I want to take a moment to celebrate a significant milestone. This is my 500th column for Lyonsdown Ltd. My first “guest post” on Business Technology posted 19th June 2012. Since then, I’ve maintained a (mostly) regular weekly production goal of a new column every week, interspersed with special editions and breaks to accommodate my editors. I did some quick statistical sampling of my archives and determined that I’ve generated an average of 2,054.9 new words a week. This column brings my approximate total published wordcount to somewhere around 1,027,454 (more or less)
“That’s all well and good,” I can imagine some of you saying. “But why should anyone care about this besides you and your editors” That’s a fair question. I’m bringing this up to establish the context for the two stories that explain how and why we got here.
To understand why, it helps to understand my motivation for putting in the roughly 20,000 hours I’ve devoted to the American View by-line. At my highest rate-of-pay for this part time job, I’ve reaped a life-changing bounty of precisely … zero pounds. That’s right … my pay rate for these columns is (and has always been) naught/word. Also, nada/piece, bupkis/idea, nil/follower, etc. Put more starkly: I do this for free.
I appreciate that such an endeavour can be viewed as shockingly un-American. The idea of investing so much labour over a decade for no renumeration or reward can be considered clinically insane by modern American standards. It’s something that criminals are forced to endure as part of their incarceration, not something that working people with economic value would engage in if they had any other options. I get that. I also respectfully disagree.
To start understanding why I’ve kept delivering snarky edutainment to you folks, week after week, I submit the true story of how I got into the IT field in the first place. When I started university, one of my “financial aid” offerings was a “work-study” job. I was guaranteed an on-campus job that would earn me $40 per week so long as I put in 10 hours’ labour. My first work-study gig involved archiving newspaper articles for the debate team. It was … fine.
All the cool kids in my circle – that is, the kids whose rich parents could afford computers – got work-study gigs in the Computer Science department. They were paid to babysit the university’s computer labs; those were the places most of us who couldn’t afford PCs would go to write our papers. Because there wasn’t much to do in the labs beyond check users’ ID cards and keep beverages away from the expensive electronics, my buds in the Computing Centres got paid to play video games on university equipment! What a gig.
I wanted in on that but I didn’t have the technical chops to apply. I’d taken an “intro to programming” on the Apple IIe in junior high but that didn’t amount to much. I didn’t know how to use DOS or Macintosh gear. Still, I expressed my desire to join the cool kids’ ranks and one of my mates did me a favour. Over winter break our first year, a bunch of students dropped out including several of the “computer consultants.” My mate put in a good word for me with the help desk manager and KABOOM! I got the best Christmas present ever: an invitation to join the tech crew starting in the spring. I was thrilled. Goodbye newspaper clipping, hello getting paid to goof off. WOOT!
That was the idea, anyway. Everything changed one morning in early May. A senior approached me in my “lab manager” cubicle and begged me for assistance. She told me that she couldn’t print her final paper for the last class that the needed to graduate. She was fighting back tears of frustration, as her paper was due in said class in fifteen minutes and there was no time to run across campus to the other Mac lab. The senior was desperate for help, and I was the local tech support boffin … on paper, anyway. Hoo boy.
I didn’t know much about printing, networks, or … honestly, anything that might be contributing to the student’s problem. I’d talked my Comp Sci friends into teaching me how to make a Macintosh boot disk, how to use Microsoft Word, and how to perform basic computer functions. I knew – at best – as much as the average new student did about the godawful expensive wizard-boxes.
I poked at the Apple ImageWriter II that she’d selected, but it just blinked at me like the HAL 9000’s idiot nephew. Feeling the senior’s desperation, I ignored my pride and rang the Help Desk (our escalation point). I explained the senior’s problem, listened patiently to the technician’s instructions, and did what I was told.
I learned that our dot matrix printers shook violently when they printed. Since they were networked with cheap PhoneTalk transceivers that bridged a telephone cable to a Mini-DIN-8 serial connector. These adapters were notorious for not staying connected. So, whenever a printer shook itself like my dog having a seizure, it would vibrate its transceiver loose from its port … thereby breaking its connection to the local network. All this is to say that I leaned over the printer, found the transceiver, re-seated it, and the printer immediately resumed printing.
The senior shouted in joy. She confirmed that her paper was printing as intended. As we watched the fan-fold pages sloooooooooooowly spool out of the printer, she gushed to me “Thank you so much for your help. You’re a computer god!”
My initial reaction was to reply “You just stood there and watched me call the Help Desk. They solved the problem; all I did was perform the ‘meat robot’ steps.”
Instead, I realized what she really meant. She was exaggerating to help vent her accumulated anxiety. She truly was grateful for the help. I smiled at her and urged her to go turn in her paper. I said I’d shut down her computer and secure her disks until she got back.
While I waited for her to come back, I had a long think about what had happened. I knew how frustrating technology was for most people; I despised how helpless I felt when my ignorance prevented me from making a PC do something I knew it could do. That realized that “proficiency” with tech wasn’t measured in degrees, but in knowing just one thing more than the person next to you. That made you an “expert” for a moment, and sometimes that was all it took to make someone’s day.
The second thing I realized – and internalized for all time – was that the only sure-fire way to succeed in tech was to check your ego and ask smarter people for help when you reached the limits of your competence. Most of the other “computer consultants” I worked with wouldn’t do that; their ego-investment in being perceived as an “expert” meant they’d rather fail than admit they didn’t know something. They craved status and respect more than they wanted to help.
Those two flashes of epiphany hit hard. I’d always been fascinated with computers, and I’d never believed that I’d be able to work in a tech field. After that encounter with the stymied senior, I realized I might be able to help people after all … and saving the day felt for someone felt freaking awesome.
Immediately after the senior retrieved her disks I raced downstairs to the campus bookstore and bought a copy of MacUser magazine, took it back to my dorm, and read it cover to cover (ads included). I didn’t know what most of it meant, but the content exposed me to new vocabulary in context which, in turn, gave me new questions to ask my comp sci friends.
It worked out. I got promoted to the Help Desk staff the following year. After I was injured during Army manoeuvrers over the summer, I used my convalescent pay to buy my own computer. When the Army brought me on active duty following graduation, I took that SE/30 with me to Fort Hood and – as one of the few officers in my battalion that owned a computer – got stuck with the additional duty of being the battalion’s tech support guy.
I want to be clear that this isn’t a superhero origin story. I’m not a “cyber engineer” or “console cowboy.” I don’t back-hack foreign agents in the meta-whatsit with my “L33T ninja coding skillz.” That ain’t happening, folks. Instead, I’m a pretty goofy example of how anyone can get into professional IT work if they’re willing to learn.
The second reason I keep publishing material here week after week is a much shorter story … but one that proved to be just as life changing. It took what I was already trying to do and clarified for me how I could do it better, more often, and for a much wider audience.
Some bloke that I’d never heard of – Tommie M. from Lyonsdown’s marketing department – reached out to me on 16th June 2012 and asked if I’d be interested in ‘blogging for them. Tommie was recruiting guest writers and had noticed me through my posts in the LinkedIn’s peer-support forums. Users would post questions about problems they were experiencing or about issues they didn’t understand, and experienced folks would post their advice. It was all unpaid volunteer work, contributing to the larger community. I’d been posting there for months. Something I said had clearly intrigued Tommie. I jumped at the opportunity. Four days later I sent Tommie M., Oksana G., and Sacha G., my first submission.
My first column didn’t exactly burn the world down, but it did get read. Sacha invited me to keep posting … if I wanted to. I did (obviously). I reckoned I could reach a much larger audience on Business Technology’s platform which meant (potentially) helping more people.
Six weeks later I wrote a column arguing that it’s in a leader’s (and an organisation’s) strategic interests to invest heavily in employee professional and technical development. Not only does it improve technical proficiency, but it also improves morale, loyalty, and esprit de corps. That article – “Synergistic Investment” published on 30th July 2012 – struck a chord with some readers. A few of my colleagues asked me to write more on the topic. That feedback kicked off my first series … I wrote seven consecutive columns riffing on the subject, each building on the column that came before it:
|Three Good Reasons to Invest
|Separating the L33T From the Chaff
|Practical Interviewing Techniques (Part 1)
|Practical Interviewing Techniques (Part 2)
|Practical Interviewing Techniques (Part 3)
Additionally, as I started grooving on the idea of a much longer exchanges with my readers, I started introducing jokes into my material. I slowly evolved from dry and formal writing to a more conversational tone. I allowed my usual snarky wit to bleed into the work to make the content more palatable … and more memorable. It worked. The feedback I received at the end of the series was overwhelmingly positive. People said they were more likely to share my columns for the quips. I took note.
That series also started a lot of conversations with my readers on how best to recruit, screen, hire, and manage talent. Eventually, at the urging of my new editor and mate Gareth C.  I took all seven columns from that first experimental series (as well as nine others published over the next year and a half) and compiled them into an expanded and annotated collection in the form of my first book: Why Are You Here?: The Curmudgeon’s Job Interview Handbook exactly two years after column #8 posted.
I’ve rewritten that book four times since it debuted, with the most recent edition (v4.0) hitting the web in August 2020. It’s now called Why Are You Here?: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to IT Interviewing and it’s … well, 10,838 words longer than v1.0 since I can’t leave well enough alone. I regularly leverage user feedback and new lessons to keep the material fresh and useful.
If this seems like a brag (e.g., cocky author is insufferable), let me pull the curtain back on what really happened. I set the sales price on that book at the average price of a pint in a London pub (at the time of writing) on the grounds that if a reader appreciated my interviewing advice, they might buy me a pint. Seemed fair to me. I never intended to make money off the book and the world obliged. At my current rate of sales, I think it’ll take another 1,429 years for me to “break even” on it, even if I adjust the price for inflation every century or so.
But wait … Why sell it for essentially nothing (after Amazon takes its cut)? Because since version one debuted, I’ve talked with three readers who used my advice to get themselves much better jobs and escape an awful boss and/or a dysfunctional office culture. That’s three people that I know for a fact that I helped. That satisfaction is worth far more than a few quid in royalties …
… which I never received, since in two of those three cases I got no royalties at all. Why? Because I bought my own book for them. They didn’t pay me a danged thing! Okay, to be fair, one person did take me out to dinner after they started their new gig. That was awesome. My point, though, is that all the time I’ve invested in crafting a weekly column here nearly every week for coming up on ten years has never been about gaining money or fame. It’s always been about helping people.
I believe strongly that the ultimate measure of a person’s brief existence on earth is judged by what they did to help others. All we really have in life is each other. Life is tough enough; we all need help. A long time ago, a friend of a friend who worked in our university’s Comp Sci department put in a good work for me with the Help Desk boss and got me a better work study job that I couldn’t get on my own. Not long after, a short-term Help Desk manager that I didn’t know and who owed me nothing taught me how to fix disconnected dot matrix printers just in time to ensure that a fellow student that I’d also never met could graduate on time. Bottom line: we’re all in this together. Strangers helping strangers cope with the insanity that is life in the Dilbert Age.
So, yeah. That’s why I keep writing the American View for free. It’s also why I keep making jokes about my own and others’ ridiculous experiences. It’s worth it. As I told the audience when I opened my preso at the 2014 European InfoSec Summit, the most common response to an embarrassing failure is to grit one’s teeth and pray that no one brings it up. That classic “stiff upper lip” ego-preservation tactic is … okay, I suppose … for minimizing mortification, but it’s dangerously counterproductive for preventing such a failure in the future. That’s where our culture in Texas gives us a strong competitive advantage. When we do something stupid, we don’t try to slink away and pretend it never happened. Instead, we yell “Woo-hoo! Did you see that? That was dumb!” That unselfconscious willingness to share embarrassing stories helps us share lessons-learned, both good and bad … and I’ve got a ton of stupid stories to share.
I’m indebted to the wonderful folks at Lyonsdown for allowing me to keep filling the American View by-line with my out-of-left-field Texan nonsense for the last ten years. Today’s makes 500 columns. I plan to keep at this until I either run out of ideas or I lose my ability to type. There are still a bunch of important ideas that deserve to be discussed and ridiculous stories that I can leverage to get those ideas in front of people. Hopefully some wisecrack that I share will help someone I’ve never met dodge a problem or seize an opportunity. That makes it all worth it.
Thanks for reading. I wish you all the success in the world and maybe a laugh or two along the way. If I’ve ever said anything that helped you in any way, I ask you to pass that story along to someone else that might need it.
Hopefully I’ll see y’all here again next week. Cheers, amigos.
 Currently doing some stellar journalism over at The Register.