Tinkering into Specialty with David Klee (1/2)

Welcome to episode 119 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 David Klee in which we recount David’s career journey from generalist to specialist through career changes and a move into consulting.

Original Recording Date: 04-12-2021

Topics – Career Path, Scaling up, Transition to Consulting, Body of Work

3:39 – Meet David Klee

  • David Klee is a Microsoft Data Platform MVP and a VMware vExpert. He owns two companies:
    • Heraflux Technologies – They do business to business consulting around Microsoft SQL Server and Microsoft Data Platform and everything underneath related to performance and availability.
      • Virtually every application out there has some means to drive data to it. David specializes in SQL Server and how it interacts with eevrything underneath it.
      • David has done a lot if presentations for VMUG, and Nick actually attended one the week before this recording happened.
    • SQLibrium provides training content for performance and availability tuning for the Microsoft SQL Server data platform and each layer of the infrastructure stack, be it physical, virtual, or cloud, underneath the database.

5:10 – Walking the Career Path

  • This is a follow up to our discussions about generalists vs. specialists in Episode 26. Go back and listen if you have not.
  • David’s first computer was a Tandy Color Computer 3 at age 5. His grandmother was a librarian. He used to type in all the Basic code from magazines, spending hours playing around it and learning Basic by age 6 or 7.
  • His mom got tired of David breaking her computer, so he was able to build his own from various parts at age 8.
  • At 10 he was repairing computers for friends and family, which continued until age 16 or 17 (repairing anywhere from 10 – 20 computers per week).
  • There were a lot of modem lighting strikes he helped resolve for people.
  • In college David took over a Systems Administrator job for a small military contractor, learning Windows, SQL Server, and Microsoft Access.
  • He eventually discovered a copy of VMware Workstation in 1999 and put a copy of Windows NT 4 and SQL Server 6.5 on it, running on a hacked together computer he had built. It worked great!
  • Helping people fix their computers allowed him to tinker with all kinds of technologies. It was really fun, different than normal kid jobs at the time, and allowed him to keep learning.
  • Family and friend tech support has not ended. Most family members have somewhat disposable computers.
  • David studied Computer Science / Computer Engineering in college, which was mostly centered on programming.
  • From here David got a job as a programmer / application developer and found out he was terrible at it.
    • He understood it and could code but really did not like it, and it did not come naturally. Many of the methodologies learned were challenging and stressful.
    • After a couple of years David realized the job was really not for him.
  • Omaha was opening a new performing arts center. David took a job there as a Database and Systems Administrator.
    • He had kept up his Systems Administration chops through various side jobs and tinkering.
    • The performing arts center gave no thought to IT when they had initially planned its construction.
    • Listen to David’s story about building a server room out of a janitorial closet he and his co-workers had to steal.
      • They had 42U of rack space and needed to run 37 servers. Can you say virtualization?
    • David shares some great stories about having behind the scenes access at the performing arts center to see B.B. King and then a special all night personal concert.
    • It was the right place at the right time as David says. He was part of a team of 3 that integrated 6 different arts organizations under one ticketing umbrella.
      • This required all kinds of skills related to SQL Server like website integration, disaster recovery, reporting, point of sales, and more. He and the others designed this from the ground up.
      • David leveraged books along with a home lab for experimentation.
        • Listen closely to hear just how extensive David’s home lab was at the time.
        • Building a lab teaches you what can happen if you do something incorrectly and how to recover form it.
      • Two years post implementation, a friend of David’s said he shouldn’t virtualize any important systems while sitting inside the performing arts center. David took the opportunity to educate his friend that everything inside the performing arts center except the phone system was powered by virtual systems.
    • David stayed about 3 years at the performing arts center and even built a volunteer management system the house managers could use to gain efficiencies.
      • David leveraged this job as a way to learn .NET. The performing arts center was using Excel to manage over 3000 volunteers, which was extremely taxing for performing arts center employees who managed the volunteers.
      • David built this in 4 months from scratch (including the database design). The first week it went live saved 50 man hours of time between two positions.
      • This system was in place for 10 years before the company built a successor to David’s original build.
    • By the time he left, the place was streamlined and running like a well oiled machine.

19:50 – Scaling up with a Consulting Firm

  • Things were status quo. David wanted to do something on a larger scale. One of the volunteers at the performing arts center was a CIO at a financial group.
    • He helped virtualize the servers, setup disaster recovery, and a lot about 3rd party vendor application interaction with databases.
    • David was able to play with bigger and better technologies, supporting over 300 users and 16-17 lines of business each with its own ERP system. This was the first time David had dealt with more than one large ERP system and had to make them all play nice together.
      • You have to know how the business is using the application to determine how to leverage it and make IT better.
      • David worked on a massive survey platform in one previous job but was an intermediary between two different team (platform builders and platform users). These two teams were very disconnected.
        • The performing arts group was very similar but with multiple groups.
      • Can business change to work the way the ERP system works, or can you change the ERP system so it works the way a company does business?
        • These decisions need to be made before implementation but are not always that way. *David was part of a team of 7 here, acting as "geek of all trades" and taking on projects that his co-workers would rather not.
  • David wore a lot of hats at this company, and then another opportunity found him.
    • David got to know the founder of an Oracle consulting firm who was looking to have someone start a SQL consulting practice.
    • David found he liked working at many different things at the same time. This new company ended up hiring him.
      • David had to ask his boss about interviewing with the new company.
      • David’s boss at the time understood he wanted to "deal with more" and encouraged him to go for it.
    • At the time, David had a running train of thought about how an IT Professional breaks into the business side of a company where what you do contributes to the wellbeing of the business rather than keeping the lights on.
      • This was something David always wanted. But when you are in the weeds, this is very difficult with companies at times treating IT like a cost sink and not a business driver.
      • To make a bigger difference to the business, David wanted to start specializing.
    • This new company focused on the database side but they also dabbled with the components underneath (physical machine, storage, hypervisors). This was in line with David’s interests and a direction he wanted to go.
      • The act of being a generalist made it easier for David to be affective as a specialist. He was able to look at things as a system and not individually to see pieces individually.
  • David stayed with the consulting firm for about 4 years and built up a big SQL Server Enterprise Consulting practice.
    • As part of this, he was on the ground floor of some industry shifts to virtualize major business applications.
    • He worked on some of the original SQL Server on VMware training and started working on projects for really large companies of all types.
    • Right around this time David started playing with Hyper-V also.

30:16 – Transition to Consulting

  • To go into multiple different industries with the same technologies and see different use cases, implementations, etc. was fascinating.
  • The learning curve never stopped, and David felt like he was interviewing for his job every single week.
  • He was able to see patterns in certain places he could apply elsewhere for getting better performance out of these systems.
  • Every month as a consultant you grow a year in professional experience due to seeing so many different things.
  • Most people see consultants as people who will challenge everything they have done or potentially take their job.
    • Many people want you at arm’s length to prevent skeletons from being found in the closet.
    • David does not work like this, treating himself like part of the business, as someone who wants to help make things better and teaching people how to solve these problems in the future.
      • "Don’t call me back for the same problem. I already showed you how to fix it." – David Klee
    • Keep in mind the customer may have been burned by other consultants who promised the world and got things that were not impactful or wrong.
      • Listen to David’s story about running into this recently.
  • David loves giving away information away publicly.
    • He may not know everything, but what he does know is showcased in public facing evidence of his expertise.
  • Instead of being asked about his credentials these days he is asked if what is happening actually can be fixed. Some of the challenges he has seen are quite significant.

35:29 – A Body of Work

  • We should all be building a body of work.
  • In 2011, David was part of the SQL Server User Group in Omaha. They had 60 or more attendees every month.
    • David and the group leader decided to put in a SQL Saturday for attendees at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
    • One of the speakers backed out, and David’s friend said David would be presenting on SQL Server performance tuning on VMware.
      • There were about 40 attendees, and David quite enjoyed himself.
  • About 3 months later, someone who had heard David’s presentation reached out to him, asking him to co-present on the same topic at a much larger conference.
    • This happened to be the author of SQL in a Nutshell.
    • The presentation was so packed they closed the room doors 30 minutes before it started because of fire code capacity constraints (over 500 people).
  • The track record of community speaking, blogging, and videos builds your reputation in a specific area.
    • This was unique in the industry and helped David make a name for himself.
  • Would it have been hard for David to go back to being a generalist?
    • He stayed up with the technology (infrastructure) and always kept up the home lab.
    • David still finds it being fun to figure out how the pieces relate to one another.
    • He still enjoys the SQL Server part of things but enjoys working on other projects like hypervisor upgrades and cloud migration. It’s fun for him.
  • Is greater specialization a gateway to more pay?
    • You hit a point where you become a specialist in a technology and stay at a company that will pay you for that specialty, or you become a consultant in that specialty and make good or better money with a lot more demands.
    • Or, you become the Enterprise Architect that understands all of the pieces conceptually and hand off to people who specialize in different areas.
      • There has always been a need for people to understand how the pieces work together.
      • David gives an example of someone he knew that was an Enterprise Architect.
        • This person understood when to hand things off to someone in another area.
      • The title is evolving. The Infrastructure / Solution Architect were at some time the duty of the IT Director or Senior Engineer. The roles have existed for a while, but the words around them have changed.

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