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Welcome to episode 168 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 Mike Wood, discussing his early career in law enforcement, a move to software consulting and heavy travel, and life at a company that was acquired.
Original Recording Date: 02-24-2022
Topics – Meet Mike Wood, Start with the BASICs, Fitting into Law Enforcement, Relatable Experience, A Move to Consulting, Breaking New Ground across the Miles, Acquisitions and a Culture Clash,
2:16 – Meet Mike Wood
- Mike Wood currently works for Microsoft as a Technical Program Manager of a group called Commercial Software Engineering. This is an enablement organization inside Microsoft, working with and coding with some of Microsoft’s largest customers to solve problems on the Azure platform (cloud and edge).
- Mike and team then take the solutions / shared learnings back to Microsoft product teams, figuring if they can solve a problem for one of Microsoft’s largest customers they can solve it for everyone.
- This also helps product teams prioritize issues.
3:41 – Start with the BASICs
- Mike started out with a Commodore 64. He and his brother wanted a computer. Mike’s father was advised to buy them a Commodore but not any games.
- Back then the Commodore machines came with a book that taught you the BASIC programming language.
- There were no disk drives. At some point Mike and his brother got a cassette drive to save their programs. There was a magazine they would get which had programs in it you could type into your computer.
- Mike took some programming courses in high school as well. This got him started in technology but was not where he started his career.
5:19 – Fitting into Law Enforcement
- When Mike was growing up he wanted to be in law enforcement, specifically federal investigations (FBI, Secret Service, etc.). He went to college with the intent to get a degree, get some related experience as a police officer, and then apply to the FBI.
- Mike’s degree is in police administration from Eastern Kentucky University (nothing to do with technology).
- He took a couple of classes in Pascal because he knew they would be easy based on doing it in high school also.
- Mike got a job as a police officer for a short time and realized it was not really for him.
- He remembers calling his dad to share that it was not working out as an officer.
- Mike was the last sibling to move out of the house. The county he grew up in was very small without a large number of opportunities.
- At this point he had to decide what he wanted to do. Mike knew how to code and create websites.
- Mike found a job offered by Eastern Kentucky University’s housing department. They needed someone familiar with the Alpha 4 databases, which Mike had worked on in high school.
- The work ended up being mostly mainframe stuff that he used to make housing assignments.
- At one point he got sucked into using Microsoft Access. The director of housing thought Access was a great way to automate housing assignments. This turned into a side project for Mike that led him into VBA (Visual Basic for Applications).
- When Mike realized this work was not going to go much farther (as far as the programming piece), he began to look for programming roles or doing consulting work for other companies.
- Not being a good fit for the police offer job came as a surprise to the then 21-year-old Mike.
- At some point he realized he was making decisions that were to have a tremendous impact on someone’s life.
- He has a tremendous amount of respect for those who work in law enforcement and mentioned you gain a different perspective if you have done that job.
- It’s not an easy job. You rarely ever dealing with someone when it is their good day. Usually the person you are interacting with have done something wrong or have had something bad happen to them.
- This can start to shape how you see people in general. Mike could see down the road as to how this might affect his perceptions of people and didn’t feel like he could make the right life-impacting decisions as a 21-year-old for those people he encountered.
- Mike decided to take a step back, realizing the work was not for him. He still held out hopes of potentially later pursuing a role with the FBI (since it would be more investigation focused).
- Once he got into consulting, he never pursued this path in investigation again.
- John hadn’t thought about this aspect of general law enforcement. He was thinking more about those closer to the incarceration process and seeing a negative side of humanity over and over again.
- Mike says the exposure to this can affect how you trust people / how you build trust / if you have the ability to trust people at all.
- You can eventually come to an understanding that not people are that way, but Mike is able to say this this after many years of life experience (not so obvious at 21).
12:50 – Relatable Experience
- Nick mentions you don’t often know all the details of a role until you go and do it.
- You can read job descriptions and even talk to people in a specific role, but there are certain aspects you won’t know until you do the job.
- Mike can’t think back to a single job description he read that was not somewhat different once he got into the role. And job descriptions are always changing and adjusting to business needs, leadership changes, a global pandemic, etc.
- "Any job that you start in…expect it to change." – Mike Wood
- Mike did gain some very relatable experience from law enforcement like being able to read people and situations.
- He also gained confidence to confront and have hard conversations when needed (even though he is not an extrovert by nature).
- This has come into play in Mike’s career when something needs to be addressed that he perceives to be a problem (and no one else is willing to speak up).
- It’s an important skill to raise the difficult questions. Many of us fear looking silly in front of a group of people.
- This is a bit like when you’re trying to find a solution to a problem and search Google with no results. It can mean no one has had this problem (likely not true), it’s so simple that no one else has needed to look for it / documented it, or it could be your Google search skills are lacking (i.e. not searching for the right thing).
- People need to overcome the fear of looking stupid or changing someone’s perception of them by asking a question. It is highly likely someone else has the same question but may be too shy or afraid to ask.
- John says your value to an organization could be in being the fearless one who asks questions.
- This is what technical program managers at Microsoft do. Their role is very similar to a product owner but at the same time asking a lot of the questions when you’re with the customer.
- Keep asking questions to keep getting deeper. Being able to pull in all that information, summarize it, and convey it to others who can solve the problems is a critical skill.
18:38 – A Move to Consulting
- Mike has been in the software industry for over 20 years. He transitioned around 1997 into consulting.
- One of the positions Mike got as a step in that direction was with a small firm in Lexington, Kentucky. It was mostly a networking and infrastructure group with Mike and his manager focused on software development.
- The firm was very successful when it came to configuring new systems for customers, procuring hardware, etc. The salespeople were really good, almost too good when only two people were doing development. This meant lots of projects.
- As part of this, Mike came to learn Visual Basic 6 and SQL Server. This came right after having experience in Microsoft Access in the work at Eastern Kentucky University.
- Mike had taken no theory classes on programming to get an understanding of classes and inheritance.
- He learned what he needed to know by analyzing and reading the code previously written for the firm.
- Nick equates this to turning on the macro recorder in Microsoft Excel.
- Mike and his manager would look at various parts of the code to determine how things worked and why they worked.
22:48 – Breaking New Ground across the Miles
- With the salespeople for the firm being so good, Mike remembers getting to the point where he would work a lot. Being young and single at the time, and it didn’t bother him too much.
- Mike started to realize how much he was working and got stressed about the number of deadlines. He felt more personnel were needed, but the company was not in a position to add head count.
- At this point, Mike started looking around, wanting to get to a company where it was more than just Mike and his manager so there could be many smart people from which he could learn.
- Mike’s manager at the firm had great business sense, but it was just the two of them.
- With so many projects, there was rarely time to learn new things. The phrase of the day was often "get it done."
- Mike started interviewing with other consulting companies, and that meant moving out of the Lexington area. He landed a job at GA Sullivan in Cincinnati (with the main office in St. Louis).
- This change turned out to be one of the best of his career. Mike worked with some of the best people that he ever has (and that he still talks to today).
- This was more Visual Basic, SQL Server, and some ASP.
- Mike got onto a project right when Visual Studio .NET was new (between beta 1 and beta 2).
- Microsoft Consulting Services had GA Sullivan and one other partner come in to help on re-writing an entire CRM using .NET that was previously written using ASP (Active Server Pages). This may have been one of the largest projects at this time that was taking place outside of Redmond.
- Everything was new. Half the code base was written in C# and half was in Visual Basic.NET.
- The project had to be complete for a conference where the customer was going to showcase the new system.
- There were many discussions on scope. They started using the waterfall methodology at first but ended up having to do things differently.
- They were doing agile-like things in the end, but no one in their group at the time was an expert in that area.
- This was software built before MVC came to fruition (which is fascinating to imagine).
- Nick mentions the development environments we have available often shape our work, but it’s interesting to hear the contrasts of before and after.
- Mike was able to work with some outstanding people as a result of this collaboration with Microsoft and the other firm.
- Mike was able to learn a great deal from Microsoft personnel who had been in consulting for a long time.
- Since this was between two beta builds of Visual Studio, it wasn’t like you could go ask someone on StackOverflow for help. The team of people Mike was working with had a special build and would send questions back to Microsoft which was funneled back to product teams and then answered.
- John says the working with really smart people aspect resonates with him. He also wants the people he works with to be smart in different ways than him.
- The people were a very big part of what made this job interesting and enjoyable to Mike while at GA Sullivan. Mike said it really felt like a family of people with different backgrounds.
- Mike says they had an architect on staff, for example, with a background in mechanical engineering who decided he wanted to code and was a great source of learning for Mike.
- There were also instructors who taught courses on SQL Server who had become consultants as well as those who had more of an IT background.
- GA Sullivan was primarily a Microsoft development shop. Coding tied the group together. Many times Microsoft Consulting Services would send business to GA Sullivan.
- In addition to the people he worked with, the projects were very interesting.
- Mike was able to learn .NET right at the beginning, which certainly helped his understanding of how things worked down the road.
- It was a pretty small company of around 300-400 distributed across locations. They had some small offices in Europe.
- Mike never really had to travel too far away from home, which actually contributed to his leaving the group.
34:46 – Acquisitions and a Culture Clash
- GA Sullivan was acquired by a group called Avenade, which is a large consulting firm that was a joint venture between Accenture and Microsoft.
- After the acquisition and finishing up with his latest client Mike was told he would be on the bench for a bit and would have some study time.
- He tells the story of receiving a call on Friday and being asked to be in Cincinnati on Monday for a new client.
- Mike mentioned this is not the type of company he would have interviewed with because of the requirement for regular travel.
- At this time Mike had been married for about 4 months. The commute from his home in Kentucky to Cincinnati was 5-6 hours. He would drive up there and then carpool part of the way with some fellow consultants.
- This allowed him to drive 45 minutes, park his car, and let someone else drive the remainder of the way.
- They were asked to get to the client as early as possible on Monday and stay until 5 PM or later on Thursday. Consultants could work from home or do administrative work on Friday from home.
- The travel started to get to Mike and really was indefinite, which means the size of the project was such that it could be a while before it was completed.
- At this point Mike began looking at another position outside Avenade.
- Mike’s next role was working for a division of International Paper that was focused on logistics.
- He wanted to go work for a company to try it out, being able to drive to the same office consistently on a daily basis.
- The group pontificate on how to make a high travel lifestyle work.
- Nick suggests being the driver of the carpool and keeping the mileage money.
- John suggests building up loyalty rewards with an airline.
- Mike says the constant travel lifestyle is something people really enjoy. He likes to travel, but traveling for work is not what people think it is.
- When Mike and colleagues were in Cleveland on a project they would leave work at 7-9 PM Monday – Thursday to leave Friday more open. There were very few places open that late to eat dinner unless there was a basketball game.
- Mike had a new family (being newly married). The idea of staying over the weekend on his own dime was not for him. There are people Mike knows who will work in a weekend sightseeing trip as part of an engagement in another city.
- To Mike, the idea of taking a vacation means you go somewhere separate from work.
- John thinks if you’re stationed over 100 miles from home, it seems reasonable to have the option to stay the weekend without having to pay for it yourself, but from a consulting business standpoint that could cut into margins.
- At the time he worked in Ohio, Mike definitely wanted to go home work weekends. Many people at GA Sullivan were young families.
- As it turns out in this case a company with a certain travel culture was acquired by another company with a different travel culture.
- It would be interesting to talk to someone who is in mergers and acquisition and what happens when there are two vastly different travel cultures that need to come together.
- In the case of consulting companies, it’s the people you are acquiring. In some cases an acquisition of another consulting company could be for the customer base (i.e. break into new markets of customers).
- This was the case with Avenade acquiring GA Sullivan. It was a venture into a new market.
- Mike has been through 3 acquisitions now, and not a single one has gone well for him.
- For Mike’s particular situation they have not worked out. In one of the acquisitions, he was at a role where he needed to present data and answer questions about how things worked related to the technology footprint.
- Out of the 3 acquisitions, for 2 he stayed long enough to be considered an employee of the new company. For the 3rd he realized up front it would not work, leaving before the acquisition happened (on friendly terms) and realizing the culture would not be a proper fit for him.
- In the two instances where he stayed, Mike realized it was not right for him. Some of the cultural aspects are not immediately evident (going back to the fact that job descriptions aren’t exactly what you read).
- Mike recently gave a presentation, going into the topic of culture and what it is. It’s not foosball and ping pong tables. If you didn’t have those things would you still work there?
- Culture is about valuing the people who work at a company. Are people valued for who they are or what they can do? There’s no way to determine this without being in there working at the company or by knowing someone who can answer those questions honestly.
- Nick has only been on the side of the company doing the acquiring from his manufacturing days. People would want to know what IT systems were like at the company being acquired and how to link the systems together.
- With so much uncertainty during these times, Nick feels it would be challenging to focus on what you can control.
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