Continuous Learning: The Drum Beat of Technical Perseverance with Justin Kelly (1/2)

What do drumming in a heavy metal band, achieving Cisco networking certifications, being part of a supportive technical community and family, and going back to school to study Windows and Active Directory have in common? All of these elements contributed to Justin Kelly landing his first role in tech. Justin, our guest this week in episode 270, is a CEO, a co-founder, and an advocate of continuous learning for his employees. This week we share the story of perseverance in Justin’s own learning journey to gain the expertise needed to work in IT.

Original Recording Date: 03-30-2024

Topics – Meet Justin Kelly, Motivated to Learn, Thoughts on Technical Certifications and Job Candidates, That First IT Job, Leaving a Good Culture and Exposure to New Things, Noticing Stress

2:29 – Meet Justin Kelly

  • Justin Kelly is the co-founder and CEO of Secure Bearing, LLC, an IT services provider.
    • Secure Bearing helps its customers (mostly Fortune 500 companies) with the full project lifecycle (architecture and design, implementation, migration, etc.) in the following areas – datacenter, campus networks, and network security. In addition to this, they help customers automate the operations of networking and networking security.
  • Justin has worked in technology for about 14 years but has had an interest in computers since he was very young.
    • Justin says his family was gifted a computer when he was young that ran IBM DOS and had 5.25" disks.
    • One weekend Justin took the computer apart, and it never worked again. But this created a spark of interest in technology even then.
    • One of Justin’s closest friends always had computers, and Justin was able to spend time tinkering with and learning about computers.
    • Justin knew at that time he wanted to do something later in life revolving around computers. It was only later in life Justin would learn just how many niches existed when it came to working in technology.
    • John mentions the pattern of the tinkerer that we’ve seen in other guests who would take electronics apart without a fear of breaking something. Justin feels he takes a tinkerer’s approach to many situations even today.

5:14 – Motivated to Learn

  • In his early 20s Justin was a heavy metal drummer. At that time, he met someone who encouraged him to try Cisco networking. This person let Justin borrow some networking equipment and an old CCNA book. CCNA stands for Cisco Certified Network Associate.
    • “It just changed my whole perspective, and I was hooked.” – Justin Kelly, on first discovering Cisco and then seeking to get into IT
    • Justin shares the catch 22 of our industry. We need experience to get a job but need the job to get the experience. John says we’re really not great about giving entry level opportunities (i.e. no previous experience required) in this industry.
  • Being a heavy metal band drummer might be seemingly one of the farthest away compared to what many think is a “typical” path into IT.
    • See also Episode 174 on Dominique Top’s origin story at the Dutch Pop Academy.
    • Being a drummer was not Justin’s day job. He had been working at various warehouses to support himself. The band was just something he and other bandmates did for fun.
    • The genesis of Justin’s desire to be a drummer in this band was to connect with his brother (a guitarist in the band) since the two did not have a close relationship growing up.
    • Justin credits becoming a drummer as teaching him perseverance through pain (in this case a lot of practicing) or what he calls to the ability “sweat it out.”
    • Justin had bought a book on drumming and practiced on the drum kit his brother’s band had stored in their garage. One day while they were playing he started playing the drums along with them. Listen to Justin’s retelling of the story.
  • John says teaching himself how to be a drummer sounds similar to Justin teaching himself Cisco networking via the CCNA book we mentioned earlier.
    • Justin says the motivation to learn Cisco networking was a little different than being a drummer. He had wanted to work in IT but was not close enough to break into it, and at the same time, desired to pull himself out of poverty.
    • Justin mentions going to LAN parties for video gaming at different times in his life, but he didn’t know anything about networking then.
    • “I knew nothing about networking. It was compelling to crack that book and see the possibility of learning something new.” – Justin Kelly
  • Did Justin tell someone he wanted to break into IT? We wanted to know if that’s how he ended up getting the CCNA book.
    • Justin worked for a technology equipment warehouse doing “data security.” Companies would ship hardware to this warehouse that would either need to be destroyed or have data that needed to be wiped out before being destroyed (i.e. hard drives erased).
    • Justin could wipe out hard drives on any computers sent to this warehouse as part of his job, but that was the extent of what he could do.
    • The friend who gave Justin the Cisco gear and book had heard Justin talking about it and encouraged studying to take the exam. It was a gentle push of encouragement.
      • John has experienced a similar encouragement when people suggested he get different jobs in the past.
    • Justin says the unsolicited vote of confidence from a friend was a big motivator. This same friend also invited Justin to attend a meetup group for people working toward a CCIE (or Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert).
      • “Just being in awe of people who have mastered a craft was another source of motivation.” – Justin Kelly, on attending a meetup group of CCIEs
      • Being a part of this community of people was a fantastic experience for Justin. Everyone in the group was extremely welcoming and supportive despite him joining as a beginner compared to many others.
      • One member of the group in particular stayed in touch with Justin and held him accountable to finish the lab portion of the exam after he had completed and passed the written portion.
      • “Even to this day I liked to be around people smarter than me. There’s just absolutely no room for my own personal growth…when I am ‘the smartest person in the room.’ It’s not what I’m about.” – Justin Kelly
      • John has mentioned in previous discussions his desire to work with smart people who are smart in ways different than him. That way not everyone has the same weaknesses and blind spots.
      • As the owner of a company now, Justin likes to give back by mentoring others, motivating them, providing feedback, and watching others grow.
      • John says we don’t all give back the same way. There is not just one way be supportive of others just like there are multiple ways to learn something new.

16:53 – Thoughts on Technical Certifications and Job Candidates

  • What are Justin’s thoughts on the certification path?
    • There are pros and cons to any certification program whether it be Cisco, Juniper, Palo Alto, or something else.
    • Justin admits to failing a number of exams the first time he attempted them.
    • “I’m so glad I failed because I learned so much more, and if I had passed the first time on any of those exams, especially the CCIE…. For me personally at the time it just had so much weight in my own identity and my own investment in myself. If I had passed I would have been a much worse engineer…. The failures were bigger wins than the pass.” – Justin Kelly, on failing certification exams
    • Justin walked away from many certifications with a lot of pedantic knowledge or book knowledge.
    • Justin’s take on the certification landscape of Cisco vs, Juniper from 2015:
      • Looking back on the CCIE, there’s around 20% usable knowledge and around 80% disappears. While Justin never took it, the JNCIA or Juniper Certification seemed to be something that provided 80% usable knowledge and only 20% that would be lost.
    • Justin holds numerous certifications today and feels people will learn usable things from any certification, but there may be some scenarios you need to prepare for that are not as applicable to the real world.
  • What motivated Justin to keep going back after failing a certification exam?
    • Once you take an exam, whether you pass or fail, take a few minutes to write down what you remember.
    • Failing is a possibility and should be considered ok. Certification feedback might not give you enough to determine where you made mistakes and where the gaps are. We should do our best and not give up.
    • “Don’t quit. If it matters to you, don’t quit. You’re not doing yourself a disservice to keep studying and going through the motions, building those chops. You’ll be better, at least in the field you’re studying, if you keep going back.” – Justin Kelly, perseverance when taking certification exams
  • When assessing a candidate for their skills through his current lens as a business owner, how does Justin weight certifications?
    • Justin says he does not care about certifications when assessing a person’s skills.
    • There are 2 reasons people who work for Justin now take certifications. Both of these are well supported at Secure Bearing.
      • The company has vendor requirements to maintain compliance
      • The person has a personal goal to accomplish more certifications
    • When hiring, Justin and team try to create a group discussion or conversation with the candidate to understand
      • How the person works / what makes them tick
      • How they approach things in a business setting
      • Fresh perspectives the candidate has
      • Any viewpoints the candidate has which might challenge the way the rest of the team looks at things (seeking diversity)
  • How were the interviews Justin went through to get his first job the same or different than how he might interview someone today?
    • Justin had to face a lot of “stump the chump” style interviews as a candidate. Justin was able to use his knowledge from pursuing certifications to answer some of the questions that came his way.
    • Secure Bearing does not take this approach to hiring. They do ask candidates about certifications as well as continuous learning.
    • Continuous learning is extremely important in our industry, and a lack of it can cause loss of competitive edge for the company as a whole or for an individual.
    • One form of continuous learning is building a lab.
    • “If you don’t have an enterprise network to work on and you don’t know how to build one just build something…. I believe a part of certification preparation ought to just be supplementing with labs and going through the paces of standing up what you’re learning and tinkering with it, turning the screws on it until it breaks; and that’s really where the aha moments are.” – Justin Kelly
    • When Justin was studying for his first few certifications, it was mostly just Packet Tracer and physical hardware. Justin references other tools like EVE-NG, GNS3, and CML or Cisco Modeling Labs.
    • “The sky really is the limit to how much hands on people can get hands on even if they don’t have access to a production network.” – Justin Kelly
  • Nick mentions the value of moving to service provider or MSP as a valuable career step because companies like Justin’s have a mandate to get certifications. Is it a risk for a service provider to take on an employee who doesn’t have certifications?
    • There are weights to determine a cost effective hire.
    • They know the cost to train someone from no experience to certified status and a general timeline, which means it’s easy to determine the savings from hiring someone who already holds the certification(s).
    • It normally depends on the need for the role at the time, cash flow, timeline for delivery of projects for the business, and of course on the individual candidate.
    • Justin admits hiring mistakes have been made in the past (people who were impressive in the interview process but didn’t work out, etc.).
    • John just passed the 1 year mark as a hiring manager. Interviewing and hiring has been one of the more difficult things.
      • It depends on many different factors (geography and candidate availability, expectation of salary in the area, the hiring process used, etc.).
      • Panel interviews, for example, can make for slow hiring processes.
      • It is hard to find a potential mismatch post hire during the hiring process.

29:49 – That First IT Job

  • Before Justin broke into his first IT job, it was a lot of interviews with no callbacks. He had to persevere through disappointment.
  • In 2008 he passed the CCNA and had obtained some CompTia certifications before that.
    • The warehouse incentivized getting the A+ for example, but he also had the Network+ and Security+ from CompTia.
  • It was 2011 when Justin landed his first real IT job working for a private school. At the same time he was going back to college, which was also a big contributor to landing the job.
    • Justin mentioned he had limited Windows and Active Directory knowledge at the time.
    • Justin had grown up in Reno, NV, and attended community college right out of high school for a short time (less than a full semester) in 2004. He was taking a networking course, hated it, and then dropped out.
    • In 2011 Justin started an undergraduate program through WGU (Western Governors University) because it was affordable and involved a number of Windows certifications.
      • Most positions Justin had seen open around the time were more generalist or jack of all trades roles. Windows was just part of that.
      • During the job search Justin understood the job market in which he had to operate, and it’s a valuable lesson.
    • The private school that hired Justin was the kind of place that valued education above everything else. He specifically remembers the headmaster who interviewed him asking about continuing education. Being in college at the time helped get Justin in the door.
      • Despite having gone to school during this time to fill a gap in Windows knowledge, Justin tells us his current company Secure Bearing does not do any Windows work today.
      • The role Justin took at the private school was a generalist role spanning systems, networking, Windows, laptop support, etc. Justin’s role involved supporting both teachers and students at the school.
      • Though he supported end users of different ages, Justin approached the role the same way – with patience and compassion. The private school had a small student body and faculty who were well educated.
      • “I was fortunate to work in a place where respect was table stakes.” – Justin Kelly, reflecting on his first IT job at a private school
  • How did that culture at the private school affect what Justin looked for in future employers and what he sought to create later at his own company?
    • Justin describes the culture at the private school as fun. He remembers playing drums in school assemblies with his boss and other co-workers who played instruments.
    • “It was a short experience. I was only there for about a year, maybe less…a very enjoyable break into IT. It was my next job where I got to see the other side of the house, which was more of a hurt locker.” – Justin Kelly

36:12 – Leaving a Good Culture and Exposure to New Things

  • When someone works in a culture they enjoy for a boss they like, why move to a different company?
    • Justin mentions things rarely turn out the way he thinks they will.
    • Justin says his wife would describe him as somewhat “insatiable” in pursuit of the next thing.
    • “I moved on and up in my career with a little bit of reckless abandon…probably didn’t give it enough thoughtful consideration until much later in my career.” – Justin Kelly
    • The next role was working for a Cisco Master Managed Services Partner (MSP), and Justin calls this a dream come true. He was determined to make the move, and nothing could stop him.
    • Everyone at the private school was very supportive and happy for Justin. It was a positive experience to leave that employer, which Justin finds refreshing.
      • John says perhaps hiring managers should realize people on their own continuing education path will eventually leave the company as a result.
  • Justin describes the interview process to work at this Cisco MSP as the worst in his career. But nothing would stop him from taking the job.
    • The job was in Austin, Texas where Justin’s then girlfriend (and now wife) lived. He wanted to move there.
    • Working as a red badge for Cisco and being able to touch many different technologies was “intoxicating.”
      • A red badge is Cisco terminology for someone who is a contractor / 3rd party but acts as Cisco support when they take calls.
      • A blue badge is a Cisco employee.
    • Nick mentions the excitement of exposure that can come from working for a MSP (much more than working for a single company like a school).
      • Justin says there was no comparison from the school to the MSP in terms of technology exposure. He moved from refurbished equipment and no Cisco gear to an entirely new environment.
  • How was the overall working environment at the MSP after the challenging interview process?
    • The interview was not difficult from a technical perspective. It was unpleasant in culture and communication styles.
    • “The job, like I mentioned before, was the hurt locker. It was just more work than anyone could accomplish…. You’re thrown into the ocean and a little tiny raft to hold on to and told to sink or swim. I thrived in that environment and learned more in 13 months than I thought was possible…. Nervous system fry, level 11 volume…I won’t say you get used to it. Major issues don’t phase you as much after sustained trauma.” – Justin Kelly
    • Justin got exposed to many different vendor technologies, company politics and cultures, outages, and differences in operating procedures.
    • Justin doesn’t feel there was anything he was exposed to at the MSP which he did not like.
    • This company was his first exposure to automation, and Justin has taken those principles into consideration when designing ang building systems at every job he’s had since then. Things like putting together a run book for a technician, turning unstructured data into structured data, etc. fell into this category.
    • The pay at the MSP was poor. When he left the company, it was a considerable bump in pay. But another reason for leaving was to decrease stress.

44:36 – Noticing Stress

  • Did Justin notice the environment he was in was causing stress, or did he notice it?
    • Having the support of his then girlfriend and now wife has been a foundational component of Justin’s success. She has supported him like no other in his life, and a support system is invaluable.
    • Listen to how Justin’s wife would describe the way he approaches things.
    • “I had absolutely no idea that I was burning the candle at both ends and in the middle. And it took gentle nudging and maybe not so gentle nudging to help me realize that.” – Justin Kelly

Mentioned in the Outro

  • Any resources mentioned in a show will have links in the show notes. Check out the networking utilities Justin mentioned earlier if you’re someone looking to sharpen your networking skills.
  • Read job descriptions carefully about whether certifications are required or expected after taking a role. It costs companies a certain amount of company to train and certify people as Justin shared in the discussion.
    • If certifications are something we want when interviewing for a job we should ask how the company views certifications and whether they have training budgets for people to get them.
    • Maybe asking for a training budget is something we can get as a concession if a company won’t increase the salary of a job offer.
  • There was a powerful theme of getting support from others to do difficult things and its criticality to our success. Justin had that in a friend who gave him a nudge to get the certification and introduced him to a community of others working toward Cisco certifications.
    • Holding someone accountable is a form of support.

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