Welcome to episode 254 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_) – two technology professionals with backgrounds in IT Operations and Sales Engineering on a mission to help others accelerate career progression and increase job satisfaction by bringing listeners the advice we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode we share part 1 of an interview with Larry Roberts, detailing how Toastmasters made Larry a more effective communicator, and getting into teaching as a martial arts instructor, what made him a successful corporate trainer. We’ll also reflect on Larry’s time as a people manager.
Original Recording Date: 11-11-2023
Topics – Meet Larry Roberts, A Summary of Corporate Life, An Instructor Joins Toastmasters, Teaching and Effective Communication, Techniques vs. Concepts and Application, A Trainer’s Effectiveness, Reflections on People Management, A Move into IT
2:17 – Meet Larry Roberts
- Larry Roberts is a budding entrepreneur and owner of Red Hat Media. Red Hat Media focuses on podcasting, building better brands through podcasting, and building better podcasts through leveraging AI tools.
- He spends Monday – Friday doing podcasts, interviews, taking client calls, and doing speaking engagements. Saturdays are the days when real work gets accomplished.
- Larry is involved in a number of speaking engagements for organizations like Entrepreneurs Organization or EO and has spoken at conferences like Podfest, Podcast Movement, and Outlier Podcast Festival. He has also been doing some work with the and the Texas State School Board on the use of AI technologies in education from the perspective of both teachers and students.
3:57 – A Summary of Corporate Life
- Larry worked a corporate job until January 4, 2021.
- In his 20s Larry was a karate guy, and he tells us “fighting was life.” He owned a karate school for a while but said it failed miserably (his first business venture).
- Right out of high school Larry started selling cars. Though he did well as a salesman, he wanted to focus on karate and eventually moved into martial arts full time.
- Once Larry realized his martial arts venture was not going to work he needed to get a real job. He began working at Texas Instruments on something they called the clean line. Think of the Intel commercials where you would see people in the white suits (what Larry calls ninja suits). These same people worked in clean rooms.
- “I worked in a clean room, and I wore a ninja suit every day to work. So that was kind of cool!” – Larry Roberts
- Larry would work 12 hour days for TI and still had time to pursue martial arts in his spare time.
- From the clean line / manufacturing position Larry moved into a corporate training position, which opened up some opportunities.
- Larry leveraged the training opportunity to get a training management position in Coppell (a suburb of Dallas), wanting to relocate from the Sherman / Denison area of North Texas.
- Though this was supposed to be a short stint for a couple of years, it turned into a 21 year career.
- Larry started off as the training manager in a distribution center who implemented policies within the warehouse to reduce high employee turnover rates.
- During this time the various warehouse locations of Larry’s company (which was global) had different operating systems and realized they needed to implement a global ERP system to share inventory data across all warehouses. They went with a product called JD Edwards for this purpose. Larry was recruited from the warehouse to be the training lead for the team who would implement the ERP system for the company.
- The JD Edwards project lasted 16 or 17 years. During that time, Larry got to know the data extremely well and became a bit of a JD Edwards database expert. This led Larry into reporting, business intelligence, gave him his first introduction to AI, and many other aspects of IT.
- Larry says he has never been much of a programmer but got proficient with SQL.
- Upon leaving the corporate world in January 2021, Larry was a business intelligence analyst.
9:16 – An Instructor Joins Toastmasters
- The training position was an open position within Texas Instruments (TI) for which Larry applied while he was working on the clean room line.
- Larry attribute much of the reason for getting the job to his already being an effective communicator.
- He had worked a successful career selling cars previous to working at TI and was used to reading body language to determine if someone was receiving what he was trying to communicate. Larry knew how to adjust his approach during the course of a conversation accordingly to sell people cars.
- Also being involved in martial arts, Larry taught for a karate school overseen by Rick Arnold. Rick required every instructor go to a Toastmasters group to improve their speaking abilities.
- Larry says the local Toastmasters group in Sherman was brutal. Members of the group would ring a bell any time someone used a “grammatical grunt” during a speech, or what we might call filler words like “um” or “you know.”
- Larry says he had built relationships with people at TI who were doing training before applying for the role as a trainer.
- Nick wonders about the impact of the bell ringing on a person’s willingness to continue with the Toastmasters group.
- Larry says he’s not aware the bell ringing happened at every group but knows it happened at his. He says it was nerve racking.
- At the time Larry had what he calls a “black belt mentality” in that he felt negative reinforcement made him better.
- The bell ringing acted as a motivator and brought the grammatical grunts to Larry’s attention. But he also remembers getting very frustrated during speeches at times (to the point where he wanted to sit down and stop).
- The group was extremely supportive of attendees.
- “No one was there to embarrass anybody. No one was there to demean anybody or make them feel like less of a speaker than anybody else. And we had people in that group like me that had no professional experience all the way up to the dean of the local community college…. We had proficient speakers all the way down to completely inexperienced speakers in the room.” – Larry Roberts, on the tone and variety of the local Toastmasters group he attended
- The intent was to point out the slip ups so people could keep that in mind moving forward and get better. Larry calls the atmosphere very supportive. It was nerve racking at the time but something that he feels led to improvement.
- In John’s experience with Toastmasters it was very common to have someone who would time your speech and someone else who was in charge of telling you how many pause words (or “grammatical grunts”) you had.
- Many of our listeners may be looking to break out of entry level roles or to reach that next level. Larry talked about bringing in previous experience from unrelated fields like communication and assessing body language but which transfers nicely to other jobs and roles. Then while a martial arts instructor he was sent for specific training on the communication part (i.e. Toastmasters).
- By attending Toastmasters, you are essentially asking others to give feedback on specific skills and specific behaviors (like the “grammatical grunts” mentioned earlier). So perhaps the bell ringing was not so out of context in that setting like it might have been if Larry had been giving a speech / talk at a technology user group, for example.
- “It’s been 30 years since I was in that Toastmasters group, and still to this day, everything that I learned there has stuck with me that whole time….They did a good job in reinforcing the message they were delivering.” – Larry Roberts, on attending Toastmasters
- Larry says he was part of the Toastmasters group for a little over a year and at one point delivered the best speech even with a dean of a local college in the group.
17:45 – Techniques vs. Concepts and Application
- Did the interest in teaching come from Larry’s interest in martial arts or through some other avenue (like his experience as a car salesman, for example)?
- Larry remembers days in high school called student teacher day when students were given a chance to be the teacher. He was consistently being selected as a student teacher.
- “Regardless of the topic, regardless of how complex the topic may be, I’ve always been able to break it down in a way that really anybody can understand it. And I have seen over the years that I can be an effective communicator whether it’s with someone that is highly skilled in the subject matter or someone that’s just being introduced to the subject matter.” – Larry Roberts, on teaching
- Larry says breaking concepts down like this is something he’s always been able to do and something he enjoys. When Larry shares information with someone in a way they understand (or he sees “the light bulb come on”), it gives him a sense of fulfillment and purpose.
- “If I can break it down to a point that it passes the mom test, then I think that’s effective communication.” – Larry Roberts, on teaching and communication
- Larry likes to try and explain things in a way his mom could understand them.
- John says he has a bias in his stance that teaching a skill helps cement that skill in the learner’s mind. Did teaching martial arts skills help cement them in Larry’s mind?
- Larry says yes and agrees with John 100%, feeling this goes way beyond the area of martial arts.
- Teaching something can expose our gaps in understanding from when we initial learned it.
- “Going through a motion is one thing. But understanding how this motion or this technique or whatever it may be impacts others and the way that it impacts those individuals gives you an entirely different perspective on accomplishing whatever that task may be.” – Larry Roberts
- Larry gives the example of throwing a side kick, a very technical move with many things to keep in mind to do it correctly. If you have learned the proper technique and begin to teach others, you will encounter people with different body types and levels of flexibility.
- “You have to find new ways to convey that message, and as you learn to convey that message in different ways, you learn the intricacies of whatever it is you’re teaching.” – Larry Roberts, on changing one’s approach to fit the learner
- Larry says people have a tendency to teach directly. He finds more value in teaching at a conceptual and application level as opposed to a step-by-step approach. Following step-by-step and not getting the outcome you would like may mean you don’t really understand what you are trying to do.
- John mentioned having a college professor who only ever taught using pseudocode in a programming class with the syntax of the programming language up to the students to learn on their own. They needed to know what concepts like logic tests and loops before trying to use them in code.
- Before Larry became an instructor under Rick Arnold, he was already a black belt, but he didn’t know how to fight.
- The first night Larry was at the Rick Arnold school he worked with a fight team and got knocked out.
- “I knew the techniques…but I didn’t understand the concept of fighting. I didn’t understand timing. I didn’t understand distance. I didn’t understand rhythm. I didn’t understand foot work…. I didn’t understand picking up reads and adjusting my approach to the individual that I was sparring with. So I got wrecked…until I started understanding the concepts of fighting.” – Larry Roberts
- Larry says fighting is a mixture of techniques and concepts and that we cannot assume someone with a black belt actually knows how to fight.
- John says this is analogous to knowing all the syntax for a programming language but not knowing how to design an application (i.e. not knowing how to apply it).
- Nick calls this conceptual dependency mapping at a high level. This is a mix of Larry’s ability to read people (developed from his time as a salesperson) with an ability to meet the learner where they are and help fill the gaps in concepts they do and do not understand.
25:41 – A Trainer’s Effectiveness
- John asks about the “iceberg under the water” that made Larry effective at the training role. Though Larry had skills that were helpful for someone in that role and had built relationships with others doing the job, it is still not a guarantee of being successful at a given role.
- Texas Instruments had a culture of “ongoing learning,” requiring employees to take a number of professional development courses per year to maintain a certain status for raises. The requirements were less for those who had been with the company for a long time.
- Larry says often it was the same required classes people had to take each year. It was a challenge to get employees who had been with the company for many years to participate in these classes and to keep them from distracting the newer employees who had never taken the classes. It was very tough to put these types of employees together in a classroom environment and deliver the material in a way that benefits people at all levels of tenure at the company. Larry refers to this as creating “equalized learning.”
- “I made sure that everybody enjoyed being there and ideally took some sort of value away from their attendance in that classroom….Trying to maintain that level of equality and accessibility of the content that I was teaching was the biggest challenge, and I loved it.” – Larry Roberts, on the challenge of training people at different levels of understanding
- Larry says he generally had a good time doing this. The courses were evaluated by employees and then audited. Larry mentioned getting good ratings and felt this was a result of striving to ensure students walked away with something valuable.
- Nick would refer to this as community building and says we should be trying to do this in meetings we attend (having a value-adding influence on others).
- Larry says this was not his mentality at the end of his corporate career.
29:52 – Reflections on People Management
- Larry leveraged the position at TI to get another position in the suburbs of Dallas. When Larry applied for a role at a different company, he followed up on his application 7 different times.
- A number of times when Larry would drive from where he lived down to the Coppell area where this company was located he was met with “we haven’t made a decision yet” by the HR personnel.
- After the 6th time this happened, Larry was ready to give up. The girl he was dating at the time encouraged him to be persistent and try one more time. Upon the 7th occasion, Larry met with HR, and they made him an offer.
- Larry left TI after working there for about 3.5 years.
- The new position was a step up. Larry went from being a corporate trainer at TI into a role managing 6 people who did the training with Larry developing the curriculum based on his understanding of processes in the distribution center. After writing manuals for processes and procedures, Larry would then train the trainers.
- Was managing people something Larry wanted to do or something he was asked to do based on the specific job requirements?
- “It was something that I wanted to do (or so I thought I wanted to do it) because I felt that getting into a management role would open up more opportunities for me to obviously have a bigger salary down the road. But, at the time, I was not prepared to be in a management role whatsoever.” – Larry Roberts, on becoming a manager
- There was a large learning curve in this role according to Larry, and he tells us being later recruited to be part of the ERP team was a saving grace.
- Larry did not understand leadership, how to be a manager, and since he wanted people to like him his goal was to be friends with everyone who reported to him.
- Larry feels this experience as a manager may have been a bit of a power trip on his part (letting his ego get in the way).
- Larry was only in this role for about 1.5 years before being recruited into the IT department.
- What would Larry tell people to really consider before taking a role as a people manager?
- “Consider what that role means. Consider what leadership means. Consider what management means. Understand the role thoroughly before you jump there. It’s not just a logical progression. You don’t just work in a position and go, ‘ok, cool, I’m ready to be a manager now.’ Because you’re not. Leadership is an entirely different role.” – Larry Roberts
- Keep in mind Larry was a karate guy, a fighter. He was undefeated in kickboxing and did fairly well in MMA (mixed martial arts).
- Larry was a big fan of Richard Marcinko, one of the founders of Seal Team 6, and read all his books.
- Larry admits he was a bit of an egomaniac during this time, and it really backfired.
- Make sure before taking a role you understand what the role of the leader is in the specific position you are considering and what it means.
- This definitely speaks to John as a first-time manager. The skills gained from being an individual contributor are only about 20-30% applicable.
- The skills are important to help understand what good looks like, the problems someone you’re going to manage is facing, and the background.
- The rest of it is people management, skills development, recruiting, having to fire people, etc.
- Larry mentioned though he had communication skills, he failed to communicate well with the people he was managing.
- “There’s a lesson there. I didn’t rely on the communication skills I possessed. I relied on what I ‘thought’ I had to do in this leadership position. I’m surprised I didn’t get fired in all honesty.” – Larry Roberts
- Larry tells the story of being in a meeting with his manager and the HR director of the company and making a specific comment that almost got him fired. Larry’s manager at the time protected him.
- Looking back Larry says the comment he made was ego and arrogance talking and was not effective communication.
- “I wasn’t in a position to be fighting for anybody. I needed to be fighting for me and communicating openly with all stakeholders, and instead, again, the ego got in the way.” – Larry Roberts
- Nick points out a parallel to knowing techniques and not understanding how to fight. This instance is the next iteration of that.
- Larry agrees and tells us this is part of a pattern where his ego gets in the way, he gets squashed for it, then humbled, and as a result he learns how he should have handled the situation.
- “But I’ve never taken the easy approach to learning but anything. It’s always been the absolute most difficult way that I can do it.” – Larry Roberts
38:48 – A Move into IT
Larry did not apply for the ERP focused role. He was approached by someone about it (a director in the IT department).
- Larry thinks his manager that saved him previously may have played a part in this, perhaps suggesting Larry was not a fit for the manager role but had other skills which could benefit this new team.
- John says not all companies or management teams would think to do something like this.
- After having a conversation with Ray (the IT leader who hired him for the role), Larry was moving his stuff into a cube in the IT department.
- Larry was with the company in question here for 21 years and says it was a place where employees were cared for like he’s never seen elsewhere.
- Larry used to joke with coworkers that if someone made it a year at this company that person essentially would never leave. Rarely does he remember seeing anyone get fired.
- Larry met his wife at this company, and she started about a year after he did. She is still at the company today as a manager in the accounting department who worked her way up from customer service. Larry says she has done a much better job at being a manager than Larry did.
- John recognizes how hard it is to hire someone and the time investment needed there. Companies may recognize what they really need is a first time manager development program.
- Larry thinks his manager that saved him previously may have played a part in this, perhaps suggesting Larry was not a fit for the manager role but had other skills which could benefit this new team.
Mentioned in the outro
- Transferrable skills matter! In Larry’s case, experience in sales and being a martial arts instructor translated well to being a corporate trainer. This highlights the importance of recognizing and leveraging these types of skills when seeking new opportunities or exploring potential career paths.
- Larry’s career demonstrates ongoing learning. We mentioned Toastmasters from Larry’s experience, but acquiring new knowledge and skills can open doors for us all.
- Effective leadership requires dedication, continuous learning, being humble, having self-awareness, and being an open communicator.
- Ego can be detrimental.