Episode 172 – Focus On Work That Makes You Happy with Reuven Lerner
Reuven Lerner is an MIT graduate who started his IT career working as an engineer for Hewlett-Packard. But, he soon realized that web development was his passion.
So, he became one of the first web application engineers Time Inc ever hired. From there, he went on to set up and lead a training company, take his PhD and found his consultancy firm.
He is viewed as a Python expert, and is well-known for being instrumental in setting up the first newspaper on the World Wide Web. As well as providing face to face training, Reuven has created several online programming courses. Reuven is also a prolific IT writer and speaker.
His latest book “Python Workout” is selling well and his online newsletter “Better Developers” already has more than 12,000 subscribers.
(1.10) – Could you tell us maybe a little bit about rent like a champion? I know it’s not directly related to IT. But, it’d be good to know a little bit about it. Reuven explains that a while back he realized that college alumni were returning to their college town a few times a year to watch games. But, they struggled to find accommodation. Usually, this was because the towns were too small to sustain a hotel. So, he set up Rent Like a Champion, to fill that gap. The service he provides links homeowners and small businesses up with people who want to stay for a night or two to enjoy the odd game. It has been a great success.
(2.37) –Phil asks Reuven to tell the audience more about the weekly IT newsletter he produces. Still Better Developers, has been running for about 2/3 years. Every Monday, subscribers are sent a new set of tips and programming practices. As the name suggests the magazine is set up to help developers to continually learn and improve the way they work.
The newsletter covers Python in a lot of detail. But, things like how to grow your developer career and get the most out of working as a freelancer, are also covered. At the time of recording the podcast, that newsletter had 12,000 subscribers.
(3.45) – Can you please share a unique career tip with the I.T. career audience? Reuven’s advice is to focus on one thing. Something he did not do at the start of his career.
His advice is to find that one thing that interests you and get a job doing it. Once you do that you can become a big fish in a small pond and will not spread yourself too thin. From there you can grow and learn new things.
(4.57) – How long would you typically focus on one project? Reuven explains that it varies. You could do it for a few years, and then move on. Or, you could become a super expert and specialize in something like database optimization for 30 to 40 years.
Reuven prefers to switch every 3 or 4 years. He started his career in web development but has also worked in general development, training and consulting. Every couple of years he asks himself what makes him happiest and focuses on learning more about and working in that area.
He believes in the evolution approach to career growth rather than the revolution approach that so many people take. Initially, Reuven focused on Python, switched to Ruby and a few other languages. But, now that Python is so ridiculously popular again, he has switched his focus back to Python.
(6.36) – Can you tell us about your worst career moment? And what you learned from that experience. A long time ago, Reuven received a call from someone who had a problem with his Linux server. His network administrator had disappeared on him. So, Reuven agreed to help him. He finished up his day then pulled an all-nighter to sort this guy’s servers out. It was tough, but Reuven felt great when he finally got it all working again.
The problem was that when he tried to bill the guy he got ignored. He persevered until eventually; the guy came back to him. Unfortunately, it was in the form of a fax telling Reuven he was not going to be paid. Worse than that, the guy said he was going to sue him for ruining his servers. At that point, Reuven realized that he had been conned. That negative experience taught Reuven to always check a customer out before agreeing to work for them.
(9.12) – What was your best career moment? Reuven worked at MIT as an undergraduate. At the time, he was the editor in chief of the student newspaper. One of his fellow students came to him and told him about the work Tim Berners-Lee was doing on something new called the Worldwide Web.
The moment Reuven saw it he was intrigued and wanted to get involved. So, he and a bunch of other students set to work learning HTML and creating a website. When they were done they emailed Tim Berners-Lee and he added their site to his list of 100 websites. This meant that their newspaper was the first one to go live on the World Wide Web.
Naturally, there were lots of teething problems. Nobody had done it before, so there was no manual. But, it felt great to be part of creating the basic infrastructure that millions use today.
(11.25) – Can you tell us what excites you about the future of the IT industry and careers? Reuven loves the way working in IT ticks all of the boxes. You get paid well, do exciting things and are forced to learn and grow.
He is very excited by the rate at which the industry is growing. Anything is possible. Machine learning, in particular, is drastically changing the way we work. The future for those working in the industry has never been brighter. IT is becoming more accessible every day, opening up the chance for everyone to get involved.
This change is making the whole IT field much more accessible. You can very quickly get a well-paid and secure job. People are desperate to hire someone that can help them to analyze their data effectively.
(14.20) – What drew you to a career in IT? Even as a kid Reuven loved computers. He enjoyed exploring and seeing what he could do. It was the fact he could have fun and still get paid that initially drew him to a career in IT.
(15.22) – What is the best career advice you have ever received? At one point Reuven switched from providing training on his own to finding work through a training company. They were very good at marketing him, but, his wife advised him to leave them and switch back to working independently. He was not sure about doing that, but, he decided to give it a go. It turned out to be very good advice. From that point on, everything about his career improved.
(16.14) – Conversely, what is the worst career advice you’ve ever received? A lawyer he knew once told Reuven to always say yes to his customers, regardless of what they ask for.
For years, Reuven followed that advised. He learned new languages and platforms to deliver what the customer had asked for. Working like that forced him to learn new skills, which was a good thing. But there was a problem, a big one. With these new languages, he was barely scratching the surface. He was learning enough to get a specific job done, but, not much else.
In the end, Reuven realized this was a bad way of working. He then re-focused and switched back to becoming an expert in one area. Reuven did not want to be a jack of all trades, master of none.
(17.16) – If you were to begin your IT career again, right now, what would you do? Reuven said that, at the early stage of his career, he would work mainly for startups. This forces you to learn. Provided you switch firms every 3 to 5 years, you stay fresh and engaged in what you are doing. It also builds up your ability to handle change and unpredictability well.
(18.21) – What career objectives are you currently focusing on? Even though Reuven’s training booked up for the next 6 to 9 months he is still looking to expand that side of his business. He is moving into the US and Europe to do that.
Reuven also has several online courses, which is currently learning to market better. Right now, he is in the process of getting everything translated into Chinese, so he can start selling his courses there.
(19.50) – What is the number one non-technical skill that has helped you the most in your IT career? Reuven feels that his communication skills are the ones that he has used most to move his career forward. Over the years, he has learned to communicate well in all mediums. He writes, speaks publically, makes videos and stands up in the classroom to teach. Every time, he does any one of those things he is using and honing his communication skills.
He is so grateful to his college professors who forced all of their students to learn the skill of writing. They were right when they said, “what you do isn’t worth anything if you can’t communicate effectively with other people.” A lot of other students resisted being taught how to write well, Reuven knuckled down and did as he was asked. Those skills have stood him in good stead.
Reuven also talks about how learning to touch type has helped him.
(20.48) – What do you do to keep your own IT career energized? Reuven finds keeping up with new stuff helps to keep him interested and energized. But, it is his students that provide the biggest push. Occasionally, one of them will ask him a question he does not know the answer to. It forces him to keep learning and to see things from a fresh perspective.
(21.48) – What do you do in your spare time away from technology? Reuven’s family is, by far, the most important thing in his life.
He has also enjoyed learning Chinese. After four and a half years, it feels fantastic to be able to jabber away in a different language. Although he jokes that his Chinese grammar, accent, and vocabulary are terrible.
Reuven also loves to cook and travel. He is an avid reader too and enjoys crossword puzzles.
(22.49) – Phil asks Reuven to share a final piece of career advice with the audience. People in the IT industry have an amazing opportunity. You can choose your own path, do something you enjoy and get well paid for it. So, you need to take advantage of it. Also, don’t stand still, stay engaged and take the opportunity to learn more.
(4.50) REUVEN – “Become a big fish in a small pond, rather than spreading yourself too thin.”
(5.30) REUVEN – “Every few years, I ask, what part of what I’m doing is making me happiest and has the greatest potential for the future”
(12.20) REUVEN – “IT careers have never been brighter and never more accessible, than right now.”
(20.48) REUVEN – “What you do isn’t worth anything if you can’t communicate effectively with other people.”
(21.21) REUVEN – “A good question is one where the student does not know the answer. An excellent question is one where the teacher does not know the answer. ”