Episode 169 – Treat Your Career like a Marathon Rather Than a Sprint with Nicholas Walsh
Phil’s guest on today’s IT Career Energizer podcast is Nicholas Walsh. He is a Technical Evangelist for Amazon. In that role, he works to empower developers to put AWS products and tools to better use. He is currently focusing on AI and machine learning fields.
Nicholas studied for a career in medicine. But, he switched to IT when he realized that he could do more good by working in the tech industry.
(1.12) – So, the first thing I wanted to ask you was how you moved from being a research assistant in biotech into the IT industry. Nicholas explains that, from an early age, he wanted to become a doctor. So, he majored in medicine.
When he was doing the research element of his course, he noticed that he was enjoying the programming aspect of it, more than anything. Coding analytical scripts and automating data analysis. He was pretty good at it.
He started to attend computer programming competitions called hackathons. Initially, he was worried that he was not going to be able to make a meaningful contribution at these events. But, he loved it. The first one he attended was on a biomedical theme. He stayed up for two nights coding.
(2.32) – How long did it take you to move across fully into working in the IT field? For Nicholas, it was an iterative process. He gradually took on more of the coding responsibility on projects he was involved in.
Nicholas joined a start-up in San Francisco as a data science intern. At that point, he knew that coding was for him. So, he identified the skills he needed and set about learning what he needed to know. Mostly by setting up projects for fun, getting involved in more hackathons and working with friends.
He also stayed on for an extra year at school. That helped with the transition too, because it gave him a little more breathing space and enabled him to hone his data sciences and AI knowledge.
(4.51) – Can you please share a unique career tip with the I.T. career audience? Looking back at events and deciding whether a certain experience was positive or negative can be very beneficial. It is particularly important to do this when it comes to your career. Every now and again, you need to pause and ask yourself how happy you are with what you are doing.
Career development should not be about throwing darts at a dartboard and seeing what sticks. If you are not happy, it is very important to know why. This ensures you do not make similar errors, in the future. Periodic, honest reviews help you to move forward in your career.
When asked by Phil to elaborate, Nicholas explains that doing this on a project by project basis is particularly helpful. If you are working on big projects, Nicholas’ advice is to pause every quarter and review where you are.
For example, Nicholas was involved with an early startup that was building an AI, machine learning developer tools. Once the project was over, he asked himself what he had got out of that role and what itch that work had scratched. Doing that made him realize that he had always wanted to be involved with a project from the start. So, he would know what it was to shape things from the very start. It made him realize he had scratched that particular itch. So, when he moved on to his next role, he made sure it was different and addressed another of his career goals. His work with Amazon Web Services is all about fostering an existing community and achieving growth.
(7.08) – Can you tell us about your worst career moment? And what you learned from that experience. Right at the start of his IT career, Nicholas represented Wolfram at conferences and hackathons. In that role, he came across someone who was very confrontational about the tech his firm used. They felt strongly that their way of doing things was better.
Nicholas listened and tried to address their arguments and help them to understand the merits of the way his team did things. Unfortunately, despite trying to do so repeatedly he was unable to help that person. In the end, he realized he was never going to be able to convince them and had to walk away.
Initially, it felt bad leaving things like that because he knew he could help them. But, it taught him the value of compromising and knowing when to cut your losses and move on.
(8.30) – What was your best career moment? That happened when Nicholas was working for Datmo. One of their first customers had a really tight budget. They were rolling out an AI/machine learning model for computer vision application. Initially, it was hard to predict whether their budget would be big enough to complete the rollout.
But, despite this, Nicholas and the rest of the Datmo team committed to the project. They doubled down, went back over the model and architecture and eventually got the monthly cost down from tens of thousands of dollars to below $5000, per month.
It was a huge amount of work, but very fulfilling. The experience also set Nicholas up nicely for working at Amazon. For them, customer obsession is a core tenant.
(9.43) – Can you tell us what excites you about the future of the IT industry and careers? The fact that the work you do can have a huge impact on the lives of everyone is something that excites Nicholas. He likes solving problems and building things. The sky is really the limit.
A good IT professional can get involved in any field or industry and make a positive difference.
(10.48) – Do you feel that the way we solve problems now will change as technology evolves? Nicholas believes that the emergence of AI and machine learning is already changing the way we solve problems. It is now possible to look at x-rays and spot some potential issues.
This has the potential to greatly improve things for medical professionals and patients. These processes and tasks are not likely to ever be completely automated. But, the tech will speed up the rate at which a lot of these types of tasks can be done. AI has the potential to make a radical difference for all kinds of fields, including telecommunications, air traffic control, and other critical areas.
How fast that happens, remains to be seen. But, AI is definitely here to stay.
(12.52) – What drew you to a career in IT? Nicholas has always enjoyed solving problems and building things. Initially, he was drawn to medicine. But, while studying for his medical degree he developed a passion for IT. He loved the idea of coding systems that made a difference and would outlive him.
(13.39) – What is the best career advice you have ever received? Someone once told him to look two steps, rather than just one step ahead when considering what to do with his IT career. It was excellent advice.
Nicholas explains that having two points on your career timeline pushes you to learn two skill sets, at the same time. There will be some overlap, but you will always be preparing yourself for two potential career paths. If one of them does not work out, you will be ready to pursue the other one. You do not have to stick rigidly to your two-step plan. If something changes, you can change what you plan to do next and maybe what you thought you wanted to do after that.
(14.25) – Conversely, what is the worst career advice you’ve ever received? Someone once advised Nicholas to avoid conflict at all costs. You need to be authentic. It is not a good idea to stop yourself from expressing valid opinions just because you think others will disapprove.
You have to be balanced about this. It is important not to be too vocal either. Instead, you need to find the middle ground.
(15.28) – If you were to begin your IT career again, right now, what would you do? Nicholas says he would have started his IT career earlier. He took programming classes when he was in high school. But, decided not to go on to study computer science, a decision that he now regrets. His computer teacher was really boring and they did nothing but sort algorithms.
He also believes that it is important to develop good learning habits. You need to look at a career in IT as a long-term project and carry on learning.
(16.36) – What are you currently focusing on in your career? Nicholas is currently working on creating workshop content that distills difficult AI and machine learning concepts. He wants more people to understand them so they can start to leverage the power of AI and other technologies that AWS offers.
Nicholas is using lots of different approaches to get the message across. He is using live video streams, fireside chats, and other formats to reach as many people as possible.
Doing this is helping Nicholas to build his technical expertise as well as help others. This dovetails into another of his career focuses, which is to grow his understanding of more complex tech.
In the long term, Nicholas wants to set up and run his own company.
(18.04) – What is the number one non-technical skill that has helped you the most in your IT career? Being resilient has really helped Nicholas. In the tech industry, things move fast, really fast. So, inevitably, you are going to get things wrong. When that happens, you need to be able to bounce back. It is important to learn fast and not be afraid to change direction.
Nicholas says you cannot afford to be afraid of diving into something you know nothing about. Being able to quickly learn a new framework is essential.
But, you have to know your limits. When deciding whether or not to take on a project, consider what you already know and what you will have to learn to be able to complete the work. This enables you to determine if the project is right for you.
Nicholas has found that for him a 70/30 split is about right. He can usually cope with needing to learn new skills to complete around 30% of the tasks the project requires. Taking this approach ensures that he can keep on learning without feeling too stressed.
(19.59) – What do you do to keep your own IT career energized? Thankfully, Nicholas finds his work at AWS to be energizing. Hosting weekly shows for developers and getting out into the field and teaching workshops always provide him with a lift.
Nicholas really enjoys getting direct feedback from customers and developers and taking it back to the service team. It feels great to play a direct role in improving their products. At AWS, there is never a dull day.
(21.33) – What do you do in your spare time away from technology? Nicholas is a lifelong gamer. He finds it to be very relaxing and a great way to keep up with friends and family who are geographically scattered.
Nicholas also enjoys working on restoring his car. He also plays a lot of volleyball, which helps to keep him fit. He believes that when you work in IT you need to do something physical to counter the fact that you spend a lot of the day sitting down.
(23.20) – Phil asks Nicholas to share a final piece of career advice with the audience. Nicholas’ parting piece of advice is to remember to reach back and help lift others up as well. Using Twitter is a great way to help people who are currently where you were, a few years ago. It is also a great place to network and grow your understanding of virtually anything.
(5.06) NICHOLAS – “Looking back and performing some sort of retrospective to understand why that experience was positive or negative, is extremely valuable.”
(5.21) NICHOLAS – “Career development is not like throwing darts at a dartboard trying to see what sticks.”
(8.40) NICHOLAS – “Understanding when to cut your losses is a very important skill.”
(12.34) NICHOLAS – “AI and machine learning are definitely here to stay.”
(16.21) NICHOLAS – “A career in IT is a marathon, not a sprint”
(24.09) NICHOLAS – “Leverage Twitter, leverage the amazing tech community.”