Dead Ends and Defining Direction with Joe Houghes (1/3)

Welcome to episode 187 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 1 of an interview with Joe Houghes, discussing his early career in tech, the nuances of working with family members, how working in manufacturing influenced him, and some early sales experience.

Original Recording Date: 07-07-2022

Topics – Meet Joe Houghes, Stumbled into Tech, Influenced by Manufacturing, Working with Family Members, Relocation and Sales Experience, Experience Defines Direction, A Company that Promotes Community

3:03 – Meet Joe Houghes

  • Joe Houghes is a Senior Solutions Architect at Pure Storage, primarily focusing on FlashStack (made up of Cisco UCS, Cisco Networking, and Pure Storage in a single solution).
    • His primary responsibilities include lab work, reference architectures, and developing customer use cases and fully provisioned solutions. Joe then presents on these topics in public.
  • When John first became aware of Joe, he was an end user of technology and not working at a technology vendor.

4:12 – Stumbled into Tech

  • Joe says he stumbled into tech after leaving the Air Force, working at a molding injection company doing primarily shift-based work. He knew computers, and they needed things fixed.
  • Joe remembers getting called into the offices to work on databases or fix computers while in the middle of packing up boxes.
  • He later joined this same company in a technical role, doing anything and everything.
  • At the time this company did not have full time technology staff but had 3 people (including Joe_ knowledgeable about the ERP system, Access databases, and Excel. They kind of became the defacto IT department and were handed a number of things to do, becoming a catch all extending even to mechanical repair.
  • In the Air Force, Joe did a lot of cable runs and was called a "cable dog."
    • Joe got additional experience tinkering with subnets, routing, and Windows networking.
  • Technology was viewed at the company as a necessary evil. Without tie ins to logistics, shipping, tracking material, or sales projects were not seen as valuable to the business.
  • This was Joe’s first experience working in something seen as a cost center to the business.
  • John mentions in the smaller / family owned businesses there can be a lot of friction to getting a technology person on staff.
  • Joe says this was a very interesting exposure to technology in that the mantra was to do the minimum to get things functional again and go back to your full-time other responsibilities.

8:09 – Influenced by Manufacturing

  • Joe mentions his later focus on automation and DevOps came from exposure to manufacturing environments like this where blockers were to be eliminated for the sake of maximizing efficiencies and minimizing efforts.
  • At the company, everyone in the organization was focused on their specific roles and doing it as easily as possible and efficiently as possible. But personnel knew enough about what coworkers did and how it impacted their own work.
    • This was an organic thought process. Seeing people think this way outside of technology was eye opening for Joe to see it later on from a tech perspective.
    • This is not a far departure from Nick’s experience at a manufacturing company. He was brought onboard to be the first full time IT resource, and responsibilities were previously split between a few others at the company.
    • The organization Joe was at in 2018 when he and John met was the first one that could define the cost of downtime for a resource (down to the minute). Everyone at the company knew the money maker for the company (which was a machine that made frosting cups), and all were aligned on its priority.
    • Nick calls this a constraint from the theory of constraints.
  • John mentions having to deal with a Microsoft Access 97 database in his last customer job. The person who built it was a consultant who left the consulting firm, and the application needed to stay alive inside a virtual machine for quite a while (which John used VMware technology to do).
    • Joe had similar challenges with virtual machines needing to stay alive to run old versions of Internet Explorer and Firefox.
    • Nick cites instances of manufacturing machine controllers (Mazak) on very old operating systems.
  • This experience of IT being looked at as a cost center is many people’s very first exposure to it.
    • It might be too much trouble to call the vendor who supports a specific thing or require juggling multiple vendors who support different aspects of the technology environment because it’s too expensive to use one of the vendors (i.e. the ones who support computerized controllers on manufacturing machines) to take care of everything.
    • Joe remembers being handed the phone (when a vendor support person was on the line) multiple times and told "you’re the geek. You talk to these people."

14:20 – Working with Family Members

  • The two people Joe worked with the most at the company (and the two he butted heads with the most) were his dad (the production manager) and his stepmom (the sales manager).
  • Any time things went wrong Joe as the technology guy would be right in the middle.
  • Joe’s dad was very process oriented and had been in aircraft maintenance in the Air Force for a number of years.
    • Joe’s dad disliked a time sheet form that workers filled out to keep track of shift details and production runs.
    • So Joe decided to convert it to Excel format to make things easier to use, which took only 30 minutes.
    • Five years later Joe learned that his greatest contribution to the company was that spreadsheet.
  • For most people, Joe would suggest not working this closely with your family members. It can be asking for trouble.
    • This also depends on personalities and how those can change if you have competing priorities and agendas.
    • Joe’s mom and dad were very good at doing things professionally.
    • He says they were very good and being able to leave things at the office at the end of the day to pick it up the next day and not make business conflicts personal conflicts. If there was some kind of after hours call they could work it out at the dinner table, for example, or escalate to the general manager.
      • The 3 of them even carpooled to the office together for a while.
    • Joe’s dad was very good at setting expectations with employees about the chain of command within manufacturing processes. There were consensus decisions (need input from others) and command decisions (boss makes the call).
    • There were specific priorities the general manager of the company had laid out, and if no one could agree on how to best carry those out employees would ask the general manager for guidance.
    • It was an interesting dynamic, but it worked out well because of the personalities and because of the structure that existed.
  • Nick cites hearing about spouses working together and it straining or completely killing the relationship.
    • Joe mentioned his dad was on his 3rd marriage and knew the common denominator, trying to work on things and being mindful of the relationship.
  • John mentions this sounds not so different from a senior NCO with someone needing to make a decision when employees have competing ideas.
  • What about giving your family members notice that you’re leaving the company?
    • Part of the decision to leave was Joe wanting to move back home to Texas. This job with his dad and stepmom was in Colorado (where the Air Force Academy is).
    • Joe had become solely focused on work and wasn’t extremely happy. He felt the job he was doing was a dead end, it was easy communicate feelings of it being only temporary from the beginning.
    • The process was made a little bit easier by a feeling of getting booted out the door once he communicated the need to do something different. His dad communicated that he expected great things and to go make the change now.

20:25 – Relocation and Sales Experience

  • Joe went from living with his dad and stepmom to living with his mother in Austin, Texas (who needed some help around the house).
  • Once there Joe looked for another job that would check the box (still really a dead end).
  • Joe ended up at CompUSA selling computer parts and network gear.
  • Joe says trying to do tech in the retail space is really weird. Based on the physical store layout he got a number of random questions from people.
    • This meant Joe needed to know where things were located in the store, who to go for specific questions, and what things were on sale.
    • If Joe was the first one to walk someone to where they could purchase a product he might get a spiff.
    • Joe cites this as different from being in pre-sales for a vendor, but he picked up a number of skills that came in handy later.
    • John says one valuable thing in his experience in pre-sales is knowing the next person to which he can direct a customer (i.e. a subject matter expert who can help).
  • Joe says dealing with people who needed technology but were not in tech was a great exposure early on.
    • John says this is a category of skills people in pre-sales have to learn at some point – removing the jargon, understanding the problem, and aligning to a product or service that could help which the person may not have known about.
      • Listen to John’s example of someone stating they need a security system and how much more information someone would need to help the person.
  • John cites working a retail job as a way to better understand what the work is like and so you will be more polite to people who do it. Perhaps we should all have that experience.
    • Joe agrees and feels like everyone should be exposed to a help desk role or explain technology to someone who is not a technologist.
    • There’s also a great deal of experience gained in being the first interaction someone has with an organization. There is a mindset and level of preparedness one must have to do this well.
    • When Joe worked as part of the tech center and had to do some computer repairs it was the closest he’s ever been to situations like he experienced as a mechanic at AutoZone when people would say their car was making a specific noise.
    • It was either a repair or selling people something that would help solve the problem.
  • Joe’s stint at CompUSA was a dead end job, which he openly acknowledged.
    • Some of the more senior people around him had tenure of 10 or more years (managers that worked their way up, etc.)
    • Joe would hang out with his coworkers who had LAN parties in the back of the store.
    • After talking with some friends from high school, Joe understood that what he did really was not so different from working at Taco Bell.
    • "It was at least eye opening to see people with a different perspective tell me that working at CompUSA was essentially the same thing as just a tech version of fast food." – Joe Houghes

26:59 – Experience Defines Direction

  • This type of experience can help us understand what we do and do not want from our careers and the types of jobs we work.
  • For Joe, it helped him define the direction in which he thought he wanted to go and very clearly the direction in which he did NOT want to go (the retail path, having to shift stores to move up a level, etc.).
  • Joe cites the experience of being able to work in the tech shop and also acting as an on call technician who would visit customer’s homes for a device install / setup or some troubleshooting.
    • He noticed there was a pay increase in the willingness to travel, and it expanded his exposure to problems outside the store.
    • At this point Joe knew there were opportunities he could pursue to help people with tech whose primary job was not IT / to make technology more accessible as well as joining an IT department at a company somewhere. These were the opportunities Joe knew he needed to research.
  • Joe’s approach to a job search was a little bit shotgun.
    • He would have leveraged Yahoo Jobs,, and other tools at the time.
  • He fell into a role where someone had a need for a person to come and maintain a few small servers that ran the business (database server, website, domain controller and files).
  • Joe was hired on to be contract IT person who also had other responsibilities.
  • The pay was better than at CompUSA, and this was at an organization which would present Joe opportunities to meet a number of other people.
  • Joe met another contractor who was interested in having Joe do some side work for his business.
  • This is where Joe began really diving in to learn the tech and started to focus on people networking.

30:31 – A Company that Promotes Community

  • Joe was working for the Association of Mexican American Chambers of Commerce. This company worked to enable business to network with each other.
  • Joe was hired by a friend’s dad. He gave Joe a solid sales pitch on the company at the time.
    • The mission was to make sure people were connected and making sure they understand each other’s capabilities to empower each other to do better things.
    • Joe thought it sounded cool and like something he wanted to be a part of (a values match), which is what got him in the door for a tech job that he says really had nothing to do with what they were doing as an organization.
  • It was interesting to work for a company built on connecting people.
    • Gaining the understanding that organizations did this kind of thing or that companies went to this organization for help connecting to other companies was extremely eye opening for Joe.
    • Without this exposure to the idea of mindful connection (or person to person networking) from people outside of tech, Joe would not have come up with it on his own just working in technology and doing consulting.
    • Even if Joe had thought to get all the consultants he knew together, most saw each other as a threat or as a potential employee.
    • "This was way before I got any of the concept of the power of community." – Joe Houghes

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