Back to Basics: Technology Bets and Industry Relationships with Brad Christian (2/2)

This week in episode 264 we’re joined by returning guest Brad Christian. In this discussion Brad shares how he selected the technologies on which to focus certification efforts, the story of getting laid off, how he determined working for a VAR (Value Added Reseller) was the right next move, and how we should be intentional in connecting with others in our industry.

Original Recording Date: 01-15-2024

Brad Christian is a returning guest and is currently a Solutions Specialist at Computacenter. If you missed part 1 of this discussion with Brad or are looking for links to previous discussions with him, check out Episode 263.

Topics – Making a Bet on Technologies for Certification and Focus, Decision to Work for a VAR, Getting Laid Off, Making Connections, Discussing Money, Leaving Leadership

3:01 – Making a Bet on Technologies for Certification and Focus

  • We’ve spoken to previous guests about making a bet on technology, and it has to be timed appropriately with technology waves. How did Brad know where to place his bet, and what was the decision process he used?
    • Brad says right now in our industry is weird. The largest security company in the world is Microsoft. It’s going to be difficult for anyone to see the future clearly from here.
    • Not every bet you make to train on a specific technology pays off.
    • “When I haven’t known what to do…one thing is clear. Doubling down on fundamentals is not going to hurt you.” – Brad Christian, on where to place your emphasis
    • Brad thinks the demand for cloud native tools in on-premises environments will only increase.
      • With the rise of AI, Brad would advise people not to put intellectual property on a cloud, especially leaders. Security would dictate that data come back on-premises, but some of the hardware requirements are pretty crazy. Preparing for this is smart.
      • Security will be come more important, and the number of breaches will increase. Brad also thinks GDPR will come to the US.
      • Brad prefers the distributed system approach as opposed to complete centralization. Many workloads will be right for cloud, but there will be those that have to live on-premises.
      • There will be more storage companies that rise like WEKA.
      • Brad also says baking FinOps into all of this is an important bet.
      • Brad foresees more workload variability and continued growth in the edge space.
      • Brad’s advice for younger listeners or those relatively new to tech is to go and learn networking (get certified there).
        • The future will be more about things moving around. Storage will be easier to learn when you need it.
      • Learn about the different workloads which exist and how that is changing.
      • There are a lot of missing tools and processes when it comes to Kubernetes.
      • There is a lot of FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt).
      • Brad also believes Red Hat isn’t going anywhere.
    • Brad shares the story of attending a Red Hat user group recently and being the youngest person there.
      • It would be wise for younger folks to get out and attend user groups like this.
      • VMUG attendance dwindled as a result of COVID and hasn’t bounced back to take one example.
      • Going to meetups is going to get more important moving forward!
      • If you only know cloud services like AWS today, Brad would encourage you to go and learn the on-premises technologies.
      • “Learn the hard things. If you’ve been taught to do everything the easy way at scale, learn why we built all that stuff in the first place.” – Brad Christian
    • John says making a bet on Red Hat isn’t so much a bet on a vendor but more of a bet on foundational Linux (even if some distributions have differences).
      • This is a solid choice but also something not a lot of people have in their toolbox (as evidenced by attending meetups and Brad being the youngest attendee). It’s also not a bleeding edge choice either.
      • Linux is used both in the cloud and in many mission critical systems on-premises too (think storage arrays that want a more lightweight operating system than Windows, for example).
      • Nick likes the back to basics approach. It’s back to basics but branching out into an area where Bad maybe hasn’t gone as deep previously. It’s in line with deepening breadth.
      • John mentioned Linux is the basis for Kubernetes as well. From there, Kubernetes is often the basis for AI workloads and tooling too. Making a technology choice like Brad’s takes into account where the industry is headed, the decisions organizations are making around these technologies, and also there is a lack of people who have the expertise.
  • Brad mentioned speaking to a startup that developed an appliance that delivered virtualization and Kubernetes to make it easier to operate and more secure to prevent developers from getting into the hardware layer.
    • Brad considered working for this startup, but after speaking to this company for several weeks, working for a VAR made more sense because it was more broad. That and there was a bad taste left in his mouth from the experience at the startup.
    • Kubernetes as a technology also isn’t that old, but if there’s something to come after it, it will be built on Linux!

12:59 – Decision to Work for a VAR

  • Brad worked at the startup for a little over a year (1 year, 3 months or so) before his team was let go. About a year of that was working as a cloud economist.
    • “So I didn’t even really get the masterclass in marketing that I had wanted. You know, I was heavily involved with it for a while, but I spent way more time learning finances.” – Brad Christian
    • When looking for his next choice after leaving the startup, Brad’s wife asked him where he was happiest. She pointed out that he loved working for a VAR.
    • At first that suggestion seemed like a step back to Brad, especially after working so hard to get the VCDX and later work for VMware. In his previous work at a VAR (Sigma Solutions, which later became Pivot), Brad was part of the delivery team that would stand up VMware environments for customers.
      • “I really worked hard to get my VCDX so I could move to what I thought was the next step, which was going to work for a big OEM.” – Brad Christian
      • All the effort paid off. Brad even wrote a book after joining VMware and had reached a comfortable financial level for his family.
    • Brad’s wife suggested he speak to some of the people he used to work with at VARs. Many of them Brad is still friends with today.
    • “There’s so much disruption and change going on. Who’s going to capitalize on all this disruption and change? The VARs are. Where are companies turning to for advice on designing solutions for what’s going on? They’re turning to VARs.” – Brad Christian
    • Brad started speaking to some of the VARs in the Dallas / Fort Worth metroplex and received a call from a former co-worker at Pivot. When asked if he had considered Computacenter, Brad had never heard of the company.
    • The company Brad worked for a while back, Pivot, was acquired by Fusion Storm and later bought by Computacenter in an effort to expand their reach into the Americas.
      • Computacenter was well versed in supply chain management, end-to-end capability management, and an international reach and scope that fascinated Brad.
      • They also had unobtanium levels of vendor certifications. Brad mentions VARs need to have a certain number of people on staff certified in a technology (hardware / software) to sell that technology solution. Computacenter had reached the highest levels of certifications in every category.
      • “What really sold it for me was…all the people that I had worked with 8 years before, 9 years before were still there…. That right there was what convinced me that this was the right company…finding out how many people had stayed with that organization through that many buyouts…hearing that people had stayed and being able to work with people I knew. So I walked in the door, and it felt like I was coming home…. It felt like I left my small town, went off to the big city, and now I’m back.” – Brad Christian, on the decision to move to Computacenter

17:34 – Getting Laid Off

  • Nick loves the clarity Brad’s wife provided in making the suggestion he consider moving to a VAR again.
  • Though Brad hinted at it earlier in the discussion, we clarify that he was indeed laid off from the startup before moving to Computacenter.
    • Brad was on a team of architects, and after a couple of them were let go, the rest of the team were let go, including him.
    • It was a random invite that showed up on Brad’s calendar that tipped him off it was coming.
    • Brad felt he had learned all he could from the startup but did learn a leadership lesson there.
      • Brad had only been in 2 meetings with his manager over the course of about a year.
      • For anyone who thinks this rare contact with your manager sounds like a good thing, it is not. Brad calls it out as extremely stressful. All he could do was try to make an impact in each meeting he attended, but he was not tied into the leadership chain.
      • “I cannot think of a meaner thing to do to somebody than be their manager and not meet with them at least once a month, once a quarter, something!” – Brad Christian, on interactions with your manager
      • When he was let go, Brad was not surprised a bit relieved in many ways upon being let go.
  • How can people pick themselves up after a layoff?
    • It’s a blow to the ego, and we cannot let it keep us down.
    • Americans often allow their job to define them.
    • “You’re not going to get a gold watch. That just doesn’t happen any more. What gives you longevity is your relationships in the industry.” – Brad Christian, quoting advice a leader once gave him
    • We have to get out and meet people outside our company, and Brad would advise we need to make sure we’re on LinkedIn. Try going to lunch with people you know in the industry once per month.
    • “Hang on to those relationships. And think about who you haven’t reached out to in a long time. Don’t call because you need something. Call to keep those relationships alive.” – Brad Christian
    • Upon being laid off, Brad put a post on LinkedIn about what had happened. He tells us every lead on a new job he received came from that post.
    • Brad applied online with Microsoft as a VCDX to work on their networking and security solutions but couldn’t get through any automated filters. It was a similar story trying to apply at other big companies like NVIDIA. He would recommend we not try to apply online with companies without knowing someone.
    • “It’s gonna be people that will help you get your next role. So don’t feel beat up by the situation. Just reach out and talk to folks. Take some time. Take a deep breath.” – Brad Christian
    • Brad thought he might retire from VMware, but that wasn’t the case. It’s critically important for us to stay in touch with others.
    • John loves the advice of not just calling when you need something. If given the opportunity to provide advice or a recommendation to others, we should do it. People will remember it. You’re putting positivity out there.
    • Two or three times per week, Brad likes to look on LinkedIn and see what is happening with people in his network. If someone was laid off that you know, reach out to them!
      • “The hardest thing about a layoff is not getting the new job…. It’s how psychologically torn up we get by it. You get really beat up.” – Brad Christian, on layoffs
    • Brad mentions many people have had a rough time through COVID-19 up to now. Our industry was impacted heavily by it. It’s up to us to help each other through the hard times.
      • Brad mentions he’s lost friends in the last several years. Some people just sort of disappeared.
    • We need to remind people of how smart they are if they have been impacted by a layoff.
      • Brad has received numerous calls from people he’s worked with or hired who have lost their self-confidence.
      • “And I think a lot of people just need to hear that…that, you know, they are good.” – Brad Christian
      • Pre-sales engineers for example require a level of confidence to go and do their job.
      • “I’m one of the people that loses energy from talking to folks, so the most precious thing I have to give people is my time and energy. So reach out to folks who need it, and give it to them.” – Brad Christian, on being an introvert yet investing in relationships with others

24:28 – Making Connections

  • “The more you give the more there is. The more positivity you put out there the more there is…and that’s how there’s a dividend.” – John White, on investing in people
  • There are herds of people who move between companies together. Since Brad isn’t really a joiner and finds it hard to join a group like this, he chooses to put out good karma.
    • “Every good thing that’s happened to me in my career came from just putting out good karma…. Just keep putting out good karma, and good things will come back to you.” – Brad Christian
    • Brad mentions taking over as leader of a VMware User Group was one of the smartest things he has done to date and has helped his career and earnings potential tremendously. Brad would tell you it was like another full time job, but he met so many great people that he still runs into in Dallas / Fort Worth.
  • Nick likes the idea of scheduling time to open up LinkedIn and check in on people based on this discussion. John feels inspired to create a systematic way to reach out to the connections he hasn’t connected with as frequently on LinkedIn.
    • Nick suggests John should write a script in NeoVim that he can run on a RedHat server to call the LinkedIn API to do what he wants.
  • Nick mentioned being asked by his wife at one point who he would call first if something happened and he lost his job. Though Nick had several names floating around in his head, he didn’t have the list prioritized and wasn’t sure who would be the first call. And yes, John was on that list!
    • This is a good thought exercise for anyone at any company.
    • Maybe we can also keep tabs on our company by staying close to the money and paying attention to how well the company is doing from a fiscal perspective.
    • Brad tells us the segmentation of the customers you serve matters as well. He would tell anyone in pre-sales to stay away from working with a single large corporation. One of the best ways to spread the risk is to work in a commercial segment with a number of smaller customers.
    • “That’s the other big thing when it comes to jobs and roles and all that…our egos get in the way.” – Brad Christian
    • Nick mentions there’s an unspoken caste system in pre-sales where people seem to believe working with big customers makes you the best of the best somehow. That is not true. There are talented people everywhere and at every company regardless of its size and what their role in tech is

29:51 – Discussing Money

  • Brad mentions talking about money is something we do not do in the United States. He’s spoken about this at VMUG meetings in the past.
    • “The only people that don’t want you talking about how much you make is leadership. We have this weird cultural thing in the US where we don’t want to talk about how much we make. It’s stupid.” – Brad Christian
    • Brad mentioned being shocked at the startup about how little people in pre-sales made, and the salary range discrepancies were significant between colleagues in the same role. It was because people didn’t talk to each other and didn’t know.
    • “When you talk to friends, talk about how much you’re making.” – Brad Christian, on sharing salary information with others
    • In our country (the US), we don’t seem to want to talk about how much we make.
    • It’s against the law for a manager to tell someone not to discuss how much they make. Reference the National Labor Relations Act.
    • “So before you go work somewhere, you should be able to walk into that conversation and know what to ask for.” – Brad Christian, on discussing salary information with others
    • John mentions there are a number of new laws requiring companies to post salaries / salary bands on job listings. Some states have even made it illegal to ask what you have made in the past because it’s a bias or anchor point.
    • “Just remember, good managers want to pay you what you’re worth.” – Brad Christian
    • A manager’s hands may be tied by HR when it comes to making the final decisions on salary.
    • Brad says it is really hard to justify a salary increase for someone not getting paid as much as everyone else on the team after they are hired (i.e. get them “caught up” to everyone else).
    • If your direct manager doesn’t want to pay you more, that person is the problem. In fact, Brad says a good manager should make suggestions and bring up some ways you can help justify pay grade increases.
    • Remember there are also pay bands based on your job level. Good managers don’t want to hire someone at the top of a pay band because there is no way to give you a raise.
      • Keeping someone at 10% below the top of their pay band is ideal.
      • It may be that you need to ask for lower pay in the next pay band up to have room for raises.
      • John mentioned in his role there is no personal benefit to pay someone less, and if there was, he would find a new place to work. Ideally you want everyone on your team being top performers and making a ton of money.

33:30 – Leaving Leadership

  • Brad mentions some advice on leaving leadership. He suggests debunking the myth that we need to climb a ladder to advance our career.
    • “You do not have to stop being an individual to advance your career…. There are ways to get promoted and to stay in your technical role and not become a leader. You don’t have to do it. Not everybody is comfortable doing leadership. And even if you do leadership, it is a skill of its own.” – Brad Christian
    • Brad mentions when he achieved staff engineer he was at the same level as a senior manager. We can stay technical without needing to become a people leader.
    • People leadership is a skill to be learned, and it is not for everyone. Brad tells us it is definitely political, whether you like it or not.
    • “So don’t feel like you’ve got to climb the ladder because no matter how high you go up the ladder, there’s more ladder. Even CEOs have a boss…shareholders.” – Brad Christian
  • Brad tells us if you become a manager it is not a big deal to go back to individual contributor. If anything, Brad feels like he is more skilled as a pre-sales engineer now after having been a manager.
    • Brad understands more about what is happening within the organization and the stress his boss has.
    • Brad mentions also having held a team lead role in the past. He now understands what his own team lead is going through.
    • “That makes me better at my job. If I make their life easier, they make my life easier, and we all have each others’ back. So don’t be afraid to go back down to individual contributor.”
    • While Brad may pursue management again someday, for now he is under less stress and having fun learning.

Mentioned in the Outro

  • If you’re looking for more resources on layoffs for yourself or someone else, check out Episode 237 – The Psychological Transition of Layoffs with guest Leanne Elliott. It is the ultimate layoff resource and episode jumping off point.
  • Though our discussion of risk and proximity to money was titled toward pre-sales, think about it like this for technology operations:
    • Check out the mention of the Business Unit Information Security Officer or BISO in Episode 253 – Building Trust as an Interim Leader with Russell Swinney (2/2). Though you may not be a BISO, working in technology operations for a business unit likely means your salary is paid by the operating expense budget of the business unit in question.
      • The scope and focus of your impact is likely limited to this business unit, and if the business unit is not doing well financially, it could put you at risk.
      • Maybe it’s less risky to work for a centralized technology team that services many business units. Does this centralization have potential to take you further away from money? Maybe. But, regardless of your situation, look at each project to determine whether it helps one or more business units bring in more top line revenue, increase potential customers, decrease risk, or decrease cost.
    • Hiring managers have to take risks when hiring someone. What if the candidate is experienced in the right technologies but does not have experience at the scale needed to service the organization?
      • It could be a perceived risk from the hiring manager’s perspective. The risk is less if everyone else on the team has the experience at scale and can help the person onboard / learn the principles of scale. On a very small team it might be much more risky not to have someone with experience at scale.
  • The idea of decreasing risk can apply to certifications as well.
    • Brad took into account market conditions in our industry and where he believes things are going (trends he sees happening). It wasn’t just about something Brad liked but also what he felt would be relevant for years to come.
    • Try looking at job descriptions for the type of job you want in different areas, and speak to industry peers about what they are studying / learning and why? Understand their reasons for the decision.

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