Episode 162 – Get Organized and Step Out of Your Comfort Zone to Become a More Successful IT Professional with Ian Miell
Phil’s guest on today’s IT Career Energizer podcast is Ian Miell. He is a developer, author, blogger, open source coder and conference speaker who has been working in the IT industry for nearly two decades.
During that time he has held various positions at OpenBet and more recently moved into the financial sector. Working for Barclays as their Lead OpenShift Architect before moving to State Street to work as a VP, in late 2018.
Ian is the co-author of Docker in Practice, Learn Bash the Hard Way and Learn Git the Hard Way. He is also a prolific blogger and international conference speaker.
(1.06) – First, can I ask you about why you transitioned from writing into working in IT? Ian explains that he studied history at university. As a student, he worked at The Times for a few weeks and enjoyed the experience. So, he thought he might like to be a journalist.
However, he later realized that journalism wasn’t for him. He enjoyed the writing side of things, but not the pressure to simply churn out words.
So, he gave up on journalism and went abroad to teach English and write a novel. But, he was unable to sell it. This was in the pre-internet era and Ian had no agent or publishing contracts, so the fact he could not get it published is not really surprising.
That experience got writing out of his system, at least for a while. It was then that he decided to turn to an old passion of his – computers. Ever since he was a kid he had been fascinated by them. So, he did a conversion masters at Berkley College, London and started his IT career from there.
(2.46) – But, you haven’t necessarily left your writing skills behind. I believe you’ve subsequently written books, with a technology, slant to them. Ian agrees he has come full circle by co-authoring “Docker in Practice” for Manning Publications.
It was very well received. He did a video on Docker for another publisher. The combination of these two things got his name known. At that point, his blog really took off. Now, he mainly writes for fun, covering anything that he is currently interested in. He has written a couple of books and self-published them. So, the writing side of his career has finally taken off.
(4.02) – So, are you writing another book? Ian has a day job but he is still able to put aside time to write and help others to learn. He is due to do some live Bash training for O’Reilly, at the end of June.
Ian also does some technical writing for various businesses. As well as updating his blog. So, right now, he does not really have the time to work on another book. But, he is learning about Terraform and waiting for the next version to come out.
(4.44) – Can you please share a unique career tip with the audience? Ian says that you need to realize that you are a product. This is a fact whether you like it or not.
Once you accept that and start to think about what you are selling to the market, your horizons start to open up. Ian spent 14 years working at the same company and never really got out there. He stuck to his comfort zone, which really held him back.
A friend of his got him to read Ten-Day MBA, specifically the first chapter, which is all about marketing. That is when he realized that he was doing nothing at all to sell himself.
At that point, he had no blog, never attended meet-ups. Effectively he was invisible to anyone who was not working with him directly. When he realized this, he started blogging, giving talks and generally putting himself out there. This helped him to focus his energy in the right direction.
(6.23) – When was that? Ian says it was only about 7 years ago. When he wrote his first blog post, nobody cared. It was a bit disheartening. But, Ian managed to keep things in perspective. He recognized and took pleasure from the fact that he had actually produced something he could refer back, to in the future.
This realization drove him on to do it again and again. He figured he had nothing to lose by sharing what he knew in as many ways as possible.
However, Ian points out that it is not always easy. He still gets nervous when he has to stand up and talk. But, doing this opens up so many opportunities. For example, after one speech someone from Barclays offered him a drink. A year later he was working for them. There are a lot of talent spotters who attend events to recruit. So, giving talks can be a good way to find work.
(9.21) – Can you tell us about your worst career moment? And what you learned from that experience. Ian explains that he was a little older than the average graduate, so felt he needed to catch up. As a result, he was quite driven and did well in his first job and quickly progressed to the point where he was asked to head up a technical team.
For Ian, it was a big step up and something he really wanted. So, when, after about a year, his team had not been able to really deliver he was more than a bit disappointed. The whole experience knocked his confidence.
But, after a while, he recognized that failing had actually taught him a lot. He realized that what he was trying to achieve was actually quite a cultural shift for the business. They had been making money one way, for a long time. So, when he tried to get them to try another way of turning a profit, there was a lot of resistance. For a lot of businesses, cultural change is a huge hurdle.
(11.16) – Why do you think that is? At the time, the company he was working for built products, sold them, then bastardized them to fit in with what each client needed. Ian wanted them to move towards producing a range of products and selling them en masse to buyers without the bespoke element.
This is a much simpler, manageable and profitable way to do business. But, people could not shift mentally from being a materials company to being a product producer. At the time, Ian did not have the experience to be able to effectively push back on that.
(12.19) Phil had a similar experience. He worked for a firm that ended up supporting over a hundred variations of the same core product. In the end, the complexity of managing all of this outweighed the business benefit of offering such a tailored product.
Ian says that is why, these days, we have product managers. Someone who is responsible for looking at requested changes and working out if they are financially viable. If they are not they should be telling the customer that the change is not possible, at least not yet.
(13.49) – What did you take away from that experience? Ian now realizes that if senior management is not behind your idea it is best not to invest too much time into it. Without the right support, even the best ideas will fail.
This experience and his time working with Barclays taught Ian that enterprises move slowly. Now, he realizes that if you want to effect change you have to work with the grain, be persistent and be patient.
(15.06) – What was your best career moment? Successfully, setting up an effective knowledge base for a company that had a team of 50 live-time developers, working in different locations, was a big achievement for Ian. It got everyone working more efficiently and protected the £7millon worth of contracts the firm had, at the time. Getting this knowledgebase working properly saved the company a huge amount of money and greatly improved productivity. It also made for a happier team.
Putting together the base knowledgebase was a mammoth task. It took Ian about 7 months to go through everything line by line, updating things and making sure all of the current issues were comprehensively covered. It then took a further 4 months for it to gain traction. That is when the benefits finally started to show through.
(17.34) – Did you actually have to train people on how to use the knowledge base you created? Or was it very intuitive? Ian insisted on keeping the documents within Jira and making everything as simple as possible. Initially, there was some resistance to this approach because it was different from what had gone before. But, Ian stuck to his guns and once everyone realized it was easy to edit, flexible and truly real-time the resistance fell away.
Everyone was allowed to contribute. If others did not like or could not follow the editing style they just had to speak up. Very quickly an effective standard for working with the new knowledgebase emerged. The fact everyone could contribute made a huge difference.
It also helped the DevOps team. They had access too, so knew exactly what had been tried when a problem had to be escalated to them.
He tried to do something similar at Barclays, but ultimately it failed. Ian just did not have the power or backing to get the use and updating of the knowledgebase enforced. Because it was not updated properly it quickly became out of date and was just as useless as the system it replaced. To implement a project you always need to the backing of management.
(21.11) – Can you tell us what excites you about the future of the IT industry and careers? The fact that IT is going to become an even bigger part of our lives is exciting. Ian’s kids use computers almost constantly, throughout the day.
This move towards making tech a ubiquitous part of our lives opens up all kinds of new opportunities for those working in the industry. Ian used to worry about becoming obsolete. Now, that notion seems absolutely crazy.
(23.18) – What drew you to a career in IT? Ian had always like maths, logic, and computers. So, he chose a career in IT instead of one in the law. He especially liked the fact that he did not need to specialize to be able to work in the tech industry.
(23.40) – What is the best career advice you have ever received? Get organized is the best career advice Ian has been given.
When he was about 30 he made a mistake at work. The error basically occurred because he had failed to track everything.
So he read the book “Getting Things Done” and applied all of the principles to his life. That has freed his head up enough to get the things that have advanced his career, done.
(24.14) Conversely, what’s the worst career advice you’ve ever received? A CEO once told Ian that to pay the mortgage he needed to get promoted. Ian now realizes that is not true. On reflection, he thinks this was an example of poor incentive management.
(24.39) – What drew you to a career in IT? Ian had always like maths, logic and computers. So, he chose a career in IT instead of one in the law. He especially liked the fact that he did not need to specialize to be able to work in the tech industry.
(23.40) – What is the best career advice you have ever received? Get organized is the best career advice Ian has been given. When he was about 30 he made a mistake at work. The error basically occurred because he had failed to track everything. So he read the book “Getting Things Done” and applied all of the principles to his life. That has freed his head up enough to get the things that have advanced his career, done.
(24.14) Conversely what’s the worst career advice you’ve ever received? A CEO once told Ian that to pay the mortgage he needed to get promoted. Ian now realizes that is simply not true. On reflection, he thinks this was an example of poor incentive management.
(26.39) – Phil asks Ian to share a final piece of career advice with the audience. Someone once told him to always choose the thing that makes him feel slightly uncomfortable when he is offered the opportunity to do two different things. Taking this approach leads to you expanding your horizons much more quickly.
(3.42) IAN – “Now I write for fun. I write about whatever I’m interested in.”
(5.00) IAN – “You’ve got to realize that you are a product. Whether you like it or not, you’re selling something within the market.”
(8.42) PHIL – “Standing up in front of people to give a talk and letting them know who you are is a good way of marketing yourself”
(13.58) IAN – “If your strategy is not aligned with support from senior management, then your effort may well be wasted.”
(26.33) IAN – “Getting away from straight line thinking is really important.”
(26.54) IAN – “When you have a choice between two things to do. Choose the thing that makes you feel slightly and comfortable.”
Personal Website: https://zwischenzugs.com/
Company Website: https://ian.meirionconsulting.com/