, virtualization and database, respectfully. As for me, my areas of specialization are networking and overall network and systems monitoring.
The advice they offered largely fell into two categories: specific "hard" skills or techniques, and "soft" skills that are often more valuable to a career in the long run, but admittedly won’t help you resolve that production firestorm that paged you out of bed at 2 a.m.
Let's start with the hard skills we old IT professionals should keep in mind. My personal advice on this front relates to that old “everything looks like a nail to a hammer” joke, which is very true for us monitoring-focused engineers. If we’re good at coding, every problem looks like a scripted solution. If MIBS are our thing, we look for OIDS to fix every issue. I recommend learning the whole range of monitoring techniques (there aren't really that many). For reference, check out this ebook on monitoring as a discipline. From a networking perspective, remember “reload in” has been and always shall be your friend.
LaRock: If you’re a DBA, first and foremost, your job is to recover data. If you can’t recover, you can’t keep your job. Put that at the front of your mind and make certain everyone understands it as well. You don’t want to have your business unit end up with a wildly different recovery expectation than you can deliver. Learn what RPO and RTO are and make certain they are met at all times.
Yang: Remember that virtualization is an enabler of the application in terms of availability and data center mobility. Well guess what? Containers, clouds and microservices all enable high availability and mobility beyond your on-premises data center at web-scale. So enable high availability and mobility in your career by learning and using these tech constructs.
And for good measure, here’s something Wisniewski said in his essay that I found particularly noteworthy from a “hard” skills perspective: “Often, I can code a parsing routine faster than importing a pre-written package. Then, before I do, I tend to want to be sure the package does it ‘right’ (a.k.a. the way I would do it). I have gradually learned that my instincts are outdated. I should import the open source package and try it. If I learn that it’s not done ‘right,’ I should help out and contribute so that good, reusable code trumps reinvention.”
Now, let’s explore some soft skills that will either help you continue your career or get to the point where you can call yourself an “old” IT pro. My advice here is to never forget your curiosity. It is our inherent curiosity about how things work (and how they break) that got us into this work and has kept us here. Every annoying request from a colleague is a chance to find out something more about the IT ecosystem around you.
Here's LaRock's advice: Stop saying no, or listing 27 reasons why something won’t work. Instead, practice saying, “Yes, I can do that, and here’s what it will take.” Trust me on this -- even if you list out things that make the request impossible anyway, people will remember you said “yes” as a sign of your positive thinking, as opposed to the perception of a can’t-do attitude saying no elicits.
And finally, one more especially insightful comment from Wisniewski: “What does that 20-year-old have that you don’t? Here’s what they have: no fear, and boundless enthusiasm. But what you have is far more important: experience, knowledge and a few failures that have given you better filters and firmer footing.”
Hopefully, as you consider the beginning of another year in IT, these words of advice will in at least in some small way help you keep your career on the right track, and, as Gary reminded us of through a quote from Spock, to pursue “your first, best destiny."