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Column/Missing the Boat

A headhunter called me a few months ago with what he said was an exciting opportunity. His unnamed customer had a large network with over 50 servers and they needed somebody to lead the deployment of Windows 2000.

Sounds like a neat opportunity, I thought. I wonder what the catch is? Well, the customer was looking for somebody with at least 5 years experience deploying Windows 2000 on an enterprise scale. I laughed and said that since Windows 2000 shipped just over a year ago, by definition, such a person doesn't exist anywhere in the universe.

So the headhunter asked me what experience I had deploying Windows 2000. I said I hadn't done a 50+ server network and that very few people have. Then I said I'd looked at some Active Directory planning and done some Terminal Server deployments. Before I could even finish the sentence, he stopped me and said he wasn't technical. He didn’t want to talk about Active Directory or Windows terminals; he was only interested in my Windows 2000 experience.

That’s when I knew this call wasn’t going anywhere. I was dealing with another rep who didn’t know the difference between a hard drive and RAM, looking to make a quick fortune in the IT industry. We agreed I would email him a resume.

A few days later, he e-mailed me back and said I needed to highlight my Windows 2000 experience. So I sent him several paragraphs about my Windows 2000 lab and some of the customer situations I've come across the last several months. I never heard from him again.

Ok, this guy was a jerk, and he caught me on one of my more cynical days, but he did force me to think about how somebody totally ignorant of IT issues perceives IT people. Sometimes I think we are kind of like medical doctors except we don't get any respect. We are supposed to know everything about every customer's specific implementation of every information technology, and we should have concise, black and white answers on the tips of our tongues.

That's a very high standard and I don’t know anyone who truly meets it. I know I don’t.

Here's another story. Back in 1979, I was the proud second in command of a two-person IT department at a small engineering college in Terre Haute, Indiana. As the system manager for a couple of DEC PDP-11 systems, I faced my first hardware problem shortly after I started my new job. The system crashed, users couldn't work, and they wanted it fixed.

I expected Terry, our DEC Field Engineer, to instantly fix it. I expected Terry to know every detail of our PDP-11/40 inside and out, and to diagnose the problem instantly by gut instinct. Terry disappointed me that day because he had to go through a tedious troubleshooting exercise to find the cause of the problem. Then he had to order the parts to fix it, install the parts, and test them. The whole process took several hours.

Over time, I found out that Terry really knew very little about the insides of our DEC PDP-11/40, and even less about some of the newer PDP-11s and VAX systems we eventually bought. Instead, I learned that Terry was much smarter than I initially thought, but in a different way. Instead of getting bogged down in the specifics of any one product, he learned the art and science of troubleshooting and finding answers better than anyone I've ever met.

He didn't need all the specifics of the PDP-11/40 or any other product in his head because he knew how and where to find answers when he needed them. He developed a fundamental skill he could apply to all the products that were coming out and this made him much more valuable than focusing on the details of an aging PDP-11/40. I spent two years learning at Terry's feet and to this day I use the skills Terry taught me.

Too many people today are like that headhunter from a few months ago and me back in 1979. They miss the most important, fundamental skills in favor of tactical knowledge about one particular point product that will be obsolete in a few months.

Here are two lessons to draw from all this:

First, non-technical IT consumers really should educate themselves about what they are buying. Would anyone buy a car without at least first understanding what an engine does? Why do people risk entire companies on computer technology without even knowing what the stuff does? And if you’re selling IT services, you should at least have some clue about what you’re selling.

Second, every technical person should find and learn from a mentor like my old friend, Terry. Go beyond the details of any particular product set and learn how this stuff works architecturally. As I lose more brain cells through my aging, bald head, I find this approach unbelievably valuable in keeping up with technological change. -- Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer, is chief technology officer of Infrasupport Etc. Inc. (Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at gregscott@infrasupportetc.com.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.

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