Episode 171 – Be Curious and Identify What You Feel Passionate About with Jamie Phelps
Phil’s guest on today’s IT Career Energizer podcast is Jamie Phelps. He is a full-stack developer at TestDouble. A firm that is working to improve the way the world writes software and wrangles code.
(1.06) – First, I want to ask you how you came to IT. You seem to have started your IT career a little later than average, so it would be interesting to hear how this transition happened. Jamie explains when he first attended university he studied music and religion. He went to graduate school to study the New Testament.
When he went back to university to do his Ph.D. it dawned on him that he would probably be at school for another 3 to 5 years. During which time he would have to live very frugally, a realization that led to him switching to computer science.
(2.12) – Can you please share a unique career tip with the I.T. career audience? Jamie’s most important piece of advice is to build a good network of people. Doing this stands you in good stead, especially later in your career. As you progress and become more senior the problems get bigger. So, it is always good to have people you can talk to.
At some point, you will reach a stage where it is impossible to know absolutely everything. When that happens, you need a pool of experts you can trust and turn to for advice.
(3.15) – How do you personally go about developing your network? Jamie mostly developed his network through Twitter. He also made a lot of connections while working at 1Password.
Going to meetups and getting involved in IT communities have helped too. The people he met at these sorts of events shared his passion for the same tech. So, they were always there to back him up and help. Often, they had already faced and overcome the same or a very similar problem to the one he was facing. So, usually, he gets fast results when he consults with his trusted network.
(4.53) – Can you tell us about your worst career moment? And what you learned from that experience. Fortunately, Jamie has not had a lot of bad career moments. But, he does remember one situation that made him feel bad.
It happened when he was working for a firm that sold software. They realized that someone was using their website to see whether stolen credit cards were still active. Naturally, the moment the team realized they were being used in this way, they wanted to stop his activities. After a long weekend of time and effort, they finally managed to do so.
But, it did not feel good to know that weaknesses in their system had played a role in helping someone to profit from his criminal activities. To make sure it did not happen again, they switched to a more robust payment provider. It taught Jamie that sometimes it is best to pay for an expert rather than always depend on your own abilities.
(6.41) – So, in terms of what you learned from that, is it about making sure you select the right provider? What did you take away from that situation? Jamie explains that as well as looking for a good provider, in the first place, you need to periodically review your decisions. When they first set up their payment option it was the best that was available. But, eventually, they realized that the world had changed and that other providers now offered a far better option.
You also need to be careful of the “not invented here” syndrome. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that something you write in-house is always going to be better than something an outside provider writes. In many cases, the opposite is true.
(7.38) – What was your best career moment? For Jamie that was writing a Rails program that later evolved into the Watchtower element of the 1password system. This software oversees user’s websites and tells them the moment a security breach is spotted. Jamie is very proud of building the first iteration of the system in Rails.
He did it in response to the Heartbleed Bug, which hit in April 2014. It was a large SSL vulnerability that caused lots of damage. In response to the bug, 1Password asked Jamie to build something that would enable their clients to identify if their site had been hit by the bug. He is understandably proud of the fact that he was able to come up with the necessary system in just 3 days.
(9.06) – Can you tell us what excites you about the future of the IT industry and careers? Jamie is really excited by the advancements in language compilers. They have given rise to a lot more robust programming languages.
These advancements have provided us languages that are a lot safer to use. They have enabled programmers to be much more productive. Both of which have made it possible to achieve so much more.
(10.18) – Do you think that’s a trend that will continue? Jamie believes that advancements in computing power combined with further compiler enhancements mean that things will continue to improve.
(10.59) – What drew you to a career in IT? Jamie had planned to pursue a career in academia and become a college professor. But, the statistics showed that actually becoming a professor was going to be very difficult. Not only that, getting the qualifications he needed to attempt to do so, would mean living on a meager salary, for many years. So, he switched to computing.
(11.39) – What is the best career advice you have ever received? It was not advice that was given to Jamie directly. In fact, it was something he heard on a friend’s podcast.
On one show his friend advised his audience to ask themselves if they wanted 10 times more of what was happening right now. If, when you are looking at what you are doing in your career, the answer is no, it is probably time to make a change. Jamie has followed that advice and it has helped his career.
(12.20) – Conversely, what is the worst career advice you’ve ever received? At the time Jamie received his worst career advice he was working for a large firm with downtown offices. So, when he said he was going to leave and work for 1software, a Canadian startup, virtually nobody had heard of, people advised him not to do it. Fortunately, he did not listen and that is when his IT career took off.
(13.37) – If you were to begin your IT career again, right now, what would you do? Jamie found this question hard to answer. He said that he does not really know what he would have done differently. This is because the positive directions his career has gone in have been largely accidental. So, he feels that if he had been able to make more informed decisions things may not have necessarily turned out as well as they have.
(14.10) – What are you currently focusing on in your career? Right now, Jamie is working at catching up with the world of Ruby on Rails. He is also developing his consulting and soft skills.
(14.38) – What is the number one non-technical skill that has helped you the most in your IT career? His ability to dig into documents, pull out the salient points and become productive quickly has really helped him in his IT career. Interestingly, these are the skills he learned while studying for the career in academia that he never pursued
(15.16) – What do you do to keep your own IT career energized? Jamie finds that staying curious, keeps him interested, learning and moving forward.
Sometimes the most mundane tasks lead to you learning about something really interesting and useful. For example, early in his career, he was working on a report that showed how many customers gave their phone number to the cashier. It was a pretty boring task. But, while doing it, he learned about The North American Numbering Plan (NANP). He was fascinated by how this organization that manages how the area codes and numbers for 24 North American countries works.
(17.05) – What do you do in your spare time away from technology? Jamie enjoys playing Ultimate Frisbee. He also does a lot of camping, hiking, backpacking, and geocaching with his wife.
(17.24) – Phil asks Jamie to share a final piece of career advice with the audience. Jamie’s advice is to find products or companies that you really believe in to work on and with.
(2.58) JAMIE – “Make sure that you’ve built up that network of folks that you can rely on for their expertise.”
(3.21) JAMIE – “I developed a lot of my network through Twitter.”
(9.51) JAMIE – “The advancements in the compiler technology have given us languages that are safer to use, and also allow us to be more productive.”
(14.55) JAMIE – “Being able to dig into documentation, figure out what’s salient, and be productive quickly, in an unfamiliar environment are skills that have helped my IT career.”
(17.52) JAMIE – “I would always choose the company or the product that I believe in more than maybe a salary or a title.”