The best advice I ever got

As advice columnist Ann Landers once wrote, “Know when to tune out. If you listen to too much advice, you may wind up making other people’s mistakes.”

In the network world, Landers’ notion is well-heeded. The trick, of course is deciding which advice can make your life easier and which could derail your career.

In an informal poll of network executives and others, the results show that the best advice is to learn about what goes on in your IT shop, being open to its rapidly changing nature and understanding how networks are the backbone of business. It also doesn’t hurt if you can solve technology problems, manage others as a team and keep customers happy.

Specifically, the best advice to get ahead in the network arena starts with the basics. Network executives say learning the details of networks and the equipment that runs on them will get you far.

“You can never see too many networks,” says Luis Henriques, senior network engineer at Coast Capital Savings in Vancouver, the second-largest credit union in Canada.

When he began his career, about 10 years ago, Henriques saw the “one little network” his small company had implemented and thought he had seen it all — until he moved to his next employer.

By the time Henriques was at his third company, his boss told him to go out and see as many networks as he could so he could advise his employer about how to implement its own new technology. “He said, ‘We don’t really know how this works, so I want you to go and meet these other companies and talk to their networking people and see how they do this,’” Henriques explains.

Henriques says that while he was working for a telecom service provider, the customers showed him a thing or two.

“Time passes by, technology changes. That’s yet another reason to keep seeing more networks…throughout your career, because it’s too hard to keep up with everything. Now and then it’s good to step outside and go see how somebody else has already implemented their network,” he says.

But before examining networks, practitioners might immerse themselves in the basics of the things attached to the networks, such as PCs.

Craig Paul, systems software analyst in the Applications Technology Group at Kansas University Computer Center in Lawrence, says the best advice he’s received, and would give, is to learn the basics of computer hardware architectures.

“Routers are essentially special-purpose computers,” Paul says. “If you study about computer architecture, you learn about I/O buses and things that computers can do in terms of memory and memory protection. It also leads to the realization that most host computers could be routers…and can be firewalled even without a firewall.”

Paul says there are some people he works with — even those higher in the management pecking order — who have no idea about internal computing architectures.

Paul recalls a Java course in which he says the instructor and many students didn’t know details about computing architectures such as memory paging sizes and page-size restriction. He even volunteered after class to instruct the embarrassed teacher about Java behaviour so the instructor could impart that knowledge to the class.

Be business-savvy

Even those pursuing the executive ranks should become conversant in technology. Learn to balance technical acumen with business savvy, says Larry Jarvis, senior vice-president of network and voice engineering for Fidelity Investments in Boston.

“I seem to see consistently one of two types of executives: One came up through the technology ranks and was promoted into management…with little to no formal management training. And then executives that come out of more of the business-school side and don’t grasp the technology,” Jarvis explains. “While they have good leadership skills, their ability to lead these highly technical teams wanes, because they can’t have that dialogue with those contributors that are really making it happen.”

Jarvis says he went through a rigorous conversion from technology into management early in his career at a former Fortune 500 employer. “They really encouraged folks coming from technology into management with a very formalized training program to make that transition,” Jarvis says.

The advice was, you focus on the customers and the requirements of your customer, focus on your team, run your technology like a business, and you will be successful as a manager, Jarvis says. “As easy as that may sound, managers that can do that successfully…[find it] a very difficult challenge. I think that’s what makes a great leader in the technology-skills space.”

But so many network and business executives struggle because they are either well-versed in the nitty-gritty technology details, or they only know the business perspective, Jarvis says. “If you go too far to the business side…morale on the employee side goes down. The productivity starts to drop dramatically because those troops lined up before you don’t want to work for you anymore. You lost their loyalty,” he says.

“If you lean too much on the technology side, you’re going to alienate yourself from the business folks. They get religious about the technology, and they forget why they exist. They exist to move the business, the revenue side of the house, forward.”

Striking the balance between technology resources and business demands for your team can help you get ahead in networking, says Rich Glasberg, director of enterprise communications for the commonwealth of Massachusetts in Boston. Glasberg says a mix of hands-on training in leading-edge technology along with the smarts to understand how the organization depends upon the technology pushed his career forward.

“Not every piece of this business is for everyone; you have to capitalize on getting into the business if you have those skills,” he says. Among the skills Glasberg notes is being able to manage people as well as technology and determining the next technology moves without losing focus on what the organization needs.

For Debbie Joy, lead solution architect with Computer Sciences Corp., the best advice she was given in her 22-year network career helped her advance from a technician to a director of technology. Joy explains that a manager leaving his position advised her not to complain about the technology shortcomings or personnel problems in the department to the incoming boss without also having a solution to offer.

“If you are going to go to management or a senior technician with a problem, you’d better have a solution, or you will just sound like a complainer,” Joy says. “I laid out what was wrong with our department, how it could be run better, and the new manager told me to write it up and get to work. That’s when I transitioned from a technologist to a problem solver and business-related employee.”

The advancement taught Joy: “Knowing the technology inside and out just isn’t enough anymore; you have to be able to apply it to your business and learn how to apply it to another business when you change positions.”

Rich Ptak, principal analyst at market research firm Ptak, Noel & Associates, says he witnessed the demise of Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) because he believes Ken Olsen and others at the time didn’t recognize how the management of the business tied back into the success of the technology. For Ptak, the realization was an epiphany that led him away from his technologist roles to become an industry analyst.

“Management was just a secondary task at the time,” Ptak explains. “The real crux of networking is that it’s made up of a bunch of componentized devices that, when connected, make the business run smoothly. It wasn’t that DEC had bad technology or products; it was that the management of the business wasn’t incorporated into them.”

Network professionals must balance the effectiveness of their current skills against investigating leading-edge technologies that could advance their careers. Focusing only on the day-to-day operations versus exploring new tools and processes can mean the difference between advancing in the organization or being left behind in an ineffective position.

Chris Gahagan, senior vice-president of EMC Software, started his career at HP and says he recognized the importance of the network and its role of providing connectivity to the applications and services that run on it. For him, getting ahead required moving to SpectraLogic to explore what at the time was a new area of networking: backup.

“What I saw in the late 1980s and early 1990s was that the network was an enabler for a lot of other technologies and that the network could add value to other applications and services,” he explains. “I left HP, but was able to start up the software part of a business based on what the network could enable.”

CSC’s Joy points out that often those in technology positions get stuck in a rut of specialization. She offers advice along the same lines as Gahagan: be open to changing your focus before your role becomes obsolete. “Often you get to the point where you can’t go higher doing that thing that you loved so much,” she says. “But then a light bulb goes off, and it’s obvious that you can get ahead with a new technology, which you will also learn to love.”

Brian Jones, manager of network engineering and operations manager at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, says his success in networking comes from a broad understanding of network technologies and the capabilities to apply them in a specialized way. Also with the ever-changing nature of technology, he says embracing change in your current position will serve you in the long run.

“The best advice I could offer would be to not get too comfortable with where you are in an IT organization if you plan to move up the chain. Embrace change, because the technology is changing. Either you move with it or it moves without you,” he says. “Stay up to date with how the new technologies may affect the way you do things within your organization, and keep a broad view, because a narrow focus can be costly — just ask the people who invested lots of money in ATM as a LAN delivery system.”

Persistence has long been a home run for Frank Dzubeck, president of consultancy Communications Network Architects. Dzubeck learned early in his 40-year career not to become complacent. “If you start to get lackadaisical and start to enjoy yourself and sit back, it just doesn’t work,” Dzubeck says. “Because everything changes. That has kept me steady all the way through.”

That’s just one piece of the lifelong advice Dzubeck received when he was a 22-year-old systems representative at RCA, a now-defunct, Washington, D.C., computer company with customers in the government and military markets. The other advice was to be creative and to always take risks. “Never sit back and just assume somebody will do something for you,” he says. “The computer industry was extremely young at that time, and everybody that I worked with came from the government or the military. They didn’t look at the clock.”

Tom Bishop, CTO of BMC Software with 20 years of experience at such companies as IBM Tivoli and start-up Cesura (formerly Vieo), says network professionals need to be evolving at all times to stay relevant to their companies.

“The best advice I got and can offer is to continually ask yourself, ‘Am I doing what the organization needs me to do?’ If you aren’t, then someone is not happy with you.” Bishop says. “The answer to the question should always change in terms of what you should be doing to be useful to the organization. Today it’s all about business-oriented IT, and holding on to any old view of networking will only make you a dinosaur in your IT shop.”

Think like customers

For many the best advice they received taught them to know more than the technology; it taught them to think about the customer.

For Judith Hurwitz, president of Hurwitz & Associates research and consulting firm, being loyal to the customers has served her well. In a position in which she could easily side with vendors when they are pitching their wares, Hurwitz says she took the advice offered to her years ago by Mitchell Kurtzman, the head of PowerSoft, a company that developed tools for COBOL programmers.

“Instead of building the most elegant technology possible in a time when you could, Kurtzman looked at his customer, the COBOL programmers, and developed a tool that could make these non-respected programmers look better to their management,” she explains. “I learned that if you focus on the customer, making the consumer of the technology successful, then everything else follows.”

Todd DeLaughter, vice-president and general manager of HP’s Management Software Organization, agrees. He recalls when he was a software programmer, designing elaborate GUIs that his boss pointed out might not be useful to the customer.

“He just asked me, ‘What do you think the customer would think of that?’” DeLaughter says. “I realized then, as a technologist, I was getting wound down in the weeds about stuff customers just don’t care about. As a technology provider in networking, you have to put yourself in the shoes of the customers to be effective.”

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