Excel by Being Intentional with Andrew Miller (1/3)

Welcome to episode 165 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 Andrew Miller, discussing his progression from IT help desk as a customer to working as a pre-sales engineer for a partner, how having a side gig helped him progress, and how the way we present ourselves can make a huge impact on everyone around us.

Original Recording Date: 02-10-2022

Topics – Meet Andrew Miller, Transition to Help Desk, A Chance to Level Up; Writing, Communication, and Presenting Yourself; Picking up and Putting down a Side Gig, Motivated by the Right Things

2:05 – Meet Andrew Miller

  • Andrew Miller is a Principal Technologist within the Office of the CTO at Pure Storage. Follow him on Twitter here.
  • Andrew knows a number of our pasts guests from his time in the tech industry. He also mentions his love for the content discussed in past episodes of [The Geek Whisperers] podcast.
  • A little inside baseball…
    • John’s wife created the intro and outro music and transition sound bits.
    • Nick’s wife created the Nerd Journey logo. Can you guess which two city skylines are merged in the Nerd Journey logo?
  • Andrew has been a musician all his life because his mom never gave any of the kids a choice.
  • Andrew used Macs from a very young age and got onto the yearbook staff. He was able to take the designs of his high school peers and digitize them on a computer. These skills later landed him his first IT Help Desk job in college and then later into IT operations.
    • Back in these days you measured the layout designs in pykas instead of inches or centimeters.

5:45 – Transition to Help Desk

  • Andrew’s dad had a Macintosh computer. At one point his dad brought home DOS, but it was too hard. Andrew started tinkering.
  • Once he got into yearbook staff in high school he was maintaining the Mac computers they used.
    • The help desk technician realized he didn’t have to do maintenance on the computers for the yearbook staff and basically left Andrew alone to take care of it.
    • This was at a school linked to a university. During Andrew’s sophomore year in college there was an opening with the help desk team.
    • The team knew of Andrew to some extent because of his previous work for the yearbook staff. He got the job and ended up working 20 – 25 hours per week while carrying a full load of his college course work.
  • Andrew worked for multiple bosses during his time working for the college. One of them recognized his specialty with Mac machines and worked to clear roadblocks for Andrew.
  • This person later hired Andrew for a Junior IT Operations role after college. Andrew had shown he had the ability to learn.
  • There was an element of building, fixing, and creating to Andrew’s work (which he very much enjoyed).

8:36 – A Chance to Level Up

  • Andrew was given a chance by a manager who knew him well to level up to the IT Operations role (even if he may not have seemed qualified on paper).
  • We might refer to this as brand exposure. Andrew mentions how someone sees you on any given day may be the only impression they ever have of you.
    • Keep in mind we all have bad days, but keeping the above in mind gives you some perspective.
    • Maybe we get complacent at times and don’t appreciate the work we get to do.
    • If we’re in this industry (technology) we are extremely blessed and that our issues are normally first world problems.
    • John refers to this as the gout problem. We should think back to where we came from and practice some moderation. We’re here doing this podcast shining the light backward for the benefit of others.
  • This job turned into a 7 year stint for Andrew.
    • He started by running the backups using BackupExec. The shop was small enough to allow someone to delve into networking, virtualization, security, and several other areas.
    • We have a fun time of reflection on Tivoli Storage Manager (another product Andrew got to know well). Nick makes the point that fixing the snowflakes in an environment like where Andrew worked make you a better systems troubleshooter and are where the true learnings happen that allow you to step up to that next level.
    • For a while Andrew wondered if at some point he might go for a Master’s degree. He is the least educated in his family and stopped at a Bachelor’s degree. Looking back on this time, the 7-year period was like a post-graduate degree for Andrew which laid a foundation for what he did later in his career.
    • John cites the work equivalent of doing an advanced degree is somewhat comparable to an architectural certification from a technology vendor. One big difference is the publishing of a thesis (i.e. the writing requirement). It seems like an advanced degree requires more writing than experience in IT Operations may demand we do.
    • You can get by at a smaller shop without writing good documentation, but it requires keeping people around and not turning over (to protect institutional knowledge).
    • Andrew shares a story of a manager back in his help desk days who wanted everything heavily documented in a ticketing system. Andrew was one of two Mac technicians.
      • Andrew started documenting things in tickets but never received feedback from his manager (even when he would put interesting notes in tickets to see if his boss was reading them).
      • He later found out the help desk team was using this system that was not backed up by IT Operations. When the ticketing system crashed one day, all the information inside it was lost.

17:27 – Writing, Communication, and Presenting Yourself

  • In college Andrew was a humanities major, which was due to Andrew having too many / so many interests.
    • English classes involved a lot of writing. This gave him some experience he didn’t get while working in IT Operations and was helpful down the road when he started blogging.
  • Andrew was also on the speech and debate team in high school (called National Forensics League), gaining a great deal of experience in Lincoln-Douglas debate and extemporaneous speaking.
  • Andrew has thought about the building of these soft skills with his kids now. After getting the hard skill foundation in his early career, these softer skills are what set him apart down the road.
    • John agrees helping kids set the foundation through debate and extemporaneous speaking is wise, participating in these activities in California in his youth (national extemporaneous speaking and Lincoln-Douglas debate).
    • John wishes he had done expository speaking which often involved making a poster and explaining a process. Delivering a PowerPoint slide deck mirrors expository speaking.
      • There’s almost nothing else John can point to from high school and say "I do that every single day."
  • For people who have not had this experience, Andrew has regularly recommended Toastmasters, participation in church Sunday school classes, or other low risk ways to gain this type of experience.
    • In Andrew’s current role he primarily talks for a living.
  • Nick cites other low risk ways to gain experience through presentations – at a community event like a VMware User Group (VMUG) meeting, a SpiceCorps meeting, a MeetUp group meeting, etc.
    • You don’t need to have the presentation written to submit an abstract for a talk. Wait until the talk is accepted to write the presentation.
    • Andrew says come up with a catchy title and a catchy presentation you believe you can deliver.
      • Andrew submitted an abstract for a VMUG UserCon once that was not accepted. Then at the last minute (day before) someone reached out asking if he could present in place of a speaker who was not able to attend. Andrew said yes and wrote the presentation that night (which was painful) to deliver at the UserCon the next day.
      • This was the first iteration of a very successful talk of his called The Golden Hammer, which had to do with mental models and how we learn.
      • Some would say "opportunities are disguised as hard work". This is about leaning in, having fun, and taking some chances. Listen to Andrew’s story about setting up a speaker that played a catchy song at that same VMUG to get peoples’ attention.
  • John makes the point that we should submit interesting abstracts for presentations so that if asked at the last minute to give the talk we are still interested.
    • Luck is hard work + opportunity.
    • Sketch out some content, submit an abstract, and keep trying.
  • Andrew shares a story of a sales rep he worked with during his years at Varrow (a partner). The guy was kind of goofy, but he was consistently successful.
    • You can control the place where you are. If you’re at the right place over and over again, eventually you’re going to be there at the right time.
    • John mentioned this is similar to the interview process (control what you can control). You can control your level of output, the things you learn, how well you document things, etc.
    • Nick mentions there is an element of style in all of this from the way you present information to the way you write about it, etc. The presentation will display your style, perhaps almost becoming part of your personal brand.
    • Andrew says there is some intentionality in your personal brand. He chooses to be a glass half full person (being politically aware but not playing politics). Navigate challenging situations without letting that affect who you are.
    • Andrew shares the story of his peer JD Wallace meeting someone he admired and getting dismissed.
    • Make a choice in how you will present and convey yourself. Hopefully there is a way to maintain who you are through it all.
    • John shares a story of Wayne Gretzky having a bad day when he was a kid. His father pulled Wayne aside and said he could not have a bad day like that or be grumpy because someone came to see him. Don’t leave that person with that impression.
      • The same goes for all of us when we are networking. One bad impression of you may be seen as the totality of who you are.
  • Be centered enough with consistency and a solid foundation in your life that you can withstand twists and turns in your career without having them totally unsettle you.
    • You can be a sounding board for others. Ask people questions until you find something of interest, and then let them talk.
    • When you’re interested in hearing someone’s story and concern, they can sense it. Value people, and have that be a real part of you.

30:54 – Picking up and Putting down a Side Gig

  • In the early 2000s Andrew was working at a university (married with no kids) in an hourly role working 50-60 hours per week. At some point there was a budget issue where hours were capped. Andrew was capped at about 45 hours per week.
  • Andrew had always done Mac support here and there on the side, but he started doing technical support for a web hosting company.
    • He was getting into DNS and Linux at the time.
    • Andrew would do support for a couple of hours per night and was eventually brought in as a part owner. He even got to go to Canada to meet the other owners at one point.
    • It was about finding another outlet that aligned to his day job. It was a decent side income and work he found interesting.
  • How do you know when to put down the side gig?
    • This came as Andrew left the university.
    • Sometimes there is an upward gravitational pull when you want to do good work and make things better.
    • Andrew felt it was to some extent rinse and repeat. He would try to automate some of the work.
    • Andrew realized that jumping over to the partner side was extremely interesting. He had a very good partner SE (Sales Engineer) at the time.
    • Andrew knew if he were to pour himself into a partner SE role (hybrid pre-sales and post-sales), it is not a 40-45 hour per week role. As a result he would need to pare down the side work.
    • The earning potential of making this move was tremendous versus staying on the customer side.
    • It took him two years or so to dial back the work for the web hosting company because he really liked the people he worked with.
    • There was a realization it would be better for his career to double down and focus on one path as opposed to diversifying his time and income.
  • Let’s define terms!
    • Customer – you are the one running servers, storage, etc. for a business where IT departments exist to run internal systems
    • Partner – in this case Andrew is referring to a channel partner. Sometimes it can be called a value added reseller (VAR) solution integrator. This would be a company that can look across different technologies and vendors to stitch together a solution for a customer. In some cases it is can be "help me buy 10 widgets." In others there are pre-sales and post-sales engineers.
      • This position allows you to see more of the industry.
    • Alliance Partner – Andrew works for Pure Storage today. They have channel partners like Presidio, WWT, Sirius, and others. VMware and Cisco would be alliance partners that Pure works together with.
    • Leveraged compensation – going from a defined paycheck (you make a certain amount whether salary or hourly) to OTE (on target earnings) made up of a base salary (consistently paid to you) and a commission (related to items sold). You can exceed based on what it sold.
    • As you go from partner to any kind of non-customer role, try not to sell your technical soul. Look at a customer’s needs and see where things fit, emphasizing the positives, building momentum, never lying, and knowing when to disclose any relevant negatives. You have to figure out how to operate as a technologist working within an organization that ultimately sells stuff to customers (and hopefully good stuff that they need).
  • John says there’s an important part of choosing who your employer is to this.

42:39 – Motivated by the Right Things

  • Andrew mentions the idea of still being motivated by the right things.

    • He wanted to experience new challenges.
    • Some of the better SEs he has seen either came from a customer background or empathize well with a customer’s situation so they know what it like day to day for a customer (considering day 1 as architecting / implementing and day 2 as operating the technology).
      • Maybe the products in use do have operational overhead. But alternatives in the space may be more even complex to operate.
      • You need to understand where a product is good and help customers be aware of any FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) that has been generated through other vendor solution marketing.
      • Highlight for customers things they need to check on or look into, especially if there are false claims or embellished claims.
      • Sometimes there is a persona shift of "I’ve been the technical person. I’m not in sales." Andrew recommends reading The Art of Pre-Sales article by Joe Onisick where he defines 5 rules of Pre-Sales Engineering, including the fact that you are not a salesperson but live inside a sales organization. Read this if you want to know what being in pre-sales is all about!
        • One principle not in that article according to Andrew is when in a meeting and you’re there to be an expert, there is a fascinating phrase "I don’t know." If you say that too soon in the conversation it can be a bad thing. Past a certain point in a sales cycle or conversation, it actually builds credibility.
        • One neat trick might be to order the topics so that things you know the best are first and the "I don’t know" topics are later.
        • Nick says this approach could work really well when making a pitch to your boss to bring in a new technology.
  • Andrew says be intentional without being manipulative.

    • John shares the story of getting the job at VMware (first vendor job) and taking a class in value selling, which encouraged attendees to understand personal and professional motivations and values of the person you are speaking with. John says you need to know this as a direct report to your boss.
    • John says many of the things we consider sales skills cross over to be effective operations skills as well, and he wishes he had learned this lesson when he was in IT Operations. Listen to the story about John making a pitch for a newer version of backup software to his boss.
      • Andrew mentions he’s had multiple disaster recovery ideas denied for the same reasons.
    • Adjusting the style based on where you are in the organization and who you are meeting with can really help.
      • Andrew mentioned he was coached to start with the conclusion first by an executive and then break it down from there because he had already gained trust.
      • Check out this article with more details on this idea regarding presentation style.
    • John says this aligns with the training he mentioned previously. Consider the fact that an executive may leave the meeting early (or check out mentally) and might not hear the conclusion if you slowly build to a conclusion instead of sharing it up front.
    • This idea also aligns with the great demo methodology and to start amidst the peak action.
    • There’s also the "you could have this" idea (or what Nick refers to as future state architecture).
    • By networking with people like Andrew it can provide a future state vision and architecture for someone’s career.
  • Don’t miss Andrew’s presentation on The Golden Hammer – Hacking Your Brain to Learn (IT Stuff) Easier at the New Jersey VMUG on 4/26. The registration for this virtual event can be found here.

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