Friday, February 21, 2020

Some Pet Peeves (Softskills)

The other day I had the opportunity to watch an interaction between the IT department of a school and a student.  Let's just say, I wasn't too impressed.

First, let me be clear, the issue was resolved and quickly, too.  That isn't what I want to discuss here.  What I want to discuss is attitude.

So, attitude.  We do NOT need to provide our customers with bad attitudes.  Pleasant ones, yes.  But not bad ones.

We don't need to be:

1.  Rude
2.  Condescending
3.  Sexist
4.  Racist
5.  Exclusionary

Before anyone gets it wrong, I am not saying that we need to be "politically correct".  God knows I can't  maintain a proper level of PC to not make people uncomfortable.  As someone who "grew up" in the military, our dark sense of humor has a tendency to create its own set of awkward interactions.

That aside, being a decent human being is what we should strive to be when we are dealing directly with our customers.  Would you want your <fill in the blanks>(Mom, wife, daughter, grandkid, best friend, next door neighbor)</fill in the blanks> to have the same interaction with another IT professional that you just put someone else through?  If your answer is no, then you have some work to do.

What you might not know:

1.  Your customer probably doesn't know what is going on with their computer.  That doesn't mean they are stupid.  It means that they have not developed the vocabulary necessary to talk to you on your level.  I am willing to bet, in most cases, that you have been raised in an environment where you have the same type of vocabulary that your customers have.  Hmmm...common ground.  Interesting.

2.  Your customer is probably pretty apprehensive about talking to you.  No, you don't really intimidate them, per se, but they don't want to look stupid when talking to you.  Don't forget how powerful anxiety can be in shaping the interaction.  That may make them look rude.  So be kind and patient with them.

3.  The kinder you are to your customers, on a consistent basis, the kinder they will be with you.  You get what you give.  Put them at ease, fix the problem, and see how appreciative your customers will be. That will make you a part of the team and not a necessary evil to be endured.

4.  Learn how to communicate in a way that is neither condescending (overly simplified) nor too complicated.  Ask questions in order to gauge the knowledge/experience level that your customers have.  Then talk to that level.  See yourself as a guide or a teacher and not just a technical guru that must be put up with.

Just some thoughts to, hopefully, make us all better.  Some things, too, that I still have to work on, myself.


Warning: A Bit About These Blogs

Hello!  I am writing this blog post so that we can set a few ground rules, so to speak.

While I don't anticipate a lot of people reading this blog, I want to make sure that people who do read it know the "why" of the blog.

Most of my posts are going to be relatively short.  A page or two per post is the intent so that people can quickly read the posts. 

My posts will contain what I consider humor.  You might not consider it humor.  That is okay.  I have nothing but dad jokes in real life, so there is that.

Right now I am writing posts that deal with breaking into IT or IT security.  In the future this blog will dive into more technical topics, like setting up a home lab.

I will also be talking about different resources that we can use to advance our careers.  I am very curious, so I might suddenly swerve a little into other platforms or topics, but they will all be related to technology.

I want to share what I know, what I discover, and do it in a way that is easy to read and easily assimilated by the reader.  Getting into IT isn't hard, if you are in IT.  Technology isn't hard, if you are into technology. 

With that being said, I hope this blog gives you a roadmap that you can use to become the IT professional, regardless of the tech or title, that you desire to become.

The Cover Letter (of Doom!)

Cover letters.  A cherished part of our IT job hunting experience.  Has anyone else found it confusing, cover letters?  No?  Just me.  Okay.

I am sure that most people who read blogs like mine will agree that cover letters are not exactly easy to write.  There are numerous questions that need to be answered before we even start writing it:

1.  Should I write a cover letter?

2.  What should I write in the cover letter?

3.  How many pages should my cover letter be?

Those three questions are the most common ones that I had asked of me, and which I have asked in the past, and there are no solid, concrete answers to any of them.  Why is that?  Well, simply put, it depends on the company and/or hiring manager.  Since it is, essentially, personal preference, that leaves us guessing most of the time.

Let's try to answer each of the three questions, in turn, remembering that these are just guide posts and not unbreakable rule.

1.  Should you write one...unless otherwise stated in the requisition, yes, include one.  Just do yourself a huge favor...use both a spell-checker (built-in to Word, Google Docs, etc) and a grammar checker (Grammarly has a great one that you can use for free).  Nothing, and I mean nothing, screams DO NOT HIRE ME more than simple to avoid spelling mistakes or really easily corrected grammatical errors going uncorrected.  Understand that a cover letter is a formal document, not an example of creative writing (unless you are looking for a job as a creative which case I question why you are here...this is about IT, after all).

2.  Most people will tell you that you want to introduce yourself formally (do not include personal details like age, marital status, number of kids, whether or not you like long walks on the beach, etc.) with the cover letter.  There will be parts of a job posting that you might not be able to put on your resume, such as an explanation about your home lab (which will be the topic of a future posting, so stay tuned) or how you solved a problem for a customer, etc.  You can, in essence, fill in the gaps that are present when you submit just a resume.  For instance, if you worked as a cashier at a store, you are not necessarily qualified to troubleshoot computers, right?  Wrong, but only if you had to troubleshoot an issue with the network connectivity of the point-of-sale machine and the payment processing servers. Since troubleshooting computers and cashier don't necessarily sound right on a resume, put them in the cover letter.

3.  As many pages as you need.  Remember this:  the cover letter introduces you and works in conjunction with your resume to present you as the best candidate for a job.  It fills in the gaping holes in experience that are almost always present.  Just remember that it should tell them what they need to know and nothing more.  After all, it's a letter, not a book.

Helpful bonus tips:

1.  If you are a hiring manager, please include in the job requisition whether you want a cover letter or not.  Please, please, do not say cover letter optional...that is too vague.

2.  If you are a job seeker, please write one for each application you send in.  If they don't want to read it, they won't.  If they do, and you don't include one, then you may needlessly end up at the bottom of the pile.  Not a good place to be when looking for the next opportunity.

I understand that writing cover letters that are tailored to the job are very, very time consuming projects, but it will pay off eventually.  Not to mention, just like resumes, you will find that you will reuse a large portion of the first cover letter with each additional cover letter you write.  For me, about 85% is going to be the same.

Until next time.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

IT Job Postings...Yeah!

A lot can be said about job postings and whether or not they represent the real world.  Well, kind reader, they do not.  Well, I guess I should say "not exactly".  Wait, what?

Here is the low-down on job postings...they are for the "perfect" candidate.  A candidate that does not exist.  Not in the past, not now, nor in the future.  It's as simple as that.  Why do employers cast such a wide net, then?  Easy, they want the largest pool of qualified candidates that they can get and they want the smallest one possible, as well.

I am sure that to many of us that sounds counter-intuitive.  They seem to want all and none, the perfect Schrodinger's job listing.  Think about it...if I create a job posting that sounds impossible to fill, then the weaker candidates will probably not apply.  Also, the strongest candidates will likely apply and I will get the cream of the crop to choose from.  Having spoken to many hiring managers, this approach isn't exactly "scientific", so some postings get the bottom of the barrel and others get the top choices.  It seems rather arbitrary.

Should we just give up, since the employer wants a perfect candidate, one who doesn't exist, and clearly we exist...right?  No.  Undeniably, no.  DO. NOT. GIVE. UP!

There, I said it.  Do not give up.  No, you (and I) are not the perfect candidate.  The employer knows that the perfect one doesn't exist and even if they did, the company doesn't have the budget for hiring you, oh perfect one.  And that is a good thing.  No, a GREAT thing!  As you can tell, this posting is going to have a lot of capitalized words in it.  Unless I lose interest in them.  Then all bets are off.

Let me put this out there and tie it into the previous post about educational endeavors:  job postings are a gold mine of information about the needs of the local job market.  They point out the technologies that are in high demand.  You can craft a personal development road map using those postings.  Just do me a favor, okay?  Do not just look for the technology that pays the best or is the latest buzzword bingo winner.  If you don't pursue something that interests you and that you are good at, you will get bored or won't be good enough and your performance on the job will suffer.  Depending on the market, you could easily end up closing more doors by doing that than you open.

By looking at the postings, you can see what the need is and if you are at the beginning of your career, or looking to change career trajectories, you can start looking at ways to become the most ideal candidate you can be.  In some ways, the clues are right there in front of your nose.  Unfortunately, just because you become cloud certified or a cyber-security guru doesn't mean that you have what it takes to be successful in landing the job.

So use the clues to develop yourself but also realize that there are other attributes that your employer is looking for, whether or not it is written down in the posting.  So do yourself a big favor and try to develop the following skills:

1.  Public speaking.  You can take a class at your local college or join a local Toastmasters International group.  While sometimes scary, once you conquer that fear you will see your stock rise in any company that you work for.  Not to mention, during interviews it isn't the smartest person but the one that communicates in a way that the company understands who gets the job.

2.  Writing.  While I am certainly no expert on proper writing, you will go far if you develop your writing skills.  Some of the top non-technical attributes that employers want include written as well as verbal communication skills.  No one wants to get an email from someone that is hard to read.  Use a service like Grammarly if you need it.  There is no shame at all in using available tools to assist you in creating clear communications with your coworkers.  In fact, most great managers, leaders, and coworkers likely use spell-checker, at the least.  Just be careful when using Google as your gets a bit snarky when you misspell something (Did you mean..."I have no clue, Google!  Why are you judging ME?!"  Very definitely deflates your ego, Google does).

3.  Be kind.  We don't need more people in tech who are self-important ass clowns.  We have enough already.  If your customer comes to you with a problem, one of the most important things to keep in mind is that they will likely feel dumb because they can't fix the problem themselves.  That creates anxiety, which can really blowup in your face if you act superior or treat them like rebel scum.  Seriously, be gentle, be kind, and talk them through the problem without talking down to them.

4.  Be a team player.  Yes, we have our office in the basement.  No, no one else has an office down there (not even facilities maintenance).  Yes, we are isolated.  No, that doesn't give you permission to act as if the company revolves around your department.  We are here to support the success of the company we work for.  Learn a little about what the different departments do so that you can better understand why they might have a sense of urgency that you don't share.  Yes, being a team player can mean getting walked all over if you are too nice.  But honestly, if you let people know that you merely want to help them be successful at their job through the application of the technology that you are charged with maintaining, you will be seen differently (and that is usually a good thing).

Okay, that was a tangent that I didn't anticipate taking.  Now that that is over, let's get back to the regularly scheduled flow of information from my brain to this blog.

Aside from the fact that you can use job postings to help develop your training program, realize that since the ideal candidate doesn't exist YOU should apply anyway.  If they have hard requirements, which usually start with the word must, then you might want to consider applying for the job but don't be surprised to not get a call back.  Aside from that, though, I honestly think that most "ideal" candidates are the ones that don't meet all of the requirements but are:  teachable, inquisitive, and would work well with the team that we currently have in place.  As the saying goes:  you won't know if you don't ask.  Applying is the asking.  You just might be surprised by how often you get called back.

In the next blog posting we will talk about the dreaded cover letter.

Advice for Starting In IT, Part 2

One of the key problems with trying to get into IT by following other people's paths is...well, frankly, there is no path.  Sure, plenty of people may start at a particular point, such as the help desk, but how they got there is the question that needs to be answered.

For some, they start their path by going to college first.  There is nothing wrong with going to college, whether it's a community college, state university, or online, because an education is essential.  So, there we have the first essential.  The education.

For some, they either go to a career school or self-study for certifications.  Those certifications, once attained, provide a similar, though in many ways less rigorous, indicator to potential employers that you have a certain level of understanding of a particular topic.  If you studied for the certification with a goal of not only passing the exam but, more importantly, understanding the underlying information, then you have the necessary level of education to do the job.  So, again, the first essential is education.

Others, through trial and error, learn the things necessary to be a competent, well, insert any number of titles...system administrator, network technician, cloud guru (psst...that practical experience is called an education).  So, again, the first, and thus far only, essential is the education.

Ultimately, becoming educated in some way is key to becoming the IT professional you want to be.  Sure, it is not an easy path and oftentimes it takes a long time to get there but that is okay.  The journey is worth it, especially if you are passionate about technology.

The question that must be answered for you is simple...which of the three paths listed above is right for YOU, right NOW?  Of course, only you can answer that question.  Honestly, I've experienced each of the three and they each have pros and cons.  Let's have a look at each of them in turn:

1.  Formal education:  it is what a lot of employers require before you make it through the HR filters (please don't blame HR for this, someone in leadership made the decision that they are merely carrying out).  Some prefer a degree, any degree, whereas others will be very specific, such as looking for a business degree, a computer science degree, a management information systems degree, etc.  So, having the degree is a major pro.  The con?  Easily the time and the expense associated.  For some, getting a degree is out of the question, either because of poor past academic performance, a lack of funds, or the feeling that the time invested won't be worth it.  The sad truth is, if a degree is required, and you want to be competitive in your job market, then you will need to figure out how to get that degree (* more on this topic in a later post).

2.  Career school/self-study approach leading to certification:  the biggest pro is that it won't take nearly as long, nor cost nearly as much, to go this route.  In some career schools, you can take a class and, by the end of a week or so of class, be prepared to sit the exam.  This fast paced approach is good if you need concentrated time where all you do is focus on the topics at hand.  It is quick (one to two weeks, on average), so you don't spend months or years getting the education, only to have forgotten what you first learned all those longs months/years ago.  If you go the classroom route, please be aware that you still need to include time to study.  That is easily an additional 40 to 80 hrs of time on top of classroom time.  You've been warned!

You must be careful, though, as many of the high-velocity "boot camps" peddle dumps which contain the real questions and answers.  That is cheating.  If caught, you can lose your certifications.  You've been warned, part deax!

Self-study isn't typically going to be as fast but it does allow you to study at your own pace, when and where you have time.  That can be a huge win for you.  You must have the necessary motivation to go down this path, especially considering how easy it is to let life get in the way.  I've been afflicted by that issue many times and it sometimes takes looking at the potential payoff and counting the cost.

Cons?  Plenty.  Some of the schools are nothing more than a money grab and don't provide great value.  Some, in fact, are complete fakes.  As for studying on your own, it can be hard to gauge when to take the exam for maximum success.  That can, and often does, lead to procrastination.  You can invest in several books, video courses, and practice exam banks, only for the version of the exam to change and the materials become obsolete.  With some of the books alone costing $50 to $100 US, well, you can see how it can get expensive really quickly.

3.  Experience.  This is the toughest road to follow.  Why?  Because opportunities to learn don't always present themselves in an orderly way.  Some people, like myself, were fortunate enough to be thrown into the tech fire while doing my regular job.  Due to the ever increasing likelihood that certain services, like IT, will be outsourced, being placed in a position to get the precious hands-on that employers love to see.  These are the cons.

The pros to this approach...practical, often hands-on experience.  You can't beat that.

So there you have the essential first part of any IT career...the education.  In the next post, I will talk about the wonders of job postings and how they can either help you or hurt you in your search for a job in the ever changing, always exciting, land of IT!

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Advice for Starting in IT, Part 1

I don't know where to start, so please forgive me if this post is a bit, shall we say, disjointed.

For a little over five years I was an IT instructor.  I taught mostly CompTIA A+, Network+, and Security+ classes.  Probably a year or two in, I started teaching Microsoft Windows 7 and ITIL Foundation courses (both v3 and 4).  I even taught the CompTIA CASP+ course, which was interesting due to the fact that I was teaching both day (8 hours) and night (4 hours) the second week of the course.  A very draining experience, doubles.

During those five years, I was asked numerous times how to enter the IT field, or security, or how to make an existing career in IT even better.  From the first time questions like that were asked until today, my thoughts on the matter have evolved.  Not 180 degrees, mind you, but definitely not the same answer.  So, how have my thoughts changed?

Well, for one, I followed a circuitous route that took many, many years.  Before I purchased my first computer, which was used, I would occasionally purchase PC Shopper magazine.  I would read the advertisements and try to learn what each part did and why it might be important in any future computer build that I might undertake.  I never did undertake that adventure, but it did fuel the curiosity that was building within.  That curiosity led me to purchasing my first computer and, oddly enough, fixing it several months after purchase.

Back before motherboards had just about everything integrated on them, you used to have to buy a separate board, called an Input/Output board, to connect everything form hard drives, printers, and even those new fangled CD-ROM drives!  One day, several months after purchasing the computer, the power supply turned on, the monitor started to light up, and...nothing.  The BIOS couldn't find a bootable drive.  To say that I was perplexed, and to a degree panicked, would be an understatement.  You see I was a little panicked because I lived in Germany at the time and didn't know whether I could purchase a replacement I/O board locally.  It so happens that I could, and I did, for about $20.  I got back to where I lived, opened up the case, and swapped out boards.  After closing up the computer, I pushed the power button and hoped for the best.  Thankfully, that was the problem and by swapping the boards out I was able to use the computer again.  To say that I was hooked would be an understatement for sure.

That experience, coupled with owning a computer when most people still didn't have one, instantly made me "the computer guy" at every unit I was in.  That made me want to learn more about computers, to be more effective.  While my day job wasn't in IT, I was still building experience that would allow me to eventually move into that arena.  One could say, not the most conventional way to enter the field but definitely not unusual, either.

Fast forward quite a few years, I retired from the USAF and needed to do something.  After trying to find a job in the career field that the Air Force trained and gave me experience in, I took a chance and entered a school that would train me to be an IT professional.  I took courses, got certified, and, thanks to that school, was able to get my first two jobs in IT (telecom and retail computer repair).  Eventually, I got into teaching and being a very part-time assistant to our IT administrator/manager/everything IT person.

That was my path and, in many ways, the same path that others had taken as well.  Is it the best path?  Well, no, of course not.  It took me about 15 years to land my first real IT job for pete's sake!  There are definitely faster ways into IT.  You could go to college for networking, or take courses at a local technical school, or join the military and let them help you, or let someone give you a job because of your reputation or because you helped them at some point.  These are all valid pathways and none of them work for every single person.  None of them are neat, easy to implement, or guaranteed to work.  Heck, the job market in your area may work against you due to a lack of professional network, job availability, or that you haven't checked all of the boxes that HR/hiring managers want checked.

Because there are no clear paths, I have tried to understand the stories that others who have successfully moved into the various IT domains have told me.  I have tried to distill down the essentials that seem to be common across each story, mine included.  Those stories have opened my eyes to many things that I have tried to relay to my students so that they can shorten the time and be more successful, faster, than me.  What are the common threads?    What have I learned? Unfortunately for you, dear reader, you will have to wait until the next posting to find out.