The IT Pro Interview - Part 1

In this two part article, we talk to the renowned IT Pro Aidan Finn. Aidan is an eight time Microsoft MVP in the area of Cloud and Datacentre management. While a lot of focus recently has been on the development side of things, it is important to recognise our colleagues in the IT Pro area who build and maintain the infrastructure that enables developers to do what they do.

Aidan is a prolific blogger and speaker and has deep knowledge of systems, infrastructure and cloud. He very graciously agreed to take some time out and connect with our community by participating in an interview. So lets get started!

How did you get started in the industry?

I graduated from a “commercial computing” degree course in college in 1996. Everything I learned was in the area of software engineering: systems analysis, programming in C/C++, and so on. There was almost zero education infrastructure … other than a suspiciously mellow lecturer who constantly repeated the same classes on the OSI stack and Token Ring (!) networking.

Most of my class was recruited by the industry before we started our final exams; I ended up taking a position with an American corporation called Amdahl, that had offices in Dublin, Ireland. I started off porting/re-developing code from one UNIX distribution to another, and eventually to Windows NT Server.

Our project started to wind up, and I found myself being tried out by the company in other ways, such as visiting customer sites and delivering demonstrations/training on a new network monitoring product. Eventually, my developer job disappeared, and I was moved to a new “Windows team” that was trying to figure out the developing market of Microsoft as a supplier of client/server software. The first year saw me do a lot of internal grunt work, and eventually I started going out to customers for longer projects.

The term 'technology professional' (IT Pro) can be taken to mean 'a professional working in IT'. This broad term really covers everything from Systems Admin, to QA to Developer and more. Some people are confused by the term and what it really means. How do you define the term and role of 'IT Pro' from your perspective, and do you think the industry view of the term/role has changed over the years?

To me and most people that I know in the Microsoft world, IT pro is a different category to developers, etc. IT pros deal with infrastructure … servers, networks, PC and app deployment, and so on.

Developers/testers work with code that sit on that infrastructure. You can see this reflected in how Microsoft markets their products and runs their events.

What's a working day like for you - is there such a thing as typical?

My job is very different to 99.9% of those in the business. During the day, I work for a technology distributor (wholesaler), where I’m focused on Microsoft and related technologies (such as DataOn storage or Gridstore hyper-converged infrastructure) that we distribute to resellers and service providers.

My job is to evangelize and educate the resellers, who then sell solutions based on those Microsoft product/services. So I spend a lot of my time:
  • Reading
  • Trying things out in the lab
  • Doing documentation
  • Meeting resellers to explain solutions
  • Helping with pricing of cloud solutions
  • Preparing and running events
  • Developing and presenting training courses
On the rare occasion, I get out to a customer site. This is either because:
  • I’m called in to help out with something that’s gone really wrong.
  • The reseller doesn’t have enough skills for something.
  • I’m helping the reseller do something for the first time.
My irregular job is … also different. I blog on my own site at www.aidanfinn.com and I’m a Contributing Editor at www.petri.com. I write a lot about Microsoft virtualization, which started out being all about Hyper-V and System Center. Over the years, there’s been less System Center, and I added Failover Clustering, storage, and networking from Windows Server, and in the last 2 years, Azure has become a big piece of my day job so it’s impacted my night time activities. I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to speak at lots of events, and that’s a lot of fun to do.

What does the future hold for IT professionals for you think?

I’ve been wondering about that. There’s one constant in our business: change. I’ve had to evolve over the years to deal with that, and move up “the ladder”. I once thought that I was going to struggle to maintain a career as an IT pro as I got older, sure I would find it more difficult to keep up with the rates of change and this was a young person’s job. As it turns out there are a few factors that appear to have secured my future:
 
I grasp every opportunity to learn and evolve my career. I started off as a developer, then moved into product consulting on Windows, educated myself to be a Windows Server engineer, and then jumped on Microsoft virtualization in the early days.
 
No one is educating new IT pros. Look around at an IT pro event - the audience is getting older every year. Colleges and universities are awful at educating IT pros, and business refuses to educate people beyond the ability to reset a password - fear of time loss, spending money, or seeing the employee leave after receiving an education.
 
The technologies are getting ever more complex. You can’t just walk out of school and into being a private cloud engineer. There are lots of systems out there that need management, and despite all the “infrastructure as code” concepts, those systems continue to need troubleshooting and maintenance that developers are not able to do - almost developers I’ve encountered in the real world are clueless about things outside of Visual Studio.

Does cloud make life easier or harder?

The Boolean answer is: yes.
To support the “easier” argument: The cloud removes a lot of issues. For example, Microsoft Exchange became a nightmare to own without employing a team of Exchange specialists. Migrating to Office 365 transfers the responsibility of the system to Microsoft, and leaves you in control of users, configuration, and so on, with more time for other services that demand your attention.
 
The cloud also offers instant and huge scalability, and hybrid solutions (such as disaster recovery and backup) offer the ability to extend existing investments, and solve business issues in an affordable way. For example, we know that disaster recovery sites should be implemented, but most businesses cannot justify the CAPEX spending. Azure Site Recovery converts the spending to affordable drip-feed OPEX, and works with Hyper-V, vSphere and physical machines. That’s a pretty attractive add on to a business.
 
The negatives are in the softer areas. I hear stories of C-level executives being sold on the concepts of cloud and they issue directives that aren’t founded on realities. Not everyone can lift-and-shift to the cloud in an affordable way … think of the cloud is a menu and some businesses need to pick and choose rather than affording everything at once.
 
The other issue is awareness/learning. Ask an IT pro how much free time they have during the day. Do they have time to learn about Azure or AWS? Forget the days when a product/feature changed every 2-3 years. You might use 3-4 features of Azure for a solution, and I can guarantee that there are changes every couple of weeks – some will be feature changes and some will change how things are done (usually for the better). The cloud is a moving target, so it takes time to keep up, even for me, and I do have the ability to dedicate time for my own learning.
 
Click here to read the next article in this series: The IT Pro Interview - Part 2