Apprentice, Amplifier, and People Developer with Don Jones (2/2)

Welcome to episode 138 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 share part 2 of the interview with Don Jones. We’ll discuss the difference between job and career, developing people and owning your career, apprenticeship, and thoughts on time boxing.

Original Recording Date: 07-14-2021

Don Jones (find him on LinkedIn and Twitter) started in the tech industry in the 1990s, has authored around 60 technical books, and is currently Head of Developer Skills for Pluralsight. Catch part 1 of our interview with Don in Episode 137.

Topics – Owning Your Tech Career, Job vs. Career and Developing People, Thoughts on Apprenticeship, Ampere Club, Time Boxing and Parting Thoughts

4:03 – Owning Your Tech Career

  • In the first chapter of Don’s book, he suggests defining what success looks like in your life (the kind of life you want to live outside of work, the type of job that offers this, etc.) and then charting a path to the success.
    • Re-evaluate as your life changes (get married, have a family, etc.).
    • Be ruthless about chasing the success, but once you get there stop. Stop and enjoy it.
    • Most people don’t think about an endpoint (get on staircase and never stop climbing).
  • Companies love to hire good individual contributors and turn them into managers because of the institutional knowledge those already on the inside have.
    • Understanding what is happening can help you figure out the best decision for you.
    • John mentions network is also a part of this.

8:43 – Job vs. Career and Developing People

  • Don believes in the difference between job and career. Your employer owns your job and needs to give you tools needed to do it.
  • You own your career. It is the thing that will get you the next job. You are in charge of its care and feeding.
    • Maybe you need to go take a class that has nothing to do with your job.
    • If your current company does not have a path for you to get promoted, get your career in shape to go to a company that does have that step. This is all your responsibility.
    • Acquiring new talent is challenging for companies.
    • Don tells his people that if they outgrow the company, he will write the letter of recommendation for the next employer, wanting more for the person to achieve their own success.
      • "Focus on it, chase it, and let me know how I can help get you there…even if it means you need to leave." – Don Jones
      • This is leadership. Not management
    • Not every organization has the natural next progression for you.
    • Bigger organizations have more rungs.
  • What if someone has a conversation with the boss about reaching a level and the boss says that level is not available here?
    • If you let Don know you need to grow and what success looks like, he is still looking at the people behind you that are more junior.
    • Listen to Don’s story about the keyholder at Electronics Boutique and being able to do all the jobs, making it easy for him to advance.
    • Don is big on exposing team members to as much different experience and responsibility as they are interested in taking on. If the opportunity comes up, the person will be ready.
  • One of the reasons we hate promoting people out of the company is hiring a replacement.
    • If I have done my job well as a manager, I have laddered out potential fills and hopefully only have to fill an entry level position (making it easier to hire folks).
    • Don thinks one way to support diversity is creating promotion chains that leave empty spots at the bottom, which allows bringing young people in.
    • If a manager is confident in upskilling the person, he / she can guide the individual wherever they want to go.
    • Don thinks a lot about succession planning and wants everyone to be ready to move up.
  • Asking your leader / manager to explain things in small words. It’s ok to do that and is good exposure for the team.
  • Don is a big proponent of asking the team for a recommendation, letting them modify it, and then saying "yes, we will do what you suggested."
  • John likes this focus on team building, feeling like a Sales Engineer has to be more aligned with an organization’s success metrics (that of your manager and the manager above that).
  • At the end of the day, Don loves teaching. That’s how he thinks about it.
    • For most of us, learning has been a push activity. We’re not encouraged to be curious so much as we are being told what to learn and being taught it.
    • It’s similar in college. Many of us do not develop professional curiosity.
    • Is lifelong learner the proper term to use for those who like learning? Don thinks it is not.
      • Each day Don posts on Twitter something called inspiration for daily learning (usually a Wikipedia article that Don reads in 10-15 minutes).
      • This helps develop curiosity. When you force the brain to be curious and force it to learn, it will be more curious and be better at learning.
      • When someone says something at work, maybe you’ll get curious about it and turn learning into a push activity.
      • Listen to Don’s story about people who said they wouldn’t be able to utilize desired state configuration (DSC) back when he was teaching it.
      • A lack of curiosity can make it harder to learn something when you need to learn it. If you condition your brain to learn daily, it will make learning easier.

21:58 – Thoughts on Apprenticeship

  • John mentioned there’s not a clear place to go in order to become an apprentice in a technology related field.
  • Some countries like Germany do a better job of baking in apprenticeship into their processes.
    • Don has worked with banks that hired people out of high school and trained them (i.e. the apprentice model).
    • The formal apprentice model exists in various trades.
  • There are two reasons we don’t do apprenticeships in technology.
    • Very few companies know how to use learning as a tactical business tool (see it as overhead or as a fire drill).
      • If anyone can learn to do something in tech, why not get really good at teaching the skills needed for specific aptitudes and hire for the diversity we want?
      • We hire for skills but can’t teach someone to have a different cultural background.
      • If I know how to teach my people how to learn and they know how to learn, we can measure it.
      • Constant changing in tech requires constant learning. If you’re a learning company you can confidently teach skills, have some idea of how long it will take to do so, and manage the business in a better way.
      • Most companies don’t do this well. It’s hard.
      • Don’s answer might be the best Nick has ever heard to the age old question of "why do we need to learn this?"
    • Apprenticeships are long term investments. The military invested millions of dollars to train Don and others. We need longer term workforce thinking.
    • John mentioned the apprenticeship association with trades may class with the "white collar" job concept.
    • One of the people Don knows who makes the most money is a concrete contractor.
      • In the 1960s there was an idea that working a trade was somehow beneath everyone compared to the college track.
      • IT is a blue collar job. White collar trades (medical / legal / banks) have apprenticeships.
      • We have interns, but an apprenticeship is a longer term commitment.
  • Instead of seeking an expensive piece of paper while going into debt, why not learn to code?
    • Learn Java or C#, and you will get a job faster with little to no debt.
    • John mentions there is still a class barrier between jobs in the trades and other jobs.
      • Don mentioned we are seeing more companies turn to insourcing programs for gaining candidates with tech skills.
      • Companies are finding that this is an investment but that the return is there. Maybe the needle will swing in the other direction.
      • A lot of distortion in the labor market has come into view as a result of the pandemic.
        • People had over a year to breathe and decide what they want out of life. Now they are starting to voice and demand those things.
        • People taking control of their careers and shaping the market will have a positive multi-generational effect.

33:28 – Ampere Club

  • Ampere Club is a project Don put together to help technology professionals interested in owning their career collect with likeminded people.
    • There is a free option to sign up for a monthly newsletter.
    • This is about building soft skills, building career skills, career management advice, and business acumen.
    • The paid version is about $60 per year and gets you a weekly newsletter.
    • All content from newsletters is available on the Ampere Club site and equates to the amount of content in an entire book over the course of a year.
    • There is a virtual event taking place October 7-8, 2021 called AmpNavigator that is low cost ($50) and free for paid members to attend.
      • There are a couple of dozen speakers on tap, including representation from recruitment firms.
      • There will be a place to connect as well (i.e. a Slack space or something else).
      • Don is offering 1-1 career coaching also.
      • If you attend, take the advice you can use from the presenters.
  • Sometimes just asking a question is helping other people.
    • An answer will come of that. The conversation will be moved along as a result, and maybe it flipped a switch for someone listening.
    • John cites our participation in the Spiceworks Community and the transition from question asker to question answerer.
  • Don cites the precursor to Own Your Tech Career, a book called Be the Master.
    • Don wrote a blog article back in 2017 called Be the Master or Go away.
    • The idea here is every question you ask that is answered by someone else creates a debt…a debt for you to pay forward to someone else by contributing.
    • Get over the impostor syndrome, and get out there! Many people start answering questions and get addicted to it.
      • Some folks end up running user groups, moderating forums, and coordinating community events…all because they answered that first question.
      • You’re modeling to others that it is ok to make a mistake and ok to be wrong. But you’re modeling for them that it is ok to participate.
  • Maybe counting the number of likes / retweets, and spice ups isn’t the proper measurement for our impact.
    • If the internet did not exist and you had the ability to help one kid learn something that eventually unlocked their life, would you do it?
    • It only takes one person to make it worth your time.
  • Amplifiers are worth more in an organization, and this is a huge part of your personal brand.
    • Hiring is a decision about inflicting a human being on a carefully curated team.
    • Don shares that hiring is incredibly hard.
    • Proof of work that you’re someone who amplifies and helps others is what hiring managers want to see.
    • Community engagement is a tremendous part of your brand. Start way before you need to leverage it.

42:31 – Time Boxing and Parting Thoughts

  • Don time boxes his time for community participation. He has a time flip device that helps him inventory where time is spent.

    • Don found that he preferred to eliminate Facebook time and focus on Q and A forum time. This was how was born.
    • Maybe you take 25-30 minutes to contribute and then move on to the next thing.
    • The danger for all of us is to think that a thing will bring us discipline.
    • The time flip is about inventorying reality. Inventorying it lets you see what reality looks like and adjust (based on data).
      • Listen to how Don does this (find out first, choose to make a decision).
      • Don figured out spending around 1 hour building an outline for his novels was more productive than spending 2 hours building an outline.
        • In the writing process, writing mode and editing mode have to be different.
        • If Don is not in a writing mood one day, he chooses to do something else (which is why he has 3-4 projects going).
  • John suggests having Don back to discuss the transition for people who are looking to add something to their plate how they can progress to blogger or content developer.

  • On LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, Don is @concentrateddon. His main website is Ampere Club is his career project.

  • Check out [Episode 45 – Career Conversations with Your Manage( It is likely we did not cover all the great nuggets Don shared about developing his people.

  • Check out Episode 127 with Tom Hollingsworth on guarding against grinding away to nothing by setting proper goals.

Contact us if you need help on the journey.

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