The World Between

I sit here in an odd place.  I have been in to computers since the DOS age.  I was one of the little brats on the BBS (Bulletin Board Systems).  I found this world of computers fascinating.  My dad had computers at his office and the times I was able to tag along with my dad in to the office I did with an odd since of wonderment.  Here are these magical boxes that you gain knowledge and communicate with other people.  While I could be contempt to just play the games that were already there for me, I found that you could pull the game up in a hex editor and “look around” inside the programs.  While you didn’t get to see all of the code, you did get glimpses.  In my dad’s office, they started to secure their machines.  At each roadblock I found myself compelled to find a way to defeat the roadblock that was stopping me from access the information.  I would spend hours with my dad at his office trying to defeat the evil person blocking me.  I would always find a way around.  My president of the division my dad worked for was in the office late at night when we would go in.  He would “check in” on me every once in a while.  He would see me come in and he would smugly say they implemented a new layer of protection.  That is when I knew it was time to go to work.  I would bang on the system until I found a solution.  This is what was originally defined as a hacker.  I never caused damage to the system.  I knew that if I did cause damage that I wouldn’t be allowed to come back.  The president would check on me during the night.  As he would check on me I would be open and honest on my progress.  Once I would gain access, I would get to play on the internet.  He would check in and I would explain how I defeated their protection.  Unknowingly providing a service that back then really wasn’t done and if it was done wasn’t cheap.

Let me forward 20+ years.  I am working with people in their mid-20’s that have never known the world without the modern internet.  Virtualization is the preferred way of building servers.  They don’t know about shared time slices on big iron which is the first virtualization in computer systems.  I am 34 year old and a dinosaur of the times.  I am working with people that have never written a DOS Batch scripts, used a system without a mouse, or used a server that doesn’t have a GUI interface.  I recently installed a Windows Server 2008 R2 Core server and was flying around in the command line.  I have to say command line as the screen is a DOS emulator as it no longer truly exists.  All of the younger guys are in wonder why you would have a server with no GUI screen and they started debating the savings of memory.  While they talked about how they would manage the system, I fired up the VM and started installing.  I am setting up the server fiercely entering command after command.  While I do this I am documenting what I am doing on a notepad with a pen.  One of the people I am working with looks at me and asks “what are you going to do with that notepad?”  I looked at him and said that I was going to add that in to my notes for the build of the machine.  He looked puzzled.  While they looked for a tool to help configure the server, I turned to my old school methods and I am happy to say they still worked.

Items like this put me in a spot of contention.  While there are some people like me that like to say in the weeds with the technology, most people my age and older are forced to sit on the sidelines and manage.  If you are lucky enough to say working as an engineer or administrator, you typically are there to keep those old machines going.  You are in the endless maintenance routine.  You don’t get to innovate anymore.  So the question is, how to keep up with the technology curve, stay relative enough to have a meaningful work relationship with the all the generations, build yourself as a valued resource, and keep those career goal moving forward.

The easiest of those items was the first one, how to keep up with the technology curve.  This is something that should be in the basic fiber of being in IT.  We are the curious ones.  We aren’t just satisfied by given an answer.  We need to know the how and why something works and after we figure out how it works we think of ten different ways to improve it.  What I think the question we need to answer is do we still have the drive to follow the technology curve and ask the how questions or are we at the point where we are following the curve?  If we are just following the curve, maybe it is time to think about stepping to the side and giving that new people a front row seat as pushing the curve and you moving to the management or architect role guiding the newer person.  We were all there at some point or maybe we are still there.  Someone took the time to keep us focused on the task at hand.  They had to have a leach.  You need to be able to roam but pulled back when things needed done.  Giving that guidance is a critical role to helping shape how our departments and company work.  The tricky part is doing it in the right amounts.  Giving too much guidance tends to stifle the work atmosphere and is normally called micro-managing.  Being to lacks on guidance is seen as a lack of management and projects spin up and then get left by the side of the road because people felt like doing something else.  Giving the little nudges here and there and cracking the whip when things need to get done is a tough role to play.  This plays in to the building yourself as a valued resource.  With your experience you have learned some life lessons.  With those life experiences you have incite in to how the company works or how a particular industry is.  If you are the boss, a senior, or a lead, part or all of your job is to take the newer workers under your wing.  Notice how I say newer and not younger?  Your company might have hired someone that has been in the industry for a while to fill a need.  This could be for a senior level position or it could be for a specialized position.  An example of the specialized position is a developer with a skill set in an older program.  You two might be working together to convert that legacy application to a new platform.  Or you might be the person hired for their legacy knowledge of a system.  You will have to listen to a 26 year old who has been with the company since she was 18 tell you about the inner workings of the company.  In either role, you need to be a good team player and show why you still belong on the team.

As a manager of mine once said, “You all need to play nice in the sandbox.  I will provide the sand and the toys and you all can figure out who is playing in what area and with what toys.  Just keep this in mind, it is my sandbox and you all will follow my rules.  I expect you all to figure out how to solve your problems because if I need to step in the ruling will be quick and final.”  That leads in to one of the trickier areas, stay relative enough to have a meaningful work relationship with the all the generations.  For me, at 34 years old, I am not a party all night person either.  But on the other hand I am not in bed by 9pm and reading the obituary section of the paper.  While thinking about this I got to see a good reflection of who I was.  Coming in to the corporate IT work I was a very cocky know it all.  How my coworker didn’t smack me up side my skull I am not sure.  I know see the guidance piece of what I was talking about as they were constantly correcting my course to keep me on the right track.  I would start to spin off on something new and they would gently remind me of work we had to do.  Interfacing with younger coworkers in the father like figure is very understandable, but how to still learn from those old people in the office.  I mean, come on, they just need to retire.  The generation of worker above you always seem to be taking their time and they just sit there in the meetings.  They rarely speak and when they do I am not sure how much they really contribute.  They just seem to not get it.  They are asking a lot of dumb questions.  I was hoping for a Yoda or at least a Silent Bob type person that when they did speak these nuggets of knowledge would come flowing from them.  Stop for a second and listen to yourself.  Most likely that is what the younger generation always things.  Take that second to stop and listen to what they ask really asking and why they are asking those questions.  You might find that nugget of knowledge you are looking for.  Being submissive is not really a common trait of an inquisitive person.  Why tend to fight the mainstream and the authorities.  Make time to just talk and more importantly listen to those old guys and you might find yourself a Buddha  master that might happen to know the ways of the force.

Now the section I tend to find the most difficulty in, keeping those career goal moving forward.  Where do you see yourself in the next year, in 5 years, in 10 years?  I have enough trouble with what do you think you will be doing this afternoon?  You ask me that and I need to check my calendar, my ticket log, and my projects.  What I tend to do is to make a T chart.  I list out everything I like and dislike about my job as of that very minute.  For each of the dislikes I make myself explain why I don’t like it and what would need to happen to correct that.  After I have completed my T chart, I put it away for a couple day or a week.  When I come back to it I first examine the dislikes.  I see if those are still valid or was I just having a bad day or week.  Next I go over the like column and I explain to myself why I like that.  Now is the tough part of the process, look at the dislike column and ask myself if there is something I am doing that causes this.  You have to be honest with yourself.  You really don’t like calling yourself out on things and having to ownership of a bad thing, but it is needed.  At that point you can say I like this job because of X,Y, and Z but this job would be great if I didn’t have to do A, B, and C.  At this point you can take this list to your boss.  Again, you need to be willing to accept the truth from your manager.  Some of the A, B, and C could be what your job is and there is no way around it but this is a great opportunity to talk about the positions that contain all of most of X, Y, and Z but limit A, B, and C.  While it doesn’t answer the where do you see yourself in a time period directly, it gives you a chance to road map some ideas with your manager.

So while I still see myself caught between two different worlds, I don’t see it as a bad place.  There will be time to teach and times to be taught.  Maybe it is a time to talk less and listen more.  While I am not ready to have that big mug of black coffee sitting on my desk all day, a few red bulls doesn’t hurt.

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