It’s easy to differentiate amateur from veteran technologists if you know what to listen for. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert relates that you can get the measure of a tech by the stories that they share.
This is my first column for calendar year 2014, and it’s also my one hundredth online column for Business Technology and Business Reporter. I started and archived a half-dozen drafts this weekend; I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say to commemorate this (completely arbitrary) milestone. I was idling unproductively, when – completely at random – I met a sailor at lunch and this entire column fell into place. I couldn’t wait to get back to my laptop and write what appears next.
My wife and I had been out running errands and decided to take a late lunch at a neighbourhood eatery. Our server was an effervescent young lass. Since it was mid-afternoon, there were very few customers tying up her attention. That gave us the chance to chat a bit when ordering and again when she brought out our meals. When the lass brought us the bill at the end, I complimented her on her charm  and asked what all she planned to next with her life. She told us that she was in school studying to be a medical tech, and had just mustered out of the U.S. Navy. That, in turn, led to a fifteen-minute discussion where we swapped funny stories about life in uniform. We’d never met one another before, but we all had an instant bond. We had these shared experiences, a common language, and a bunch of funny stories that spoke to the absurdity of our time in uniform.
This happens to me quite a bit, and not just as restaurants. Seems that nearly everywhere I go, there’s a good chance that I’m going to stumble into another veteran. When I was a young lad, I went to the local optometrist to get a new pair of specs. It somehow came up in conversation that I’d just recently returned home from Army Basic Combat Training. As soon as I said that, my opto laughed and launched into a hilarious story about his experience as a young squaddie back in the 1960s. We shared a few good tales, ordered my new glasses, and left. On the way home, my father (who is also a veteran) explained that our shared military service makes us part of the largest and most close-knit fraternity in the world: time in the ranks transcends race, religion, ethnicity, class, nationality, and most every other arbitrary reason to divide people into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Soldiering and sailoring are universal experiences that bind us together.
It’s been more than a quarter century since we had that discussion, but I’ve never forgotten it. It’s proven to be absolutely true. More importantly, the way that you can tell a real veteran from a poser (and there are lots of people claiming honours that they never earned) is by the character of the stories they share. A faker will talk about units and awards; a real vet will describe in tender detail just how fouled up a situation was, and how screwy everything turned out. They’re not stories about winning glory; they’re almost always tales of farce and absurdity.
I’ve found that we have a similar bond within the IT field that transcends company loyalties and national borders. Once you’ve slogged along in the tech support trenches long enough, you gain a sense of empathy for your brother and sister techs, no matter where they’re from. It’s pretty easy to tell when someone is of the fraternity: all you have to do is offer up a ‘difficult user’ anecdote or a ‘failed implementation’ story. If they grin knowingly and offer up a funny story of their own in trade, then you can be sure that they’re a paid-up member of our order. Experience is more often what you earn from your disasters than from your successes.
We all may have our affiliations that divide us (e.g., Android versus iOS, etc.), but we all have common ground in the universal struggle to keep our core systems running in spite of irrational executives, crazy users, unreliable vendors, annoying hackers, anaemic budgets, twitchy developers, and all of the other common characters that resonate so strongly to us from the panels of a Dilbert strip. We’ve been there, and we have the hysterical stories that others of our kind will recognize and empathize with. By our anecdotes shall ye know us.
When I interview people, I look specifically for those elements of commonality, and I validate people’s claims of competence by the stories that they share. I want to know if the job applicant or the interviewer on the other side of the table has actually done their time in the ranks. It rarely takes long to recognize one of our own; usually, I can toss out a snarky reference to a product, an operating system, or a difficult user type that triggers an involuntary spark of recognition in most anyone who’s been there. Once I see that they know, the other lad or lass can see just as clearly that I know that they know. It’s like a handshaking protocol between two old-school modems (which, you may notice, is a great analogy to offer up to a fellow IT tech). Once we establish that we have some common ground, the conversation can get richer and more detailed. We can laugh at one another’s pains and frustrations. We can bond (if only for an hour).
Conversely, when I probe the other lad or lass and get no reaction whatsoever to my discussion seed, I know that I need to throttle back. I don’t need to dumb things down necessarily, but I most certainly do need to lower my expectations for the encounter.
I have two examples of this phenomenon that occurred in one 24-hour block many, many years ago. I was interviewing senior sysadmin candidates for the IT department in a hot new Dot Com company. I had an initial roster of six positions to fill, and could only hire two server jockeys. The senior operator would design and implement all of the servers and storage for the company data centre, while the junior operator would handle the grunt work of building accounts, supporting users, and so on. The senior nerd, therefore, needed to be proficient with systems architecture and integration right out of the gate. We wouldn’t have anyone else to fall back on if the senior operator wasn’t up to snuff. They simply had to have done the job before.
The fellow that I interviewed first had an impressive CV. He’d earned a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer certification after he completed his undergraduate degree. He had a few years experience with a large national company. HR said that he looked like an optimal candidate based on his keywords, but I wasn’t so sure. Something about his CV just didn’t ring true.
When the fellow came in to interview, I asked him straightaway to tell me about the biggest network that he’d ever had to administer. The applicant blinked, quibbled for a few seconds, then sheepishly admitted that he’d never administered a network before in his life. In fact, he’d neveronce worked in an IT capacity before. He’d earned his MCSE at a two-week test-prep ‘boot camp,’ but all of his knowledge was academic.
I was disappointed by the fellow’s confession, but wasn’t ready to dismiss him outright. Perhaps he’d been performing tech support for the office or for friends and family as an additional duty. Maybe there was more to him than that. Could the bloke actually do the work? I asked him to tell me about the thorniest systems issue that he’d ever faced … and he sheepishly admitted that he’d only just started working with computers. He didn’t work on them, either for himself or for other people. He had the technical depth of sheet of copy paper.
The fellow had only ever done generic clerical work, and wanted to break into the IT sector because the newspaper said that it paid well. The certification ‘boot camp’ people had sworn to him that his Microsoft certifications would allow him to bypass entry-level IT positions and start work at a Dot Com company with a top-level salary and benefits package. I told him that identifying himself as a ‘network engineer’ on his CV was disingenuous, thanked him for applying and sent him on his way.
The second fellow that I interviewed for the position had a very sketchy CV. His work history was disjointed, with some curiously short tours at different local companies. HR advised me that the fellow might be a problem employee (e.g., problems with temper or drink). I agreed that it couldbe a problem, but I wanted to decide that for myself.
When we brought the fellow in, I led with the same simple question about the biggest network that he’d ever administered. The lad frowned, and countered that his answer depended on how we measured ‘biggest:’ by the number of servers deployed, or by the number of users supported? Or would we prefer to hear about the biggest nightmare that he’d ever endured in trying to sustain a production network? Ah!
I smiled and told him that the latter would be excellent – please proceed! The effect on the applicant was electric. He couldn’t help himself – he grinned like a tyke on Christmas morning. His eyes lit up and he launched into a rousing tale of cascading failures brought on due to upper management’s unrealistic expectations for an untested product. By the end of his story, the whole interview room was convulsing with laughter. 
It should be no surprise that the second fellow was the superior choice for the senior operator role, and that he performed in the role splendidly. He had the experience, the judgment, the humility, and the insight into user behaviour to wisely balance both customer and staff needs. He wasn’t rattled by politics or systems failures. He saw reflections of his younger self in the support techs that we hired, and he invested a great deal of his free time in mentoring ‘his’ young bucks.
Had we made our hiring decision strictly on the basis of paper credentials and keywords, we’d have hired the first applicant … and we’d have been sunk when he couldn’t perform. The company ran at a manic pace, and every employee had to make their contributions on-time and to-spec every day without fail. There simply wasn’t time to ‘grow into’ one’s role. HR’s so-called ‘optimal’ candidate would have gone down in flames before the end of his first month.
Bear in mind, this event took place back at the end of the nineties, when people still submitted paper CVs through the post. In those days, an HR rep had to actually read what the applicant had typed. They could make mistakes in assessing a candidate, but they at least brought their own experience to bear in assessing the gestalt of the CV. Now, the probability of making a terrible hiring choice is greatly increased since many corporate HR departments have shifted the burden of evaluating talent to Applicant Management Systems that process CVs using nothing more than simple keyword searches. When you rely on an algorithm to identify your ‘best’ candidates, you’re almost guaranteed to miss out on the most interesting and most productive people.
It’s been a long time since that Dot Com start-up job ended, and I’ve hired a couple hundred employees since then for a wide range of companies. I’ve also interviewed with a few places myself.  Throughout all of those hiring events, I’ve found that all of the best discussions that I’ve had have included that spark of familial recognition – that bond between seasoned professionals that inevitably lead to shared laughs and genuine commiseration. Good interviews included moments of bonding between fellow professionals. Great interviews included hearty laughter over a shared tale of workplace insanity. To be sure, all of those discussions were worthwhile in and of themselves for the connections made, even when no offer was made or accepted. They may have been brief encounters, but they were satisfying ones.
That’s why I believe strongly that the defining aspect of a worthwhile interview is the intensity of emotion aroused in the stories that are shared on both sides of the table. Technical skill is great to have, but passion for one’s work is exhilarating – and it’s also contagious. People who relish what they do tend to infect others around them with a measure of their energy, turning the team into a breeder reactor of joy, mirth, and creativity. I treasure that, even in people that I’ll only meet once and will never see again.
More important than passion, to me, is a sense of the absurd. Our profession is one marked by near-impossible expectations under ridiculous conditions. Our reality changes every few weeks, and it’s very easy to drift into obsolescence if you don’t actively keep up. The two things that never change in IT work are the comedy and drama that permeate our days. When we can recognize, accept, and share those surreal moments, it allows us to form meaningful – if temporary – bonds with others from our brotherhood. I treasure those moments of connection.
When you see me at the European Information Security Summit next month, be sure to tell me a story … preferably, one that will make us both laugh. I promise to reciprocate.
 I don’t know if y’all do this in Europe. Here in Texas, if a service-sector worker does a good job, it’s custom to take time out to compliment them on their strengths at the end of the encounter. We’ll also take time out to track down the manager or owner of the establishment to offer our compliments and appreciation.
 This phenomenon may be more prevalent in Texas than it is in the rest of the USA. We have a rich history of storytelling in our culture. Folks are generally expected to spin a tall tale about something they’re passionate about. Likewise, folks here are accustomed to giving the tale spinner a safe space to present. A good story, when delivered well, is valuable in and of itself.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.