The Transferrable Skill of Systems Thinking with Nathan Bennett (1/2)

Welcome to episode 198 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 an interview with Nathan Bennett, discussing Nathan’s transition from biblical studies into IT, transferrable skills, and the development of the pattern of systems thinking.

Original Recording Date: 10-25-2022

Topics – Meet Nathan Bennett; An Origin Story; A Degree in Biblical Studies; Technical Jargon; Urged to Pursue Tech; Transferrable Skills and Relatable Experience; Soft Skills and Presenting Yourself; Certifications, Progression, and a Superpower; A Pattern of Systems Thinking; In and Out of Context

3:18 – Meet Nathan Bennett

  • Nathan Bennett (@vNathanBennett) has a very dynamic job, specializing in the areas of automation and cloud across a number of different verticals. The best way Nathan can describe his role is a bit like an Office of the CTO.
    • Someone will generally have a cool idea and suggest it be researched. Nathan is often the one who does this.
    • At the end of the day you need to get to the end state and goal, so you have to account for taking two steps back here and there. At times it feels like project managing.

4:29 – An Origin Story

  • Nathan’s origin story begins with his dad, who was a computer programmer on a submarine at the time when programming involved punch cards. His father later learned to program in C-based languages such as C#.
    • Nathan adds that he personally does not have a degree in computer information systems.
    • Nathan’s dad’s job was essentially what we now refer to as a linter that fixes broken programming code.
    • Nathan told himself he would never work in IT because of his father’s occupation, not being able to imagine himself looking through millions of characters for a semicolon that might be out of place, for example. It sounded like the worst job Nathan could possibly imagine.
    • At the time, Nathan was very interested in video games and the progression of new gaming systems from Nintendo (original Nintendo to Super Nintendo to Nintendo64, etc.).
    • His father played video games as well, and Nathan says there was technology all around him growing up.
    • Nathan’s first computer was a hand-me-down 386 that was eventually upgraded to Windows 3.1 so a mouse and keyboard could be used along with it.

6:46 – A Degree in Biblical Studies

  • Nathan’s degree is a bachelor of arts in biblical studies.
  • At about 8 years old, Nathan decided he wanted to be used by God to be a missionary or something like that. Eventually he wanted to become a pastor or youth pastor.
  • While technology was certainly a hobby of Nathan’s, he focused on understanding scripture, studying how various texts could apply to people’s lives, and eventually became a youth pastor.
  • John points out some irony here in that Nathan didn’t want to look through thousands of lines of code like his father but ended up studying thousands of characters of text for content in studying the bible.
    • Nathan feels perhaps he was always destined to follow in his dad’s footsteps in a way due to things like this.
    • Nathan didn’t like the idea of looking through different characters, but the idea of taking something that many people did not understand or maybe apply to themselves and to try and change that perspective was an endearing quality to becoming a pastor.
    • There are many qualities from this experience which translate to / carry forward into Nathan’s IT career today.
    • Going back to Nathan’s dad and troubleshooting code, he could change one character and determine if the change worked, continuing to make small changes until he ended up with a working program. In Nathan’s mind there were no rules to this process, and his dad needed the code to do what a developer needed it to do (perform a specific function / complete a specific task). None of this sounded appealing to Nathan.
    • Helping a teenager understand and hope for the future of their life is more exciting to Nathan. It’s about helping people with the actual problems in their life and the deciding factor for Nathan between those two career choices (what his dad did vs. being a pastor).
    • No one was asking Nathan to fix characters or change meanings when it came to the bible. There was no recompilation.
    • Nathan agrees that with biblical studies, you can’t really change characters. Bible studies are strange in that the text has been around for so long and is something that has been translated so many different times by so many different people.
    • Many will say the bible is a dead text / dead story, but there are so many great ways in which it applies today and can help us deal with problems, learn how to deal with each other with grace and mercy.

10:21 – Technical Jargon

  • Nathan says going through seminary can change your vocabulary in a bad way. If Nathan says he is going to make an intercession for a customer, for example, he might get some strange looks from people. But if he were to use that term in church, people would generally know he what he was saying (i.e. referring to Jesus in this case).
    • Nathan remembers falling back on these words and terms and would often need to step back and use smaller words to ensure the message he wanted to convey to others was understandable and came across in the way he intended.
    • To John, this is like getting immersed in an area and using technical jargon related to that area. When you use technical jargon with an audience that doesn’t have exposure to that same area, often times people just won’t understand.
    • Nathan says there are doctrines that are quite difficult to swallow and need to be spelled out a little bit clearer for people. To Nathan, there is no difference between this and helping someone understand how NSX-T works.
      • There are many components, but if you understand what they are and how they work individually you see "the spider web." You see the connections between them and how they work together.
      • It’s about helping other people connect those dots whether it comes from doctrine (rules / laws), a proof of concept, or enterprise business.
      • Nick says this is about meeting people where they are and understanding they may not have the same base of knowledge you do (which is why explaining jargon-like terms helps).
      • It sounds like Nathan has the intent / desire to teach people across different domains.
      • Nathan says the teaching part is key, and it is key to his job now when he does things like workshops to help people understand different concepts, etc.
      • Nathan gives the example of doing Tanzu workshops to a number of virtualization administrators who don’t quite understand why they should care about what Nathan is showing them. Nathan often has to add the connection point between point A and point B so they can see where the connection points may be between Kubernetes and containers and a virtual environment (the connection points between different domains).

13:14 – Urged to Pursue Tech

  • In talking about his move from something like studying the bible to technology, Nathan’s wife was a huge part of it, constantly telling him "I’m not sure about this" (referring to Nathan’s job as a pastor).
    • Nathan always thought this was cold feet, feeling a pastor’s wife has a rough job and has to deal with an entire congregation of people constantly passing judgement on them.
    • A fun fact about Nathan is he is more proficient in ancient Greek than in English.
    • Nathan tells the story of his wife coming home one day to find that he had taken his computer apart to determine the cause of a clicking noise inside it (which was a bad actuator on a hard disk).
    • Upon seeing this Nathan’s wife made a comment along the lines of "this is seriously not what you should be doing" in reference to his profession as a pastor.
  • Nathan is a bit of a bull-headed fellow.
    • He and his wife had a conversation about his career as a youth pastor, and Nathan continued to feel it was what he was supposed to be doing.
    • Nathan and his wife were kicked out of seminary housing. They had a cat and were originally told it was ok, but the people who had originally stated it was ok to have a cat had completely flipped on that policy.
      • People came into Nathan and his wife’s house to replace an air filter (and did not give any noticed that this would be happening), found they had a cat, and stated Nathan and his wife had to leave. They were looking for another home at the time anyway and left.
      • Around this same time at the congregation where Nathan worked they had just fired the pastor (not Nathan but a different person). Nathan is still unsure of the reason.
      • At the time this became an eye opening factor that made Nathan question whether he wanted to continue what he was doing.
  • After about 5 years of hand wringing and going to what he calls probably one of the darkest places he has ever been, Nathan decided he was going to give technology a try.
    • The pivot took over 6 years with Nathan not starting in IT until he was 28. As of this recording, Nathan has been in IT for a little over 11 years.
    • Nathan feels like he has taken up technology "like a duck to water." "Whatever I’m doing, if I am talking to my boss or a customer on the phone…I still cling to that idea of helping them understand what the problem is and what the solutions are. It’s just that basic to me."

17:01 – Transferrable Skills and Relatable Experience

  • If Nathan was able to talk to his 28-year-old self, he would have said "just go get a tech job." He would tell himself to work with consulting agencies that could place him in a job.
  • In fact, a consulting agency placed Nathan in his first tech job at Radio Shack doing phone help.
    • Many people may turn their nose up at this idea because they have greater ambitions. You have to start somewhere and have to put your foot in the door, and that is what Nathan did.
    • Nathan and his wife spent around $8,000 on training courses and certifications he earned such as A+ and Security+. The Security+ certification is not the same thing as ethical hacking.
  • The job at Radio Shack doing phone help / phone support was Nathan’s first troubleshooting IT job.
    • This is where he put his principle of helping others understand the problem and possible solutions to work.
    • Nathan would try to calmly talk to people on the phone (who might be yelling at him), assuring them certain troubleshooting steps (like turning something off and back on again) were needed before any replacement parts could be issued.
    • John mentions having a large number of instances where turning something off and on again resolved a problem, but he didn’t think to do it.
  • Maybe there’s a lesson here about things we love doing compared to things we want to do as a profession. John has had friends in his life who thought they wanted to be a professor of literature, for example, and realized they can deconstruct it into writing, analysis, and other components a professor would do. This person could do all these things without needing to get a PhD or a tenured track position. The profession and following it is not quite the same as doing the things (i.e. the deconstructed elements).
    • Nathan says this boils down to "transferrable skills." Many times we think one job has no correlation to another.
    • Take developer relations as an example. It means something when these people used to have the title of product evangelists or developer evangelists and are now considered developer relations.
    • When you think of evangelists, you think about Nathan’s background. The point of an evangelist is to go and spread the good news, evangelizing what a solution can do, which Nathan is still doing.
    • If Nathan is speaking to a customer about a product, his goal is not to force feed it to the customer but rather find a product that fits the customer’s problem. Nathan doesn’t need to worry about what the solution is until he truly understands the problem.
    • This is something Nathan learned as a pastor in counseling others. "You don’t try to fix as much as you try to understand." – Nathan Bennett
    • Nathan gives an example of someone mentioning software-defined networking and then keying in on that phrase. We might end up vomiting all these facts about NSX before asking questions like:
      • What have you tried?
      • Where are you moving to / moving toward?
      • What are your troubleshooting steps, and why did you start with those?
    • We should try to understand the customer’s mentality first before bringing in a solution (like NSX as an example) that the customer will need to understand how to care and feed (maintain / operate).
      • This could be any solution – Amazon Aurora, Azure SQL, figuring out serverless, Kubernetes, etc.
      • All of these things come with a price tag that is paid for in talent and time because we seem to immediately think of the technical wins the solution can provide.
    • Nick suggests we probably do this with our families too (not taking enough time to understand their problems). He remembers hearing at a webinar that our spouses / significant others do not always want us to fix something but rather want us to understand where they are coming from.
    • Nathan is pulling a lot of what he learned in seminary into this discussion.
    • Over the course of his career when asked about having a degree, Nathan shares that he has a degree in biblical studies. People would stop for a second, squint at him, and then say "it doesn’t matter. I just need to know that you have a degree."
      • This kind of threw Nathan for a loop. He has many conversations with people about technical training outside a degree. Nathan does not have a CIS (computer information systems) degree. He doesn’t claim to understand frameworks but certainly uses them.
      • There is something to be said of the people who don’t have a degree but spent time learning.
      • Much of what Nathan learned related to his degree was soft skills.
      • We toss around the idea of working on soft skills pretty frequently, whether it’s working on bedside manner, working on writing skills, or going to Toastmasters for practicing speaking skills.
      • Nathan may never have been part of Toastmasters, but he’s preached sermons at rescue missions and homeless shelters. These are hard crowds to impact. If you can keep their attention (in a tough crowd like these), whether it’s you or the message, you have something.
      • Being able to transfer the skill of putting together an outline and then creating a speech or presentation easily transfers into the technical world.

25:19 – Soft Skills and Presenting Yourself

  • Nick loves the idea of relatable experience (transferrable experience, transferrable skills), and it comes from many areas (both inside and outside a work environment). Many people do not remember to highlight this on their resume or in interviews.
  • Maybe people don’t even realize they have certain skills which actually do transfer easily to something else.
  • Nathan mentions seeing an amazing resume recently that did not mention giving a presentation, writing, or creating anything.
    • It wasn’t jumbled up buzzwords but was definitely an example of someone who used IaaS for about 30% of statements made on the resume.
    • There’s something to be said about the technical jargon used in a technical resume.
    • The first question asked of this person was if they felt comfortable speaking to someone in a C-suite (or a high level executive). Also, did they feel comfortable describing something like infrastructure as code (IaaC) or infrastructure as a service (IaaS) to a developer? None of this was in the resume.
    • If you have the ability to interview very well, it transfers into your job (which many people do not realize).
    • This is a soft skill, and maybe we should spend some time learning it if we aren’t very good at it. How you present yourself matters.
      • Nathan gives the example of wearing a t-shirt for the audio recording of our interview, which might be different if he had to do a video presentation.
      • Much of what is communicated is visual. We should be mindful of this.
      • When we speak toward things or speak of ourselves, we need to make sure what we are presenting visually is the same communication we are trying to give audibly.
      • John says this is about aligning the message in all the various ways it is being delivered, including aligning visual aids, etc. with what you say. If this is not done successfully you may not be sending the message you think you are sending.
      • Nathan points out an interesting video he’s seen of someone speaking to how qualified they are for a job and how excited they are to start, but the camera is focused on the large mustard stain on this person’s shirt.

29:05 – Certifications, Progression, and a Superpower

  • Nathan held the A+ and Security+ certifications until he got to his current position (as of this recording), finding alternate paths to progress outside of more certifications.
    • Now Nathan holds about 10 or 11 certifications.
    • For those who work for VARs (value-added resellers), getting certifications is sort of a rite of passage. VARs need people on staff to have technical certifications, and you can volunteer to go out and get them as an employee.
    • Nathan’s hot take – certifications don’t do much other than tell people that you know enough to talk about the technology.
    • A hot take from Nathan is that theAWS Architect Associate Certification is only a small step up from the foundations exam.
    • If you want to operate the technology, you will take the sysops exam since it has a practical component and focuses on you being able to actually build stuff in the cloud.
  • The A+ and Security+ certifications were held by Nathan before he got the job working for Radio Shack.
    • During the interview process for Radio Shack Nathan mentioned the certifications and some of the knowledge gained from them. The interviewer said Nathan knew more about computers than he did, and Nathan later found out none of the people he worked with at Radio Shack knew how computers worked or had any certifications.
    • Nathan was working the night shift (the graveyard shift), and he encountered a number of high school kids who kept getting busted for under age drinking and would be late for work because they were caught by the police or in jail. Radio Shack was the wild, wild west of IT.
  • Nathan learned very quickly after starting at Radio Shack what his superpower was – the ability to help people understand what the technology was rather than what it did.
    • Nathan was also helping people understand that their point of sale (POS) system was the functional point for the entire store, that if the system was down or receipt printers were down there were alternatives, and the operations of the store. Each of these became central to the way he spoke to people on the phone.
    • Many people didn’t like Nathan because they (for example) wanted a new receipt printer or wanted toner sent to them, etc.
    • Nathan had a process to follow every single time. When someone would say they couldn’t operate the store without a specific piece of equipment, it opened the door for Nathan to help the person understand the operational processes of the store and ways to do things differently.
    • He would constantly have to break down the environment people had lived in and worked in, educating the person he was speaking to on the phone about the purpose of equipment in the store (tag printers, the computer in the back the manager would use which was referred to as the "server," etc.).
    • It wasn’t just about how to replace a receipt printer or one of the scanners. Nathan knew how each of these machines worked and how they were connected to point of sale machines and how the point of sale machines connected to the back end servers.
  • This moved Nathan to what they call level 2, where he learned SQL (some database querying and the ability to manage pricing data on the back end server).
    • Nathan also worked with some of the application users that would create sales structures and processes.
    • He was also put on the team that was doing updates to Radio Shack stores (many of which looked like Apple stores).
    • After doing this quite successfully, Nathan was made a network operator. He feels he did less work as a network operator than when he was doing phone help.
      • The network operator position involved more responsibility and paid better. In this position Nathan was taking more of a chance / risk than as a phone help person because he had the ability to go into the datacenter, change out backup tapes, manage backup jobs, and even restart virtual machines when needed.
  • This progression took place at Radio Shack over a period of 3 years, and Nathan learned how quickly he could learn things.
    • He knew how to pinpoint where the problems were for a specific position. Nathan was able to spot the areas where few people he worked with were strategizing to learn and become sort of a subject matter expert in those areas. "Nathan’s the ‘that thing’ guy."
  • Nathan would use this type of mentality in moving from one place to the next. His next employer was XTO Energy (a subsidiary of Exxon Mobile).
    • Here Nathan learned automation and PowerShell scripting.
    • Nathan also learned about a stigmatism in his left eye, which was a large reason why he never enjoyed reading a lot of books or going through checklists.
      • For a long time he would skip lines without realizing it and would need to put a finger on the current line he was reading so as not to miss anything.
      • Nathan has since had Lasik to correct this condition.
    • Despite the stigmatism, Nathan took well to PowerShell scripting.

37:05 – A Pattern of Systems Thinking

  • Was the focus on understanding the greater systems he was dealing with and not just the individual components of them (a receipt printer, etc.) the pattern that fits with Nathan’s progression?
    • Nathan says this fits him, especially at Radio Shack. He knew the stores well, and the stores knew him (whether in a good or not so good context). Iron sharpens iron.
  • During the 6 year transition into IT, Nathan’s first IT job was working for a guy who did consulting work and said he needed some help reimaging computers.
    • To this point Nathan had built a number of computers. The consultant with the need for help really needed someone who understood more about servers than Nathan did at the time.
  • After working for the consultant for a couple of months, the person stopped using Nathan for help. At about this point the hiring manager told Nathan he did not have the mental faculty to work in IT and that he wasn’t smart enough to do it. Nathan was encouraged to go back and work somewhere in the arts (like the discipline in which Nathan’s degree is).
    • This added to the 5 years of Nathan not going into IT, especially since the feedback was coming from someone "already in that world" (doing IT).
  • In regard to understanding wholistic systems, Nathan had a better appreciation of blast radius at that time. He did not know what he did would break other places until he found out what those other things were and understood how they worked.
    • Understanding the blast radius became a larger part of Nathan’s focus, but he’s not sure he could pinpoint it in terms of career success. It was more of a safety function that made sure Nathan didn’t mess up as much as he probably should have and a little bit of a knee jerk reaction to the sins of his past.
  • This reminds John of the discussion biblical studies. When doing textual studies and textual criticism it is not one in isolation but a whole system of interconnected things and bringing the full context if all those things to talk about a specific topic.
    • If in this first job the boss said Nathan needed to do this but that he did not have the mental faculties that is quite disconcerting. If only later on Nathan figured out this is what he needed to do, the first job experience sounds more like bad teaching.
    • Nathan says the person he worked for wasn’t the nicest guy, but that this person should be given some grace. His comment to Nathan still spurns Nathan on today, and if Nathan were to see him, he would want to shake his hand and say thank you.
    • This lit a fire inside Nathan he did not realize was there just to prove this person wrong every day.
    • That has been Nathan’s goal from the Radio Shack days until now. Does Nathan want to shove it in that person’s face? No, Nathan has come a long way to this point and cannot have anything but gratitude that this person but that drive in him.

41:57 – In and Out of Context

  • Nathan says what John mentioned is very true. In biblical studies you understand that context means everything.

    • Nathan teaches Sunday school. There is a passage that speaks to not throwing pearls before swine (passage in question is Matthew 7:6 for reference). The idea here is don’t take what is good and give it to people who will not appreciate it.
    • This passage gets pulled out of context, however, and turns into more of before I give you anything good you have to show me you can handle it (thus turning into a criticism and judgement of the person before anything can be bestowed upon the person).
    • It turns out the previous 5 verses in the above passage are Jesus telling the people listening not to judge so that they will not be judged.
      • This is a powerful message to all sorts of different career fields.
  • All of these things build into the idea of taking something out and removing the context of the environment around it, which changes into something that is not necessarily the entire purpose of the whole but the purpose of a thing and not the purpose of everything.

    • We can lose the holistic purpose when we focus too much on a single problem.
    • Nathan gives the example of using some products in the Tanzu family. You may have a networking problem, a storage problem, or a Tanzu platform problem. People may think the problem is in one of the 3 areas mentioned but may be in another.
      • You need to understand what the storage is, what the networking is, etc. before you can have a happy Tanzu platform environment.
      • If you only understand Tanzu, you will probably never get it back up and running. Whereas if you understand a little about the back ends, you will have a much happier experience.
    • John says this is very similar to when people got into virtualization. Getting highly specialized in only the virtualization layer (VMware or other) and not paying attention to the storage layer, networking layer, and the workloads running in the environment you are likely not going to be very useful and are going to run into a lot of problems by not knowing the system as a whole. It’s a tough lesson to learn.
    • Nathan shares a story of thinking there was a network issue only to find it was a DNS problem. But the network team showed Nathan some grace when he worked with them to confirm the network was running successfully without issue (at least in terms of communication between ip addresses). Nathan had given the team the DNS record of a server he thought had network issues, and they needed the ip address to confirm functionality.
  • Mentioned in the outro

    • John mentioned Nathan had what Dan Coyle, author of The Talent Code, might call an ignition moment when he was told he did not have the mental faculties to be in IT.
    • A VAR (or value added reseller) could be a good company to work for that will pay for technical certifications across different technologies for itsp employees. Though not called out in the outro, check out Episode 165 with Andrew Miller for more about what VARs do.

Contact us if you need help on the journey, and be sure to check out the Nerd Journey Podcast Knowledge Graph.

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