On Getting Started in this Technology Career – Jumping, Showing Up, and Sweeping
So you want to break into technology? It’s a challenging prospect. Especially today. Unemployment in the technology sector is insanely low across the United States. In some microcosms, it’s effectively a negative unemployment rate – especially in the “data space.” There’s a catch-22 out there. You need the experience to get most positions. You need a job to gain experience. So how do you start? There are lots of great answers on how to get an education. In the Microsoft Data Platform space, there are User Groups, SQL Saturdays, Pluralsight, online training from folks like Brent Ozar, in-person events like the ones from SQLSkills, etc. But how do you find that first position? That’s what I want to talk about here. And I want to pick on one of our hires in our Support team here at Straight Path, Michael Morrison – he’s excited because I can’t call him the “new guy” anymore – that title is now Daniel Maenle’s – well, it will be in a couple of weeks when he starts. I’ll get to Michael eventually. First, though, I want to talk about my start.
The first thing you have to do is be willing to look for something. It may not be your dream job necessarily. And it may not be where you end up in the long run; in fact, it probably won’t be. About 21 years ago, I was working at a hotel at the Front Desk. I had become the “unofficial IT guy” there. I was building an HTML 4.0 “Guest Service Intranet” there – it never got released, it was a bunch of hyperlinked pages with things like directions to print out local restaurants, guides to beaches, etc. The goal was to serve them up on a kiosk in the lobby with a printer for self-service. I was the tinkering type who fixed our reservations systems and would get computers back to working order again. I had this idea of wanting to be an application developer someday, getting into the software world. But. I was also comfortable. I had a more relaxed schedule. A simple enough life. It paid the bills. And I didn’t have a degree in anything software related. So I wasn’t looking hard. But one day, a tech support analyst job whizzed past me on the web, and it seemed to speak to me. It was an entry-level job, working for a software company. They wanted someone who could troubleshoot, who had experience fixing printer problems (at the time they primarily were making software that printed checks, and they had a lab full of printers that their customers used to troubleshoot various issues). It wasn’t much money for IT – but it was good enough bump from a Front Desk at a small Maine Country Inn salary. I went into that job, excited. I went in looking to learn and looking to “own” (I was ready to Sweep and Explore…). I had a thirst for knowledge, and a little bit of a pride problem. And I could not wrap my head around this “database” thing that their application “somehow runs on” – to me, a database was just a tool to list stuff – like the Access database of my CD collection. So I had no clue why an application, which to me at that point was just a single .exe file with code contained inside of it, would need to “talk to a database” let alone how that database would contain much of the critical information for the application to function (like the users, configurations, accounts, etc.). So I didn’t like not knowing how this worked. When I had an opportunity to take a SQL Server 7.0 training class, I jumped hard at it. Something clicked, and a passion for learning was ignited, and I grew fast. I soon became the guy to troubleshoot a lot of the DB issues for the support team, and then had the chance to get a Jr. DBA job someplace. You have to be willing to make a career change. You have to be ready to change your role and maybe even your seniority. You have to be willing to start at the beginning.
I’m a big fan of Dave Ramsey’s Entreleadership team. The books they recommend, the podcasts they suggest, all of that has helped propel Straight Path to where it is. One of the “personalities” at Ramsey Solutions is Ken Coleman. He has a podcast and a book called the Proximity Principle. I’ve not yet read the book, but it’s already in the Library – I’m just devouring a ton of books right now, so the backlog is still there. But the main principle behind his “Proximity principle” is summed up in a video of his. It’s a principle sort of discussed in a Scott Adams book as well. The idea is surrounding yourself with the right people while at the right places, and following the proper practices will help you grow. Have a plan and a desired future state, figure out what you need to do and where you need to go to get there and go there. And show up. And get to know the people who are doing what you want to do.
I think our hire, Mike Morrison, really embodies this principle here. I run a SQL Server User Group with one of the guys on my team, Jack Corbett, here in NH. I’ve been doing that for 9 or 10 years now in some capacity. A couple of our clients are clients because of that. You could even say that at least one of our team members (Tom) is a team member partially because of that, and you can 100% say that Mike is a team member because of that. At Straight Path, we have three kinds of team members. We have Senior Level SQL Server technologists who have been doing this SQL Server thing for 10-20 years and know the ins and outs and have been DBAs/Sr. DBAs and consultants. We have a support team. These are folks who get troubleshooting and have a solid understanding of technology – but don’t yet have that deep SQL Server experience. We also have a growing support team – office managers, contract bookkeepers, administration roles helping keep our service and customer engagement up. While the technical skills vary, a few things don’t change. Our Core Principles are core for a reason. Our drive for excellence. Stick-to-itiveness. A desire to be truly generous to each other on the team, to our clients, to the community. Folks who embody the “Hungry, Humble, and Smart” teammate in Patrick Lencioni’s “The Ideal Team Player” and people who seem to embody the principles outlined in Jocko Willink’s and Leif Babin’s, “Extreme Ownership” generally speaking. These things you can’t necessarily teach. But they are traits not to be passed by. The right players will have those traits. If there is a position for them, and they have those traits – there’s room on the bus. As we grow – our support team is really what we’re focusing on developing next. We had our Support Team manager, Bruce, already. And we have an AMAZING intern, Evan, who I hope to turn full time when college is done putting in yeoman’s work on the support team. But. It was time to hire again. I had started having the chats with recruiters we know and trust. I started looking through my memory banks and social media accounts for folks who passed the “character test” but who also were looking for entry-level or just a little more than entry-level and had a thirst and drive to learn more about tech.
When I was still in “searching for the next person mode” on User Group day, my wife had asked me, “What about someone at the user group?” and I said, “Nah. Most of the folks there are too experienced for the role we’re looking for right now. We want to find someone more on the entry-level side who can grow with us, the folks who show up there are all 10-20 year vets and have great jobs.” I went about my day and showed up at the User Group meeting. In walked this young feller’ and being the chit-chatty typed, I saw the new face and went over to do the quick intro “Hey! Welcome! Appetizers on the roup and there are a lot, so it’s enough to fill you up, water is on the group too, if you want a beer or an entree you can order over there. I’m Mike. Who are you?” His answer was interesting; basically, it was, “Hey, I’m Mike. I live north of here (really close to our office, which is rare, most folks live the other direction). I work in manufacturing right now in the QA space, but I’m looking to break into IT and do more on the IT or software side, so I figured I’d start going to user groups to learn more and explore the stuff I should be learning. I’ve done some automation and data wrangling on the side in a skunkworks approach where I currently am and am starting to go to school. I was in the Navy for six years on a sub.”
So I didn’t exactly start jumping for joy or anything. I didn’t want to seem too desperate or weird. But. Here was someone who:
- Showed up to a SQL Server User Group meeting full of strangers to learn more and better their career and life – voluntarily
- Was looking to break into technology in an entry-level fashion
- Was willing to above and beyond to serve his current employer while learning new tech and applying it
- Understood integrity and disciplined enough to stay through a tour of duty and an honorable discharge in the Navy – and the Navy Submarine Service (I had just got done finishing two EXCELLENT leadership books – Turn the Ship Around, and It’s Your Ship – both written by leaders in the Navy which gave me a renewed respect for the lessons in the Navy.)
He showed up. He went to where the folks he wanted to “be like” or learn from were. And he went with an open mind to listen. Fast forward a few weeks later, and he had some interviews, aced them with his winsome personality, and he’s joined the list of hires I don’t think I’ll ever regret making. He’s leveling us up in his way while he’s learning and growing at the same time. He showed up. I showed up. If you don’t show up, you’ll miss a lot.
I share Luke 16:10 from the Bible with our kids from time to time, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.” I also try and use that principle from the “leader” side of the equation. I try and look for the “little faithful things” – the small displays of integrity, artistry, and craftsmanship and recognize those at work. When folks jump at an opportunity that they found because they showed up – and then they ace the small tasks and show faithfulness with the little things – they end up being given more trust and more responsibility. This used to be the significant way folks climbed the ladder back in the day at many jobs in America. “From the mailroom to the executive suite,” stories aren’t that unheard of or uncommon. Well, at least they weren’t. When you show faithfulness in the given tasks before you, your leaders want to provide you with more. They want to show you more responsibility. They want to trust you with more. I say that as a leader. The folks we already have are a known quantity! We’re investing in Mike above, for instance. While he may someday want to go more developer or some other skill, I also really hope he finds a happy and long career here, with raises, new titles, and increasing responsibility. Why? Because I’m lazy! Because he has our core values. Just like everyone else on the team. I don’t like looking for new folks. I prefer to grow the team we have because we get along, we work hard together, we have fun, we enjoy helping each other out, we all live out our core principles. Bringing new folks in is a little risky (it’s a considerable risk to take. Very excited to have someone like Daniel join us! It’s apparent already that he embodies our core values), but growing the existing team is exciting. And, as a leader, it’s thrilling to be able to watch someone develop and take on new roles and responsibilities.
So wherever you are right now? Sweep better. Don’t just sweep the places you know they’ll see. And don’t walk past a mess on the floor and a broom right there if sweeping “isn’t your job” – The little things add up. And even if you don’t get rewarded for that one time, you picked up the broom – the muscle memory is useful for you, and all the little times you cared for more than what you were supposed to care for will add up.
Go learn. Show Up. Listen. Work Hard. Take chances and jump at opportunities.