The Theme of Your Career with Scott Lowe (1/2)


Post-Edit Show Notes Welcome to episode 152 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 Scott Lowe, getting his thoughts on life as a principal engineer, and progression from technical instructor to blogger and writer.

Original Recording Date: 10-21-2021

Topics – A Principal Engineer, Thoughts on People Management, The Technical Classroom, Sharing Information with a Purpose, Paid to Write, Blogs to Books

2:41 – A Principal Engineer

  • Scott Lowe is a Principal Field Engineer at Kong and has been with the company since mid-May 2021. Find Scott’s blog at https://blog.scottlowe.org/.
  • Scott has been working his way up through the ranks as an individual contributor over the years. He left VMware in 2018 to join Heptio as a Staff Engineer.
    • They were a small company of about 50 people at the time Scott joined, and there was a roadmap for going beyond Staff level.
    • Moving up beyond Staff level was to be a leader without being a manager.
    • When Scott came back into VMware after the Heptio acquisition he entered at the Senior Staff level. The role is about how you’re helping others in their roles (mentoring other engineers, architects).
  • At Kong, Scott is one of 3 Principal Engineers. The path of advancement as an individual contributor would be Distinguished Engineer and then Fellow from this level.
    • The Principal Engineer is about how you’re influencing your team, driving best practices and efficiencies for the company. Are we interacting with others in the greater industry and becoming leaders within the industry.
    • This trend continues beyond Principal. Distinguished and Fellow are considered more career-level achievements. It’s the culmination of work and experience in the industry. Scott is excited to pursue these but has a lot of work to do.
    • For Scott, the Principal role is really about leveling up all the people around him, sharing his knowledge and what he learns, making sure others are adequately prepared for their endeavors.
    • A Principal role can be in pre-sales, post-sales, or roles that are a mix of each. Scott’s role is mostly post-sales. Think of it like being within a professional services organization, but the main metric is not utilization. It’s more about making an impact for the overall organization and could be things like assisting marketing with materials, supporting a conference or community meetup, creating a reference architectures, etc.
  • Is the Principal role like a team lead or tech lead?
    • In some organizations you might look at Staff / Senior Staff / Principal as a tech lead / practice lead. It’s not a given but rather "could" be that way.
      • Scott’s team has not chosen to embrace this because there are pros and cons to that approach.
      • Sometimes you’ll see tech leads divided up based on a specific technology area, but it could also be divided up by industries like Healthcare, FinServe, etc.
      • It’s a matter of finding which is the right fit at the right time during a company’s growth stage. Structures may have to change to accommodate growth.

9:02 – Thoughts on People Management

  • Scott said staying an individual contributor may have been partially due to fear of failure. He knows he can and has done well as an individual contributor.
    • Scott has had opportunities to do amazing things in his career and plans to continue to do amazing things as long as he’s able.
    • Scott knows how to be a leader while still being an individual contributor.
    • Scott says his wife is his people interaction spirit animal (perhaps a Sherpa), and he’s talked to her a great deal about different situations. She can strike up a conversation with anyone, and her insights have taught him a great deal.
    • Scott thinks his focus on enabling others to be successful could help him become a people manager. He believes a manager to be someone whose primary role is to clear the way for team members to do amazing things, making sure people have the time, runway, and resources.
    • Scott has shied away from being a people manager primarily because his greatest job satisfaction is found in being close to the technology. Getting too far away from it might cause him to lose passion and zeal to figure out how things work and a way to explain it to others.

11:53 – The Technical Classroom

  • Scott has been passionate about computers and technology even before his first few jobs.
  • Scott got a job for a company that was training pharmaceutical salespeople in the 1990s. The salespeople would carry around laptops with software that had to be launched and then used a dial up connection to synchronize database information on their customer visits.
    • The company was particular about skills as an instructor. If you were not training a customer, you were training on how to be a better instructor. They also wanted instructors spoke the customer’s language.
    • The company would have instructors do ride-alongs with the customer to learn their terminology and jargon so it could be leveraged to train the salespeople.
  • Scott traveled around carrying several giant laptops and trained a number of people.
  • Windows 95 was about to be released, and his company wanted people to train on it. Scott volunteered to do the training and went deep on how it worked, how it was different than what had been used previously.
    • Scott found that the teaching more so than the instructing was extremely enjoyable.
  • He then left to work for a company that did Microsoft training and became a Microsoft certified trainer, delivering technical courses to people looking to get certified.
    • The company Scott was working for had an interesting relationship with a VAR (value added reseller). Instructors would consult for the VAR as time allowed, and consultants from the VAR would come teach courses when they had time. This is how Scott got a taste for consulting, which has been a large part of his career.
  • When interviewing a number of years later with Craig McLuckie for a position at Heptio, Scott was asked if there was a theme to his career (not having thought much about it before then).
    • He told Craig it was education and teaching people. Even as a consultant, there was an element of it. For Scott it’s about sharing knowledge and making sure others are equipped to do amazing things.
  • Scott never considered a career as a classroom teacher in a high school or other institution. Scott’s wife was a teacher before she became a real estate agent, so he had some perspective on that life.
    • His love was for the technical classroom.
  • For Microsoft classes, the curriculum was well defined. You had to attend the course before teaching it.
    • Scott was able to leverage his own style and judgement within the curriculum to get good reviews from students.
  • If you want to teach someone else something, it’s important to understand how you learn but know there are other styles and modes of learning.
    • Some students were referred to as Lewis and Clark-ers because they might be off exploring when it was not time to work on a lab exercise (i.e. tinkering on the computer when the instructor was talking / explaining something).
    • Scott recognizes that he has to go off and explore things when learning something new. As he taught others and recognized the tendency in them he was able to tailor his teaching to address that.
      • "If you’re off exploring right now, pay attention." – Scott Lowe
    • Scott learned many things from his wife’s experience in teaching that informed his style of conveying education to others.
  • Nick makes the point that there are educational opportunities out there for all of us. We can teach others we work with as well as learn from them, which makes us all better.
    • That process of sharing expertise over the course of your career is part of the expectation of being in a senior individual contributor role. There is an expectation for you to share knowledge.
    • The more you can share with and empower people on the team, the more you will be seen as a leader on that team.
    • Nick makes the comparison to someone with a jar of silly putty and using it filling holes.

23:27 – Sharing Information with a Purpose

  • Some people seem to feel like the more they hold onto the knowledge they have the more valuable they become and are therefore more valuable to the company.
    • Scott thinks the more you tie yourself to certain information the more you limit yourself. Sharing the information with others can free you up to go on and do other things.
    • Scott references "the best way to get yourself promoted is to make yourself replaceable."
      • If you have empowered others to step in and take your role you can be freed up to go on and tackle something else.
      • At the same time the "something new" can produce fear, playing on our loss aversion (losing what we have in our current role).
  • This desire to share information is responsible in some way for Scott getting into blogging, even if he didn’t realize it.
    • Scott started writing on his site in 2005. For a time it was an internal only site that was part of his consulting business which ran on his own server infrastructure (a WordPress site).
    • It began as a way to document things he had figured out to come back and find later.
    • Scott’s public blog today serves the same purpose (i.e. go find how he did something), but looking back, what drove him to make the site public was sharing the information with others. *Over time knowledge gets compacted down and becomes a bedrock. It’s that foundation of knowledge that allows you to reach new levels of expertise in a particular area by layering things on a little at a time (i.e. personal gains and improvement). But, the sharing of the information makes others better.
    • Scott has received a number of encouraging e-mails over the years from people who found his blog and used it to solve a problem. That type of encouragement, knowing that you helped someone solve a problem in a time of need, makes it all worthwhile for Scott.
      • Nick mentions this is similar to encouragement a technical instructor can get from positive student feedback.
  • What about a blogging cadence?
    • Early on Scott was a blogging machine, doing probably 8-12 posts per months. This was in the early days of VMware taking off (2006 / 2007 / 2008 / 2009) and so much to write about.
    • There were a number of other bloggers like Duncan Epping and Frank Denneman.
    • One could easily publish daily if you had the time. Scott wrote a lot in the beginning, and it’s slowed a little over the years. Now he will do between 4 and 6 posts per month.
    • Some people say you need a specific cadence. Others say you should be laser focused on a specific subject matter area. Scott says he gets plenty of traffic, page rank, etc. and doesn’t do any of those things.
      • "If you enjoy it (blogging), just go ahead and do it. And all the rest of it…it will all work itself out." – Scott Lowe
      • Nick believes if you start writing and you enjoy it you will never run out of ideas.
  • Should I blog to stand out even if I’m not a great writer?
    • Scott’s opinion here is if you are blogging because you want to get more visibility because it might lead to a better job, he’s not convinced that is the right reason to do it.
    • People will say you should go blog and do it a certain way (with SEO rules). Scott believes you should write or blog because the act of creating content whether video, audio, written form, a set of sample code files, etc. all forms of content become mechanisms to enable and empower others. If your goal is to enable and empower others, get in and do it. If you don’t enjoy it, try sticking with it for a little while.
    • If you get into blogging strictly for financial reasons, Scott believes you will end up burning out, and your content will be a flash in the pan rather than something that has staying power because it’s coming from a place of deep commitment and conviction within your character (because you believe the information is useful, could be to inform or to entertain).
    • Create the content because it’s a passion for you and not to get followers or free stuff.
  • Is this the heart of principal level work?
    • Senior level team members are expected to guide and mentor junior members of the team. You will develop these qualities if you are sharing content with the purpose of empowering and enabling others.

35:33 – Paid to Write

  • Scott was paid to write articles for Tech Target for a couple of years. This was at the same time Scott D Lowe was writing articles for Tech Republic.
  • For Scott, bogging is a passion. Through it he is able to share the enjoyment he gains from figuring something out. It’s proven true that others have found value in the information in ways Scott didn’t necessarily anticipate.
  • When you write for pay, you need to write something. It doesn’t matter if you’re inspired. You have a deadline, and that’s how it is. If Scott had an idea on what to write about, the fact that he was writing for pay was irrelevant. He had an opinion or a stance to work with to write what he needed to write.
  • Overall, Scott enjoyed the opportunity to write and is glad he did it. When the writing becomes a job like this, you can be uninspired to write (because it may not be coming from a place of commitment and passion within you).
    • He sometimes was able to pick the topic when writing for Tech Target but was sometimes told they wanted an article on a specific topic.
    • If Scott had stayed in it longer, there may have been topics he decided not to write about (despite someone else wanting him to do so).
    • Scott worked with a number of great editors to publish the work that showed up on Tech Target.
  • We’ve had guests on the show whose hobby became a their eventual job that had to find other creative outlets for hobbies.
  • Scott has been fortunate to have great managers who recognized that he can add value in a number of ways which may not seem like they do at first glance.
    • Scott would take something he learned on his own and share it with the team to improve what they are doing.
    • He’s able to channel creative energy this way, going and figuring out how some new technology works and then adding the element of sharing with others.
  • Nick mentions the intent is important to notice. The things Scott is doing are coming from a place of humility. He knows things shared may help someone years after they are shared.
  • Scott shared an example from 2011 / 2012 and his work on Open vSwitch. Someone contacted him 5 years later stating the content was extremely valuable. There are other examples of the work he did on integrating Linux / Solaris with Active Directory.
    • Sometimes the payoff is delayed, but it’s still there.
  • This goes back to the why behind blogging and sharing that Scott already mentioned. For Scott it comes from a place of wanting to pave a path to make it easier for others to follow.

43:34 – Blogs to Books

  • The first book he wrote happened around 2009. A colleague of Scott’s was offered to write a book but could not do it. Scott agreed to do it, and that’s how Mastering vSphere version 4 came to be.
    • The book became a runaway success and led him into doing Mastering vSphere 5 as a follow up.
  • Writing a book is a very different thing than writing a blog post. It’s a ton of work.
    • We are more than just our job. We have families, friends, etc.
    • When given the opportunity to write the book, Scott sat his family down and shared just how much work he believed would be involved. His kids were younger at the time, and it was important that the entire family bought into it.
    • The kids would need to help around the house and help their mother.
  • Scott had wanted to write a book for a number of years.
    • He’s an avid reader of fiction even though he writes technology books.
    • Scott had tried in the past to chase writing a book, but it did not happen. About 6 months after he decided it would happen when the time was right, the opportunity landed in his lap.
  • It took about 4.5 – 5 months to write the book.
    • The first copies rolled out at VMworld in 2009.
  • It seems like many folks who have been successful in the technology industry have written books.
  • Scott believes that writing is powerful in many ways. It is crucial to what we do as information / knowledge workers. So much of our everything is in written form, which is so incredibly central to what we are as a people.
    • Spending the time to make yourself better at writing pays off in so many other ways (i.e. more effective description of the why behind an upgrade, better structure, better understanding of others’ arguments, etc.).
    • This comes out of understanding how our language works, using our language, and conversing in that language (any language) gives you power to be more effective as an individual, a communicator, and as a leader.
    • All of these things are so intermeshed in the career ladder…being able to make yourself effective at broadening your sphere of influence and having the company recognize it (and get promoted as a result).
  • Be careful stepping in to write a book because it is a whole different animal.
    • Scott has written 8 books, so what is going on here?
    • Scott has heard someone use the analogy that writing a book is like giving birth to a baby. It’s extremely hard and painful, but after it’s finished and you look back, you don’t remember that pain until you’re in the midst of writing another book.
    • It’s the growth that brings the joy.
    • Agreeing to write a book doesn’t mean you know everything about a topic when you begin.
    • Just like writing a blog post or teaching something to somoene else, it solidifies your own understanding of the topic.
    • At the time Scott wrote his book on vSphere they were using beta code. Screenshots would have to be updated every time new code was released in those days because the interface may have changed slightly.
    • But there is so much learning that happens in this process because you are forced to embrace everything you are writing and really understand it. Scott was very familiar with vSphere when he began work on the books but still learned a great deal through the process of writing Mastering vSphere 4 as well as Mastering vSphere 5.
    • Nick remembers using the vSphere 5 book when pursuing his certification years ago. Scott says they didn’t intend to make it a certification guide but that many found it helpful in working toward the certification.

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