Focus, Create, and Iterate with Josh Duffney (2/2)

Welcome to episode 124 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 2 of our interview with Josh Duffney and discuss .

Original Recording Date: 05-03-2021

Josh Duffney is a Content Developer for Microsoft. He writes content on and focuses on Ansible, Terraform, PowerShell, and Azure CLI. Catch part 1 of our interview with him in Episode 123.

Topics – Stack Overflow, Writing a Book, Moving to Microsoft, Learning to Focus, Job vs. Career, Closing Thoughts

2:52 – Working at Stack Overflow

  • Josh worked for Tom Limoncelli at Stack Overflow. Tom authored The Practice of System and Network Administration and Time Management for Systems Administrators.
  • Tom understood deep work and that engineers need time to focus.
    • It was impressive to see Tom’s command line knowledge in action. As a manager he was extremely technically savvy.
    • Josh is now moderately competent in vim / vi.
    • As part of Stack Overflow, Josh no longer had to be a DevOps advocate. It was built into the organization. On Mondays he would join a stand up with the development team.
    • Josh had a front seat and insight into what software features were going to be released and why. In other organizations, it might have taken years to even know the application’s name.
    • Working for Tom was amazing, and it was a fantastic, extremely talented team.
  • Josh had been a user of the Stack Overflow platform but not much of a contributor before joining the company.
  • The people at the very top are still people, and they make mistakes. Everyone on the team was extremely respectful and humble, being receptive to the ideas of anyone at any level.
    • Don’t hold people in high positions up on a pedestal because you can attain that as well.

6:36 – Writing a Book

  • Josh wrote Become Ansible before joining Stack Overflow.
    • At the time he had no other outlet. Pluralsight did not have room in their catalog for Ansible content at the time.
    • Previous to this, Josh experienced some health issues. After recovering from them he did not dive back into community right away.
    • There was a two year period where he was dark from a community standpoint and dedicated himself to his job.
    • Josh had acquired a wealth of knowledge in bringing Ansible into a large organization that was mostly Windows. There were some struggles to onboard the technology, and it did not seem like there was something in the market that captured this experience.
    • Josh felt like he needed to get the knowledge out of his head, and he had always wanted to write a book.
      • After speaking to others who had written a book and struggled to get it published, Josh listened to a great episode of the Writer on the Side Podcast in which someone left Amazon to write their own book and self-publish.
        • That gave Josh the idea to self-publish.
    • Josh likes to publicly commit to goals to help hold himself accountable, and writing the book is one he followed through with.
    • Before starting to write he had a rough outline of some of the chapters.
    • To keep yourself on track when writing a book, begin with the end in mind, but you don’t begin at the end.
      • Originally Josh had 8 chapters outlined and kept wanting to append as he wrote. He eventually broke the book into two parts, outlined part 1 aggressively, and just started writing.
      • The time commitment was 1-3 hours per day (average of 1.5 hours daily, whatever he could squeeze in) for 6 months to finish the book (143 pages in total).
      • Josh continued writing after finishing the book and hit a streak of writing for over 240 consecutive days.
    • Josh loved the writing process and was extremely frustrated on many days. Listen to the two extremes Josh uses to illustrate how it felt during the process.
      • It took about 20 pages to get past impostor syndrome. And the amount of pre-sales dollars he made blew him away.
      • Near the end of the process, Josh had to make a hard choice to cut some chapters out of the book.
      • There were days when Josh would sit in front of his computer and start at a blank page, writing nothing because he was not sure how to say what he wanted to say.
    • Josh’s writing process was singular to a large degree – outlining, writing, editing, and proofreading.
      • Josh is working to break these processes out now that he is in a full time writing position, realizing each requires a different type of attention. This will allow him to scale.
      • This would allow different manuscripts to be in different phases concurrently because of the difference in mental power.
    • Josh’s tag line for the book is written by an engineer for engineers…it’s like shoulder surfing a co-worker.
    • Josh has plans to do a book update for a newer version of Ansible (to be released next year).
  • Josh’s mentor gave him some advice on writing a book. "You write the book for you." If it’s the book you wish existed but does not, you should pursue it.
    • If you’re doing it for the money or for the notoriety, it is going to be tough because of the lack of intrinsic motivation.
    • Writing a book for the technology industry can be a challenge.
      • If you are focused on bleeding edge technology, writing a book will be more challenging because of how quickly things change.
      • There is still some room to create more evergreen content. Josh shares an example of something he did with his Ansible book.
      • Make sure the problem the book is solving is not just learning the technology (i.e. only a reference manual) but that it focuses on how the technology will benefit the reader.

16:06 – Setting a Course for Microsoft

  • When Josh joined Stack Overflow, he released a blog called Building a New Identity and mentioned there was "evidence of a writer" within.
    • During the previous year, Josh took Don Jones’ Be the Master workshop to help take back his career.
    • Josh did work for, passed some certification exams, and wrote the book all in a very short time period.
    • While writing the book Josh ignited a passion for writing. Previously he had never seen it as a full-time gig. It became visible that he could potentially make writing a full-time gig.
  • Joining Stack Overflow was Josh’s dream job and had been for the previous 7 years.
    • Josh had this locked in as his dream job as soon as Steven Murawski was a SRE at Stack Overflow. Josh was getting into Desired State Configuration much like Steven had in the process of becoming a Microsoft MVP.
  • Someone Josh knew from the PowerShell community reached out to Josh asking some questions about PowerShell and Ansible. Then the person asked if Josh wanted to be a writer.
    • There was a position open at Microsoft in the same domain as Josh’s book content. Josh had applied for the same role about a year prior, but someone else got the job.
    • Josh decided to go ahead and apply. The worst case would be having a difficult choice to make.
    • Josh was offered the job at Microsoft, and it was extremely difficult to walk away from a job that had been his dream for 7 years previous. He chose to pursue writing.
  • Josh knew exactly how to leverage his expertise at Stack Overflow. He knew the outputs needed to make him successful and when to ask others for help.
    • In the new role, learning the right outputs has been a struggle.
      • Is the metric just number of articles written per month? Is that the right thing to measure to gauge impact? Josh does not yet have the outputs pinned down.
      • Once you learn a little bit about writing, you realize how much instructional design exists. There is a lot underneath the writing that makes it really good.
      • Great writers eliminate all knowledge barriers for readers, making the reader think learning is easy.
  • Josh has really enjoyed the change. It has been a different pace of life for sure.
    • Now that things he was doing on the side have become his full time job, he’s working to create new outlets in the area of nonfiction writing through a newsletter and a new book he is writing.
    • Though these endeavors exercise the same set of muscles, it is a different area of interest.
    • Josh has a 3-pronged approach to whatever he picks up:
      • It must benefit him professionally, personally, and creatively.
    • The nonfiction writing centers on what Josh has learned about digital minimalism, mindfulness, productivity, and other topics that allow him to be a high output individual.

23:10 – Learning to Focus

  • Josh has embraced digital minimalism to avoid glass hamster wheel productivity and to focus on deep work.
  • One way to get started is to limit your cell phone.
    • Josh already looks at a screen for a couple of hours of his own creative endeavors followed by a full work day.
    • This has been a 3-year journey for Josh and extremely tough. * Just last month, he got rid of his smart phone for a light phone / dumb phone.
    • Just having the ability to use a smart phone was enough to pull Josh away from being present and mindful.
    • Try to limit your time and use of e-mail and instant messaging to get some breathing room during the day.
    • When he was younger, Josh remembers having the time to enjoy blissful boredom in which he was unhurried and unhindered. Finding those moments will restore you and make you even better.
    • Josh recommends trying a 30-day technology fast, whether it’s a full digital declutter like Cal Newport recommends or maybe just a break from social media.
      • Right now he’s doing a "respond on Friday" trial. Throughout the week he will still post to social media but won’t be actively reading it until a specific time slot on Fridays.
      • You will be amazed at how much more calm, peaceful, and relaxed you will be if you can unplug for a bit.
      • Nick shares an anecdote of staying at an AirBnB close to home and getting outside your normal.

27:32 – Job vs. Career

  • The job is what you do 8-10 hours per day, but your career is always progressing and is going to ensure you have a job.
  • The blogs, courses, etc. that Josh created turned into his resume.
  • An employer is not your success coach in defining what you learn and do. Have a pulse on the industry and a path forward.
    • The daily grind will eventually weigh you down and wear you out.
    • Josh found that through his creative outlets he could bring the learnings to his team and revitalize them.
    • Despite long weeks with an incredible amount of off hours calls, Josh recounts continuing his learning and bringing what he learned to his teammates. It brought a beacon of hope back into the team.
    • Josh has lost sight of this in the past, which is the reason behind writing the post You’re an Engineer Be an Engineer.
      • The outside hobby / creative outlet keeps you passionate about your job and the industry you work in.
  • Josh likes to front load a lot of mental thrashing.
    • When his mind gets too overwhelmed Josh will take a sheet of paper with 3 columns (exercise taken from The Bullet Journal and empty his mind – do, should do, want to do.
    • In looking to the future, Josh uses his interests and the pattern of what fuels him – learn, understand, teach, and share (all of which meshes well with writing).
    • Sometimes it is as simple as sitting on the couch in his home office and allowing time to think through and figure out what he wants.
      • For example, Josh had the idea for the aforementioned nonfiction writing (covering deep work and digital minimalism) before he wrote his Ansible book. He struggled with it and didn’t just want to rehash a couple of Cal Newport books.
      • Josh realized great writers have a newsletter. The next actionable step for him was to start one. He has started and failed 7 different newsletters to this point.
      • He decided to call the first one Tuesday’s thoughts and wrote whatever he wanted each Tuesday.
      • After about 3 weeks he ran out of gas (took too long, didn’t know what to write, ran out of time) and stopped.
      • Josh thought his topics were too career focused and wanted the next one to be more centered on deep work and called it the Four Hour Engineer based on learnings from Tim Ferris.
        • He ended up feeling like this one had too narrow of a focus and pulled the plug on the newsletter.
      • Fast forward to now. Josh has a newsletter called The Knowledge Worker. He’s left off all the qualifiers and decided to write on a weekly basis. It’s been one thought, one quote, and one action applicable to what Josh is thinking about or struggling with on a weekly basis…in 300 words or less.
        • This one has been really successful. He has been able to cover a broad spectrum of ideas with this newsletter and is using it as a way to write about what he is learning, which goes full circle back to Spiceworks. Josh would write about what he was doing so he better understood it and in a way that it added value to people.
        • Josh needed to take that lesson and plant it in the realm of nonfiction instead of in the technical sphere
    • From a process standpoint, Josh starts with the north star of being a writer and deducts all the way down to what he can do right now to start the journey.
      • Other successful people Josh has spoken with said their newsletters got the attention of publishers.
      • Josh decided to start doing a newsletter and start iterating this into something he can sustain. Once it is sustainable, the goal is optimization to the point of the least amount of friction.
  • Josh highly recommends others read Own Your Tech Career by Don Jones. It didn’t give him any answers but rather the right questions to ask himself.
    • The One Thing is a great read (not focused on tech) but takes more creativity to apply the lessons within due to its generality.
    • Ideally get a framework for how you will define success, but be patient and give yourself time.
      • Josh’s accomplishments in the last 2 years have been through constant iteration. As soon as he identified what he wanted he went and got it and then iterated again.
      • Find something that gives you a framework for making decision, and then give yourself the freedom to think.
      • Give yourself room to determine what really interests you, and lean into it in a relaxed way. See how far it takes you.
        • Ideally, find work that feels like play.
        • This reminds Nick of a Jack and Suzy Welch book – The Real-Life MBA

37:28 – Closing Thoughts

  • The best and most frustrating advice Josh has received is stay the course (i.e. keep doing what you are doing).
    • Josh likes to get feedback on ways he can improve and what he is doing right.
    • By encouraging you to stay the course, people are really suggesting that you are headed in a great direction and not to change anything. Take some comfort in this.
  • Be careful about bleed over of other people’s experiences into what you want to do.
    • Someone else’s negative experience in an area does not guarantee your experience will be the same. Conduct low risk experiments in the area to determine if something is actually worth doing (i.e. write a blog post instead of writing a book to test the waters, etc.).
  • Nick tosses out Deep Work by Cal Newport as a book recommendation.
  • Thanks again to Kelly Schroeder to the recommendation to have Josh on the show. Contact us if you want to recommend a topic or a guest!

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