Explaining Hard Concepts in Simple Terms with Jason Langer (1/2)

Welcome to episode 218 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 a discussion with Jason Langer, detailing his early career in phone support, learning and gaining experience in various technologies, surviving a layoff, working for a VAR (Value Added Reseller), a move to architecture, and his time spent managing the EUC practice for the VAR.

Original Recording Date: 01-12-2023

Topics – Meet Jason Langer, Hard Concepts in Simple Terms, Working for the Mouse, Asking for More Opportunities, Dealing with a Layoff, Architecture and Optimization, Manage the Practice and the People, Attractiveness of VAR Life

2:45 – Meet Jason Langer

  • Jason Langer is a Solutions Marketing Manager at Pure Storage who focuses on Pure Storage products as they relate to both VMware and cloud solutions. You can also catch up with Jason on Twitter – @thejasonlanger.
  • Jason’s first tech job was doing phone technical support for a company called Sierra Online (a video game company) back in 1999 (making $6 per hour). His job was helping people make bootable DOS disks to play classic video games like Red Barron or Leisure Suit Larry.
    • Jason was a gamer in his youth (had an Atari 2600), and his first computer was a Commodore 64.
    • Jason built his first computer in the early 90s because he could not afford to buy an off the shelf model. He’s currently looking at a water cooled PC for his gaming these days.
    • Jason thanks his parents for getting that first computer (on which he and his brother would constantly play games).
    • When Jason bought that first PC, his parents co-signed on a loan for it in order to teach him how credit worked. And Jason has always been thankful for that.
      • Is this foreshadowing something we cover later?

6:05 – Hard Concepts in Simple Terms

  • In the phone support job at Sierra Online, Jason was working with end users who were game players.
    • Jason says it was phone support, but people were encouraged to e-mail support personnel. He would often be sharing specific DOS commands that were easier to understand if someone could see them.
    • Doing phone support like this made you very good at describing things.
      • Jason went on from here to do phone support for Starbucks.
    • At the time Jason worked for the video game company technologies like screen sharing and even USB did not yet exist. He was dealing with things like parallel ports in the Windows 95 / 98 days to interoperate with flight simulator games his company made.
  • Jason says he learned a ton from this first position, and it led to doing technical support for Starbucks stores.
    • In the role at Starbucks, if there was a problem with a terminal, Jason might need to walk someone through how to reboot a modem that controlled the store’s connection back to the corporate headquarters. He would have to walk the person (usually someone without a technical background) through troubleshooting processes like this using only verbal descriptions.
    • Other users might call because they needed help with Microsoft Office, for example.
  • It was about a two year period across both companies doing phone support and a great experience according to Jason.
    • One lesson Jason has carried throughout his career is that people who have worked in a technical support role have probably been called some of the worst things by frustrated people. He can usually spot people who have had this experience. Technical support personnel have a lot of scars from trying to help people.
  • Nick thinks as you solve more and more problems for people over the phone like this it becomes easier to quickly detect the level of technical savviness of the person on the other end of the line and cater your explanation to the level of detail needed.
    • "You have to explain hard concepts in very simple terms. And you start digging through your bag of analogies or things that are going to cross a lot of gaps for folks. " – Jason Langer on catering your technical explanation to your audience
    • People also may not mean the same thing when they use a word that you do. It’s good to check that.

10:56 – Working for the Mouse

  • Jason tells us we’re going to hear a pattern of relationships throughout his career.
  • "Doing phone support jobs usually only leads to potentially only more phone support jobs unless you find a way to break out of that." – Jason Langer
  • Being at Starbucks, Jason got into more "actual IT" or corporate IT type role.
    • Windows Active Directory did not exist at this time. Jason started to learn more about Netware and file shares and permissions, thinking it was kind of cool.
    • Jason was working graveyard shifts (or the overnight shifts) in his time at Starbucks. He bought a Windows NT 4 book pertaining to a professional certification, the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer or MCSE. When the phone was not ringing at night, he would be studying and learning.
  • Jason’s brother had a friend who was a systems administrator for Disney Internet Group (which at the time was called go.com). This company (located in Seattle where Jason resides) hosted the web properties for the Walt Disney Company.
    • The company needed a backup jockey (someone in charge of running server data backups), and Jason applied for it and got the job.
    • Jason officially became the backup guy for Disney back in 2000. The servers were all physical (no virtualization in use). Jason was in charge of backing up around 2000 servers to tape , sending the data offsite, and doing recovery operations. It was here Jason started gaining experience in Windows system administration.
    • Jason’s pay by taking this job went from roughly $12 per hour at Starbucks to around $20 per hour here (again…in the year 2000). Often times career moves are for exposure to new interesting work but at the same time also bring more compensation.
    • For Jason, this time period was about learning new skills.
    • He worked with technologies like BackupExec and Networker to take backups, a HPE virtual storage array, and others.
    • "Hey, you’re the backup guy. That’s kind of data related, so why don’t you learn a little more about storage?" – Jason Langer, on being able to learn adjacent areas to backup technologies
    • Jason kept being presented with opportunities to learn about new technologies in this role. When asked if he could go and do it, he kept saying yes to the opportunities.
      • This started him down a path of a number of different certifications.
      • Jason remembers when the HPE SAN (storage area network arrived). The user manual was printed and sitting on his desk. His immediate thought was "I guess I’m learning this."

17:02 – Asking for More Opportunities

  • Though presented with many opportunities to learn new things in the early days, Jason doesn’t feel he really began to ask for those opportunities until he got a little further along and more comfortable in his career (or got his "sea legs" so to speak – possibly after he went to Microsoft).
  • There was a large layoff at Disney of around 40% of operating staff when the .com bubble burst (right before Christmas one year). He remembers being escorted to a large conference room one day after arriving at work to receive the news.
  • Jason was then unemployed and ended up getting a job at Microsoft. They were building out datacenters for Xbox Live at the time (a technology which had not yet launched), and they were looking for someone to work on the back end storage systems (SANs) to support this effort.
    • Feeling more comfortable after getting the job at Microsoft, Jason would ask how he could help with / get involved in certain projects. He had experience in the area and didn’t feel so much like "the new guy."
      • There was so much work to do. The first year it was about building out the datacenters for the Xbox live launch in the following year.
    • Jason was working at Microsoft as a vendor and not a fully badged employee. Since he was not a badged employee, certain projects and activities were restricted to only being worked on by in-house Microsoft employees. And Jason understood this. He has always tried to understand what is happening around him (and not assume things are there as a slight).
    • If you’re asking for specific opportunities and being told no, Jason says we should keep in mind management may have someone specific in mind for the project. Jason suggests asking your manager what you could to do be better positioned for the next opportunity, what you might need to learn, or what gaps you might need to fill.
    • "You have to take control of your career sometimes, but you also have to know when to do that." – Jason Langer, on asking for additional opportunities / work
      • If you’re not in good standing or something with the boss, it may not be the right time.
      • If it was something you really wanted to do / was important to you and you want to know, ask for those questions. This applies to promotion situations as well, for example.
      • There are many ways to stay active in asking for what you want. You could even offer to shadow the person who is going to be doing specific work or offer to sit in meetings and only listen.
      • Nick says if you do not ask for what you want, it is very possible your boss or the person leading the project does not know you wanted it. If you ask you are going to at least get an answer (which may not be what you wanted). And if the "best" option is not possible maybe some option at least is.
      • Jason says we should not always take it as a definitive no. Follow up and ask some questions. Each situation is different, and it may require that we accept the no / do not press to hard and move on.

23:05 – Dealing with a Layoff

  • Of course you take a layoff situation somewhat personally according to Jason.
  • In his scenario, he made it to the 3rd wave of layoffs.
    • At first, Jason told himself he was the only guy that did the SAN work and the backup work, wondering who was going to do that if he was impacted. That line of thinking only lasted until the 3rd round of layoffs.
    • Jason tells us to keep in mind that usually layoffs are not personal (unless maybe you’ve done something wrong at work). If you’re a good worker, it may just come down to number crunching in Finance. Don’t take it personally.
    • Jason had confidence in his skillset and knew he would find a job.
    • Jason was laid off in November. He and his wife had a huge Thanksgiving coming up and a huge Christmas holiday trip with family planned.
    • Jason knew he likely would not get any job interviews for at least a month because of the holidays. The goal in his mind was a February timeline for a new job.
    • Jason and his wife were careful about their spending habits, and he worked on additional certifications to stay busy.
    • Jason leaned on his professional relationships and would talk to others. This was before things like LinkedIn and Twitter. He ended up starting at Microsoft in January (out of work a total of 2 months).
    • At the time Jason wasn’t extremely mindful of the economic situation and whether many companies were laying people off. He trusted himself, feeling he was better than average in the industry, and felt he would find something.
    • "It’s business. It’s not a reflection on you." – Jason Langer, on layoffs
    • Being laid off doesn’t mean you’re a poor worker or that someone had it out for you.
    • Nick has not been through it but has known people who have, and there a lot of emotions that come up. He feels it has to be super hard not to question whether there is something wrong with you.
  • Getting laid off was one of the best financial things that ever happened to Jason and his wife.
    • They had a house payment, 2 car payments, call phones, the most expensive internet package, and the biggest cable tv package. To this point they had been "keeping up with the Jones’."
    • Jason took the severance check and paid off his wife’s car, and they turned off their cable. Jason has not had cable tv since about 2002. They have also never had 2 car payments at the same time after this instance.
    • Jason reiterates not to take the layoff personally, reiterating the sun will come up again and that people will find other (and potentially better) jobs. We should definitely lean on personal connections in these cases.
  • When Jason started at Microsoft, he brought along two of his colleagues who had also been laid off from Disney.
    • After being hired Jason found they needed 2 more people. Jason told them he knew the exact people they needed (his friends Steve and Mike).
    • They worked a lot and on many a fun project, and working with friends made it a good time.
    • If you have questions or want to talk more, contact Jason on Twitter @thejasonlanger.

28:14 – Architecture and Optimization

  • Jason is a big movie buff and calls the move to more of an architect role more of an act 2 of his career.
    • Act 1 would contain the work he did in phone support, the work on Xbox Live for Microsoft, and maybe a couple of other experiences sprinkled in there. In the latter part of act 1 he was doing the work of what we would call a systems administrator.
      • There was project work certainly, but Jason feels the work of a systems administrator (or sysadmin) is mostly break fix work. A lot of times you are focused on helping someone fix a problem (i.e. a server is not working, etc.
    • When Jason moved into act 2 of his career and got into more of an architect role, he moved to working for a VAR (Value Added Reseller) and worked as a consultant.
      • Jason ended up switching jobs a lot around this time. And he figured out that he liked to build things (perhaps not surprising with him liking Legos as a kid and later building PCs).
      • Jason doesn’t really like maintaining things (sitting there and waiting for something to break or waiting for the latest updates, for example).
      • This got him into VAR life. It was a progression from doing (generally) break fix work to having business outcome conversations or getting into problem solving on a larger scale for customers.
      • Sometimes there were smaller problems to fix, of course, but it could be meeting with banking executives who needed help developing a business continuity and disaster recovery plan and didn’t care as much about the technical details of what was inside it. The focus was more on meeting the requirements.
      • The conversations where very much business outcome-focused and how to achieve them. This is where the architecture piece came in…understanding and knowing how a given technology solution (a set of hardware / software products, for example) could be used to deliver the outcomes people who were paying the bills cared about.
  • This is the type of work Jason was doing at GCSIT. He started out as a "deployment guy" and later moved to architecture work.
    • You get the technical "chops" through speeds and feeds conversations certainly. But you start thinking about how to engage with managers, directors and vice presidents (VPs) though trying to build up the conversationalism.
    • Certainly we tease that architects make pretty diagrams. They certainly do that, but that is only part of it.
    • To do the work of an architect and have meaningful conversations with leaders, Jason says the passion has to be there.
      • "If you’re not into it, you’re not into it. You’re not going to go there. That’s not your path or your career arc." – Jason Langer, on the desire to become an architect
    • Jason also got more involved on the business side of thing for the VAR also. This helped him think more about how businesses are working.
    • Jason still had the passion for the technology, but he didn’t need (or want) to know every checkbox and setting for a given technology. He had also been in tech for about 15 years at this point.
    • Jason started thinking about how he might advance and have more meaningful conversations.
    • He also really enjoys writing documentation, which is an element of an architect’s job. It’s not just making diagrams but a lot of documenting and writing.
      • Jason says he never would have guessed that he would enjoy writing the documentation as much as he did.
    • Jason was focused more on business value and business cases and less on having the "stump the chump" conversations.
  • When Jason was doing deployments at the VAR, at first he was not given a deployment plan by someone in an architect role.
    • It was not for lack of trying but rather that everyone was moving so fast.
    • Over time at the consulting firm Jason progressed to architect, became a practice manager, and then eventually became the head of the systems team.
    • With exposure to larger opportunities / projects and larger customers, Jason came to understand technical documentation was an expected deliverable. Go back to Jason’s example of the banking customer that wanted implementation guides as part of an engagement.
    • The team Jason was on became more process oriented, and he helped develop some of the improvements the firm made.
      • By this time, implementation engineers had some guidelines and diagrams to help them understand the expectations and not need to start from scratch. This was especially important because the person who sells the solution, the person who designs the solution, and the one who implements the solution are not usually the same within a given organization. They would often have handoff / turnover meetings to make sure everyone was on the same page since no one would own something beginning to end.
    • Jason began to develop relationships with others who worked for technology partners inside the VMware ecosystem. Even though many were competitors in some way, learning about processes other companies used causes you to reflect on your own processes and likely was a contributing factor to the process optimization we heard Jason describe.

35:44 – Manage the Practice and the People

  • We talked about the delineation between types of technology partners in Episode 165 with guest Andrew Miller.
  • Since Jason held the title of practice manager, what exactly did that entail?
    • Fun fact – Andrew Miller worked with Jason Nash, who eventually became a mentor to Jason (Langer). This hits on the theme of relationships that Jason mentioned earlier in the discussion.
    • Jason has seen the practice manager role implemented in different ways. At first he was a practice manager for end user computing as it related to VMware technologies (Horizon, Workspace ONE, etc.).
    • Jason had to consider how to
      • Get the right training for the engineers that worked at the VAR to be competent in pre-sales, post-sales, design, and architecture
      • Come up with a standardized bill of materials
      • Determine which pieces of software and hardware would be in the company’s solution portfolio
    • Jason was focused on running the practice like its own business unit or entity that would bring in end user computing revenue through the various offerings (consulting, deployment, sell the solution to a company who will deploy on their own, etc.).
      • Jason would meet with representatives from different technology companies that made up the VAR’s portfolio (VMware, Dell, NVIDIA, etc.).
      • "In the VAR world you have many masters because everybody wants you to sell their thing." – Jason Langer, on life as a practice manager at a VAR
    • Partners exist to help technology companies achieve greater reach (help with deployments of the technology but also scale the sales force to reach more customers). The partner ecosystem is important for technology vendors that use the channel for sales.
    • As practice manager, Jason had to come up with business plans and figure out how to position the VAR’s solution portfolio. He would need to consider how the company would do assessments, what statements of work would look like for services, etc.
      • It was a little bit of the architecture he had done in his previous experience and some business elements like how the company would make money on services and solutions they sold.
  • At the time he was a practice manager the engineers (or SEs) did not report to Jason. It was more like a dotted line.
    • Jason might help with pre-sales conversations or ensure training was conducted / completed for the team, but he was not their manager. He didn’t approve time cards, encourage people to take time off, or any of those types of things.
    • Jason was also ensuring the AEs (account executives / account managers / salespeople) were trained on use cases for the portfolio of solutions inside the EUC practice Jason managed.
  • After serving as end user computing practice manager for a while, Jason ended up running the SE organization for the systems side of the VAR.
    • There were networking personnel who worked on routing and switching, and there were systems personnel who worked on servers and storage.
  • Jason ended up managing the business relationships with the technology partners that his VAR would resell (i.e. those technologies inside the solution portfolio like Veeam, Pure, Dell EMC, VMware, etc.).
    • These technology companies would want Jason and the VAR where he worked to do a certain amount of activity to promote their products (webinars, conferences, etc.). Trying to keep everyone happy made for strange bedfellows.
    • Jason says it was fun and feels the VAR was successful at it. They even won an award for their VMware practice at one point.
    • Despite the working with technology partners being fun, it could also be a headache. Sometimes Jason would have to have some uncomfortable conversations with people (keeping in mind it s not personal but just business). He tried to be up front, honest, and kept his word.
    • The technology partners would want to have a specific number of SEs at the VAR certified on their platform to help the VAR stand out as having a services competency, for example.

41:57 – Attractiveness of VAR Life

  • For listeners out there looking to gain certifications, working for a VAR as a consultant or SE could be a viable next steps. Those VARs need the certifications to help with relationships with other technology partners.
    • Jason says there are financial reasons for a lot of this that make it nice.
    • When Jason made the move to the VAR originally, he had been working on certifications. At the time he wanted to make VMware technologies more of his career.
    • It was very attractive that Jason came to the VAR with the certifications already (such as the VCP or VMware Certified Professional). They did not need to pay to send him to training or pay for testing. Many technology certifications require classroom training as part of the certification.
    • Jason tells us it is a good career arc to move from working as a customer (as a system administrator or sysadmin) to a VAR and that he learned a ton. There were many things he had no idea he was getting into when he made the change.
    • Jason got the opportunity to interview with some VARs through a relationship he made while working at Microsoft. Someone Jason worked with at Microsoft introduced Jason to a woman who managed the Seattle area VARs for VMware.
      • Jason sent her his resume, and she did the work of getting his resume out to VARs in the area.
      • Though Jason considers himself above average, he feels fortunate to have made relationships like this one which have done so much for his career. Being a people person is important, and it’s become a lot easier in the last 10 years to build those bridges.

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