Hedge 143: Being Prepared to be Laid Off with Giovanni Messina

Forty years ago there was an implied loyalty between companies and employees—but that world is long gone. As much as companies would like their employees to be loyal, layoff culture has crept into every corner of the modern world, especially as we move into an economic downturn. Giovanni Messina joins Russ White and Tom Ammon to talk about being prepared to be laid off, including such topics as being financially prepared, building skills for the long term, and finding community.

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Learning to Ride

Have you ever taught a kid to ride a bike? Kids always begin the process by shifting their focus from the handlebars to the pedals, trying to feel out how to keep the right amount of pressure on each pedal, control the handlebars, and keep moving … so they can stay balanced. During this initial learning phase, the kid will keep their eyes down, looking at the pedals, the handlebars, and . . . the ground.

After some time of riding, though, managing the pedals and handlebars are embedded in “muscle memory,” allowing them to get their head up and focus on where they’re going rather than on the mechanical process of riding. After a lot of experience, bike riders can start doing wheelies, or jumps, or off-road riding that goes far beyond basic balance.
Network engineer—any kind of engineering, really—is the same way.

At first, you need to focus on what you are doing. How is this configured? What specific output am I looking for in this show command? What field do I need to use in this data structure to automate that? Where do I look to find out about these fields, defects, etc.?

The problem is—it is easy to get stuck at this level, focusing on configurations, automation, and the “what” of things.

You’re not going to be able to get your head up and think about the longer term—the trail ahead, the end-point you’re trying to reach—until you commit these things to muscle memory.
The point, with technology, is learning to stop focusing on the pedals, the handlebars, and the ground, and start focusing on the goal—whether its nailing this jump or conquering this trail or making it there.

Transitioning is often hard, of course, but its just like riding a bike. You won’t make the transition until you trust your muscle memory a bit at a time.

Learning the theory of how and why things work the way they are is a key point in this transition. Configuration is just the intersection of “how this works” with “what am I trying to do…” If you know how (and why) protocols work, and you know what you’re trying to do, configuration and automation will become a matter of asking the right questions.

Learn the theory, and riding the bike will become second nature—rather than something you must focus on constantly.

On Building a Personal Brand

How do you balance loyalty to yourself and loyalty to the company you work for?

This might seem like an odd question, but it’s an important component of work/life balance many of us just don’t think about any longer because, as Pete Davis says in Dedicated, we live in a world of infinite browsing. We’re afraid of sticking to one thing because it might reduce our future options. If we dedicate ourselves to something bigger than ourselves, then we might lose control of our direction. In particular, we should not dedicate ourselves to any single company, especially for too long. As a recent (excellent!) blog post over at the ACM says:

Loyalty is generally a good trait, but extreme loyalty to the organization or mission may cause you to stay in the same job for too long.

The idea that we should control our own destiny, never getting lost in anything larger than ourselves, is ubitiquos like water is to a fish. We don’t question it. We don’t argue. It is just true. We assume there are three people who are going to look after “me:” me, myself, and I.

I get it. Honestly, I do. I’ve been there more times than I want to think about. I was the scapegoat in an argument between people far above my pay grade early in my career, causing much angst and pain. I’ve been laid off,—I cared about a company that simply didn’t care about me. Most recently, the family I’d dedicated more than twenty years of my life to ended through a divorce.

I can see why you might ask yourself hard questions about dedicating yourself to anything or anyone.

The problem, as Pete Davis points out, is that the human person was not designed for the kind of digital nomad life represented by the phrase “live for yourself.” We can try to substitute an online community. We can try to replace community with a string of novel experiences. But the truth is it will eventually catch up with you. When you’re young it’s hard to see how it will ever catch up with you, but it will.

Returning to the top—the author of the ACM article advises balancing between dedicating yourself to a company and dedicating yourself to your career. This is wise advice, but it leaves me wondering “how?” Let me lay out some thoughts here. They may not be all of the answer, but they will, I hope, point in the right direction.

First, resist seeing these two choices as orthogonal. They might be at odds in some companies—there are publishers who want your content to build their brand, and they specifically work at preventing you from building your brand. There are companies that explicitly want to own “your whole professional life.” They don’t want you blogging, going to conferences to speak, etc. Avoid these companies.

Instead, find companies that understand your personal brand is an asset to the company. Having a lot of people with strong personal brands in a company makes the company stronger, not weaker. People with strong brands will form communities around themselves. This community is a pool of people from which to recruit top-flight talent. This community allows them to collect new ideas that can be directly applied to problems in the organization. People with strong personal brands will have greater influence when they walk into a room to meet with a customer, a supplier, or just about anyone else. A company full of people with strong personal brands is stronger than one where everyone is faceless, consumed by/hiding behind the company logo.

Second, learn to manage your time effectively. I understand it’s possible to spend so much time building your brand that you don’t get your job done. As an individual, you need to be sensitive to this and learn how to manage your time effectively.

Third, seek out the win/win. Don’t think of every situation through the lens of “it’s either my brand or my employer’s.” There may be times when you cannot do something because, while it would help your brand immensely, it would harm your company’s. There may be times where you need to have a delicate discussion with your manager because you’ve been asked to do something that would be great for the company but would harm your brand. There is almost always a win/win, you just have to find it.

Fourth, seek out a community that’s not attached to work and dedicate yourself to it. Find something larger than yourself. A community that’s not tied to work will be your lifeline when things go wrong.

Finally, expect to get hurt. I know I have (an old saying in my community—never trust a man who doesn’t walk with a limp). You can be the nicest, humblest person in the world. Someone is still going to take advantage of you. In fact, the nicer and humbler you are—the more you care, the more likely it is people are going to take advantage of you. I am amazed at how much people seem to enjoy hurting one another when they believe there won’t be any consequences.

But … if you expect your life to be perfect, you were born in the wrong world. Build up the mental reserves to deal with this. Build a community that will help carry you through. There is nothing better than sitting down and sharing your hurt over a cup of coffee with a good friend (except I don’t drink coffee).

I get it—the world has moved into a YOLO/FOMO phase. If you don’t “grab it,” and right now! you risk missing something really important. We pile up alternative possibilities in our minds, wondering what might have happened if we’d chosen otherwise. We have deep angst over our personal brand, overthinking the concept to the point of diminishing returns.

The solution, though, is not to draw into yourself, to become self-centered. The solution is to find the balance, seek the win/win, dedicate yourself to something bigger than yourself, and find the right way to build your personal brand.

Hedge 128: Network Engineering at College

Have you ever thought about getting a college degree in computer networking? What are the tradeoffs between this and getting a certification? What is the state of network engineering at colleges—what do current students in network engineering programs think about their programs, and what they wish was there that isn’t? Rick Graziani joins Tom Ammon and Russ White in a broad ranging discussion on network engineering and college. Rick teaches network engineering full time in the Valley.

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The Hedge 88: Todd Palino and Getting Things Done

I often feel like I’m “behind” on what I need to get done. Being a bit metacognitive, however, I often find this feeling is more related to not organizing things well, which means I often feel like I have so much to do “right now” that I just don’t know what to do next—hence “processor thrashing on process scheduler.” Todd Palino joins this episode of the Hedge to talk about the “Getting Things Done” technique (or system) of, well … getting things done.

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Time and Mind Savers: RSS Feeds

I began writing this post just to remind readers this blog does have a number of RSS feeds—but then I thought … well, I probably need to explain why that piece of information is important.

The amount of writing, video, and audio being thrown at the average person today is astounding—so much so that, according to a lot of research, most people in the digital world have resorted to relying on social media as their primary source of news. Why do most people get their news from social media? I’m pretty convinced this is largely a matter of “it saves time.” The resulting feed might not be “perfect,” but it’s “close enough,” and no-one wants to spend time seeking out a wide variety of news sources so they will be better informed.

The problem, in this case, is that “close enough” is really a bad idea. We all tend to live in information bubbles of one form or another (although I’m fully convinced it’s much easier to live in a liberal/progressive bubble, being completely insulated from any news that doesn’t support your worldview, than it is to live in a conservative/traditional one). If you think about the role of social media and the news feed on social media services, this makes some kind of sense. The social media service tries to guess at what will keep you interested (engaged, and therefore coming back to the service), but at the same time each social media service also has a worldview they want to promote. The service largely attempts to both cater to what keeps you there and to pull you towards what the service, itself, believes.

The solution is stop getting your news from social media. period, full stop, end of sentence (although I’ve seen a recent paper indicating people find periods and other punctuation marks offensive in some way—when you find a period offensive, maybe it’s time to grow a little thicker skin).

So how should you get information instead? There are a lot of ways, from email based newsletters to watching television (please don’t, television turns everything into entertainment, including things that are not meant to entertain). My suggestion is, however, is through RSS feeds. Grab an account on Feedly or some other service, find the RSS feeds for the sites you find informative, and subscribe to their feeds. Some services have a learning mechanism that tries to accomplish the same thing as social media feeds—building intelligent filters to emphasize things you find important. I don’t tend to use these things; I have learned to just glance at the headline and first paragraph and make a quick decision about whether I think the post is worth reading.

Following RSS feeds can help you stop binging, jumping from place to place on a single site—essentially wasting time. It works against the mechanisms designers use to “increase engagement,” which often just means to consume more of your attention and time than you intended to give away. Following RSS feeds can also help you gain a broader view of the world if you intentionally subscribe to feeds from sites and people you don’t always agree with. It’s healthy to regularly read “the other side.” Following strong, well-written arguments from “the other side” will do much more for your mind than seeing just the facile, emotionally charged, straw-man arguments often presented (and allowed through the filters) on social media.

Further, services like feedly also allow you to follow lots of other things, including twitter accounts, youtube channels, and podcasts. I follow almost all podcasts through feedly, downloading the individual episodes I want to listen to, storing them in a cloud directory, and then deleting the files when I’m done. This gives me one list of things to listen to, rather than a huge playlist full of seemingly never-ending content.

All this said, this blog has a lot of different RSS feeds available. I don’t have a complete list, but these are a good place to start—

I keep these very same links on a page of RSS feeds you can find under the about menu. If you’re interested in the RSS feeds I follow, please reach out to me directly, as feedly no longer has any way to share your feeds other than pushing an OPML file (at least not that I can find).