Every week I get an email from someone asking if I can mentor them, if I can help them get to the next level, if I can help them become a VCDX, if I can explain to them what I did to progress my career. I figured I would write an article for those who wonder what I did, this is not a magic formula by any means, following the same path and putting in the same amount of effort is no guarantee for success. There is also that thing called “being at the right place, at the right time” and of course seeing opportunities, grabbing opportunities and taking risks.
First and foremost, I don’t wake up on a Monday morning and all of a sudden know how Virtual SAN or Virtual Volumes (as an example) work. It all comes down to putting in hours. If you can’t be bothered freeing up time, or have a too busy family schedule don’t even bother reading past this point. (Edit: family life is important, when I say “too busy” I refer to not being able to free up time as a result (or excuse for that matter.))
My way of thinking changed about 9 years ago. I was a sys admin working for an insurance company and had just virtualized our own estate with a couple of colleagues. I knew that this was a unique platform and that there would be a lot of work in this space the years to come. I knew I wanted to know more about how it worked, how it didn’t work, how things interacted, how I should design around constraints. So what do you do? Well that is easy: read anything you can get your hands on. And read it until you understand it inside out. And if that means you need to read that paper about Transparent Page Sharing 18 times… then that is what you do. And I can tell you that some of the material I did have to read many many times before I fully grasped it.
So when I felt I had a decent foundation I went to the VMware community forums. (I read all Virtual Infrastructure and VMware Storage / Availability / Resource Management material I could find) So what did I do there? Well I spent a lot of time answering questions. If I did not know the answer I would simply pick up a manual and look it up. Most people are lazy when it comes to it, but I figured that by answering their question at least I get to learn something. First of course you answer the simple questions but then you start focusing on the tougher questions and you let the simple questions be. (Some get excited about getting a certain status on the community forums, I never really looked at that but if that is what drives you fine!) By answering questions and reading the answers from smart people like Jason Boche / Eric Siebert / Steve Beaver on the community forums you also get a better understanding of the constraints people have commonly, what challenges people are hitting, and what mistakes are being made over and over again.
Also, I personally decided to specialize in at least 1 thing. Now you don’t need to spend 10000 hours to be a specialist in something, but one thing is certain and that is that it will take time! vSphere HA was the first subject I tried to specialize in and then followed by things like Storage DRS / Storage IO Control and more recently new VMware storage initiatives like Virtual SAN. Why did I do this? Well mostly because I noticed I really enjoyed those features / products, but also because I felt there was a need for expertise on these matters. As a nice side-effect, it allowed me to meet with engineers and product managers, basically grow my network which is very very useful if you want to progress your career in to different areas.
Next for me then was sharing what I learned with others through a different platform then VMTN. There are many ways to do this, but I started with blogging. Blogging was fairly simple to get in to and it also allowed me to document solutions to problems I encountered. Also, when you start writing up problems and solutions you will notice you will need to understand how things work on a different level in order to simplify concepts. At least that is how I approach things. Of course there is also sharing within your company or the local community (VMUGs) through presentations. Sharing your thoughts / your knowledge / your experience through a presentation is not easy. I’ve struggled with that the most probably, as I was terrified of public speaking, and I regret not having forced myself to start doing that sooner and more frequent… But when I did start doing it more opportunities arose and more doors opened. Don’t make the same mistake, do this when ever you have the chance and wherever. Don’t feel you have to start at VMworld, or a VMUG even. This can be an internal presentation in front of your colleagues, or other like minded people. And just move up bit by bit if you feel insecure.
One thing along the way which has been instrumental in my career so far has been sharing feedback / knowledge / experience not just with other users / customers, but also internally with colleagues and within VMware with product managers and developers. (I realize that this is not something everyone is capable of doing) Do not forget this: if every conversation is a one way street you will notice that over time folks won’t bother any longer to help. You will need the help from others and you need to ask yourself what they get out of helping you, return in the favour in some shape or form… be appreciative of the time others invest in you!
Last but not least, do not expect your mentor to do your work for you. Do not expect him to hand you the answer on a silver platter. You will not get anything out of that, you will need to go through the motion to grow, that will take time, that will be uncomfortable and even painful at times… But when you do I am sure opportunities will arise. Keep your eyes open, grab those opportunities and don’t be afraid to take a risk every once in a while. Now, go and do it! 🙂