A couple of weeks ago, Kevin Kline (kekline) and I reminisced about activities from our youth (I’m talking about public speaking and sports, not “getting up from a chair without hearing several cracks and pops”), pursuits we thought at the time would have lifelong importance and relevance to us, but which didn’t pan out. And then the irony, as we saw those same pursuits take on new importance and relevance later in our career—often in ways we couldn’t have predicted.
This is similar to, but not exactly the same as, a famous cartoon from XKCD.
And then the other day I saw a tweet from security researcher Gabrielle Hempel (@Gabsmashh on Twitter) which brought the conversation back to my mind and made it even more immediate and impactful. To be clear, I didn’t see her tweet. My fellow Head Geek Chrystal Taylor’s ( @ChrystalT) response caught my eye first:
“Collections and server are mine. Both taught me valuable non-technical skills I use all the time”
The topic of non-technical (don’t you dare call them “soft!”) skills and their applicability to our day to day work as IT practitioners is something Chrystal and I revisit often, so it was bound to catch my attention. Following the thread backward, I got to @Gabsmashh’s tweet:
“Tell me about a job you had that might not be relevant to your field now but taught you valuable skills you still use. Working on/around cars was mine. it taught me to deal with difficult people, how to navigate a male-dominated field, & to never give up on tough problems.”
At the time, I replied with the following:
- Pest control (mostly bugs, but also skunks and racoons—often dead)
- Stage/voice actor
- Temp secretary
- Theater tech (mostly lighting, but some carpentry)
Having ended the tweet with: “What did I learn from those? I think that’s a great idea for a blog. Stay tuned!” I’d now like to fulfill my promise and follow up in more detail and introspection than one usually sees on Twitter.
I learned I was the expert because I showed up in the truck. For from giving me carte blanche to make things up and flaunt my authority, it meant if I couldn’t fix a situation, I needed to step up and figure it out, fast. When hornets are coming into the nursery, the wrong answer is “Can I use your phone? I need to ask my boss what to do.” It didn’t matter I was a 19-year-old kid working a summer job in between freshman and sophomore years of college. The buck (literally, see “Macy’s,” below), bee sting, or skunk stopped with me. The corollary is, if I didn’t know my stuff before I rolled up, I was going to be the one who suffered.
Most of the time, though, my job entailed doing the monthly preventative care visits. I was the guy who came into the house at 8 a.m. and sprayed around the baseboards to keep bugs away. At the time, these 15-minute stops netted about $10-$20 per visit, and my route had 90 stops a month. What I learned was the business might get a reputation for catching deer wandering around Macy’s; the boss might get accolades for taking care of a 5’ diameter beehive hanging 50’ up on a power line; but the bills were paid from the mundane, regular, unremarkable monthly stops.
To put it into IT terms, jumping on a Sev 1 call at 2 a.m. to save the day might win you attention and even a bonus, but it’s no way to build a career (or a team). It’s far better to recognize and reward the folks who do the dog’s work each day to keep Sev 1 events from happening in the first place.
Not just any old busboy, but a busboy at one of those “singing wait staff” restaurants. I was in high school, the restaurant was 45 minutes from my house, and my shift started at 8 p.m. and ended at 1 a.m.
I lasted 2 weeks.
Despite my abbreviated time there, I learned A LOT. Some of the lessons are things most (I’m sorry, I’m just going to say it) privileged white-collar IT folks hear but don’t experience—like lower-wage jobs often requiring significantly more work and less flexibility; or the observation of how the true measure of character can be seen in the way someone treats restaurant staff.
Beyond those broader lessons, the ones I’ve carried with me into my work in IT include my understanding of how supposedly “simple” jobs aren’t, if you’ve never done them before. This one lesson served me well during the five years I taught adults to use supposedly “simple” and “intuitive” applications like WordStar, VisiCalc, and DOS.
In the same vein, my training—delivered with blunt efficiency by the head waiter—taught me the power of training and how consistent training coupled with effective supervision can create consistency in the team and the organization as a whole.
But possibly the biggest impression I took with me from those two weeks had to do with management and managerial style. Over the course of two different nights, I witnessed how managers who “can do everyone’s job better than they can” don’t command respect. And how the ones who are willing to pitch in and help with everyone’s job do.
My journey into IT doesn’t end here, but this blog post does. Not to worry, because part 2 is already scheduled to post next week! In the meantime, if any of this has resonated with you and your experiences, please share your thoughts in the comments below (and on @Gabsmassh’s original Twitter thread). You might be surprised at the number of folks in our community who gain insight, inspiration, or motivation when we share our experiences like this.