Season 3, Episode 6 - "Where do deep subject matter experts go from here?" with James Stanger, Chief Technology Evangelist, CompTIA
Andrew: Hey, it's Andrew, and welcome back to season three of Network Disrupted, where I, along with some very smart guests, help fellow technology leaders trade notes on navigating disruption in our space. This season, I've set a goal of exploring the issue of enterprise Cloud adoption from as many angles as I can. Today, I'm joined by James Stanger, chief technology evangelist at CompTIA, who works to represent the interests of IT professionals around the world, as well as provide education and certification programs. In this episode, we'll talk about the work James does with CompTIA and focus on the path and opportunities unfolding ahead of people who happen to be deep technical experts in perhaps a more traditional domain like networking. His perspective and advice is useful for both the individuals who may find themselves in this position, but also for the people who lead them and are grappling with the shift in skills needed in their own organizations. There's a fair amount of hope in our discussion, so I'm excited for you to listen. With that, let's get into it. And if you do have a moment, please leave me a review on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to these. The feedback is always so helpful, and you'll be helping more people like you discover the show.
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Andrew: James, welcome. Thank you for joining us on Network Disrupted. Why don't you give a quick background of who you are and what you do?
James Stanger: Sure. James Stanger. I work for CompTIA. I'm the chief technology evangelist there. And the whole idea about being a chief technology evangelist is to reach out to people who are looking to get into IT, but also to help existing IT professionals upscale themselves. I work worldwide, these days, a whole lot online, meeting with IT hiring managers. I work with IT professionals and also students. And so I'll create videos, for example, in helping people up skill themselves about whatever skill you can think of. Also do a lot of work in helping create education programs. Just last week, I was talking to a bunch of California instructors, for example, for a week, up skilling them, talking to them about cybersecurity. So just an idea of what I do.
Andrew: Sounds like a plethora of different things.
James Stanger: Yeah, it's quite a few things. I had a background in education over the years, but mostly in technology and networking. And so I kind of married the education side of it to the tech side of it. So I always like to take a practical approach to stuff.
Andrew: Right. And CompTIA is an interesting organization. I mean, you are a nonprofit. The board represents a lot of industry.
James Stanger: That's right.
Andrew: And so what's the sort of core mission of CompTIA?
James Stanger: Good question. As a trade industry association, we are basically the world's largest trade industry association associated with technology. And so the idea is that we represent the tech industry. And we have individual members. We also have corporate members. Some of those corporations are very large. Rico for example, or organizations as large as Dell, et cetera. We also represent a lot of smaller companies, companies that would be just down the street from you, for example. And they could be people with 12 employees, 25 employees, 100 employees. And so we represent their interests. And when CompTIA started years ago, we basically, as representatives of the industry, they basically said," Look." All these corporations got together and said," Look, there are times when we need to speak as one voice." And that's what we did. And many years ago, over 30 years ago, really, a lot of these companies sat down and said," We keep duplicating effort between each of our companies. If only there was one standard that we could say,'Here's what help desk means or what tech support means and all that.'" And so we created that one standard. And we've been doing that with cybersecurity now with networking over the years, and we have well over two million people certified. So we do a lot of education. That's one of the things that CompTIA does. We also do a lot of research, and we listen very carefully to what's going on to these companies and with these companies. And we distill that research. So we have, for example, our IT outlook 2021. Our cybersecurity outlooks have come out every year. We do things on the Cloud, internet of things, you name it. We also do a lot of philanthropic work through our Creating IT Futures. And we have a presence worldwide. We have offices in London, in India, Japan, elsewhere. So it's a truly worldwide organization, fantastic place to be working for, because as a nonprofit, we do a lot of work basically to up skill people not necessarily in one particular vendor stack or vendor way of doing things, but how the industry works. So it's a ton of fun to be involved in.
Andrew: Right. In all of the research you're doing, is that, these days, very focused also on evangelizing IT, getting people excited about careers in IT, bringing people into the fold?
James Stanger: That's right. For example, a lot of the research that we've done has led us to really emphasize the idea of a career pathway, and not just necessarily in cybersecurity or not necessarily just in help desk, but what does it mean as a cyber... sorry, as an IT professional to get the latest and greatest skills, and to identify areas where you might be a bit weak and how to strengthen those things up. So it's an interesting place to be, because things have changed so much. We've been talking about the Cloud for a long, long time, but it's only been the last five years, I would say, that true implementation, for example, has been happening. So it's been neat to see people making changes there. You can call it transformation, call it what you want, but it's interesting to see people actually adopting these things.
Andrew: No, for sure. And we see it in customer base all the time. I guess the difference from my perspective is, normally you have younger, forget age, younger in terms of experience employees working with potential mentors and others that have been doing, I don't know, core networking for 20 years. So now there's what you've learned, and you're marrying it with working with people in your job that are teaching you and mentoring you. And in the world of Cloud, and in many cases in the world of cybersecurity as well, some of these skill sets are so new or still so changing, there's not necessarily those people with the wisdom to act as mentor.
James Stanger: That's a good way to put it.
James Stanger: Yeah. When I was first starting out, getting into the whole, really in depth into the networking side of things, there were a couple of operators, that's what they called them back then, that kind of took me under their wing. And one of them, she, was just really good. I would go and ask the silliest questions. And she was fun because she'd just go," Wow, I don't know if that's a dumb question or a really smart one. I'm trying to figure that out." But to your point about having a mentor, it's really, really important. And what I like to think about of our training programs at CompTIA, you can call them education standards, training programs, whatever you want, certifications, those objectives that are for Cloud +, for example. James just didn't come up with them, or not one mentor came up with them, if you know what I'm trying to say.
James Stanger: Those objectives were created through a really cool process that we've largely led in the industry. And it captures the wisdom of literally thousands of working IT pros. So to your point about mentoring, I like to see those objectives as kind of this scalable mentor.
Andrew: My education background is in science, and so I approach everything as a learner from experimentation, which is sort of critical to the way I look at things. And I think that's part of what's so powerful with the Cloud and where it reduces barriers to entry in an amazing way, which is great, but it also reduces barriers, I think, to learning because you can experiment with things that, in some cases, just with almost free accounts, you have to be careful. There's plenty of cases where people-
James Stanger: You have to be careful with that, but I see what you're saying.
Andrew: ...they thought they were experimenting, then got the$9, 000 bill or whatever. But by and large, the technology that you want to experiment with can be at your fingertips.
James Stanger: Very much so. And because it used to be, for example, if you wanted to work on a Unix system back in the day, you'd have to find somebody who could literally get you access to that mainframe or whatever. crosstalk-
Andrew: Yeah. Yeah, or come up with 75 grand to buy some little work station or something.
James Stanger: Yeah.
Andrew: Yeah. Those days are gone.
James Stanger: Yeah, with the democratization of what we're seeing of IT. It's just really cool to see, well now you have a... I'll call it a Unix system, but a Linux system that's running on your watch, or it's running on that Raspberry Pi, which is relatively... Even people who have very little means, it is easier for them to get free resources. Easier. I'm not saying simple, but it's more available if people prioritize, and that's something that's been really interesting for me to see.
Andrew: Out of curiosity, do the public Cloud providers provide any student accounts, or donate, basically, time on their mainframes to CompTIA?
James Stanger: We haven't done that sort of thing in depth. Creating IT Futures has done a few things along those lines, working with a lot of donations and things. That's been really neat to see. When I say in depth, in other words, with our CompTIA learning side of things, we have labs and things that we set up or whatever. Creating IT Futures has had interesting relationships with people to get those kinds of free resources, donating, things like that.
Andrew: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, because it benefits them to have people trained on their systems as well.
James Stanger: That's right. Yeah, I've noticed, for example, I've used Microsoft... I've used Azure before as a platform, and I was very careful, and I haven't yet gotten that huge bill, but every time I set up a resource, I put billing behind it just to make sure. But it's interesting, though. A lot of those free resources... Now, that assumes you have internet bandwidth.
Andrew: Yeah, for sure.
James Stanger: And there's a cost there. Right?
Andrew: For sure.
James Stanger: And there are a lot of people out in the world who do not have the money even get that going.
Andrew: Yeah. For sure. And right in the US as well. I mean, it's not a-
James Stanger: Right. Everywhere.
Andrew: Yeah, everywhere.
James Stanger: And so with Creating IT Futures and other, we've had programs that have helped people even with that. So you have to be very careful with that saying," Well, democratization of IT, everybody has it." It's like, well, there are still a lot of haves and have nots. Lot of have nots.
Andrew: Yeah, no, absolutely. So are you dealing with lots of learners these days that are experts in one skill set that are being pushed in their workplace to learn other skill sets?
James Stanger: Very much so. For example, as people need to know cybersecurity, for example, more, we're seeing a lot of programmers taking... I'll talk about in terms of products, Security +. Developers generally are folks who have generally... They would say," well, I already know enough about security, so I'm fine." But that hasn't been the case in reality.
Andrew: Right. Clearly.
James Stanger: And so it's interesting to see that you're a programmer that's been around for 30 something years, 20, 15 years or whatever, but from a security perspective, your programming knowledge is here. From one to 10, you're doing great. But your security knowledge, for example, is quite low, or your Cloud knowledge might not be as high as you want. Talking to one developer one time, was having problems developing a certain app. And I said," Well, that's because you're using a Docker, a container, and your container doesn't have the right IP information." And he goes," Well, that's the CIS admins guy." And I'm like," No, no, no. You're full stack. You're supposed to know this stuff." So it is interesting to see people, because it's a human tendency. We have knowledge in this, and then there's something over here we don't have as much knowledge of, and we exaggerate our knowledge in that area. It's very, very common.
Andrew: Certainly one of the things we see is both in the traditional system administrators or network administrators or network engineers being pushed on the development automation side, certainly everybody being pushed on the Cloud or security side. In some cases, the skill sets are... It's not, okay, I'm a good back end developer. Now I need to learn, I don't know, whatever-
James Stanger: Yeah, crosstalk.
Andrew: ...some finance stuff crosstalk full stack, whatever.
James Stanger: Or Cloud. Yeah.
Andrew: Yeah, yeah. But this could be something that I've never written a line of code in my life, or whatever. I've written some shell scripts and inaudible scripts and whatever, but I'm not a developer and now I'm being asked to do this. So I'm curious, is that something you work with some of the corporations you work with on? I mean, are those conversations you have, like," Uh- oh. I've got 300 people in this global team that I need to up skill. How do I approach that?"
James Stanger: No, very much so. For example, in regards to data centers and the Cloud, data centers, automation's a big deal, so we need to talk about things such as using Ansible, for example, to automate things. Or what does it mean to do infrastructure as code or security as code? Because instead of, okay, log into that physical machine sitting in front of it... And I'm not saying everything has moved from server rooms to data centers or from data centers to Cloud or whatever, that everything's through Cloud. Cloud first world, but we're going to be using on- premise and data centers-
Andrew: Of course.
James Stanger: ...for a real long time. There's going to be a combination. But I guess to your question, what we're seeing are a lot of people who are saying," we need more and more people to realize that they have to actually create scripts that start with those funny little curly cues and end with the curly cues, and the syntax has to be right." That's how you launch a server these days, more than logging into a hypervisor directly, or whatever, that you'll actually have to say," Server up time." You have to actually create code to do that. And that's definitely something that server admins are realizing they have to do, for example, to move from that world into a more scalable world.
James Stanger: Yeah, absolutely.
Andrew: Do you get the sense... I mean when I work with, especially people early in their career, I always tell them that this is their responsibility. I mean, they shouldn't always be looking at their employer as the guider of a career path or ensure they're getting the right education, or whatever the case. They need to take responsibility for their career, and they should always be seeking out new skill sets. I mean, there's a lot to be said for the AS400 programmers still out there. There's the law of supply and demand. Some of them are doing quite fine, but in general-
James Stanger: Or, yeah, young people who are having to learn Cobol, for example.
Andrew: Yeah, exactly.
James Stanger: But anyway, but yeah.
Andrew: Yeah. But in general, you need to keep learning. And so is most of your reach... I guess the answer is going to be somewhere in the middle, but is most of your reach of through your corporate arms and working with employers, or directly to learners?
James Stanger: Yeah. I hate to say somewhere in the middle, but half my day will be spent helping people come up with corporate learning plans, or basically finding ways to bring that pathway into a corporate learning thing. But more and more, it is a lot of direct to some sort of consumer. You can call that B2C if you want. And that consumer oftentimes, though, is responding to some form of demand, whatever that demand is, from an employer. So sometimes they will source it through an employer, but more and more, there's some sort of demand, and the employer will say," Here's X amount of money. Don't spend it all in one place." And then they will come to us individually. I've seen that through the government. I've seen that through the... Another skill that's interesting... I'm good at answering the last question.
James Stanger: But one of the things that's interesting is a lot of IT people, more and more, need to learn more about how data works and what it means to turn data into information. I think that's another skill that's coming up, not just moving to the Cloud or security or use of automation and artificial intelligence, but what does it mean to become somebody who really can say," Well, look, if you give me a data set, I could probably find a valid trend or two." That's increasingly becoming the purview of people who are information technology. You know?
Andrew: No, for sure. Yeah. The information's coming back into information technology, or at least doing something with it in general. I used to say this about knowing a second language. Whatever you do in life, if you're bilingual, you'll actually have more interesting opportunities than if you only know one language. And I look at life the same way in terms of software development. Now, I don't care if you're in finance or HR or in core development or IT, or wherever you are. If you can write some software, you'll have more opportunities and be able to excel more in your job. I mean, it's just sort of... And part of that, certainly, is being able to manipulate data to try to draw out conclusions.
James Stanger: You bet. And there are a lot of common threads there. You could end up using Python or whatever language to do that. And to some people, well, they'd say," Well, Python and data? I thought Python was something you used in security tools, for example, if you're using Scapy to do pen testing and IP address manipulation or whatever."
Andrew: For sure.
James Stanger: Well, no. You can use Python all the way across the board. It just depends on how you use it. I'm just using Python as an example.
Andrew: No, for sure. Yeah.
James Stanger: Understanding JSON, XML, those aren't just front end developer, back end developer things anymore. That's how you manage so many different things.
Andrew: No, for sure. What about, is there any catering, or have you had interesting conversations around software developers? You talked about cybersecurity, but what about core networking skills, which is... Just to bring it home to my employer, BlueCat, I mean, we hire great software developers. Many of them have had no experience in networking, and so now we've invested heavily in learning and development to try to up skill and create learning paths for employees who want to understand the networking side of it as well-
James Stanger: That's terrific.
Andrew: ...which is very foreign. If you haven't been in the network, you haven't operated the network, you haven't worked on network software, then you get what DNS is or generally how routing works, but really barely scratch the surface of what's going on.
James Stanger: It's interesting. I remember first time I had that kind of conversation, because the developer's like," Look, I know what a socket is. You map a port to an IP address, or you can address that as a programmer." And so it was fun to build that into understanding, what does it mean to create a more robust app so that things don't time out improperly, or when they do, they can fail gracefully, all that from a network perspective. So yeah, people understanding they'd have to learn a bit about subnetting. It's more than just, well, yeah, there's this thing called an IP address.
Andrew: No, for sure.
James Stanger: And they'd have to understand the implications of developing for IPv4 or 6, especially these days.
Andrew: Yeah. Yeah, we see it a lot with Cloud development as well in our customer base, because you're making decisions of about networking when you deploy these things, just part of continuous integration, continuous deployment. You're deploying infrastructure, infrastructure as code, and decisions are made that might be not well thought out or naive that could have pretty severe ramifications going forward, whether from a security side or a performance side or whatever the case might be.
James Stanger: Well, it's funny, because for the longest time, developers and programmers were put somewhere in the basement or where they belong, right?
James Stanger: And then that basement was divided between the developers, and they never spoke. It's like, well, that's right brain, left brain, or something. They just never talked to each other. And it's interesting to see two things happen. One, they're being brought... That old school idea of putting them... It's like the Thanksgiving table, the extra table that's down in the basement somewhere. No, now they're being brought to be the creative folks in the mix. But in addition with that, the developers and the IT folks, I'll call them that right, the server administrators or whatever, are now working very closely together. So it's interesting to see that kind of dual crosstalk.
Andrew: Yeah, no. Forever, it's always the old adage, like good fences make good neighbors.
James Stanger: Exactly. Yeah.
Andrew: You want to segment these different skill sets and groups because that's going to make the most reliable system. You've got the right people working on the different pieces, and everybody's marching to some drummer, which is some architecture diagram or whatever, requirements document or something. And yeah, that is glaringly difficult to do with modern software today, and I think creates a very inefficient process if you're going to divide into these hard line skill sets with these literal fences. Fences might be floors of a building or quadranted off like inaudible or something like that. But-
James Stanger: Or organizationally or crosstalk-
Andrew: Yeah, organizationally. You got it. You got it. You've created a fence, and there's a defined mechanism to communicate over the fence that really limits bleed over knowledge. It limits collaboration heavily, which causes all sorts of problems. And I think things just move way too fast to do that anymore. And it goes back to what you said before about some of the soft skills. I don't know how anybody teaches things like soft skills beyond early in my career, I was sent to charm school. This is back when I was 24, something like that. I was a manager at General Instrument. It was just acquired by Motorola. And I remember my boss at the time, a wonderful person, great mentor of mine, and she said," You've done everything I've asked you to do, but if you ever look behind you, there's like 20 dead people." And so she sent me to the University of Michigan to go to a two week introduction to management bootcamp or-
James Stanger: That's cool.
Andrew: ...what I called charm school. And I remember sitting through there, going, okay, here's what I've learned. I'm going to try to avoid managing people, because I can't. And trust me, there's no dead people behind me anymore, but the point is, I can learn anything. The soft skill stuff, though, it was a wonderful program I went to. Nothing against that program, but with all the role playing in the world, I think it's just one of these experiential... You need to be aware that you're not good at it and strategies around it, recognize your behavior here and there, but you're not going to go, ah, what did it say in chapter five, page three-
James Stanger: No, probably not. Yeah.
Andrew: ...when conflict arises, I should do. I think it's experiential learning, right?
James Stanger: It is. And I think with the charm school aspect of it, for example, I think what it does is it brings in, in you, certain feedback mechanisms, or activates feedback mechanisms in you that allow you to be more receptive, for example. You know what I mean? And project based learning will do that.
Andrew: Yeah, yeah. No, 100%. No, it's powerful to have somebody tell you," You're really bad at this and you need help. You need to learn and to be surprised." I mean, I didn't think I was great at it. I didn't think it was a big problem. I just assumed we were all adults and the fastest way to point A and B is direct, and therefore, say what's on your mind. But anyway, regardless, regardless of me, no, that's fantastic.
James Stanger: That's great.
Andrew: So I would assume during this horrible pandemic and this time, have you gotten the sense that a lot of people have spent some of this time, and time where they've saved time on commuting and they've potentially had other options for learning, has there been an increase in your engagement during this time?
James Stanger: Yeah. People are definitely interested in finding ways to spend their time productively. They're also noticing, I think for the first time, how certain things are shifting, and it's not just unprecedented time stuff. That's a phrase I never need to hear ever again.
James Stanger: But they are looking to realize that technology has been shifting for some time. And so you kind of think that your curve is here, as it were, or where you need to be is here. Then you realize, oops. The feedback is telling me I need to be shifting over. And it's been interesting to see how people are realizing that. And we are seeing people pick up and realizing where technology is, what it can really do, and then how exactly they fit into it. And that's very transformational in people's minds.
Andrew: Yeah. No, good. So any tips for leaders regarding instilling important skills, driving a learning culture?
James Stanger: You bet.
Andrew: What can leaders do better?
James Stanger: One of the things that I think leaders can do better is outlining learning as not an artificial thing or a thing that's necessary. Okay, stop work. Now it's time to learn, or maybe we should start thinking about learning. So make it part of the work day experience. The second thing... And that's more easily done now with good online learning possibilities and good mentoring, ways of learning. Another thing I think is really important is outlining different pathways. And to some people, a pathway is like, well, there's the linear pathway. You have to go down that pathway. And what's really cool about IT is, there are lots of forks in the road. I can't help but think of... What's his name? Was it Yogi Berra?" When you come to a fork in the road, take it." Right?
James Stanger: Supposedly he said that.
Andrew: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
James Stanger: But my point is that the pathways, it's almost infinite, and you have to find what works for you and the company. And so I think to look to people who are managers, to people who are in a position to teach learning, finding ways to present learning pathways that are relevant to the company and relevant to the person, and that just engages... To me, that starts with dialogue with people. And engage that in various forms of dialogue to get people thinking about what learning can do, what they can do with learning. That can be very productive for a company.
Andrew: That's sage advice. Well, thank you very much, James. Any final thoughts?
James Stanger: Yeah. No, it was great. I just thank you so much for your time and bringing me in to represent CompTIA and to talk more about what people need to do on their own perspective. I think you had a great point about take control of your own learning. And part of that is not to shut down possibilities. To take control of your learning and think about that is actually to start saying," How can I reach out to people," whether it be from family to your workspace or whatever, to actually bring in better learning opportunities for yourself. I think that's just really, really good advice.
Andrew: It was learned. It was learned advice from mentors of mine. But regardless, no, super, I think your organization has a fantastic mission, and I think more critical than ever. So thank you for your time.
This episode of Network Disrupted is with James Stanger, Chief Technology Evangelist at CompTIA. He works with students, newcomers, and existing IT professionals worldwide to help set them up for a long-term career in IT. James will also help other instructors create IT education programs.
Today the discussion is around the next pathway and opportunities for those deep subject matter experts on traditional domains. You'll find that James' advice and insights are beneficial to not only those experts but those that lead them as he shares advice on how leaders should begin thinking about learning possibilities and pathways.
Let me know what you thought of today’s discussion! You can tweet me at @netwkdisrupted + @awertkin, leave a review on Spotify or Apple Podcasts, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.