Confessions of an IT Pro: Work Became School
John Lawson, manager of infrastructure, found his own curiosity has led to IT success.
Several of the professionals we've talked to for Confessions of an IT Pro always knew they wanted to work with computers, while others stumbled into it. John Lawson, currently the manager of infrastructure and support for a consulting firm, took a more unique route to becoming an IT professional. John evolved from developer, to devops, on to ops and security ops, exemplifying the quality of curiosity that he calls out as being important in an IT career.
Q: How did you start your career? And how important do you think education and certifications were for you?
A: He was initially inspired to go to school for computer science in the mid-80s thanks to a TRS-80 Color Computer – also known as a "Trash-80" – he eventually stopped pursuing his degree in exchange for full time work in IT. "Work became my school," John says, pointing to conferences and books becoming what he learned from instead of teachers and classrooms. But that isn't because John thinks that education isn't worthwhile. Instead, he thinks it's about what you do with it. "I think I was the last generation of people who just went home and figured it out." He goes on to explain "I've seen people with a degree, highly certified, who can't program their way out of a paper bag, and other people who look like you just pulled them off of a skateboard and out of their parents' basement who can program circles around you and understand why. It really depends on the individual."
Q: What are your feelings about the ethics of employee tracking? How far should companies go?
A: John is unequivocal in his answer when it comes to monitoring activity while at work. "If you're on company equipment, that's it, you're on company equipment. It's not yours." On the other hand, when it comes to tracking people in their personal lives, John understands where companies might be coming from, but thinks that some go too far. "I can see the desire to keep brand and associated people and thoughts separate, at the same time, my personal life is my personal life." But John notes that he has a singular approach to social media – he doesn't really use it. "It's not something I want to have to filter around. I don't want things misconstrued or taken out of context." His opinion on employers that ask candidates for access to their social media accounts? "That's extremely 'Big Brother'," he says.
Q: What do you wish non-IT employees knew?
A: "How incredibly easy and difficult IT is, all at the same time," John answers quickly. John discusses how it can be confusing to non-IT employees when one problem is turned around quickly, while the next issue might take days or weeks to fix. "There's a balance to this," he explains, but doesn't lay the blame completely at the feet of non-IT staff. "I think both parties have a very distinct role. The non-IT people have a role in asking 'How complex is it?' And I think IT people have a responsibility for being more transparent than I've typically seen they sometimes are, and provide an explanation."
Q: What is the craziest technical support issue you or your team has ever had to deal with?
A: "At one organization, we had a pretty significant database set up, high capacity, high availability," John says. He describes an architecture with multiple nodes, set to automatically fail when there was an issue. For several weeks, his team received varied and seemingly unrelated technical support issues. Logins would work three times in a row, and then fail on the fourth or fifth try, then work again. Or it would work all morning, then fail in the afternoon. Eventually, they tracked it down to the fail over process. "After about four weeks of troubleshooting and downstream issues and late nights, it was finally realized that when the first node went down and failed over to the second, everything would then drop back to the first again."
Q: What is the most valuable skill an IT professional should have?
A: John quickly answers "Curiosity." He means more than just asking why something works the way it does. "It can mean asking what it is that you don't understand that's making your app slow, for instance." Because IT covers so much ground, John says you need to have a drive to find out about more than just what you're looking at, right at that moment. But, he points out, someone can still be successful in IT even without an intense sense of curiosity. It depends on what their measure of success is. "You might just be monetarily successful, or by title successful. But you'll be missing a personal satisfaction by not understanding what you're doing from top to bottom."