In Act I, I talked about how I got my foot in the door of tech (read: I lied). That works fine when nobody knows you and you need to break into a new industry with zero credibility – what do you have to lose? Once inside though, you need more than that to keep moving. Learning fast & taking risks is part of it – also learning what tools you have at your disposal, and using them all.
Starting at Netcom
So I was offered a job and agreed to join. They gave 2 weeks of training and I took it with two others – Brian and Chen. Chen was there as an experienced tech who was sitting in to help answer questions & give feedback on the training process. I carpooled with Chen for a while and he would be a great source of help for my first while there. Brian also had quite a bit of experience with unix and had been using a shell account for a while – he was a real help in getting up to speed on the unix side of things. The training was actually pretty good, assumed you knew nothing, and did a good job of getting you on your feet in a few weeks. There are still things I learned during that training that I see folks struggling with today – it was a great experience.
Chen got me setup with all the stuff I needed, got my computer tweaked as necessary, and introduced me to some of the others on the call center floor. I had gone from odd jobs to life in a big corporation overnight and it took a bit of getting used to. My first day on the job I came in with my torn jeans, my long hair, and my “Monsters of Rock” metal T-shirt with a flannel over the top. Sitting in the orientation the HR guy is telling us about how phone support is a bit more relaxed, he looks at me and says “You’ll fit in perfectly”. I felt good, till I realized the subtle dig. The beginnings of my dislike for large corporations started that first day – though I don’t come to work in torn jeans on the first day anymore.
The other thing that same HR guy told me would stick with me forever. I came up to turn in some paperwork – he was the gatekeeper to HR, sitting at a big round front desk clearly designed to allow 15 people to all do paperwork simultaneously around its large counter space. He shifted papers around, grabbed the phone, shifted more papers – it took him a few minutes just to look up. I just needed to give him some papers. He took my papers, looked back down at his pile and said “Never get too good at what you do, you’ll never do anything else”. I don’t completely believe this statement – but it embodies a risk for all of us. Never get too comfortable in your expertise. You will probably get very good at something, and when you do – try to move on to something else. Don’t get too comfortable with your knowledge in your present role, and you will always be learning. You will also be less afraid of changing your role to do something new that you are less experienced at.
Learning the ropes
Once I started taking calls it was time to learn. I can learn from books, but unless I apply the knowledge it doesn’t stick. I have to store it and query it again a few times before my brain decides it’s important enough to displace something else (and rest assured, other things do get displaced). I quickly got good at using altavista (no google yet) and at leveraging our IRC channel for help. I also tried to help others as much as I possibly could. Initially this was just because I was curious about the answer myself, but it grew into a realization that by helping others I help myself, I learn more, get exposed to more problems, and build a network of people who will help me. This ethic has helped me tremendously over the years.
While helping others comes easily to me, asking for help didn’t come very easy initially. One vivid memory for me is of one of my first calls in support. I got a call from a guy who effectively could not resolve DNS once connected. He would connect but couldn’t get to any sites – DNS errors. In dialup support there wasn’t a very strong understanding of cause and effect in computers and networking – much of what we did was voodoo. We were, after all, dealing with Windows 95 mostly. This poor soul sat patiently on the phone with me for 2.5 hours while I tried every useless trick in my exceptionally limited arsenal to fix his problem. I was supposed to be the expert & at the end I couldn’t fix his problem. I finally had to tell him I’m sorry, I can’t fix this. After talking to a few others about it I realized there was a lot more I could have done had I asked for help, had I asked for other ideas. We had a 2nd and 3rd tier of support that I could have leveraged. I had a large group of techs I could have asked to help. I decided that I would not do this to another customer – ever.
Thus began my journey into the value of resourcefulness. I have seen a lot of technical people over the years falter simply because they wouldn’t go looking for help – because they wouldn’t just use Google, or ask a teammate, or send an email to a mailing list. The best techs I have worked with can out-troubleshoot others in areas they know very little about, simply because they are resourceful.
Question the norm & don’t make assumptions
Another educational experience for me was a person who called with a problem: Their browser “didn’t do anything”. When I got the call I went through the normal stuff, check network settings, have him try to disconnect and reconnect, it all seemed to be fine. Indeed, he told me it would connect just fine, but when he would type a URL into the browser it “wouldn’t do anything”. I began to try to get more specific about that – what happens? Do you get an error? No error. Do any of the buttons change? Nope. Have you re-installed the browser? Have you re-installed your OS? Have you thrown it against the wall yet? Can I do that for you? Then came my tiny fingerhold: “Well, I do see the text at the bottom of the screen changing, but I can’t really see what it says”. You can’t read it? Well, it’s only part of a word. It says “Loa…”.
What’s going through my head now is, what’s wrong with this guys browser window? It sounds like he’s seeing part of the word and it sounds like the browser is actually doing what it’s supposed to do, but he never sees the page. I asked what buttons he has at the top of the window: “I have back and part of forward”. Wait, that’s it? Yeah, just those two. How big is your browser window sir? Oh, it’s about 4” x 3” – (without me saying a word) “Oh! Do I have to make it bigger?”. I was a hero, I taught the man how to resize his browser window – after 45 minutes of troubleshooting. You guys who have Webex today have no idea…
Lessons learned: Make no assumptions about what you are working with. Ask open ended questions and listen to the response, think about why they are responding the way they are. Also, sometimes you have to just back up and take another approach. You can get so deep into a problem that you don’t see the whole field (going down a rabbit hole) and often it helps to back up and look at the situation from the top, with the understanding you now have.