The Challenges of a Superpower with Jon Towles (1/2)

Welcome to episode 129 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 Jon Towles in which we talk through his journey into the mobility field and his challenges and openness with ADHD.

Original Recording Date: 06-08-2021

Topics – Working for Blackberry, Sharing Your Work, ADHD Challenges and Openness

3:30 – Meet Jon Towles

  • Jon Towles started in IT around the age of 29 and has been through many places in the mobility industry. He now works in the IT wing of his wife’s company, working with different clients on unified endpoint management related to iOS, Android, Windows, and Mac.
  • Jon didn’t really want to be in IT. He grew up nerdy and a bit of a gamer.
  • Jon was in retail for a long time. After meeting his wife, she helped him refocus, encouraging him to get out of retail.
    • In the process he got healthier, achieved an A+ certification, and landed a job working for Blackberry.
    • This team of peers were very experienced (some had been Principal Engineers at Microsoft, for example).
    • Jon’s ADHD gave him the energy to work harder than anyone else to make up for his initial lack of experience.
    • That 5-6 year stint of extreme effort got him to the point to where he can understand just about anything in technology now.

6:34 – Working for Blackberry

  • The last retail job Jon had was at Verizon (back at the time when Verizon first got the iPhone – 2009).
    • John was teaching customers how to use Blackberries, sold Blackberry training, and during that time worked to get his A+.
    • It’s hard to get someone to give you a shot in IT with no experience.
    • Additionally, being overweight made landing new opportunities a challenge. Jon has had a significantly easier time after getting down to 200 lbs. (previously 300 lbs.).
    • In IT you need to get that one person to give you a shot and take advantage of it.
    • A company called On Demand Communications hired Jon to do Blackberry administration. The company had some financial issues, and he transitioned to contract work.
    • After one contract job he applied at Blackberry and was fortunate enough to get hired.
    • Everything in Jon’s life is about effort. He loves to mentor people, and if they show effort, he will do whatever he has to in order to help that person be successful.
      • If you have the right mindset, even if inexperienced, you can be very good.
      • Mobility is one of the few things in IT that you cannot learn about in school (no formalized program).
      • John makes the point that there is not really a Sysadmin degree.
      • Jon believes having a bachelor’s degree is good but is not necessarily a requirement in IT and that there may be diminishing returns in higher level degrees.
      • The last book Jon read for enjoyment was from The Dark Tower series.
      • Jon wrote about how his brain works in this article.
      • Much of IT was descended from telecom. Jon did a stint there too (telecom expense management).
  • The Blackberry job was in Texas. Jon is from New England, and it was a challenge to get people to understand him.
    • One of the things Jon took from being at Blackberry was to own things. Say you don’t know the answer and that you will get back to the person.
      • He came into the role with soft skills and an aptitude for writing.
      • Jon really enjoyed documenting his work. When closing a help desk ticket, for example, if no knowledge base article existed, Jon had to write one.
    • Jon would spend hours digging through documentation and figuring out how things work.
      • Listen to the ways he built troubleshooting skills in the absence of repositories for logging like Splunk.
  • During this time, Jon started taking his ADHD more seriously.
    • It takes twice as much effort or more for someone with ADHD to do intensive reading (of logs or other things to troubleshoot a problem) and can be extremely draining.
      • Jon was falling asleep at the wheel on the drive home and started taking Ritalin to help him stay awake.
    • He is inquisitive and likes to understand how things work.

18:28 – Sharing Your Work

  • In regard to documentation, Jon has run into people who did not want to share their work. When you document and share information, you inevitably benefit everyone.
    • It should be more important to think about what is good for your company and not what is good for you.
    • Nick shared that when he worked in a manufacturing environment, certain individuals were very guarded about sharing what they knew with others (almost like a fear that others might get promoted faster, etc. if they had the same information).
    • John says we often times attach a judgement to this (having knowledge that others in the organization do not).
  • 3 types of people in IT
    • People good with people / good with end users
    • People who are technically strong
    • People who pretend they are technically strong and can fool the people who are good with people but not the ones who are technically strong
  • If you put in the work and are willing to put in the time you can get to anywhere you want to be. There are not a lot of people who are willing to do it. Jon prefers to do what it takes to do things the right way.
    • John says we need to consider someone’s interest in a topic. John can still power through something related to his job, but if he had no interest in something that was totally orthogonal to what he cared about, it would be orders of magnitude more difficult.
  • Jon has a need to make others happy, and he likes all kinds of technology. He loves to solve problems and puzzles, much like Sherlock Holmes.
  • Jon likes to use his blog and document things that were poorly documented elsewhere (i.e. figuring it out and presenting to others to help them).
  • When new products come out, they may not always be ready. Jon uses that opportunity to figure out the new technology offering.
  • Jon has received messages from people stating his blog helped them get into mobility.

26:05 – Challenges with ADHD

  • The problem with ADHD is the amount of time spent in internal dialogue.
    • You re-analyze past conversations frequently.
    • A potential new symptom of ADHD (Jon recently read) is having highs and lows of how you deal with emotions. Sometimes this causes an under or overreaction to a situation.
    • Jon spends a lot of time thinking about what he may have done wrong in a disagreement with someone else.
    • There may be a bias others have toward folks with ADHD. They may think you are crass or something, but people may not understand how hard it is to have no filter.
    • There are people who cannot even work with others because ADHD symptoms are so bad.
  • John says ADHD may get lumped together with being on the autism spectrum, and the two are not the same.
    • The word neuroatypical covers both, and what it indicates is working differently.
  • Jon had a director who essentially told him his ADHD was holding him back and that he was smart enough to fix it. It’s so condescending.
    • Many managers do not know their people have ADHD, but Jon owns it.
    • Jon knows there will be good days and bad days.
    • People don’t understand the struggle.
  • The difference between ADHD and being toxic is that in the case of ADHD, there is no malcontent. People may not understand this.
  • Jon had one manager who got it named Dan Smith, perhaps the sweetest guy Jon has ever met. He was a good advocate for Jon and acted as a translation engine.
  • Jon didn’t know he had ADHD until age 29, and he was tested at age 8.
  • Jon found some old papers of his mom’s later in life that said he had been diagnosed with ADHD when he was younger. This was back in the 80s when parents were not comfortable putting their kids on Ritalin.
  • It’s like the infinity gauntlet in the Avengers movies. Can we harness a person’s powers for good, or do we write them off?
    • If you know how to harness the strengths of someone with ADHD (i.e. their energy, for example), you can have someone who is as good if not better than everyone else.
    • It blows Jon’s mind how others may not want to play someone to their strengths.
  • What we’re talking about is a prejudice against a mental health diagnosis and a misunderstanding of what the medication (Ritalin) does to help (a stimulate will calm someone with ADHD but isn’t a tranquilizer).
  • The worst part about ADHD is that it makes you forget whether you took your medication that morning.

34:41 – Path to Being Open about ADHD

  • Jon wrote some great blog posts about living with ADHD that we highly recommend reading:
  • Jon and his wife own a pharma company. He realized it was mental health awareness month and chose to start writing.
    • It always surprises him when someone reads his blog and it actually matters to them.
    • During Jon’s first trip to attend VMworld, he was asked if he had a blog. At that time the answer was no, but it made him think about writing.
    • Technical writing had always helped him learn better (i.e. being hands on). He’s not able to memorize things that well, especially for things like certification exams.
    • After a presentation he gave at VMworld 2018, people shared how impactful his blog had been to them.
  • Jon had a moment of clarity last month and realized what he is doing actually matters. Perhaps it was his responsibility to really make a difference and be an advocate for ADHD during mental health awareness month.
    • Jon started in mobility, and many in this field get no respect, especially with mobility getting grouped together with VDI.
    • Jon doesn’t care what people think.
    • Jon felt he could really make a difference and decided to talk about the struggles he has seen, things he has dealt with, and what he has done about it.
    • Jon owns the ADHD. If he makes mistakes he will own them, believing that his work will speak for him.
    • Jon needs to ensure his work is great. If it isn’t, people will use his interpersonal struggles against him at every turn.
    • Jon doesn’t always understand when someone has stopped talking and may accidentally talk over them.
      • He is straightforward and blunt and also Catholic. Jon will often times feel bad after the fact and try to help people understand it was not to be malicious.

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