Make Accommodations for Success with Phil Monk (1/2)

Welcome to episode 185 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 Phil Monk detailing Phil’s progression from college to monitoring desk to support to consulting. We’ll also discuss some of the challenges Phil has experienced as a result of being dyslexic and what he has done to overcome those challenges.

Original Recording Date: 07-23-2022

Topics – Meet Phil Monk, Getting into Tech, With Great Management Comes Opportunity, Education and University, Tense Situations, Entering Consultancy, Organizational Acceptance of the Confirmed Dyslexic, Accommodations for Thinking Differently, The Advocate and Overcomer

3:41 – Meet Phil Monk

  • Phil Monk is currently a Critical Accounts Program Architect at VMware based in the UK.
    • Many congrats to Phil who was promoted to Principal Architect between our recording and the release of this episode!
  • The critical accounts team is the highest form of escalation within VMware related to customer challenges. The team do not operate on a break fix level like support but rather focus on stabilization, looking at wider operational and architectural challenges, trying to determine the root cause of problems, understanding business issues, and helping the customer create a better path forward.
    • Phil has done this type of work for a little while and really enjoys it.
    • The critical accounts team formed in 2021 as an offshoot from the customer success team and stays engaged for a few months to assist customers in consuming VMware technologies in a better way.
  • Some customer challenges are architectural and some are operational. Phil and a number of his colleagues and others in the principal community are working on ways to make it easier for customers to onboard and consume VMware technologies.

6:44 – Getting into Tech

  • Phil started in IT when he was 17 (about 2004).
  • When Phil was younger his father bought the family a computer. Not long after that Phil took it apart and put it back together.
    • Phil was fascinated with how everything worked together and knew he wanted to do something in technology.
    • Phil started doing some programming here and there on a Windows 95 machine (using DOS) and later got a Commodore 64.
    • Phil even tinkered around with trying to build his own games.
  • In school in the UK, they do the General Certificate of Secondary Education or [GCSE](], which is the equivalent of a test that US high schools do.
    • Phil chose IT for these, and they refused since Phil did not specialize in the subject and his track record of being a bit mischievous at times.
  • In the UK, when you do a college course, you have to take an aptitude test.
    • Phil went for the lowest level IT course he could. His test scores had not been great previous to that. Phil struggled with test taking largely due to his dyslexia diagnosis and a lack of help.
    • These aptitude tests in particular were on the computer. He aced the first one as well as the second one. After performing well on the 3rd level test, Phil was placed in a more advanced course (unusual for someone his age).
  • Phil enjoyed the time at college and learned a great deal. He was hired by a company called T-Systems based in the UK (a global systems integrator that would recruit from local colleges).
  • Phil’s father was a mechanic, and in his youth he would work on various projects with his father and grandfather such as building go carts.
  • If Phil didn’t know how something worked he was determined to figure it out, which naturally led to pulling it apart in many cases. This tinkering and desire to understand naturally made him more inquisitive.
  • Phil started building computers not long after he took the family computer apart. He and his dad would go to computer fairs and work to build gaming computers that would run games like Carmageddon or Roller Coaster Tycoon.
  • At some point Phil and his dad started building custom computers in interesting places (refrigerators, in alloy wheels, and even some that got displayed in Custom PC Magazine in the UK).

11:42 – With Great Management Comes Opportunity

  • At T-Systems, Phil was hired and put in front of a monitoring desk. Many systems integrators in the area where Phil lived at the time were running service desks.
  • Phil learned a lot at T-Systems and eventually progressed into support. This was part of the itch to understand what was broken and how to fix it combined with folks noticing Phil had the technical acumen to fix the issues.
    • The monitoring desk was a bit like a network operations center.
    • John mentions the starting point here in monitoring is at a higher level than support (see the alert for a problem and have to call someone else to do the fixing, or see only the symptom rather than the result as Phil says).
    • Phil gives a good example of an automobile company’s mainframe issues (seeing them but not being able to resolve them).
  • Phil cites working under a good manager at the monitoring desk and this person as well as the manager of the Wintel and VMware group (the team whose issues Phil found most interesting) recognizing that Phil was both capable and wanted to progress.
    • A number of younger folks who came to work the monitoring desk would stay for 6 months and then leave. Phil worked it for 18 months. Many of the other members of the team had been there a long time and didn’t really have a desire to progress (comfortable salary and shift manager).
    • The Wintel / VMware manager gave Phil access to certain systems and some formal training. Phil even spent some of his days off shadowing this team so he could learn.
    • This team (second line support) eventually offered Phil a job at double the salary of his role at the monitoring desk. Phil saw it as a good way into something different.
  • Nick makes the point that not everyone has a deep desire to fix a root problem but is looking to get back to functional, even if it is with a continual band aid.
  • There was a project team that would do new technology implementations and the support team. Phil chose to dive into support rather than pursuing the project team in the beginning.
  • Phil began working on a team of 4 and eventually ended up on a team of 2 since he and a colleague were fielding all the calls. Other personnel were reallocated within the company.
  • Phil learned so much in these roles and is appreciative of the two managers who believed in him. He also didn’t have a degree.

17:14 – Education and University

  • Is there an IT degree in the UK?
    • Yes. There are the GCSEs (mentioned previously, equivalent to high school in the US).
    • After this come A-levels, which is a next step in getting to university.
    • There are also NVQs or National Vocational Qualifications. This would not be the kind of thing you would pursue if you’re exceptional in a specific area (or not looked upon that way).
  • One challenge Phil ran into was his dyslexia getting identified late. He also never felt a need to go to a university, preferring to learn in a hands on way through experience.
  • In the UK there seems to be a clearer understanding of class boundaries whereas in the US we tend work hard to pretend that they do not exist.
    • When Phil was in school, the political party in the UK enabled free university education for certain levels of earners who wanted to pursue it.
    • This policy was changed to require yearly fees of 10,000 – 12,000 pounds being required of those who attend universities (i.e. only go if you are wealthy).
    • Education can certainly be class defining in the UK.
    • John adds that in the US there can be interviews to determine fit (i.e. if someone is class appropriate) even if these are not really acknowledged.
    • We usually separate blue collar and white collar jobs (see this article for the differences).
      • We also pretend there is a lot of mobility and desire mobility from working class to white collar background. And maybe that is not so true.
      • John says it’s uncomfortable to step across a hard class boundary.
    • Phil’s wife attended a university because she wanted to be a teacher. That is a job that requires university experience and turned out to be something Phil’s wife did not enjoy.

21:49 – Tense Situations

  • Sometimes when people call support, they want acknowledgement that someone understands the problem and hears them even if the fix cannot be immediate. Many who call support are already upset when they call in to get help.
  • As a 19 or 20 year old it was a bit of a shock when Phil progressed up to 3rd line support and had people calling and shouting at him that something did not work.
    • Phil tried to calm the person down and let them know he was genuinely trying to help.
    • Phil is generally outgoing and has no trouble going up and talking to people. He tries to search for things he might have in common with others.
    • For the most part Phil feels he adapted pretty well, making mistakes along the way and learning lessons.
    • After leaving T-Systems Phil went into consulting. He shares the story of making a mistake implementing something which took down production systems for a customer and not really knowing how to process people shouting at him for it.
    • It took time to learn how to deal with people who were upset, but Phil feels it was a natural progression of learning.

24:07 – Entering Consultancy

  • In the T-Systems teams there was a project side and a support side. Phil learned loads in the support role about how people consume software and what they expect from it.
    • Phil also learned a great deal about infrastructure, networking, and application performance. This was all absorbed over 2 years.
  • At one point Phil started working with a member of the project team (Tony Butler) who turned out to be a mentor to Phil (perhaps without Tony even realizing it at the time).
    • Phil learned that it wasn’t just about clicking buttons and installing software but about how to shape it around what businesses want.
    • The technology around this time was a bit more focused on Citrix and before Phil got deeper experience in Microsoft and VMware technologies.
  • T-Systems eventually decided they were going to outsource their support. Being young and not really knowing what that meant, Phil immediately went out and found a new job as a consultant for QDos.
    • Phil worked there for 6 months on a short-term contract and learned an amazing amount by going to visit customers, asking questions, creating documentation, not installing software in a happenstance way.
  • Nick feels there is a consultative approach that many support engineers take when trying to fix a problem.
    • Phil speaks to some of the relatable experience from his support days like knowledge of different ways things could fail impacting how an architecture gets developed to avoid them, etc.
    • Understanding how people operate software firsthand can help you make decisions on how something should be implemented or could be implemented better.
    • It’s the exposure to this that makes for a better consultant.
    • John mentions it is this type of feedback (the processes people work through) can help us understand why there are architectural philosophies and reasons for them existing.
  • At this point Phil had 3 different views of the industry within 5 years of starting his IT career:
    • The monitoring role
    • The support role and a lot of break / fix work (actively taking part in fixing a problem)
    • The project side and building the architecture in which failures can occur
  • Phil continued in consulting for a number of years, working for various VMware and Microsoft partners and moving around a little to other companies.
  • Phil ended up in a managed services provider consulting role with some responsibility for professional service delivery for Virtualized IT (which later became Virtustream).
  • Nick normally associates consultancy with the implementation of a technology solution as well as the planning and design of it.
    • Phil mentioned in smaller organizations where he worked after leaving T-Systems, it was a different type of consultancy than what Phil had did after joining XOR and later VMware. In these small organizations you often designed, implemented, acted as short term support, and possibly short term operational handover or project management.
    • Phil says he learned project management skills through this process which were not extremely exciting but were very helpful when he moved on to XOR and later VMware (things like time estimates, etc.).

31:55 – Organizational Acceptance of the Confirmed Dyslexic

  • John mentions that getting accurate time estimates for work is a skill that must be learned and sharpened over time.
  • Phil had a bit of a challenge with time estimates because of his dyslexia. He does not read quickly at all (and many others with dyslexia have the same issue).
    • People with dyslexia may have to go back through the material multiple times to fully comprehend it and process it.
    • Phil had to learn to take the extra time needed into consideration when providing time estimates for others.
  • Documentation was also a challenge. Writing things down was slow for Phil.
    • He would produce a design and need to lay it aside for a couple of days to truly allow himself to read it as it was written (fresh) and not read it as he expected it to be. This process allowed Phil to get his design documents customer ready.
  • Phil didn’t know he needed to build these into his time estimates until probably 2-3 years into his career.
  • This matches John’s experience of getting diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) as an adult and needing to work on some of his coping skills.
  • John says it takes an understanding organization to make accommodations for all the implications challenges like these present.
    • Listen to John’s example about various tasks he had to do when working for VMware. Being slower at something cannot mean we should not do it. A lack of practice makes the muscles atrophy.
    • Phil did not realize while at T-Systems that his dyslexia had the impact mentioned above. Some of the smaller companies he worked at we’re too keen on allowing extra time for design review that Phil would need.
    • At one particular employer, Phil was told if he could not complete something within a specific amount of time he should leave.
      • Phil chose to resign from this company because his leadership could not appreciate what he was explaining to them around his dyslexia.
      • At the same time this company had customers coming in and asking for Phil to work on their project, and it seemed like his leadership was conflicted on what choice to make.
      • Phil left because the company did not understand the way he liked and needed to work.
    • This reminds Nick of Bill Kindle’s story and knowing what he needed from an employer.
  • John mentions these negative experiences shape what we go looking for in our next job, and when we have the luxury to do so, referring to the list of things we need our employer to understand and appreciate about us as individuals (the ideal work environment).
  • Phil says this happened when he went and worked for XOR (a company that provided professional services to the channel), which was the company he worked for right before coming to VMware.
  • Phil was hired at XOR because he had been recommended by customers who had used him previously. He was contacted by XOR to interview.
    • During the process Phil was very transparent that he needed the extra time we discussed earlier.
    • Another thing that Phil used to help was to record conversations with customers. For many dyslexic people (including Phil), short term memory is an issue.
    • Phil also mentioned he liked to use specific equipment, and the company (XOR) was very supportive.
      • The company got Phil some covers for his screens so he could see certain colors. One of the challenges with his dyslexia has to do with seeing colors.
    • It was communicated to XOR’s customers that Phil would need extra time. Sometimes they were ok with it and sometimes not, but Phil felt supported by his employer through all of this and was happy he could express his challenges.
  • This was proof that an organization was willing to understand and make accommodations based on Phil’s needs whereas before it was not even in the realm of possibility.

39:52 – Accommodations for Thinking Differently

  • Phil sees his dyslexia as a positive thing and doesn’t like to say he was diagnosed but rather confirmed dyslexic, which happened around the time he was 17.
    • As Phil came out of his teens into his twenties he better understood some of the challenges he had with reading and taking tests like the GCSE.
  • After having the poor experience with one employer Phil realized it was best to tell XOR so that they didn’t expect him to do something he could not do. He was so happy his employer embraced this.
  • Nick says he believes it is a mixed bag once people understand they are dyslexic as to whether they accept it or don’t want to hear about it.
    • Nick’s daughter is also dyslexic.
  • Sally Shaywitz defines dyslexia as an unexpected difficulty in reading or writing in an otherwise intelligent human. The full definition from the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity can be found here.
  • When Phil was 12 or 13 his friends would read 2-3 books per month, and he would struggle to read half a book, most of the time forgetting what he had read as well.
  • Phil looks at dyslexia as something that makes his brain think differently.
    • To take an example, Phil was going through a principal promotion panel just a few days before this recording at VMware.
    • In the template slide deck that Phil was given, it stated to give two examples of EPIC2 values of how candidates exhibit these values. Phil interpreted this to mean he needed to give 2 example for each of the 5 values.
    • Everyone else interpreted this as giving examples of just 2 values. Phil presented all values and explained to the review board that he took it to mean 2 examples of each value.
  • Part of John feels like we should seek to become less ambiguous without becoming legalistic.
    • For example he stopped using the word bi-weekly (could mean twice a week or every 2 weeks).
    • People may not pay attention to ambiguity until it impacts them and their performance.
    • John’s cheeky question is whether the ambiguity of the slides in this example Phil gave was tied to performance of the individual who wrote the slides.

44:54 – The Advocate and Overcomer

  • Writing is also a challenge for Phil. Most people with dyslexia have similar handwriting (which is due to coordination).

    • But coordination does not always impact dyslexics as much as dyspraxia might.
    • In the UK they try and teach you to touch type it. Phil says while reading something they need to type, someone who has dyslexia or dyspraxia will stop after typing for a few seconds before they continue (kind of like your brain needs a reset from coordinating what you are reading, what you are typing, and the hand movements on the keyboard).
    • This is pretty common. Phil does volunteering for the scouts in the UK for kids ages 12-14 and sees this same behavior in the kids who are dyslexic. It’s a strange feeling to see something you might be doing in someone else who may not understand why they are doing it.
    • Phil got over this by stopping touch typing and reviewing what he typed at a later time during read back.
    • Tools like [Grammarly] can help and do help, but you don’t want to use them in a way that makes you completely reliant on them.
  • Phil mentioned earlier that he does a read back as written step to review his designs (to ensure what he wrote is what he meant).

    • Phil may mean to say he’s going to record a podcast later but actually say he’s going down to the shops to buy something. It can be that drastic. And he’s reading it as what he meant to say.
    • In design documents, the errors are usually words in the wrong place or the meaning of words being wrong.
      • For example, Phil may have left the word "is" completely out, but he’s reading it as if it is there.
      • Sometimes putting the document in a different medium (printing it or changing from Word to PowerPoint for example) or letting it sit for a few days before reviewing helps him to see the errors.
  • Nick mentions there have been a number of times where his daughter used the wrong word in a sentence without realizing it, but listening carefully usually gives a good guess at what the person meant.

  • Phil has loads of support inside VMware and many will review his document for correctness. Sometimes people are shy about pointing out mistakes.

    • Phil lets people know if he’s made a mistake they need to tell him. At first others may feel like they are being brutal, but once he explains some of his challenges to others, over the course of his career the feedback has been very helpful when people review things he’s written.
    • John mentions the mental space of editing someone else’s document is non-trivial. The editing space is different from the creative space, and when we give feedback it is about the writing and not the person.
    • Ignorance can lead to discrimination when it comes to neurodiversity. Because someone takes longer to do something than others might, people could treat them as if they are incompetent when it fact is simply a difference in the way the person’s brain works. We should not allow these differences to impact perception of someone’s personhood.
    • Phil mentions inside VMware right now he’s asking people to review things written in English whose first language is not English, and they are correcting Phil. They may assist with grammar and spelling errors. Even in these situations Phil has to explain and point out the challenges with dyslexia, and once reviewers understand their perception totally changes (i.e. no longer thinking Phil can’t seem to learn his first language).
  • You can find Phil on social media for follow up:

  • Congrats again to Phil on being awarded the principal title! For more on the principal role in our industry, see also:

  • Also check out the episodes with Jon Towles where we explore ADHD and how the brain works:

  • Other episodes mentioned in the outro:

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