Individual Contributor to Manager with Charlie Nichol Pt 1

Welcome to episode 51 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_), two VMware Solution Engineers who are hoping to bring you the IT career advice that we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In the first half of our discussion with Charlie Nichol, we talk about his early career and his transition to management.

Original Recording Date: 07-28-2019

  • Charlie is currently a Senior Solution Engineering Manager for VMware’s Central US region (focusing on Enterprise) and has been with the company for 8 years. He manages a team of field pre-Sales SEs spanning Texas to Wisconsin.

Topics – Transition to Management with Charlie Nichol

2:40 Intro and Early Career

  • Career history
    • Charlie started in IT in high school and worked at a number of places after that.
      • He cut his teeth at Almost Media Games while setting up globally available and highly redundant bingo and lottery systems.
      • He later worked for Sequel Data Systems in Austin doing some pre-Sales and some post-Sales work related to networking, storage, and virtualization. This also involved training customers to operate the systems he installed.
      • Charlie also did work for Home Depot on the Windows Engineering team and as part of the storage team.
      • He later went to Dell and worked on a product team called Virtualization Solutions Engineering, writing performance white papers for hardware vendors.
        • There was no Googling. He helped write the performance whitepapers people would later Google.
        • After giving a number of demos to technical people and high level executives, Charlie found he enjoyed explaining technology to people.
          • A friend encouraged him to interview for an Inside Solution Engineer position with VMware. The rest is history.
          • Charlie comments on why he feels the SE job is the best job.

8:48 – Transition from Individual Contributor to Manager

  • When Charlie first joined VMware, he felt like being a SE was his career path.
    • Being an Inside SE involved doing many demos and working with customers from different parts of the country.
  • Charlie’s boss kept asking what was next in his career path.
    • At first, Charlie was thinking a CTO type role or an architect could make sense.
    • His boss encouraged him to pursue leadership (not something Charlie wanted).
      • The two paths within the SE space were to climb the individual contributor ladder to Principal or to move to leadership.
      • Charlie’s desire was to stay close to the technology and maintain technical credibility.
      • His manager had an uncanny knack for knowing when to throw an interesting project Charlie’s way.
      • Since Charlie trusted his manager to help him succeed, he decided to take the manager’s advice to pursue leadership.
  • Charlie’s manager began to groom him so we would be ready when a manager position opened.
    • Charlie would sit in on meetings, take care of reports, or run a team meeting now and again.
    • After the bug was put in Charlie’s ear, he started looking for opportunities to take on leadership tasks. Was it the frequency illusion?
    • Charlie shares the story of meeting a new VP and how he took the opportunity to educate his VP.
      • This led to the VP wanting a SE presence in future decision making meetings, and Charlie was top of mind for this task.
      • Charlie had developed a rapport with the Inside Sales Managers as well as the VP during this time.
  • Once Charlie knew one of the SE Managers was about to resign, he set his own interview with the key stakeholders, asking for their blessing in his pursuit of the role and for feedback.
    • Charlie had started asking his manager for feedback on what he could do better way before this happened. This made him ready to accept the feedback from other leaders when he interviewed to become a leader.
    • Charlie points out asking the key stakeholders about their expectations of him as a leader and that based on his previous interactions with those people, he already had some of the answers.
    • The reasons things look easy is because people put in the work to get really good.
  • Charlie ended up going from player to coach (became the manager of the team he was a part of).
    • Most of his teammates had the same attitude toward leadership as he originally did (did not want it).
  • The original discussion with the VP started a pattern for Charlie. He still today offers to train new Sales and technical leaders who come in from outside the company.
    • This builds a relationship and credibility that can be leveraged in future situations that require difficult conversations.
    • John weighs in on potential political risks of building a relationship with someone above your boss or peers with someone above your boss.
      • In Charlie’s case, he was one of the few technical leaders working in the same location as the new VP (kind of an ideal scenario).

27:08 – Adapting to the Manager Responsibility Set

  • It was way harder than Charlie thought. Leadership is different than management.
    • He knew how to motivate the top performers because he was one. Charlie did not know how to motivate those not performing well.
    • The first days as a manager were a glimpse behind the curtain. The reason some things happen is because managers step in and take care of it (often times without others knowing).
    • Charlie had to build new relationships with many people within the organization who worked in different areas he had never met.
    • Charlie had to lay someone off in his 3rd week as a manager. He struggled with this one greatly.
      • His manager and HR helped. He even practiced with his Sales Manager peer. It was not fun, but he faced a fear early in the role.
  • Charlie took the aspects of every good manager he had met / interacted with and used them to create his own methodology.
    • One example was the 7 minute practice.
    • Charlie quickly realized not everyone is motivated by the same thing.
  • 36:58 What about hiring SEs? What is that like?
    • Charlie did not have an opinion on it in the beginning but felt he had an eye for talent.
    • The interview is a time to learn who someone is.
    • Charlie was hiring inside SEs at first, but he slowly added more field candidates over time. His current team is made up entirely field SEs.
      • The type of person for an inside SE is different than a field SE.
      • Example interview question for an inside SE – "Are you ready to step away from the keyboard a little bit?"
    • If you like explaining and teaching things to both technical and nontechnical people, and if you like giving presentations, you could be a good fit for a SE role.
    • Charlie gives an example of someone who became a SE for a short time and went back to IT operations and the benefits of the exposure.
    • Charlie looks for…
      • Good communicators (written and verbal)
      • Passion for technology and learning new things
      • Those who are ok with NOT doing the technology implementation
      • Those who like talking to people and solving their problems
      • People oriented (i.e. customer oriented)
      • Comfortable dealing with ambiguity
  • Listen to Charlie’s example questions for people to prove they can talk to people at different levels in the organization and connect the technology to the business.

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