Uniquely Suited to Deliver with Ethan Banks (2/2)

Have you checked out the Packet Pushers Job Board? According to trends Ethan Banks of Packet Pushers is seeing, companies need experienced senior technical people who are comfortable working with a complex IT stack. If you are one of those people, you are in demand, even during times of industry layoffs.

It’s challenging for the business owner to continue doing the work they love because administrative tasks can get in the way. Ethan Banks, co-founder of Packet Pushers Podcast Network and our guest this week in Episode 277, has arranged his company so he can focus on the work he is uniquely suited to deliver – creating content. Ethan will share thoughts on industry talent shortages and how his role as a business owner has changed since we last spoke with him.

Original Recording Date: 04-19-2024

Ethan Banks is a network engineer, business owner, and one of the founders of Packet Pushers. If you missed part 1 of this discussion, check out Episode 276.

Topics – A Network Effect and the Need for Senior Personnel, The Changing Nature of Ethan’s Role as a Business Owner, Appreciating What’s Now

A Returning Guest

2:58 – A Network Effect and the Need for Senior Personnel

  • John asks Ethan what it has been like to create a business that has a network effect as opposed to a broadcast business.
    • Ethan says the jobs board will work best once there are thousands of listings. But there are some challenges to this because it’s new, much like starting a new podcast or any new endeavor. It takes time to grow.
    • The Packet Pushers team has started by letting people know the jobs board exists by listing it on their websites, using ads within existing shows, and putting it in their newsletter.
    • “But over time it’s going to grow. We’re already seeing evidence of that. It’s not even been 6 months yet, and we’re already seeing substantial growth and some interesting jobs being listed.” – Ethan Banks
  • What kind of gaps does Ethan see as a result of layoffs in our industry?
    • “I can tell you this. Looking at the kinds of jobs we’re seeing listed on the job board, companies need seniors. Companies need people that have experience. Companies need people that have a lot of skills. Those are tough positions to fill.” – Ethan Banks
    • For those with 10 or more years of experience and expert / professional level certifications who are used to working with a complex technology stack…
      • “Companies are looking for you. You are hard to come by. You are rare and increasingly rare as the IT tech stack continues to grow in complexity.” – Ethan Banks, a message to senior technology professionals
    • Many highly skilled former network practitioners have gone on to and work for technology vendors (like Cisco and Juniper to give a couple of examples). That takes them “off the board” as a practitioner.
      • This trend can keep companies short staffed with network engineers, including consulting firms.
      • “There’s lots of work out there, and it’s hard to find the people to get that work done. The people who are the seniors tend to be overworked. So if you’re someone with those skills, you’re in demand…. Even with layoffs, if you’ve got the right skills, there’s a place for you. That’s the struggle that I think companies are having.” – Ethan Banks
    • Ethan isn’t seeing junior level positions advertised as much these days and not a lot of mid-tier positions either.
      • “But the senior ones especially – tech lead, senior network engineer, network architect, cybersecurity architect…those sorts of titles seem to be in demand.”- Ethan Banks
    • John mentions to be senior and working on relevant technology you need to have been in the industry for a time through a couple of technology cycles.
      • “In networking it’s additive. It’s not enough to know how to build VLANs and routing. Now, that’s just your foundational network. You need to have a stable underlay, and now we’re going to stick an overlay on top of it…. And so you’ve got these other sets of skills that you’re expected to have.” – Ethan Banks
      • In networking you might need to dig into security and applying profiles to the network or learn network automation tooling. This might include things like learning GitOps, writing unit tests, using Ansible playbooks, and dealing with code pipelines (CI / CD pipelines).
        • Maybe you as a network engineer never login to a device to manage it but rather push a configuration to it from elsewhere. It requires a different set of skills to manage the network this way.
      • Ethan tells us these additional skills a network engineer is expected to have are related to the complexities and what it takes to deliver IT infrastructure.

8:52 – The Changing Nature of Ethan’s Role as a Business Owner

  • Nick feels like this idea of being additive has to be analogous to the life of a business owner as the business changes and grows over time. How has Ethan’s role changed since we last spoke?
    • “The challenge of a small business that has a lot going on in the engine room if you will, on the operational side of things (which is where I’ve spent most of my time), is it gets to be difficult to do the thing you started out doing, the reason you went into business, which for me was to make content. I want to make content for people. I want to deliver podcasts. I want to write. I want to write newsletters. I want to write articles. I want to do research. I want to talk to vendors and figure out what it is that they’re selling and what their new technology is and what it does…and so on. All of that takes a lot of time.” – Ethan Banks
    • In addition to the above, Ethan might have to give someone at the company permissions to access a file or perform a certain task, fix a problem with spam e-mails, etc. These things can be technical things or more administrative like needing to meet with a tax accountant.
    • “There’s only so many hours in the week…. There’s only so much your brain can multi-task on. There’s only so much you can think about effectively without exhausting yourself…. Over time…we kind of burned ourselves into the ground honestly running the business. I tended to focus more on operations stuff. Greg is very good at sales. He was doing a lot of the sales work. And we were both, of course, content creators with multiple podcasts, building our YouTube channel, and all that kind of work too.” – Ethan Banks
    • Ethan and Greg eventually had to hire people.
      • In 2023 they brought on a CEO who will handle administrative tasks like payroll, setting up podcast feeds for new shows Packet Pushers might launch, and other back office type tasks.
      • They also hired a VP of Sales. That person’s job is to make sure proper conversations are happening with sponsors, understand sponsor needs and fit, and share how Packet Pushers can help sponsors.
      • Ethan says having extra people on staff is helpful, but he’s still learning how to delegate (a struggle for Ethan over the course of his career). His hand is being somewhat forced because if he does not delegate, Ethan won’t have time to do everything else he needs to do.
      • “It’s been a good learning process for me…now that I’m being a manager again…to actually figure out how to enable the people that we’ve hired to do their jobs effectively and not get in their way so that I can focus on the things that I am uniquely suited to deliver. Not everyone…has my background and way of thinking and looking at something so that I can deliver a podcast on a particular topic. I can do that. My CEO can’t. My VP of Sales can’t. They can do these other things, so why get in their way? And that’s a thing that I’ve been having to learn over the last few months…” – Ethan Banks
      • Ethan says he’s been doing pretty well lately in this area (delegation) and not getting in the way of other employees. Ethan feels he has been happier lately because he’s been able to do the research and content development work that is most enjoyable to him.
    • Nick thinks this goes back to our discussion of choosing to stop doing something so we can put our time and effort into a new area. It can be hard when you have been doing something for a long time and decide to stop.
      • Ethan agrees it can be very hard to hand over something you’ve been doing for a long time to someone else. He gives the example of doing taxes for so long and then not needing to handle it this year. His job was to share what he had been doing with someone else in hopes they could find a better way to do it moving forward.
  • Was the separation with Greg handling more of the sales side and Ethan handling more operations that way from the beginning?
    • Greg and Ethan each did some operations and some sales in the beginning, but the split was pretty natural.
    • Greg had a sales background from earlier in his career. Greg had done sales training earlier in his career and understood how the process works.
    • Ethan had been a pre-sales engineer and remembers having to keep salespeople in check.
    • Ethan says Greg is naturally more gregarious, while he is more introverted. Ethan doesn’t mind selling and isn’t ashamed of speaking about what his company does and how they help other companies and individuals.
    • “I’m not a salesperson by the way my brain works. My brain is an engineer brain. I build things. I troubleshoot things. I think about how things fit together. That’s how my mind goes. So to me a sales proposition’s like ‘so this is what we do. Do you want to buy it?’ That’s kind of…it….That’s not what sales is all about. Sales is more like…it’s building a relationship with another human so that there’s trust and an understanding of what’s going on, and eventually money gets exchanged. That’s part of it, but that’s not the core of it. The core of sales is actually the human relationship. And I am so engineering minded that I forget that and I have to really work at that. Even though I like people…I don’t have the natural sales knack I don’t think.” – Ethan Banks

16:50 – Appreciating What’s Now

  • What is Ethan’s favorite part of things now that maybe he did not expect?
    • Packet Pushers’ original incarnation was a single podcast, but Ethan’s favorite thing now is seeing Packet Pushers grow beyond that.
      • They have created additional podcasts with a similar mission and have enabled other people to have a voice that can share knowledge with their audience.
      • “It’s not just Ethan or Greg or Drew or the regulars who work for Packet Pushers talking. It’s all these other people in the community that now have their shows on our platform that are talking.” – Ethan Banks
    • Packet Pushers is putting out more information in the same format as they intended originally – deeply technical and engineering focused. It has scaled beyond just Ethan and Greg.
    • “That means, in theory, someday I don’t have to have a podcast. But the original idea, the thing that we wanted to do is still there. We can still have these conversations happening in the community…for the betterment of the industry.” – Ethan Banks
      • Many of the conversations in the community are bringing vendors and practitioners together.
      • Ethan says vendors can sometimes live in their own bubble, thinking they know what practitioners need. But they might not know. In fact, many vendors are seeking feedback from Packet Pushers and from the greater community of practitioners.
      • “The podcast conversations that we have, since it does involve vendors and it does involve practitioners, mean it’s an opportunity for the industry to figure each other out.” – Ethan Banks
      • Bringing vendors and practitioners together is a chance for both sides to give and get feedback. Vendors need to know if they are building the right thing or what might need improvement in what they have already built.
      • Ethan tells us they have received feedback from listeners many times that by just listening someone felt like the smartest person in a room and had an insight to share that made them look great at work.
      • “Yes! That’s it! That’s the point. You listen to the shows and you can keep up with everything that’s going on without having to go to courses and endlessly troll the internet looking through feeds. Just listen to the show. We’re going to keep you up on the latest on what’s going on. And you’ll understand the use cases and how it works and whether it fits into your company or not…. That’s the point. There’s wins there when that happens.” – Ethan Banks

Mentioned in the Outro

  • Congratulations to Ethan Banks and Greg Farrow of Packet Pushers on 14 years of producing content!

  • As Ethan said, if you are a senior level technologist, you are needed in the industry, even during times of layoff.

    • Check out the Packet Pushers Job Board to see if your resume / LinkedIn accurately reflects the experience you have. It’s also a great way to think about what could be next for your career.
  • One of Ethan’s favorite things was what Nick feels was a manager’s answer.

    • Packet Pushers growing beyond its original idea means it’s no longer just Ethan and Greg. The impact they have made by giving other people voices has widened (multiple shows now with different hosts). It is making a difference in the overall technical community of practitioners and vendors. This community that they have nurtured continues to grow, and we know they are proud of this.
  • Nick asked Ethan a bonus question after the interview was recorded about what aspects made Greg and Ethan well suited to become business partners. How did they end up working so well together? What can listeners learn to look for in a good business partner?

    • "To have a successful business relationship, each partner has to have well-aligned goals for the business as well a similar business ethic. Greg and I are both for the practitioner first in our content. We want to give practitioners a voice, to share practitioners stories and perspectives, and to tell vendor stories in a way a practitioner wants to hear them.

    • Ethically, we were also well-aligned. We have never traded on our audience identities, for example. We don’t sell our mailing lists. We deliver on our commitments in a timely fashion. We pay our bills on time. Employees get paid before we get paid. Be financially cautious and conservative. Etc. We’ve never had any tension about business finances, as we both think about money in the same way.

    • That said, we’re not identical people. Have we disagreed on things over the years? Of course. In a business, there’s any number of small details that come up, whether it’s the font you’re going to use on the website to what kind of promo materials to make. In those cases where there’s disagreement, there’s got to be enough flexibility on the part of one of both partners to let the little stuff go as long as the important things are aligned.

    • Greg and I have always been good at that. Lots of give and take over the years.

    • I suppose the final key component is trust. Do you trust your business partner to behave on behalf of the business the way you want? Do you trust your business partner to be ethical with clients, employees, and you? If there’s a lack of trust, there’s tension, and tension leads to a breakdown in the partner relationship. Greg and I built trust early in our relationship, and even had thoughtful conversations about how we’d conduct ourselves in different settings.

    • For example, we agreed at one point that at conferences where we were in a setting where people knew us, we’d limit alcohol consumption. Too much alcohol is a bad thing for people like us who are often subject to NDAs or privy to embargoed information. Plus, we didn’t want to create a reputation as party guys. We took the job of Packet Pushers seriously, and trusted each other to represent the brand in public appropriately." – Ethan Banks

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