Operation Bootstrap

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Becoming a Pirate, Act III: It's Not What You Know...

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In Act I & Act II I talked about the process of being hired and getting started at Netcom. On the TV show Survivor, this is getting on the island & figuring out how you are going to make it through the first night. To make it longer though, you need friends. In my career, I would not have gone anywhere had it not been for the relationships I have with others. Indeed, Netcom was no different and this was one of my first realizations of that.

Taking the next step – NCS (Network Customer Support)

It was clear after a period of time at Netcom that burnout was a huge problem in dialup support. It was a thankless job with the only real benefit being an endless stream of funny tales of users with problems that stemmed more from communication challenges than from actual technical issues. I became better at talking to people on the phone, explaining things, etc. I began to be recognized as a fast learner. I also realized that smart folks were moving on to bigger and better things. Some of my friends had become team leads, and some had moved to higher technical positions in support.

Along the way I made some key friendships with others in the group who were in that same boat. Folks with technical aptitudes who wanted to be around others who wanted to learn. We all started installing Linux on spare systems in the office, we started learning about some of the more advanced concepts of networking & unix. This would end up going down a pretty dark path – from which I would learn about the dark side of corporate politics – but it was a very formative experience and my experience working with Linux gave me an advantage over many of the others in the group – even if my experience was very minimal.

About this same time, the NCS (Network Customer Support) group was moving into our floor. These guys were the ones who really knew what they were doing – our heroes. NCS was responsible for supporting Netcom’s dedicated customers, the ones with T1, ISDN and dialup connections which were always on – typically for business purposes. They worked on Sun workstations and had access to all of Netcom’s network infrastructure. We started getting introduced to the folks in this growing group. One of the people I was introduced to was Rob, a lead in the NCS group.

Rob had been a carpenter in a previous life but had come into tech in the last few years and was a fast learner & he understood the value of relationships – he also understood a thing or two about politics. I initially was introduced to him through my friend Joe. Rob and Joe had met on IRC – something common at Netcom – and were now hanging out quite a lot. Rob was a friendly guy who would size everyone up quickly. If he didn’t like you, he would be cordial and friendly, but he wouldn’t put his reputation on the line for you in the least. If he did like you, he would do whatever he could to help. By this time I had been in dialup support about 6 months and I had a core group of friends who were all considered to be pretty highly technical for that group. Since NCS had moved in, we all had some interest in moving to the NCS group – mostly because those guys got to work on Sun boxes all day, and were working with business customers troubleshooting T1, ISDN and dialup customers who were “dedicated”, meaning they paid more for a static IP & better support. It also meant they weren’t your typical dialup user, most of them knew what they were doing.

Detour: Corporate BS

It was about this time that Joe left Netcom. He didn’t leave by choice though – he left in the middle of a graveyard shift. I had carpooled with him that day when out of nowhere he came by very upset and said he had to leave and couldn’t explain. He was put in a Netcom van, driven to the nearest BART station by the Netcom security team, bought a ticket, and told to go home for good. Welcome to the wonderful world of corporate politics and power trips.

While we had all gotten into installing Linux, Joe had built his own server system & had it in the office so he could leverage the fast Netcom Internet access to get it all setup. He gave the box a controversial name (that I cannot presently recall) and had been playing around with it for a month or so. Joe had lots of friends at Netcom but he was also a lead and making his way into management – this made some folks unhappy. The growing trend of Linux systems at peoples desks also made the Netcom security team unhappy. In those days Linux was seen as a threat to corporate networks – a platform people used for nothing other than hacking & serving porn. Why could these tech support teams possibly need a Linux machine on their desks?

Joe was pulled into a room at dark-o-clock in the morning and told that they found “kiddie porn” on his system (which I am quite certain they did not). They wouldn’t prosecute him as long as he left quietly and immediately. He did so, and they escorted him out. They also now had ammunition to remove every non-business related Linux system from the tech support floor. I had changed shifts after that and asked about getting a Linux system at my desk. I was told it wasn’t a good idea, especially with my relationship to Joe & such. Nice.

This move made me really upset, but I knew I couldn’t quit. Principles were one thing, but this tech thing was going to be big, and even Joe was out looking for another tech job so there was no way I was throwing away my one chance to stay with it. I did however decide that I needed to move up and move out. Dialup support was expendable and the managers there would step on each others throats to get ahead – it was time to try to find greener pastures. I found those, for a short time, around the corner in NCS.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

After I showed some interest in moving to the NCS group Rob would come by and see how things were going. Often he would come up and ask me to walk with him while we did a lap around the floor. Rob wasn’t a chit-chat type of guy, usually the discussion was targeted at a topic. A few times he grabbed me just so that I would go hang out in NCS, show my face, get the people over there to know who I was. At the time I was pretty timid, and I didn’t have much to say – these guys knew a lot more than I did and I was pretty intimidated. But what Rob was doing was trying to build my rapport with the team – at least have them recognize me, know my name, as it would all matter.

The time finally came when NCS was going to be hiring some new TSRs so they could fill out the group and give some folks promotions. They would be pulling from dialup support & from our NOC support team in another building. Rob wanted me to put my name in and I agreed, along with a few of my other friends. It was clear that there would be real interviews for this one – and that you had to show them you knew what you were doing. Rob told me to read the O’Reilly book “Getting connected, the Internet at 56k and up” – this was the bible of NCS. It’s a bit of a relic today, but at that time it covered everything from dialup to OC192 and explained things in a very down to earth way. I read the book cover to cover.

When interview time came I was on the list and I interviewed with Rob and a few others. I wouldn’t say they went easy on me, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be. The information I had learned from books and discussions with Rob had all paid off – it was all aligned with what they looked for in the interview. I got the part – I was moving over to the NCS. I couldn’t have been happier, save one smudge on the entire experience – the politics around who did not get the part.

Another friend of mine who was arguably more technical than me did not move. I suspected this would be the case. Before and after the Interview process this friend of mine (who I am still good friends with today – and have so far worked with at 3 different companies) had been talking a lot within both teams. I don’t recall the exact discussions, but the problem was that he had created some friction in the NCS team and Rob and some others had labeled him a “troublemaker”. He had a tendency to stand up for other people he felt needed their voices heard and he had no problem putting his reputation on the line to do that. I had asked a question at one point that associated me with him – I don’t recall if it was working hours, or what. Shortly after I received a very direct email from Rob – I’m paraphrasing but it was something to this effect (and about this short):

Subject: NCS Warning

Body: Be careful about aligning yourself with certain people who are not going to move to NCS. They have a negative reputation and you do not want to be associated with that.

This was very difficult for me. This person was a good friend of mine. I didn’t really do anything to separate myself from him and I’m glad for that – we are still good friends and have helped each other in our careers and in life. What I did learn however is that working your way through an organization is a balancing act. People get left behind and sometimes those people are your friends. It does not mean you cannot be friends, but it is something you need to be very aware of. Standing up for others when they are right is not a bad thing – but understand the consequences of doing that. Over the years I have been challenged this way again and again and as time goes on I choose personal relationships over business opportunity. Invest in people and they will invest in you – business investment offers no such guarantee of return.

Lesson: Invest in people

Important lesson learned from this, relationships trump most everything else. It is indeed not what you know, it is who you know. But also – be careful to stay true to your real friends. You will meet many folks who can help you get ahead at the expense of other relationships, but remember that those who are willing to burn bridges to get ahead will someday burn the bridge you are standing on too. Align yourself with the powerful as well as the powerless, help them both, and do your best not to be an ass.