The Magic of Building with Chris Wahl (1/2)

Welcome to episode 148 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 Chris Wahl and discuss Chris’s early experience demonstrating proof of work, advanced certifications, and experience at a startup.

Original Recording Date: 9-23-2021

Topics – Proof of Work, Blogging, Encouraged to Move On, Over the Mountain of VCDX, Into Open Source, Startup Magic and Being a Builder

3:22 – Proof of Work

  • Chris Wahl is a Senior Principal at Slalom. He leads a team of consulting technologists who solve complex problems related to public cloud, DevOps and many other items under the technology umbrella. Check out his blog at
  • Technology was never a mystery for Chris. His dad had a computer when he was a kid, and Chris wanted to take it apart and play with video games.
  • Chris found odd jobs working at the library writing code and even led a computer user group in college (think LAN parties).
  • After graduating from Devry, he put together a binder with all of his work (building / fixing computers) to impress interviewers. After sharing the binder with someone from General Motors, they hired him.
    • Always think about what someone else might not be doing that you can showcase. Maybe it’s certifications or something else.
    • Chris didn’t want an easy first place. He wanted to crush it (and he did).
    • The binder had some design work and the planning he had done as part of the computer users group.
    • There is nothing wrong with having a body of work to show your experience and capabilities.
    • John mentions publicizing the types of projects you work on is a great way to share proof of work.

7:13 – Blogging

  • Chris started blogging in about 2008. In 2008 he was working in an IT role (Sysadmin / Help Desk) and new he needed to elevate himself. He was reading other people’s articles.
  • After realizing he was solving a lot of problems, why not write about it?
    • Chris wanted to contribute back to the communities that had helped him but also wanted a way to remember some of the unique things he had done (which he wasn’t otherwise going to be able to remember as well).
  • Was blogging an extension of the binder?
    • Writing is the best skill you can hone as a technologist. It is often cited as the largest gap. The only way to get better at it is to write at it.
    • If you leverage writing for a second brain, a time machine, or a place to showcase your work you are developing the skill of writing well (which can catapult you into new heights in your career) and getting many other benefits as a result.
  • If you’re afraid someone will be critical of your work, it’s optional to receive the feedback. You can turn that stuff off.
    • If you are creating it for the reasons Chris mentioned, you can leverage some trusted peers for feedback. The anonymous internet is not nice, so you should not expect it to be.
  • John has heard the term second brain before.
    • Chris’s approach to what he hears / learns is to write it down. He uses Google Keep with color coding and a labeling system.
    • He needs a clean working palette to be creative. If there is a technical crust, it doesn’t work. He needs a searchable repository.
    • The bits that erupt into a blog are usually more finite in nature and less part of the metadata kept in his "second brain."
    • John has recently started reading about personal knowledge management, specifically Zettlekasten.
  • The system Chris described seemed to be a continuation of the binder. * There is an iterative process to writing. What you start with is never what you finish with. There are some layers of self-exploration involved. * Writing makes you think about how you’re going to display the information. You’re not just coming up with it in real time but creating a flow with a start, middle, and end. Many times you walk into the middle of a problem, so writing things down in a structured way gives you another perspective on the solution. * John says you’re writing for a future version of you without the contexts you have right now.
    • Chris likes non-opinionated systems for knowledge management (a blank slate that allows you to define the flow) without a lot of structure required. Chris wants to be able to get in and start taking notes.
      • This is part of the reason he chose Google Keep. The tags and labels made sense because this is how Chris would manage his cloud accounts / infrastructure.
      • Take a well defined process that works for technical documentation, automating that to work in the cloud world, and applying to a knowledge repository. There will be a number of great patterns that work.
      • Any time Chris has a conversation and wants to pick out something important (idea, solution, concern). If he’s taking longer bits of notes, it will probably go into a Confluence page or something that is meant more for a project.
      • "Pretty much everything goes in there. I won’t know if it’s valuable or not until later." – Chris Wahl

16:20 – Encouraged to Move On

  • The job at the dealership was Chris’s first real technology job and involved taking care of 3 dealers. His predecessor had left him a screwdriver, a car magazine, and the domain admin password (and spelled the domain wrong).
    • Everything was kind of greenfield, allowing Chris to design the IT stack for each location. For several years it was building PCs, working with technicians, and getting to understand the business (financial systems, business process flows, and how to integrate them into the IT stack).
    • Chris still has good relationships with his former colleagues (including is former boss) today.
    • His investment was to learn the business and figure out how the tech could make it better.
    • Chris loved it there and was told by his boss he needed to find something new (was capped out on raises).
    • There is a lot of experience that goes into building something from the ground up.
    • Looking back, this forced Chris to be scrappy, come up with solutions, and be a part of the greater community.
  • Chris’s manager at this employer was not the norm. Not every manager would encourage an employee to leave the company to better themselves.
    • Chris feels he lucked out on this one.
    • They had an honest relationship. Chris expressed that he wanted more challenge and to work on more interesting things.
    • Chris and his manager struck a deal where Chris hired his replacement and stayed 2-3 months to train the new hire and find a job. At first Chris would show how the systems worked and then allow the person to drive and ask Chris for help when needed.
    • The open relationship between employee and manager is something Chris has tried to apply for the people who work for him now.
      • If we can’t help you here, let’s find you something great elsewhere.
      • It’s hard to explain an entire enterprise in 2 weeks.
    • Chris encourages us all to leave it better than we found it, and he feels he did that at the dealership, leaving good documentation and honing his writing skills in the process.

22:24 – Over the Mountain of VCDX

  • Chris worked a college education company, a medical company, and didn’t really know you could work for a vendor. You worked for companies and did tech stuff.
  • In 2011 he went into consulting, realizing there was no job where he would not get bored / restless or automate himself out of a job. Consulting seemed to solve this.
  • Chris has never worked in a sales role by choice. He respects people that do, but it is not for him.
  • Chris was the wrench turner, installing things like Horizon View, VXBlocks, etc. for customers.
    • He felt the designs he was being given to go implement could be better.
    • For the first time Chris thought maybe he could be the one solving the problem and building the architecture instead of the one installing the things.
    • This put him on a journey to go get the VMware VCDX and prove he cold do it, starting to do some architecture and progressing to the point where architecture was all he was doing.
    • Architecture was the type of work Chris began to like more at that time.
    • After you are in the datacenter for the 30th day in a row, the fantasy wears off.
  • The certification is great, but it depends on who you are talking to and how they value it.
    • It was an elation to get certified, but Chris had reached one of the highest levels you can achieve with the VCDX.
    • Chris realized that was not the end and that he did not want to do architecture forever.
    • There are two paths to go down. You can let the high level certification be what you are, or it can just be something you’ve done. Too many people let it consume their identity. Chris even leaned that way at first but realized it was just an achievement.
    • Chris wants a little fear to direct him. There was no fear, so he knew it was time for something different (which for Chris was cloud architecture and getting back into code).

27:47 – Into Open Source

  • Chris started in the OpenStack days helping with Nova and Cinder but was mostly helping with documentation.
  • He eventually got into the PowerShell scene and really liked solving problems using the language.
  • Chris wrote an open source project called Vester for VMware configuration management. It was a unit testing engine that checked config values.
  • Someone reached out to him after he stopped actively contributing to Vester, mentioning their company had been actively using it.
  • People don’t generally get into open source without a good reason.
  • A lot of people don’t care about open source contributions. If you want to do software development work, it’s more about passing code exams, the school you came from, examples of code snippets you have worked on, references, and networking.
    • The software contributions to open source are more helpful if you’re looking for a public facing role like Developer Relations (i.e. Technical Marketing). The job is more about cutting directly to the viewer and letting them know you know what you’re talking about. Build what you want people to understand so they can do a certain level of checking.
    • Where Chris is in his career, it’s way less about your GitHub profile.

31:08 – Startup Magic and Being a Builder

  • Chris thinks Rubrik didn’t know who he was until they spoke to Duncan Epping. Chris was a fan of Duncan’s blog and his books, and they had networked a bit (i.e. knowing someone who knows someone).
  • Chris was blogging about VMware, and the Rubrik product was going to be protecting VMware workloads. He was an authentic voice and a good person to represent the company (Rubrik).
    • This was a right time, right skillset kind of thing.
  • Chris cites Rubrik as probably the best job he’s ever had.
  • Chris was at a startup with 25-30 people or so with everyone excited and top of their game, completely focused on the mission of building a company. They were not looking for a churn and burn but looking to build something big.
  • For years it was a small crew, and Chris had the best time of his life, feeling he’ll never be able to replicate that same magic. He would do it again in a heartbeat if he had a time machine.
  • Chris probably won’t do another startup at this point in his career.
  • John mentioned we’ve talked to people with similar sentiments about startups and the energy that comes from them. Some people are a part of it and keep trying to recreate the magic at other places.
  • Chris says there is a nuance here. There’s the magic of the startup, much of it often coming from your first. Chris has been a part of 3 startups.
    • Then there’s the magic of being a builder. Chris is a builder. He wants to build it, see it do what it’s supposed to do, and then he’s ready to move on.
    • "I think you can chase being a builder, but you have to respect the magic of the startup vibe and not try to chase that because it is fleeting and rare and you should respect it." – Chris Wahl
  • John says you can still feed the builder within from different positions

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