The IT Pro Interview - Part 2

In this second part of a 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 read the end of the interview!

You can learn my previous Part:

What do IT Pros think about the emerging devops trend/culture - is it something to fear or embrace?

Like with most new things, there is a 10/10/80 split: 

  • 10% are avidly for.
  • 10% are avidly against.
  • 80% are blissfully unaware. 

Vendors and media-types are quite unaware of that 80% - the folks who never read blogs, never watch webcasts, and never attend events.

I’m a doubting Thomas when it comes to DevOps. To me it’s driving a concept where bad code is constantly evolving. I like products and services that work. The whole fail-fast movement really rubs me the wrong way.

What are the biggest changes you have seen over the years?

I started off coding on VAX/VMS green screens and big UNIX systems via a terminal app. And we’re now in an era where the phone is the computing device of choice. Things don’t change much more than that!

How different are things now from when you started in your career - is it easier or tougher?

It’s much tougher to get into the business as an IT pro now. I was literally thrown into the deep end. My second client as a consultant was a 6-month gig with one of the largest financial companies in the world – that was actually a HR accident but it worked out well in the end. Training was consider the norm back in the 1990s. We were encouraged to schedule time in a lab, access CBT and books, and do certifications on company time. These days, it seems like businesses expect employees to walk in off the street, magically already knowing everything.

What are some of the challenges ahead?

A large percentage of IT pros resist change. They’re going to have to get over themselves or be left behind. The cloud is here, like it or not. Your boss is being sold on the merits of the cloud, probably to an extreme and unreasonable level, but a day will come when they start making hard demands, and if you cannot give them the answer they want to hear, you’ll find yourself being made redundant.

I’ve advanced in my career because I use my time and my money to invest in myself. I say “invest” very deliberately; my time and money increased my demand and my earning potential. The cloud is here, and it is time to move on from Windows Server 2003 and Windows Server 2008. It’s time to learn Azure AD, about mobile device management, and hybrid IT solutions.

As for those executives, only when you’ve learned about the cloud, can you temper their expectations. Remember that “no” never works; either find a middle-ground or tell them “I can do it, but this is what it will require”.

What is your opinion on industry certifications?

I have a low opinion on all certifications. Part of my re-education in the early 2000’s was to go exam crazy. I took the time to really learn the stuff that I was certifying on – I could talk inter-site topology generators, and complex weighted AD site replication with the best of them. But then I started to realize that my real-world experience was worth way more than some training course or exam.

I’ve seen behind the curtain of the IT education business and it’s scary. All to often, vendor driven content is driven by marketing. There’s a message and a fixed template. The template is everything and everything must stay on-message, even if that message steals time/space from what should be necessary knowledge.

As for certifications, everyone is familiar with the fact that the questions are copied/pasted from documentation by people who don’t know the context. This is why you get 4 possible answers: 

  • The very wrong one
  • The nearly right one
  • The right one in the real world, but it’s still wrong
  • And the answer that the exam expects you to pick, even though it’s wrong in the real world 

A new factor is making exams even worse: products and services are changing at crazy speeds now. I recently did a cloud certification for s service that changes at an incredible pace. Exams cannot keep up with this rate of change, and sometimes the real world answer changes but the expected answer doesn’t keep up with the product. I had one exam question where the options worked out as follows: 

  • The wrong answer
  • The right answer 2 years ago.
  • The right answer up to 2 months ago.
  • The right answer now. 

I had to guess when the question was added to the exam pool and select an option. That’s not a good situation.

It seems to me that the entire certification business is driven by: 

  • HR people that have no idea what we do for a living so they take the lazy route of valuing a piece of paper that you can cheat your way to with very little effort.
  • Vendors that require certifications for partners/resellers. 

With so many new technologies coming out all the time and constant change in the industry, how can IT Pros keep on top of things and stay relevant?

You have to invest in your own career. Your employer is not going to do it for you, unless you are one of the lucky few. The tough bit is getting started. Some vendors help out quite a bit; Microsoft has the virtualization academy. They recently launched a program to give IT pros free access to resources so you can get your hands dirty.

After that, you need to find sources of information: 

  • Attend technical events if you can get/afford the registration fees. I get more from these events than I ever got from a 5-day training course.
  • Join user groups – some are local and cheap/free, and some are virtual. Here you learn from your colleagues who have already done what you want to learn about.
  • Get onto social media and follow industry influencers.
  • Subscribe to blogs that document the areas you are interested in.
  • TRY the solutions that you want to learn about. Nothing beats using the technology. 

Finally, what career advice would have for those starting out in the profession?

I’ve been asked this question a lot quite a bit recently by people that want to change careers or are still in school. My advice is: don’t become an IT pro. Focus on development. Yes, there is ongoing demand for IT pros in industry, but there has been a huge shift towards the IT pro; you can see this with how Microsoft markets to practitioners – their developer and platform (Windows and other servers) evangelist group is now called Developer Experience (DX). Cloud doesn’t require as many IT pros, but it will always require developers. Forget Java and whatever other Prolog junk that the crusty, musty smelling professor tries to force upon you. Learn modern skills, understand big data, analysis, machine learning, new methods of user interface (virtual and voice), or Internet-of-Things (IoT). These are the areas that are going to be in huge demand and will drive our industry going forward. Learn how to program for the cloud, with micro-services and new methods of virtualization (containers), how to scale based on demand, instead of what the corporate IT pro is trying to do with a single web/database server based on Java and MySQL.

If college is still like what it was when I attended, then your teachers are hopelessly out of date. You’ll still have to pass their exams, but you need to spend your own time learning the skills that will keep you employed for the next 10 years, and you’ll need to continue to evolve over time.

I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Aidan for giving of his time to give us some insight into the world of IT Pros. You can read Aidan's blog at www.aidanfinn.com, and follow him on twitter at @joe_elway.