In Praise of Single-Mindedness

May 31, 2023

It’s been a minute since I’ve taken the time to put pen to paper.

It’s hard sometimes to distill the events and trends into something worth writing about. I do that, dear Reader, because I don’t want to just throw things at the wall. I prefer to give you something meaningful that will hopefully aid in your growth in your profession.

A recent post on LinkedIn by Scott Smeester made me think about ways in which successful IT people are those who have learned how to dig deep and find answers.

To be good at something, you have to study it, get to know the issues inside and out. My best and most valued colleagues over the years have been people who are voracious learners, and not just about IT. The late webmaster Ian, who was a wooden boat builder, VW microbus enthusiast, and (if we’d saved any documentation) might have been the inventor of the Blog. The network architect Rob, who was an archer, combined his talents by shooting CAT5 cable across an expanse of a warehouse by crossbow — it sure beat pulling cable. Some of them are even auto-didacts: people who have learned how to teach themselves new things. This is particularly valuable in IT, as the body of knowledge between developers and users is constantly shifting.

I’m always amazed at people who demonstrate such proficiency that when I ask a question I’m bombarded with a litany of pluses and minuses, right there on the spot. Their deep study has in effect already anticipated this question way in advance of my asking.

It’s not news to anyone that being a lifelong learner is important. In IT, it’s doubly so, as the skills that got you a job 5 years ago are not the skills necessary to keep and thrive in that job today.

I’m reminded of our university IT Director in the early 90s who was in charge of the Honeywell-Bull mainframe. Grades, some academic packages, and the general ledger. He didn’t see where the Internet had anything to do with him. He’d worked there for 20+ years, and less than 3 years after I met him, he was gone. His Assistant Director, who’d been with the organization for 35 years, was out also. One of my first blog posts was about these people, and as I said then, the Director found a new gig elsewhere and was able to reinvent himself. He did so by digging deep and learning about the nuts and bolts of the Internet. His professional career continued.

Because I started out writing programs (badly), I moved to building and supporting PCs. Which led to running computer labs, managing student workers, then training, writing newsletters, Help Desk, project management, AV, and the Internet. Which led to mail servers, web servers, Ethernet and fiber, and firewalls. Electrical, which led to facilities management and HVAC.

Not bad for an organizational behaviorist, who had a geek streak a mile wide. It was essentially a home-grown management training program, but I didn’t know it.

However, the tech chops are not enough. I had to get out of my comfort zone and learn to be a communicator, a salesman. Someone for whom schmoozing doesn’t make me rock with a pillow in a corner.

I think these new skills came into full bloom when I moved 2,200 miles away from home for a new job, which catapulted me to a whole new level. Being the new guy, I had to speak. To EVERYONE. Whether I liked it or not.

To this day I don’t know if I had charisma, or just plowed through it, but people kept inviting me to do things, which further stretched me. Membership in a statewide IT leadership group, which gave me a sufficiently big head to go chase another job, building a brand-new campus.

My former CIO/Associate Provost and I talked about “the life” of IT leadership almost 15 years later, and I could see where he and I were more alike than I noticed previously. Maybe I had changed. I’d since built a consulting business and stretched muscles I didn’t know I had.

Back then I also had a side hustle with MAG Systems in Portland, training college campuses how to effectively use new voicemail systems. They’d fly me out of Seattle for a day spent giving training to platoons of campus staff, in places like Twin Falls, ID. It gave me a chance to meet many of my peers at colleges, and I could clearly see they fell into two camps: those who defined their roles as being caretakers of existing tech, and those who stretched the boundaries. The difference were those who were change agents — using technology as a lever to advance organizational effectiveness, and those who just kept shoveling coal in the engines. Business as usual.

Don’t get complacent in your role. Volunteer for tech things in your community. Give talks about how to secure your online life — at your church. Take an old server that’s headed for recycling and set it up in the garage to learn something new.

You know you want to.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back To Top