A Series of Humbling Experiences with Brad Christian (1/2)

Welcome to episode 113 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_), two Pre-Sales Technical Engineers who are hoping to bring you the IT career advice that we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode we discuss a series of humbling experiences in part 1 of our interview with Brad Christian.

Original Recording Date: 03-16-2021

John has to step away for a few weeks to focus on house hunting. The journey will continue, and he’ll be back with us as soon as he can. This reminded Nick of Episode 68 – When Life Disrupts Your Work Life Balance.

Topics – Early Career Journey, Leadership Potential, The Value of Practice, and the VCDX Journey

2:46 – The Career Journey

  • Brad Christian is a Solution Engineering Manager in the Networking and Security Business Unit at VMware. His team is responsible for products such as NSX, Avi Networks (software load balancer solution), and VeloCloud (SD-WAN).
  • Brad is from El Paso, TX. He started building computers for gaming in college and fell into a job as a webmaster and really enjoyed the work.
  • After learning programming languages like Perl getting into Linux, he needed to get out of El Paso and moved to Dallas.
    • Brad slept on a cot in his brother’s apartment for a month or so while job hunting.
    • He landed a job at a Marketing company around 2000 and was the only heterosexual in the company. This taught him many lessons on how to get along with different types of people.
    • Brad learned a lot about not losing one’s temper and slowing down to listen to others’ points of view.
  • He got fired after later working at the Dallas Stars. As part of a very thin team, he was short with users and greatly humbled by this experience.
    • Brad mentioned he would not be where he is today without that ego-crushing experience of getting fired.
    • It doesn’t matter that you’re smart if you’re a jerk.
    • Brad was furious for weeks but eventually got over it, understanding the company did this for a reason.
    • What a company does affects the way they use people. Brad worked every home game that season.
  • After this Brad did some contract work (short term projects) and eventually landed on a job at Dallas County.
    • Counties are much larger than cities from a datacenter perspective. The county has the sheriff, court, judges, and the jail.
    • Listen as Brad shares an interesting story of employees at the jail finding a workaround to the web filter.
    • Brad worked here for about 4 years, and this is where he got exposure to SANs (storage area networks) and a large rack mount server farm (about 30 racks). He learned a ton at this employer.
    • Brad had to learn how to work with consultants. He initially did not think much of consultants.
      • Brad learned there was more to IT than working for a brick and mortar company.
    • Consultant is one thing, but a short term contractor did not give Brad a sense of ownership with what he was doing. Being at Dallas County gave him that sense of ownership he wanted.
    • Nick mentions the humbling aspect of working with consultants.
    • Brad learned how much he could learn from consultants and that he needed to just listen to what the consultants shared with him based on their experience.
    • John learned there are things he did not want to be an expert at, and having a consultant own that part of the project was something which allowed him to focus in other areas.
    • Brad hit a decision point where he needed to choose between focusing on storage or moving toward virtualization with VMware, and he realized he needed to let go of storage to pursue something else.
    • Brad shares a story about a datacenter flood toward the end of his career at Dallas County in the middle of summer.
      • People could not get out of jail because systems were down.
      • They had to bring systems up manually to let people out of prison on time for a month to avoid civil rights issues.
      • This taught Brad a TON about disaster recovery, but the county would not approve a disaster recovery site and later had budget shortages.

19:19 – A Glimmer of Leadership Potential and Learning VDI

  • Brad had started attending VMware User Group (VMUG) meetings in Dallas.
  • He changed jobs and moved to CBRE (a great place to work).
  • While Brad was at CBRE, the leader of the VMUG in Dallas stepped down (around 2010). Brad found himself raising his hand to take over running the group, which was a huge learning experience.
    • Brad knew he needed to get better at public speaking, to be more calm and rational, and knew it would be a great way to network with other locals.
  • CBRE was Brad’s first chance to see a very large enterprise do things right at scale.
    • No matter how good the IT department is, there is a cycle of creative destruction.
    • People will leave, and you have to go through a rebuilding phase.
  • There were over 2000 developers / contractors working on software (H1B Visa). Instead of provisioning laptops, they decided to move to VDI (an early version of Horizon).
    • At first Brad didn’t want to do it, but it turned out he was very good at it.
    • He thought the highest expression of skill in being an IT guy is VDI (so much skill involved). Dealing with the users and keeping them happy takes a whole other level of skill.
  • Listen to Brad’s story about a phone call after coming out of hip surgery to fix a VDI issue.
    • He knew at this point it was time to go.
  • Brad then worked for a company that made a product called Wallstreet Online.
    • They used a product called Lab Manager that was awesome.

25:05 – The Value of Practice

  • The job was too easy, too slow, and Brad went to work for a VAR (Value Added Reseller) called Sigma Solutions.
  • Here Brad finally learned how to master the art of administration. It comes down to practice.
  • An aggregation of skills from previous jobs like bartending helped him excel in consulting.
  • Brad recommends reading a book called Mastery by Robert Green. It includes stories of people in history who became masters at what they do.
    • The book explains how these people became masters of what they do. The value of practice really stuck with Brad.
    • It’s great to figure things out and think quickly, but practice is important.
    • This tracks with other book recommendations we have mentioned like The Talent Code and Outliers.
  • There is a huge different between the skill level of someone who worked their way up in IT and became a SE versus someone who went into being a SE straight out of school.
    • Brad encourages anyone straight out of school to take a break / fix job for 6 months to help your career and give you some experience.
    • John mentioned we lack the apprentice / journeyman model in IT.
    • The closest thing we have is certifications, and that’s not a great measure at times.
  • Employers have to take a chance on people that don’t have the experience.
  • Brad mentions not enough people talk about pay. There was a law passed in 1935 to create the National Labor Relations Board.
    • You can discuss how much you make at your company with the people you work with.
    • We as Americans have been conditioned not to talk about how much we make, but that only helps your employer.
    • Talking about it with others gives you an idea how much to ask for when you ask for a raise.
      • John gives an example of something done at Google to allow employees to share how much they make so others can analyze it and get an idea of how they are doing, what is fair, etc.
      • See also Glassdoor.com.
    • It’s an American thing. We’re suckers.
  • Brad mentioned fighting for raises when switching jobs.
    • Getting the VCP or VMware Certified Professional was enough to bump his pay by about $20,000.
    • It’s tough to choose a certification. Getting a certification is only part of the story because you still need to be able to do the thing.
    • Don’t get too caught up in what is happening in tech right now (might be too late). Think about what is happening in 3-5 years and build your network based on that.
    • This reminded Nick of Manny Sidhu’s stance on choosing a certification or technology focus area. Check out Episode 80 to get the full story.
    • Nick shares his own certification story and how it was impacted by being at VMUG.

39:58 – The VCDX Journey

  • While working at Sigma, Brad had met a number of VCDXs who were some of the smartest people he had ever met.

    • These folks were not only gifted technologists but also excellent communicators with a wide variety of platforms.
    • Brad wanted to get to that level of expertise. It seemed like a mountain to climb to make himself get better.
  • Brad had to fly out to Palo Alto to defend his VCDX VDI design in front of Simon Long (someone he greatly admired).

    • Brad’s wife was so relieved when he passed.
    • To prepare, Brad met some great people, sitting on conference calls a few nights each week for months to do mock defenses.
    • He learned humility throughout this process, finally discovering how much he did not know.
    • Brad always wanted to be the guy with the answers, but he found it is ok to say you don’t know.
    • It took about 3.5 years between the decision to pursue the certification and passing.
    • The first time Brad did a defense he failed. He didn’t understand the process, the rubric, or know anyone who had gone through it to point out his mistakes. The rigor was not there.
    • He kept at it and continued learning enterprise architecture.
      • Enterprise Architecture is not discussed enough – opex and capex, design qualities, conceptual and logical design concepts, etc.
    • The VCDX design is hundreds of pages that includes a network and security design, user acceptance testing, etc.
    • Brad got better at his job by going through the process.
  • John adds to the point that Enterprise Architecture is not emphasized enough.

    • Brad mentions Enterprise Architecture is about managing complexity, which is not easy. Nothing is easy if you don’t walk into it with your eyes open.
    • Look into TOGAF for free certification resources that can help you be a better Enterprise Architect. The test is $125.
      • This will make you learn the basics of Enterprise Architecture.
      • This is really about tying the tech back to the business. Without that you aren’t extremely valuable to anyone.
      • You have to be willing to accept change. Many folks have a career that is a weighted blanket. Be willing to get out of your comfort zone.
      • If you feel stupid a couple of times per day, you’re learning.
      • Brad is hitting the Nerd Journey bingo spots.
  • Something else about certification to know…

    • There are people who work at VARs who hold certifications so the VAR gets a deeper discount with the manufacturer.
    • If you are a customer that users a VAR, make sure the person who shows up knows more than you do.
      • Watch out for "paper tigers" in any area.
    • John gives additional insight into these partner programs and the idea behind them.
      • There are bad actors in the process.
    • Using a manufacturer’s professional services can be helpful, but it may come at a premium.
      • These folks to have had the practice.
  • What happened with the call from Sean Howard? It will have to be something we cover next time!

Contact us if you need help on the journey.

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