Something to Offer, Something to Share with Don Jones (1/2)

Welcome to episode 137 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 our interview with Don Jones. Don will share his origin story in IT and the traversal through individual contributor, management, writing, being independent, and teaching.

Original Recording Date: 07-14-2021

Topics – Don’s Origin Story, Manager and Individual Contributor, Hard Experience and Career Mistakes, Writing Skills and Seeing Blind Spots, Something to Offer, Losing Tech Chops

3:38 – Introducing Don Jones

4:49 – Don’s Origin Story

  • In childhood Don had a Commodore 64 and liked to work on it while other kids were outside playing.
    • The school guidance counselor said lack of patience with math meant Don couldn’t pursue computers. This was the 80s (so whatever that meant).
    • Don switched out of an honors track in high school to a vocational school to study electronics and computer repair.
  • Don was recruited by the Navy to be an civilian aircraft engineering mechanic apprentice
    • He worked on the F14 Tomcat and A6 Intruder platforms.
    • After doing a presentation on repairing/upgrading computers, a co-worker urged him to pursue it as a career and get out of the Navy.
  • After a base re-org, he left to work for Electronics Boutique (EB Games, purchased by GameStop many years ago)
    • Don went from Sales Associate to Assistant Manager to Store Manager very quickly.
    • Then he got a job at the home office working the evening shift point-of-sale system helpdesk.
    • Don then moved to working on an AS400 platform.
    • He wrote a new Visual Basic POS system
  • Don left the company to be a network engineer and had no exposure to it, learning via books until he snagged a MCSE.
    • The company gave a bonus for each certification so he collected several.
  • He went to work for Bell Atlantic as a network administrator.
    • Don got connected with the vendor used for Instructor Led Training (ILT) and was interested in becoming a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT).
    • Don started teaching night courses at Penn State University to former aircraft mechanics from Boeing.
      • He loved it and hired on at the training company.
      • Don eventually ran their training and courseware group and later ran the software consulting business there.
  • At this point Don had an internal crisis about being in senior leadership and took a job as a web developer for a dot-com (
    • He wanted to go back to being an individual contributor
    • The company dot-busted just as Don scored his first book deal.
  • He was mostly independent from 2010 to 2014.
  • In 2014, Don decided that being independent was pretty difficult.
    • He approached Pluralsight after their acquisition of TrainSignal and has been with the company ever since.

10:02 – Manager and Individual Contributor (IC)

  • The freak out Don mentioned is something he has seen in a lot of people.
    • You are no longer capable of creating your own success (team has to).
      • You are not producing, and success is dependent on others. It is difficult to have that taken away
    • Leaders may have no emotional sense of whether today was a good day (as perhaps an individual contributor can based on accomplishments).
      • That knowledge might be not be obvious for a month.
      • You need to find emotional ground in other metrics. Pull back, and take a bigger view.
      • If you don’t realize this, it can be depressing.
        • It can feel like tech skills are eroding.
        • Team member mistakes can start to feel personal because we internalize them.
        • Success for a leader isn’t the same as success for an individual contributor.
    • It took Don a few cycles for these things to sink in.
      • Help from coaches and mentors may be required.
    • Once one realizes and learns, leadership can be extremely rewarding, just not in the same way as what you did previously.
    • It’s a different job with different skills.
    • Being a great IC doesn’t mean one will be a great manager of that type of team.
    • Separate the idea of manager and leader in your head. They are different things.
      • You can lead as a peer. You can lead without being the boss.
      • Managers handle resource allocation, measuring progress, etc.
      • If you want to be a manager, try being a leader first. This does not require a promotion.
      • If that feels good, you can learn to be a good manager.
      • The best managers are also good leaders. Where we fail is having managers who are not good leaders. We’ve all heard stories about this.
      • Don tells people to lead from within and is working on an eBook called Leadership not just for Bosses. There are certain behaviors managers have to do and are paid for, but there are behaviors leaders have that are not / don’t have to be tied to a supervisory job duty.
    • John says we get used to measuring success daily as individual contributors.
    • Don managed his career on a day to day basis (opportunistic, transactional, where most of us live in our heads).
      • Once you start thinking about what a good week, month, and quarter look like you start to take a different attitude with personal decisions. This begins a planning process. You’re sliding from being a passenger to being a driver looking down the road and setting longer term goals than the scope of this day or this week.
      • Once you start doing that, you become a better leader and manager. You really learn how to own your career instead of having something inflicted on you.
      • Many of us spend too much time in the traffic jam. It’s worth pulling off the road and re-calibrating the GPS to rise above the traffic for a minute. Your career is worth it.

17:19 – Hard Experience and Career Mistakes

  • For Don, this came through hard experience.

  • In his role as an aircraft mechanic years ago, one of the jobs was to overhaul airplanes.

    • If a battle damaged aircraft had come back, he and his co-workers would need to do the analysis to determine the minimum steps needed to make it fly again, even if it was going to be the last flight.
    • Don has analyzed his choices and situations many times over, sometimes in too much depth.
    • Don had a number of course corrections throughout his career.
    • When he was independent, Don was worried about where his next check would come from (crippling anxiety attacks about paying the bills). As a result, he would take any job (one of them being writing eCommerce for Dummies).
  • People don’t know who you are and what you’re about. Don made a decision to focus in a specific underserved area after some market analysis. In 2002, that thing was VBScript for Windows Administrators.

    • This rolled into Windows PowerShell and launched Don into achieving Microsoft MVP for 16 years.
    • It helped people know who Don was and the problem he solved.
    • Your employer hires you to perform a service / to solve a problem. Know what problem you solve, and people will want to buy it. If you can’t describe the problem you solve it is difficult for others to understand it too.
  • When independent, it forces you to make decisions. So much of your time is burned in other areas.

    • Don had to make sure his productive time was producing money.
  • Branding is a big part of it. Deciding who you are and the problem you solve was the meta level realization Don had to come to.

  • Don spent a lot of time doing things he was not great at. For example, preparing for a marketing webinar takes hours of preparation. But, writing 5000 words is something Don could easily churn out before the end of a work day.

    • He had to start inventorying skills and playing to them. Start with the strong thing and get really good at that.
    • You can’t do all the things all at once.
  • Don’s lack of college meant it took him a little longer to realize he was missing some important skills.

    • Look at the people in the positions you want. Do they have good business acumen? You probably need to be build your business acumen.
    • Don was so good at tech, but there was much more he needed to learn. He studied business acumen and took some train the trainer courses to fill gaps.
    • Don recently released Own Your Tech Career. Much of the advice given in this book is an inventory of the things Don wishes he’d known 20-30 years ago.

25:11 – Writing Skills and Seeing Blind Spots

  • At Bell Atlantic, there were a number of technology migrations. Don made the decision to move to Microsoft Exchange.
    • He could rifle off a 4-page e-mail in no time.
    • Don got really good at organizing his thoughts.
  • When he went independent, he really started analyzing his time at a deeper level.
    • When am I most productive?
    • How long can I be that productive?
    • What do I need to do ahead of that to ensure I can be that productive?
    • Don outlines very aggressively for books. Before going to bed, he will read the outline for a chapter he wants to write the next day. Upon getting up, he will respond to e-mail for about 30 minutes and then write the chapter.
      • A great day for Don is about 10,000 words.
    • This process was developed through paying close attention to what worked and what did not.
    • He wrote 6 IT books per year for the first 2 years he was independent. You get better at it as you continue to do it (not just writing but anything). Think snowball effect here.
      • Continue to optimize your process. Building a server for the first time is slow, but the next time won’t take you as long. Eventually you start to sequence and get even faster.
    • We’re talking about skills obtained through hours of practice, analyzing what does and does not work.
  • Don shares a story about attending a Microsoft Tech Day event in a foreign country.
    • He did two different 90 minute presentations. Don wanted to get some laughs but never heard any feedback from the crowd, thinking the sessions did not go well.
    • It turns out the crowd reaction was related to cultural behavior in that country, but Don didn’t find out until after his presentations.
    • Many times there is a cultural embarrassment over not speaking the language well. In some cultures asking teachers a question is seen as confrontation (i.e. sign that the teacher has not done well).
    • Expected feedback (auditory and visual) being removed makes things challenging because it’s not expected / you didn’t expect it going into a situation (i.e. in the case of cultural differences).
    • Being aware that these things happen allows your brain to analyze the situation a bit more. We might need to moderate our expectations accordingly.

35:08 – Something to Offer

  • So many in tech suffer from crippling impostor syndrome that we believe we have nothing to offer. We tend to just keep quiet, absorbing information but putting nothing back into the world.
    • You have a different background and culture. For example, Don can explain just about anything using a car analogy. That may not work for everyone.
    • Teaching is not putting new information out into the world. Teaching is taking information that already exists and repackaging it for a specific audience.
    • We all have something to give back (i.e. something to offer). There is information we can re-package for an audience we’re familiar with.
      • Eventually, if we help people along enough, they won’t need us any longer. They will be able to go to the source information and repackage for someone else.
      • Try explaining something in a way that makes sense to you. It’s going to resonate with someone else.
  • The tech industry is one of the highest paying industries comparable to the medical / legal field, for example. The medical field and others require things like an apprenticeship and serious amounts of education.
    • You can teach yourself to code and publish apps from an iPad. The barrier to entry is extremely low…if you can learn it.
    • We need everyone to learn how to code. You’re not hurting yourself by helping someone come into the industry.
    • The idea of teaching someone else is incredibly meaningful and has the potential to change someone’s life.
    • Nick makes the point that we may fear teaching others skills we have because we are afraid they will be promoted before we are.
    • Don says teaching is force multiplying. If you can help your company go from 5 junior developers to 5 senior developers, you have created a massive output. We are not good at measuring this and communicating it.
      • Suppose you want to write a script to automate something, and it will take 100 hours.
      • Take what you make in the US per year multiply by 1.4 (creates fully loaded salary / cost to employer to include insurance and taxes, etc.). For more specifics, ask your HR department.
        • Divide this by 2000 to account for approximate working hours in a year, and this gives an hourly rate.
        • If you spent 100 hours to write a script or to help someone else, now you know what the cost is to do it.
        • Now, find the cost of doing things before the change was implemented and the cost after. This will help you determine the return on investment.
      • Think about yourself like a vendor providing a service to the company and what each action will return to the company.
  • If you want to move into a lead technical role to partially supervise / assist other people or move to management, part of the job is to build the team.
    • You are responsible for retention on the team and showing them a growth path.
    • To climb the ladder as a manager you need one hand on a rung holding yourself up and another reaching back to pull the team up behind you.
      • Your team is your only means of success.
      • Once you show someone you are building others up, you are far more likely to get a job as a manager. But be that leader first. Be that group builder.

44:53 – Losing Tech Chops

  • Don got a VP job a couple of years ago and meant the end of his tech life (end of being Mr. PowerShell, end of the speaking engagements). There wasn’t time for things he used to do.

    • It’s really hard because you are career switching. People don’t think of it that way.
    • If you’re an accountant but want to become a lawyer, no one thinks they are going to miss their accounting skills.
    • Going into management is taking on a new profession and requires you focus on it (walk away from old profession). Time and energy need to be focused accordingly in all areas (trainings, books you read, conferences you attend).
    • You are going to lose your tech chops because you are going to gain management chops (new set of job skills to be proud of).
    • If you got into tech because you love messing with it, get a hobby.
      • Don loves writing. He got to do a lot of writing before, but after moving into management, there was not room for it. So he writes fiction.
      • Don didn’t have to walk away from something he loves. He just has to conduct it outside of work now.
    • There’s a company called Radford that specializes in IT salary data. Most companies like this structure with pay bands, etc.
      • A lower level manager will get paid the same as a higher level professional because the market places a premium on management skills (a different job family).
  • The worst thing you can do is take on a management job without realizing you are switching careers. This can cause depression even.

    • Do it because you want to do that job. The rat race aspect infuriates Don.
  • Special thanks to Josh Duffney for recommending we have Don on the show! Catch the interviews we did with Josh here:

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