Welcome to episode 255 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 2 of an interview with Larry Roberts, discussing Larry’s experience as part of the IT group and his work on ERP system implementation, the cultural changes affecting him as a result of corporate acquisitions, his personal struggles with alcohol, and the story of his path to recovery and resilience.
Original Recording Date: 11-11-2023
Larry Roberts is a budding entrepreneur and owner of Red Hat Media. Red Hat Media focuses on podcasting, building better brands through podcasting, and building better podcasts through leveraging AI tools. If you missed part one of our discussion with Larry, check out Episode 254.
Topics – ERP and Implementation Experience, Acquisitions and the Struggles of Working in IT, A Changing Culture, Side Hustles, Getting Lost, Warning Signs and Recovery
- Mentioned in the intro
- We forgot to mention during the interview that ERP stands for enterprise resource planning. This is a business software with modules that integrate functions such as accounting, order entry, purchasing, warehouse operations, and perhaps transportation management into a single package.
3:36 – ERP and Implementation Experience
- Larry was brought into the fold very early in the ERP system implementation process. This was around 2000 or 2001.
- Larry feels like they had purchased the JD Edwards software already.
- There were discussions on the version they would use (one that was an experience more like using Windows and one that was more of a green screen terminal experience).
- Larry believes the decision had already been made to use the green screen version (JD Edwards World) of the application.
- John says one of his first jobs was a search for an ERP system application.
- John remembers being involved in determining if his company was going to choose the version with the GUI version or the green screen version.
- The green screen versions of the software usually ran on a mainframe and were extremely fast, having a number of keyboard shortcuts users would need to learn. It was a high ramp up time to get proficient, but once trained people could do everything without needing to use a mouse.
- The Windows versions looked prettier but were slower to use (lots of mouse clicks needed).
- Larry says the team went with the green screen version of the JD Edwards software due to the very customized versions of WMS (warehouse management systems), and this was also a big RPG Programming shop. The company wanted the customizability on the back end.
- Larry tells us he never really understood this decision, feeling like there was customization at each facility to match the way that facility did things instead of facilities adapting their processes to the way the system worked. It felt like each facility’s customizations were completely different.
- This decision is a tough one for any system according to Nick – do we change the way we’re doing things to fit this new solution or do we fit the solution to what we are already doing to prevent more work?
- People at Larry’s company even read Who Moved My Cheese to lay groundwork for change, but the change never really happened from what Larry saw.
- John remembers reading that book around the same time.
- Larry’s company grew through acquisitions and still does to this day. He says they reached the $1 billion mark in the last few years and continues to grow.
- John mentions we can often see technical debt at companies if they do not have a true merger and acquisition strategy and integrate ERP and other systems with the systems from the company which was acquired. Lack of data flowing electronically between systems can really slow down business processes around order flow and fulfillment.
- Larry mentioned his wife is going through this very thing and is teaching the JD Edwards system to accounting personnel from an acquisition so everyone can be on the same system.
8:43 – Acquisitions and the Struggles of Working in IT
- Larry says mergers and acquisitions really impacted his career. In one particular acquisition his company acquired another company and brought over a number of the people from the acquisition. Larry highlights this an extreme culture shift.
- “It changed my perception of my role and my position within the company quite a bit. That’s where things started to go a little south for me, and I started to realize ‘this isn’t where I started working. This isn’t the same company today.’ It’s still an amazing company. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t necessarily the fit for the company any more, and it made me have to start looking for some outside alternatives.” – Larry Roberts
- Larry tells us the experience working in IT was quite intimidating and that he was lost much of the time. He had taken a Pascal programming course at one point, but outside of Atari and Nintendo, it was his only introduction to technology.
- Larry did not know how he would survive in that environment. Team members would talk about RPG programming and other technology terms that he didn’t fully understand.
- Larry had to go through what he calls a “time of evolution.”
- Being part of the core team, Larry tells us there was probably a year of planning during which he and other members of the implementation team would visit a site to understand it operationally. Based on the observations, Larry and his team members would determine if they needed to make changes to the way the new ERP system would be implemented for the site in question’s operational processes or whether some operational processes needed to change to fit the new system.
- These visits were an opportunity to absorb some of the tribal knowledge at each facility. Larry was able to develop an intimate knowledge of the JD Edwards software (JDE as he calls it), how to navigate through the various screens, and a deep understanding of the back end database.
- “When you understand a database and you understand the data, at least from my perspective, I didn’t have to know the concept. I just had to know where to go to get the data that this person wants to see….And if I knew where to go get that, I could give them the information they were looking for.” – Larry Roberts
- There is a parallel here to understanding techniques (like throwing punches and kicks) but not understanding their application.
- Larry felt secure learning the data over the years. He says after the majority of the implementations were complete, they would only need to do implementations when there were acquisitions. The implementation process had been streamlined to the point where there was little to no training to do, and Larry was not traveling much to do training and teaching of ERP system users. Other members of the team who were doing business analysis and passing data back to programmers for these acquisitions would do that as part of the streamlined implementation process.
- Larry realized he needed to understand things at a more conceptual level. It was about understanding the data as well as how it applied to different departments. He needed to understand how the data could allow management to make decisions with information from the business at a transactional level.
- Larry says he started to flounder a little bit and started to improve in what he understood, but then the company started to expect more and wanted him to become a programmer.
- Larry considers himself more of a creative and feels programming is not his thing. He might get focused more on how a report looks and lose sight of the fact that the data in the report didn’t provide what someone needed.
- “I struggled in that arena, and that’s kind of where I was at at the end of my career with that company – still struggling with how to apply things conceptually.” – Larry Roberts
- Larry knew the database schemas well (database table layout). When this went one level up and they needed to measure how the business was doing, Larry was able to learn this as a skill (more of the context and concepts around the data). He started struggling when they wanted him to do things programmatically.
- Larry says he was skilled at writing SQL queries and considers himself above intermediate level. He would even train other people to write queries within the JD Edwards query tool to get day to day information that went beyond just reports. It was using the more complex languages like RPG programming and C# where he really started to struggle.
- People also called him “Crystal Larry” (a name he didn’t like) due to his expertise in Crystal Reports, and he would often teach and train others to use the software.
- “Crystal Reports, SQL…man I’m good to go, but we take it to that next evolution, that’s where I started having some issues.” – Larry Roberts
- Larry highlights ETL (extract, transform, load) processes as a challenge, things like writing a program to take data from multiple sources and normalize it.
- At this point in Larry’s career he was in his 40s and not eager to learn new things. There were people on the team fresh out of school or considerably younger (some in data science / with a data science degree) who were writing programs Larry couldn’t understand very well.
- Looking back Larry feels maybe he got a little desperate near the end of his tenure with that company.
17:12 – A Changing Culture
- Perhaps what Larry wanted to do was leave the company
- After absorbing the new company Larry referenced earlier, there were new people from the absorbed company placed in management roles. Larry ended up reporting to one of them.
- “The very first conversation I had with him…he called me his subordinate. And that did not resonate with me. And I let him know….And that was just our first encounter.” – Larry Roberts, on his first interaction with a manager
- Larry let his boss know that he wasn’t going to be called a subordinate but that he would be happy to show the respect that his boss’s role deserved by calling him sir.
- This new manager brought a very different culture that did not work for Larry, and nothing changed even when he gave feedback to people in higher levels of management.
- “This is just not the company that I grew to know and love, and I don’t really fit here. And I knew I didn’t fit there not just culturally, but I knew I didn’t fit there from a skills perspective either.” – Larry Roberts
- Larry felt his skillsets were dated, and the employees coming in were younger and doing amazing work. He felt threatened by not having the skillset to keep up with others but also did not feel motivated at the time to bridge the recognized skills gap.
- Though Larry was skilled at SQL, he didn’t love writing SQL queries or code. It was not personally rewarding even though the job was rewarding from a financial perspective.
- “We had all the toys we wanted. But, Monday through Friday from 7 AM until 6 PM and on call 24×7…the toys didn’t justify the responsibilities enough in my eyes at the time anymore. I started to become very jaded, less engaged…I just hated it. I grew to hate it. And I knew I had to get out.” – Larry Roberts, on compensation vs. job fulfillment
19:47 – Side Hustles
- Larry mentions burnout on the Red Hat Media website. How soon before leaving did he start to notice it was time to do so?
- Around 2017 / 2018 was when Larry founded a media company (not called Red Hat then). Larry had the idea that podcasting and content creation could be a full-time job (i.e. a way to exit the corporate world).
- Larry says even before this he’s always had some sort of side hustle. Even when he was loving his corporate job Larry had started a swimming pool company, growing it with the help of Google Ad Words. Larry says he grew the pool business to the point where he would either need to pursue it full time and leave his corporate job or sell the company.
- “And at the time I was still loving my job, and I just did not have that internal fortitude to cut that guaranteed paycheck and pursue that entrepreneurial journey. So I ended up selling the company.” – Larry Roberts, on selling off his pool business
- Before the swimming pool company Larry had a number of online businesses. As one example, he would sell all sorts of things on eBay (digital copies of manuals, etc.) and did much of that at work. Any money he made doing this was referred to as “mailbox money.”
- Larry started one online business that would break up with someone for you. Listen to the story he tells about it.
- “Side hustles were always my thing. I always had to have some fun on the side. This entrepreneurial thing wasn’t something I jumped on when I fell into podcasting. I’ve always had that entrepreneurial spirit on the side that kept me going too.” – Larry Roberts
- How did Larry feel about parting with companies he may have sold off?
- Larry had a lot of regrets selling the pool company and looking back wonders where he might be if he had kept it.
- Larry says he had over 50 customers when the swimming pool company was sold and 2 employees who worked under him. The person who recruited Larry into IT was a friend and mentor (and still is), allowing Larry to arrange his schedule to do both his normal job and run the pool company. He would work 6 AM – 3 PM for example and still have time to take care of pool customers after work.
- Things were in place to make the pool business as successful as it could be, but at the time Larry didn’t have the courage to step into it full time. It’s the only endeavor he started that he regrets letting go.
23:48 – Getting Lost
- In 2014 Larry became interested in podcasting.
- If you recall, Larry continued practicing martial arts even after getting a job in the corporate world. After training with some excellent fighters and realizing he wasn’t going to make it to the UFC as a martial artist, he felt a little lost.
- Larry was born with a birth defect leaving him with only 60% of the average person’s lung capacity.
- “Once…I started fighting athletes that knew how to fight, it was over. And there was nothing, nothing I could do to overcome that because I had no gas tank….That was a very difficult, difficult time in my life…that realization.” – Larry Roberts, on reaching a peak in his fighting career
- After his happened, Larry threw himself into corporate life. The implementation team he worked on was a tight knit group almost like a fraternity.
- “Everybody hung out together, everybody was kind of family-esque….We would work, and then after we would get off work we would go to a bar. And we would hang out at the bar, and we’d close the bar down. And that became life for the longest time.” – Larry Roberts
- Larry likes to throw himself into things he does wholeheartedly, and he threw himself into partying heavily. Partying was not something he had done in his earlier years.
- In November 2013 alcohol became a problem to the point where he had to go to rehab. In July of the same year Larry had to go into the hospital for several days for alcohol poisoning.
- After returning from the hospital, the person who had hired Larry in the IT department (now a VP) confronted him about the problem. Others at work knew Larry had been drinking and the real reason why he was in the hospital. Larry was given a choice – if the issue happened again he would either go to rehab or have to find a new job.
- Larry says he cleaned up for a couple of months, but the habit slowly crept back slowly with consumption levels rising over time.
- “And before you knew it I was just in a complete state of utter chaos.” – Larry Roberts, on slowly starting to drink again after trying to kick the habit
- Looking back, Larry isn’t quite sure why the company didn’t fire him. But they didn’t. The company really cared about their employees.
- Gin was Larry’s drink of choice. Thinking back on the times right before he went to rehab, Larry remembers being pretty low and having a moment of clarity. Listen to Larry tell the full story.
- “I had a realization that if I didn’t get help right then, I wasn’t going to see tomorrow.” – Larry Roberts
- Larry reached out to a friend and co-worker (Kenny), saying he needed help. Kenny pulled in Ray (the boss and VP who had hired Larry originally) and Larry’s wife to take him to rehab.
- Larry was taken to a very distinguished rehab center thanks to some arrangements Ray had made. Upon initially arriving at rehab, Larry had to be taken to the hospital to stabilize his vitals.
- After several days in the hospital Larry went to the recovery wing of the rehab center for about a week and then went through the process for around 7 more weeks. At that point he was sober.
- Larry had done a lot of damage to his nervous system and was in some pain. But the treatment and the rehab process was effective.
28:45 – Warning Signs and Recovery
What other warning signs were present aside from the conversation with Ray?
- Larry says his inner circle encouraged him to “dial it back.”
- There were also physical warnings.
- Larry had paranoia and could not drive on a highway without having a panic attack (i.e. shaking in fear). He ignored this and would drive on side streets and through neighborhoods instead (which did not cause panic).
- “I love to drive with the windows down and the tunes cranked up and just escape in my ride. But I couldn’t do that anymore.” – Larry Roberts, on the physical warning signs of an alcohol problem
- When there was any kind of stress (even the smallest bit), Larry’s body would be drenched in sweat. He remembers one specific instance of being called into a late afternoon meeting and beginning to sweat through his pants to the point where his khakis looked like camouflage.
- Larry was missing work because of his drinking. In fact, he was out of work for 2-3 weeks right before going to rehab. Without that moment of clarity, Larry might have continued to drink until it was over.
- “You’re playing this game, and now the game’s over. This is it. This is your last call. So do you really want it to be over? Or do you want to reach out and say, yeah, I gotta do something about this? Thankfully I reached out and did something about it.” – Larry Roberts
- Larry was supposed to be at rehab for 6 weeks but felt he wasn’t ready to go home yet or ready for social interaction. After a brief lunch with his wife, he asked her to take him back to rehab for another week.
- “I went back and I did another week, and at the end of that week I was ready…because I think I had that time to mentally prepare myself and…go through some discussions that helped me balance out the reality of the situation….” – Larry Roberts, on going back for an additional week of rehab
After finishing his rehab, Larry was on a number of medications. Certain things did and did not work once he was sober and integrating back into regular life. The intent is to share his experience.
- Larry did not attend support meetings after the fact, finding that meetings were not his thing. If you are reading this or listening and need to attend them to help on your own journey to sobriety, please do it!
- We cite two support organizations each person in rehab had to choose from – Alcoholics Anonymous (or AA) and SMART (Self-Management and Recovery Training).
- Larry chose SMART because there was a goal / end, which was sobriety.
- The model of Alcoholics Anonymous (a continual program) did not work for Larry. While Larry does have an addictive personality, he does not consider himself an alcoholic any longer.
- Larry’s employer had taken care of him in putting him through rehab and upon return, no one was allowed to ask him about where he was or what he had been doing.
- Overall, Larry says this was a very difficult time in his life.
Mentioned in the outro
- Larry’s entrepreneurial endeavors alongside his main career speaks to the balance of passions with professional responsibilities. It also may hint at the path to becoming a successful full-time business owner (more on that next week).
- Larry was amazingly candid in what he shared related to his struggles with alcohol. There was a key role of supportive community in his recovery. So many were willing to help, and we got to hear about his personal resilience afterward.
- John can see parallels in this section of the discussion to other people’s experience with burnout, anxiety, depression, and a number of issues we face during our careers that may cause us to not be as effective as we could be or once were.