Avoiding skill rot & performance degradation in your IT career

I’ve been pleased to hear a lot of talk and read a lot of thoughts lately about staying sharp & avoiding career rot in IT, even if it has raised more questions at times than it has answered.

Working Hard in IT, (incidentally a great Hyper-V blog), kicked things off at the turn of the year with a nice post on IT workers and staying sharp enough throughout your career that you reach expert status, a place where you are “always in flow”, building for yourself a a virtuous feedback loop of continuous improvement.

And then Richard Campbell of the famous RunAs Radio &.net rocks did an entire show on staying sharp in IT a few weeks back. He and Kim Tripp, a SQL server MVP, blogger, and tech coach, talked up the value of IT training conferences. Tripp in particular advocated mid-career IT pros send themselves to out-of-town week-long IT training conferences. It has to be out of town so that you’re free from the distractions of home-life and able to soak in the learning & wisdom in a full-immersion nerd camp.

lakdjfOkay so I supplied that last bit of color. But Tripp is right: Whether you’re a SQL admin, a storage jockey or you dream of BGP & ipv6, there are some awesome bootcamp style, full-immersion conferences (not vendor conventions mind you!) you can go to to learn a lot relatively quickly. I’d call this the Shock ‘n Awe approach to healthy IT career maintenance.

But if that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, there’s loads of other ways to learn formally. For about $2,500 you can take a course at any one of a dozen or so different technology training academies, perhaps even getting a nice certificate you can put on your resume.

Or you can subscribe to professionally-made video lessons for about $40 a month and learn at your own pace. I doubt you’ll get a certificate but certainly, that’s a great option if you’re mid-career, with a family, and not a lot of free time. And distance/web-learning is not the joke it once was.

For me this talk, while interesting and encouraging, hasn’t hit home until recently. Yes I resolved to sharpen my skills following my 2013 computing flip-flop saga, but at work, we’re being given a rare chance at getting reimbursed or funded up-front for career related education. Terrific!

But I’m finding it’s not an easy choice to make. It’s gone more or less like this:

“Hurray!!!Finally, the recession blues are over and companies are investing in their workforce again!”

And then:

“Now, give me a whiteboard, a good instructor, a switch, a router, and a few hours a week and I’ll show ipv6 what’s what. Today, link-local; tomorrow: jokes about carrier grade NAT and knowing what that actually means!

and then, after quiet, sober reflection:

“Or maybe I should do some powershell scripting, because mastering powershell will empower me in so many areas. But wait, that’s too Microsoft-centric. VMWare certification sounds like a good idea. Or maybe I should get into a Java scripting class? Web is huge afterall.”

 

On the other hand, I need to introduce myself to JSON, take a RESTful course and lather up with some SOAP knowledge. REST, SOAP & JSON are the lingua franca of our internet of things, after all, we’ll be using them to provision <Insert IT resource that used to be physical and tied to geographic location but is now free & agile by virtue of Software Defined somethingorother> by Thanksgiving for sure!

 

“Then again, ipv6 could be a game changer.”

 

“What’s NoSQL?”

And on and on it goes, the alphabet soup of technology acronyms I want to familiarize myself with approaching ∞ but having the bandwidth, time, and luxury to only pick one.

Cautionary tale: Sr. IT Engineer Rip van Winkle took a nap one day and woke up to find his datacenter in something called a "cloud," his IT department unrecognizable, and his Excel skills severely lacking.
Cautionary tale: Sr. IT Engineer Rip van Winkle took a nap one day and woke up to find his datacenter in something called a “cloud,” his IT department unrecognizable, and his Excel skills severely lacking.

And that was before I recalled the cloud push and how it’s shaping IT as a career field.

What if the high-level engineering roles Working Hard in IT mentioned are declining in total numbers as well as percentages of a business’ IT staff payroll? What if, instead of needing skilled IT engineers, businesses decide (as many are) that monthly opex to AWS or Azure or OpenStack is a better way to spend their money?

What if -gasp- the IT department of today is getting disrupted out of existence?

In that case, the internal dialog goes like this:

Forget IPV6! Go big with ITIL or go home! Storage optimization, VM density, WAN performance…what is this, 2011? Businesses don’t want that, they don’t want a data center at all anymore. The smart bet for the future of IT is in process management, technical accounting, contract writing, service delivery, and SLA monitoring!

Suddenly picking something to study, something that sparks your interest, helps your career and also brings some value back to the business,  isn’t such an easy choice, is it?

You want to stay sharp & agile, yet be aware enough about how market forces (animal spirits even!) are shaping IT & the business that you can adapt & respond to the new regime, whatever it is and will be in five years. Amen.

I’m mostly self-taught in IT, so maybe I’m biased that way, but I think there’s a lot to be said for building out a home lab where you can patch up some of the weak spots in your technology portfolio, perfect the stuff you’re already good at, play with the awesome new tech everyone is talking about, and have some fun too.

And unlike boot-camp style skills conferences, video subscriptions, or class room training, home labs don’t have to cost a lot, and you don’t need to leave your Child Partition and go on a road trip. The same technology that took your server room down from six racks of 2u servers to a few virtual machine hosts can help you along in your career: hypervisors!

Splunk is free to download and test out, for instance. Go deep into “machine data,” understand what it is, why Splunk has splashed, and maybe even put it on your resume under “Lab Experience.”

Or maybe you’re a network guy. In that case, go crazy with Mininet young man. Build a network from a local LAN switch to a pair of virtual routers doing BGP, then stress & break it, all inside your PC, at home.

Or study the effect high latency & 1% packet loss has on application delivery by standing up a Wan Emulator VM, then put WanEM between a host & a ZFS-based storage VM on your iSCSI network. Because you can do that too!

And if the tech you want isn’t free, see if there’s a trial version. Or sweet talk your way past the sales guys into getting a free copy. Tech companies, after all, want people like you and me learning about their products and offerings. Use that to your advantage!

All you need is one capable, modern x86 box with 12GB-16GB RAM and a few hundred gigabytes of storage space. Windows 8.1 Professional ($200) has Hyper-V built right in, and it’s capable enough to be your home lab & home PC. But if you don’t like Windows, Ubunutu is a free download and kvm is an easy install. You don’t need to install a 12u rack in your garage like some people.

And yes for the skeptical, home IT labs are a thing, not just something crazy people do. Check out TinkerTryIT @ Home, or Serve the Home.com, for instance. It’s perhaps even a movement, a response, if you will, to the “Cloud Disruption” story  VC firms are fond of pushing.

Approach your home lab as real & vital infrastructure. And put some goals and structures into your lab environment: this month I’m going to learn X, and next month Y and stick with it. Record your progress, make a checklist. BUILD.

Of course a home lab probably won’t help you along towards ITIL certification. If that’s the skillset IT pros will need to devleop, perhaps classroom training is the best. Or maybe you should just get an MBA. I’m not certain. But having a good attitude & trying to understand how business is evolving will take you along way, no matter what the IT department evolves into.

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