Welcome to episode 229 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_) – two technology professionals with backgrounds in IT Operations and Sales Engineering on a mission to help others accelerate career progression and increase job satisfaction by bringing listeners the advice we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode we share part 1 of a discussion with Chris Williams, detailing how early experience as a gamer who liked to tinker got him a job, how a degree in psychology has helped in his tech career, what an enterprise architect does, how Chris avoided getting bored, and how an experience working at a startup helped Chris find his breaking points.
Original Recording Date: 06-09-2023
Topics – The Unexpected Job Candidate, Early Community and Programming Exposure, Avoiding Boredom and the T-Shaped Engineer, Tech Waves and Shifting Focus, On Startups and Breaking Points
3:16 – The Unexpected Job Candidate
- Chris Williams is a Developer Relations Manager at HashiCorp for the North Americas region. You can find him on Twitter @mistwire.
- Chris has been a podcaster, an AWS Hero, an enterprise architect, a podcaster, a solutions architect, and a VMware vExpert.
- Chris labels himself a non-traditional technologist who got into tech by hook and by crook.
- Chris has been playing video games ever since getting a Commodore VIC-20 when he was young, and this later became his entry point into tech.
- Chris had studied pre-med but had a roommate who was a computer science major. After getting some equipment, Chris figured out how to network the computers in their dorm room together so they could kill each other playing Doom.
- One day the proctor from the computer science department came to visit the dorm room while Chris, his roommate, and others were playing games together. The proctor didn’t realize Chris (and not his roommate with the computer science background) had networked all the computers together until someone pointed it out.
- The university then hired Chris to rewire the entire computer department. Chris then worked toward his CCNA, learned about switching and routing, and the rest is kind of history.
- Chris came out of school with a psychology degree. Once he started working for the computer department he was looking for a good way to get to graduation as soon as possible. Meeting requirements for a psychology degree fit the bill nicely.
- "I love everything. I love all kinds of learning." – Chris Williams, on whether he enjoyed studying psychology in school
- Chris still has a subscription to Psychology Today, for example.
- At the time, due to his experience in gaming, IT (information technology) was what called out to Chris as something he should pursue.
- Chris tells us he dismantled the toaster as a kid and later his first 386 computer (which continued to work afterward).
- After doing the wiring project for the university, Chris built gaming computers for the customers of a local software and computer sales company.
- Even then, Chris was serving in both a pre-sales and post-sales role. He would make recommendations for different hardware to customers (i.e. video cards and sound boards) based on the games they wanted to play and then build it for them.
8:34 – Early Community and Programming Exposure
- Chris had an Amiga 2000 and was the only one in his user group with two 3.5" floppy disk drives, which allowed him to copy games for people from one disk to another.
- "I’ve been in user groups for a very long time." – Chris Williams, speaking to his experience in user groups even in his early gamer days
- Chris became a part of this user group when he was living in Germany on an American military base (around age 12).
- It was a small community of Americans living on the base, and when people found out Chris had the Amiga, they came to his house and encouraged him to come to the user group.
- In the US during this time someone might have found user groups through a magazine or catalog of some type.
- Chris mentions a series of books that were programmer fiction novels. In the novel there would be code snippets of BASIC that you had to debug. Once you were able to get the code working, it would return the page number in the story you needed to turn to in order to continue the adventure.
- This was Chris’ first exposure to coding / programming. He wishes there was something like this today.
11:18 – Psychology and the Enterprise Architect
- While working at the computer shop, Chris got a couple of Microsoft certifications – the MCP and MCSE.
- He then went on to work for a local solutions integrator or SI who provided consulting services to customers.
- Chris tells us he was basically a service technician who would work with customers by visiting their location and fixing a server, laptop, or other computer. He visited all kinds of places in rural Alabama including paper mills and shrimp processing plants (both very stinky environments).
- Chris calls this his first "real job."
- Were the communication skills with customers a challenge? Nick suspects the average gamer may not have these well developed.
- Chris tells us the thing he accidentally did (getting a psychology degree) actually helped him as he transitioned into a technology career.
- In preparing for graduation Chris did some work to specialize in conflict resolution, helping couples work through problems with each other and communicate more effectively. Chris believes this experience helped him learn to communicate more effectively as well.
- By nature Chris is an extrovert and likes to meet new people. He says most people who get into computers do not.
- Nick mentions he has been attending some podcast meetups in the area lately and how outgoing and eager to talk to others the attendees are. Though it can happen, it is not always the same at a technology community meetup and might require you to go up to somoene to start the conversation.
- Chris suggests perhaps he should go to a podcast meetup to level up his vBrownBag game.
- One of the things Chris enjoys about doing vBrownBag and other shows is all the auxiliary things he learns in addition to the main topic of discussion. Listen to the example he shares about a recent vBrownBag guest.
- John says conflict resolution is something that has consistently come up for him in interviews but felt he hasn’t had a satisfactory answer. Things like…
- Asking if someone has witnessed co-workers having a conflict
- Asking if someone has been asked to break a tie when two people cannot come to an agreement
- John says he ended up in the bargaining and compromise areas of conflict resolution. But he recently learned about a conflict resolution model that has been a great help.
- Chris says as an enterprise architect (or EA) he was constantly trying to find ways to have people come to resolution from conflict.
- Earlier in Chris’s career it was all about the tech and learning new things in new areas. As he progressed and began interacting with directors, senior vice presidents, and c-level executives Chris began to lean less on the tech and more on his psychology background to help people get along.
- As an enterprise architect at Worldwide Technology (WWT), it was 95% people and 5% technical.
- Chris remembers acting as the VP of DevOps for a streaming company while working at Worldwide Technology.
- "It was letting people talk, making sure that other people listened, and then coming to consensus and having people come to the table with an open heart and empathy." – Chris Williams, speaking to conflict resolution as an enterprise architect
- Chris says in this role he learned a lot about tech but had to leave the tech mostly to others so he could focus on the psychology.
- What is the job of the enterprise architect?
- The solutions engineer is the hands on keyboard person doing the work that needs to get accomplished.
- The solutions architect is designing the pieces that are assembled and built by the solutions engineer.
- The enterprise architect sits across a broad swathe of solutions architects and makes sure the implementation of the technology maps to the business drivers of the company.
- In the role (which Chris calls a very balanced role), you have to be able to speak to CIOs, CFOs, CTOs, directors, architects, and engineers. And you need to understand what each group cares about, what they want to accomplish, and how it translates to the overall company vision for what the CEO wants to accomplish. You would also work with a project manager to ensure things get completed within the timeline.
- John says he believes people often say enterprise architect when they mean solution architect.
- Chris says the titles we discussed are somewhat interchangeable depending on the size of the company you are working with. An enterprise architect would have different responsibilities and focus at a 50 person company compared to a company that brings in $17 billion in revenue each year, for example.
- When Chris would get introduced to a new company as an enterprise architect, he would start by sharing with people what he thinks an enterprise architect is, which starts up a healthy discussion that results in reaching a consensus for what Chris Williams as an enterprise architect will be for that organization (focus, responsibilities, etc.).
- "It’s because I get buy in from everybody right at the get go." – Chris Williams, on why it makes sense to clearly define the role of an enterprise architect
- WWT would rent Chris out as an enterprise architect to fortune 100 companies who were their clients.
- Nick cites this as a way to gain a very broad range of experience across a number of companies. Chris says this experience was like drinking from a fire hose.
- Chris was a full time employee (FTE) for about 15 years. He would generally work somewhere and get bored after a couple of years, usually automating himself out of a position and seeking employment elsewhere.
- At one point Chris started working for VARs (value added resellers) and SIs (systems integrators) like Greenpages.
21:26 – Avoiding Boredom and the T-Shaped Engineer
- Chris had a friend who convinced him to work for Greenpages, feeling Chris was perfect for it.
- At first Chris was unsure if he would like it but wishes he would have done it earlier.
- It was a new company every 3-6 months with new people and new technology stacks.
- Chris loves learning.
- If he wasn’t recording with us, he would be studying up on Terraform, committing to an open source project, or playing some kind of game (like Diablo 4).
- The environment scratched an itch for Chris because it was fast and comes at you full throttle. Some people do not like this type of environment.
- John says people don’t generally know you can work for one company and move around like Chris did. It’s a great way to gain a broad range of experience.
- "If you don’t like the company you’re working for, it’s going to change in 3-6 months. If you love the company you’re working for, it’s going to change in 3-6 months." – Chris Williams, on moving around while working for WWT
- Chris tells us through all this experience he has met a lot of people and has become a bit of a "human router," connecting people together. He tells us that Amy Hermes and Sabrina Shafer also do this very well (and would be great future guests).
- How should someone prepare for getting into the role of enterprise architect?
- Being a good enterprise architect requires understanding of many technology stacks.
- You need a depth and a breadth. Chris references a "T-shaped engineer." See this article for more on the definition and origins. The top band of the T is a light understanding of many different topics. The vertical line indicates deep understanding in one topic / focus area.
- "Get good at one thing. Find the thing you want to get good at in technology. Is it networking? Is it operating systems? Is it DevOps? Is it development? Do you want to learn a programming language? Get good at that one thing and then branch out from there. Learn how things interconnect with each other." – Chris Williams, on becoming a T-shaped engineer
- Chris started with networking. He then went into servers and storage. Then Chris went into databases and started adding more things on top.
- With the exception of development, Chris has a full mastery of the technology stack. But he’s also currently learning Python.
- Start with one thing and move out once you have a solid understanding of that first area.
- Often times generalists have a deep fear of developing a specialty and getting pigeon holed into it.
- Chris says the generalist is normally better suited for the overall market climate and that the specialist technologist is pigeon-holed.
- How many jobs will you get if you’re highly specialized in Fortran, for example? It’s somewhat niche.
- The generalist can transition to another role much easier.
- Chris started in networking and then systems administration, gaining a broad understanding of how things work.
- If Chris wanted to pivot into being a junior developer he could probably do that. But had he spent an entire career focused on Linux kernel optimization routines (to the exclusion of everything else) and it stops being relevant, Chris would not have a job. It would be the same if ChatGPT figured out how to do this for people.
- Chris sites being a prompt engineer as a role that could come about as the result of generative AI focused on asking the right questions so you get good information and not garbage.
- John has not yet seen any job listings for prompt engineers. Maybe none of the descriptions list this? It’s being discussed a lot on YouTube.
- John thinks this idea of prompting AI will become a vital skill just like effective Google searches.
- Chris sites a picture he recently posted on Twitter of someone holding up a punch card about compilers taking people’s jobs.
- "There’s always going to be some new technology, and then there’s going to be disruption in the environment. And then there’s going to be new jobs that come as a result of it." – Chris Williams, on technology disruption of the job market
28:51 – Tech Waves and Shifting Focus
- We’ve talked to a number of guests who caught a technology wave early and rode it to some incredible opportunities.
- When Chris saw cloud coming out, he started getting into it fairly early and began working with AWS.
- To that point Chris had worked a lot with VMware technology and was a vExpert. He knew abstracting the operating system from the hardware was the future after seeing it for the first time.
- Chris started with an AWS free tier account and began studying for the AWS Solutions Architect Associate certification. When he started playing around in the console he thought it to be the death knell of his VMware career.
- Chris is still a vExpert and does VMware things on vBrownBag but says he hasn’t logged into a vCenter environment in 3-4 years.
- Though a specific technology may not be at the forefront of a certain technology wave, there will be a need for it. But it may not be as ubiquitous as it used to be.
- Chris still plays with servers at his home, including a storage device, because it’s important to do so. But he doesn’t tinker with them near as much as he did at one time and spends more time focused on his AWS account and other things these days.
- John says this speaks to moving up the stack. We can say a specific technology stack is extremely important because of what runs on top of it.
- When we work on a specific technology stack, perhaps we should look one layer higher than our current focus and one layer lower to understand what it is dependent upon.
- Chris tells us he was extremely fortunate to be born when he was born and was part of a first generation of kids steeped in technology.
- Chris took that very first VIC-20 apart as a 7-year-old to understand how it worked very well. Though things have become more complex and abstracted since that time, Chris thinks of it as 4 basic food groups – RAM, CPU, network, and disk (storage).
- "As long as I break it down into the 4 basic food groups I can pretty much understand and grok any virtualized abstraction layer that’s out there." – Chris Williams, on breaking down complex concepts
- Chris is seeing technologists new to the industry with no concept of "speeds and feeds." The lack of knowing more about the deeper details often times can lead to challenges troubleshooting when an application does not perform the way we might want.
- Chris tells us many technologies are interconnected. If you only care about software or some other specific piece of a technology stack, there could be a layer / multiple layers underneath that require some archaeological digging to understand why things are the way they are.
- Should enterprise archaeologist be a role that would fit here (i.e. another EA), or is it the same as an enterprise architect?
34:21 – On Startups and Breaking Points
At that first company Chris mentioned earlier (which sounds like a bit of a managed service provider), he was rented out to various customers. He would go to one person and work on Novell technologies and another work on upgrades from Mac to Windows, for example.
From there Chris went on to be a full time employee for larger and larger companies, automating himself out of a job through a lot of scripting he was doing and getting bored every 2 years.
At one point Chris started working for a startup.
- "The startup was where I learned where to say no and what my breaking points were." – Chris Williams
- How did Chris discover the breaking points / understand he was close to them?
- This may be an extreme example of what happens at other companies. The startup caused 3 nervous breakdowns, 2 divorces, and a suicide across the various employees who worked there. It was pretty bad.
- Chris calls it a "meat grinder" where 80 hours per week was the norm, and it was even more if you had a pager.
- Chris worked for the startup for about 4 years. Chris moved to another position that looking back was a bad move but needed so he could get out of the startup.
- Chris moved quickly to change again and worked for Dannon, a French company with French benefits.
- In making the move to Dannon, Chris realized what it was like to work somewhere that treated employees well, a place that had a culture of empathy and consideration for co-workers.
- "I respect the time that I did at the startup. I would never do it again, but if I hadn’t done it I wouldn’t have gotten to the point in my career now where I am where I understand what I will and what I won’t put up with." – Chris Williams
- We might need to experience both a good and not so good culture to help contrast the two and understand what we value in a workplace, your needs, and the things that would be nice to have.
- Chris thinks it is different for everyone and that he probably put up with more than he should have.
- "It’s just a matter of where you are in your life and what drivers and what pressures you have outside of yourself….There is a number of things that can cause you to make the decisions that you’re making, for good and for ill." – Chris Williams, on thinking through what factors shape the work environment we will put ourselves in
- John mentions our previous guests who have worked at startups have shared they were expected to do a lot of work in several different areas that would often venture outside what the job description originally stated. But the grinding, near abusive work culture Chris mentioned is not universal and is not necessarily something that happens only at startups.
- Chris agrees. One of the reason he likes startups is getting to touch a lot of different things which you normally wouldn’t at a different company based on your position.
- At the startup Chris mentioned he was a systems administrator, a DBA (database administrator), a baby programmer, and he even had to deal with finances. Chris tells us he was doing HR stuff too, and it was his first time actively doing interviews of potential new employees. He even did new employee training.
- "Everybody was all hands in to make things happen." – Chris Williams, on the attitude of people at the startup where he worked and where he gets his "get stuff done" mentality
- Chris is a good enterprise architect because once he finds out what the business driver is, he will drive toward it, often encouraging others to get out of the way in the process.
- Nick says we cannot always see how bad things are until we are removed from a situation and points out the recent conversation with Scott Egbert Episode 228 and the feedback Scott received on losing the joy in his work. Were there signs that Chris was in the wrong place before he left the startup?
- Chris’ wife noticed he was drinking a lot more, and her feedback on this was part of what drove him to seek a change.
- Every new company has its quirks one must consider. In Chris’ case it was a small company, and in addition to getting out of the company, it was a bit like getting out of a toxic family. You have to abstract yourself from the situation before you can realize how bad it was.
- Small companies like startups need a group of leaders with a clear vision, and part of their job is to get people to buy into the vision. Without this it can be difficult for the organization to succeed.
- It has to be about the vision for the organization and not about the company leaders.
- Some founders can be great up to a certain point, but they need self knowledge and empathy to know when it might be time to step aside and allow somoene else to lead the organization (i.e. a different phase of growth the original founder is not well suited for, etc.).
- "All of those are entirely different companies with entirely different needs and processes and types of people that need to be in the right places at the right time." – Chris Williams, speaking to making sure company leaders are well suited to serve an organization (specifically startups)
- Three things every company needs to keep in mind are people, processes, and tools. These are the 3 food groups when it comes to organizations according to Chris as opposed to the 4 food groups when it comes to technology.
- John says the points about founders remind him of a model of IT involving pioneers, settlers, and town planners. Nick recalls an episode of the Geek Whisperers podcast on this topic which references some work by Simon Wardley.
- A founder may work really well trailblazing and getting people to buy into a future vision. That’s different from the settler phase that is no longer the wilderness but might require a group of people building something. A town planner might preside over organized growth.
Mentioned in the outro
- Perhaps the concept of pioneer, settler, or town planner maps to the discussion of a founder’s risk tolerance that we discussed in Episode 226 with John Nicholson. Are the categories related to risk tolerance in some way?
- The roles Chris had at Greenpages and WWT were consulting type roles that allowed him to work with different companies for 3-6 months at a time. It’s a great way to gain experience across many companies. Perhaps working for a consulting firm is something listeners should consider as an option (if you enjoy that kind of dynamic, changing environment).
- An enterprise architect is not the same at every company. Read those job descriptions to make sure it’s what you think it is.
- Perhaps we should level set with others when embarking on a project together (defining what we will do and the scope of it, the role we will play, etc.).
Contact us if you need help on the journey, and be sure to check out the Nerd Journey Podcast Knowledge Graph.
- gaming-gc90961dad_640: ianvanderlinde