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Confessions of an IT Pro: Developers Need Lateral Thinking

By - Source: Toms IT Pro

Jim Martens has spent the last eight years of his career focused on the server side and cloud-based development. From supporting day traders in college to software development, and eventually to being a cloud architect, Jim has gained insight into the value of employee trust, real-world experience, and why flexibility is a developer’s greatest asset.

Q: How did you start your career? And how important do you think education and certifications were for you?

A: Jim’s first job in IT was as an intern doing hardware and tech support for a company that provided high-speed data connections to day traders in an out of the way mountain town in Colorado. “This was back before everyone had the internet, in the Dark Ages,” Jim quips. But even before the internship, Jim was interested in computers. Jim’s dad was a progressive shop owner who purchased a computer early on to help him keep track of customers and produce newsletters. The first computer he bought, though, didn’t cut it for his business. “So here was this piece of hardware sitting around. He did nothing but encourage me to fiddle with it.”

MORE: How to Become a Cloud Architect

As for certifications and education, Jim says, “I’m sure the landscape has changed now, but when I started it was assumed you needed a bachelor’s degree or an associate’s degree.” But when he talks to interviewees, he doesn’t discount candidates that don’t have a degree. More important, he believes, is real-world experience. Speaking to students at his former high school, Jim advise them to get a summer job or an internship that lets them code. “That real-world experience is as valuable, even more valuable when you go out into the real world.”

Q: What are your feelings about the ethics of employee tracking? How far should companies go?

A: “I like to think back to an old cliché, but it’s a good one,” Jim says. “Happy employees are productive employees.” He points out that in Colorado, the employers tend to be more relaxed, giving employees a sense of ownership and flexibility. He believes that conveys a sense of trust, whereas closely tracking what your employees do doesn’t give you the information companies are looking for. “It’s like a quantum problem, the closer you look, the less able you are to tell.”

Q: What do you wish non-IT employees knew?

A: Jim feels like non-IT employees need to understand that building something is the same, whether it’s a building or software. “You have a client – somebody that wants to pay for it. You have to go through some things to figure out what it is they want. You have to plan it, you have to implement it, you have to run it by the client to see how you did, and when you’re done, you get paid.”

Q: What is the craziest technical support issue you or your team has ever had to deal with?

A: “When it comes to crazy, there always has to be a customer involved,” Jim explains. At his internship where they supported day traders, he had a client who called frequently. Sometimes she’d call for tech support because her stocks were going down. “Usually, she’d call when she was tipsy,” he adds. One day she called because she wasn’t able to connect to the satellite system, and they suspected it had been knocked out of alignment. They asked her to do a visual check of the dish. “She said ‘Give me a minute’, and went outside with her phone where she said ‘Oh! There’s my car!’” The dish was no longer working because she had driven her car into it. “That’s one, to this day, that still makes me chuckle.”

Q: What is the most valuable skill an IT professional should have?

A: Jim doesn’t hesitate when he responds, “Flexibility and lateral thinking.” It takes a very short time in IT, only a few years, to understand if this is a skill you have or not. Worse, Jim points out, it’s not really a skill you can tell someone to just go learn. But without it, you can waste a lot of your time. “If, time and time again, you’re convinced that there is only one solution to a problem, you’ll spend ten times longer trying to fix it, running into a wall, when you could just turn a little to the right or the left.”