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What are the core basics?
How does someone move from "beginner" to "professional"

 2:48 am on Jul 27, 2002 (gmt 0)

Here's an article that I just wrote which I feel might be of value to people on this board. So please read and enjoy!

What are the core basics that someone who wants to move beyond "beginner" needs?

Well, that's an interesting question that I actually get asked quite a bit. You see, I have been "in the business" for 25 years. I started as a programmer on the old 16-bit PDP-11 computers (when 128KB of memory cost $10,000 and fit in a refrigerator box, and a 10mb disk was HUGE) back in the late '70s. I moved up to "operating systems guru" on the "new" 32-bit operating system called VMS. I was actually quite good, and could program assembly language faster than virtually everyone could code BASIC (someone dared me to prove this once so we took out a stopwatch and programmer a database application, and I finished it in a quarter the time as the expert BASIC programmer).

From there, I moved onwards to design and analysis as well as project management, then to higher management (working my way up to a Vice President). Now I am a director of a multi-billion dollar company (Director of computer operations and technical services).

Why tell you this? I've managed hundreds of people and have to deal with the question virtually every day (now I manage about a dozen). People (from my own department and others) ask me questions like: What should I do next? What training should I be doing? Should I be attending conferences? What books should I be reading? I always answer carefully, as this could mean the difference between employment or unemployment, or a good raise and a not-so-good raise. I want people to do well, so I try very hard to guide them properly.

What is the most important thing I've learned? Perhaps it sounds corny, but it's the ability to look and to see what's actually there. To examine a problem and see the problem, with no bias or assumptions. To look at a project plan and pick out all of the assumptions (which can then be tested for accuracy), or to look at a program and see the bugs or flaws.

An example? Sure. Someone I knew worked for one of my peers. Over a period of several weeks, I kept hearing about a severe, horrible problem which was delaying a major project. It was not my project and I did not manage the person, and had my own fires going, so only heard about this in the weekly meetings. This guy worked on this problem for weeks, literally weeks. He changed code over and over, tested and retested, had meeting after meeting, involved a dozen other people and spent tens of thousands of dollars of consulting money.

One day I happened to pass him in the halls and got into a conversation about the problem. I could see he was upset and decided I could possibly lend a few words of advice. He described the issue and my jaw dropped open. He was trying to figure out why some critical numbers were not being transferred from the payroll system to the general ledger. It was critical that these numbers show up in the general ledger.

I successfully kept from laughing out loud as I explained that the payroll numbers didn't show up on the general ledger because the payroll programs didn't post to the general ledger. It was quite simple really, and if he had taken the time to actually ask the users he would have discovered that they hand-entered the numbers after each payroll. What happened was one week the numbers didn't get to the general ledger and he assumed there was a problem. If he had simply looked at what was there to be seen, he would have discovered that the payroll person was out sick that week. A temp had run payroll, and hadn't known to enter the numbers in general ledger. It was that simple. There actually was not a problem at all, yet we spent over 200 man-hours and twenty-five thousand dollars to try and find it!

The second most important lesson is that people are important. People are not machines, they are not commodities and they are not objects to be manipulated. People have feelings and they are to be allowed to be themselves, to have rights and freedoms. That does not mean you let them do whatever they want (you have to manage things if you are a manager) but you have to understand, communicate and respect them.

Why is this important? If you treat people badly or don't communicate with them you will find them uncooperative and even belligerent at times.

I've solved so many problems that simply resulted from treating people like trash that it's mind numbing. I remember a time that Sam, a colleague of mine, was trying to set up some testing time with our users. He could not get them to test anything. He complained over and over that they didn't understand how important this was and they were sabotaging his project.

I talked to some of these users and found out what was really going on. Sam was simply not communicating well. He was trying to set up meetings and get testing from people who were already overworked because it was quarter-end and they had books to close. He was demanding their time and kept telling them they had to help. He didn't seem to care about them, and thus they didn't care about his project.

I knew this was important so I told him I would get his testing done. He agreed, and I individually talked to each person, and found that they really did want to be involved. They just wanted to be treated like human beings. I called some lunch meetings and bought everyone pizza and soda to discuss the issues (even remembering the vegetarian pizza for the non-meat-eating members of the group). I worked with their bosses to arrange schedules and sent special thank you notes to everyone (carefully carbon copying their supervisors). Before long, the entire team was involved and the tested was completed.

The third most important thing is "be completely and totally ethical at all times". Never, ever violate your integrity.

For example, I had a boss named Gary who assigned me to create a warehouse system. I wanted to talk to the customer, find out what they wanted, then write a proposal, get it approved, write a specification, get it approved, then write a more detailed design specification, and finally write the code. My boss didn't like that at all. He said the customer wanted results, not paper and words.

He told me to shut up and watch an "expert" at work. Gary then spent one hour (!) interviewing the customer, then told me to start writing code. I protested, but was young and dumb and did what he said.

The effect was catastrophic. The system took ten times longer than expected, required thousands of man hours to debug and has been a maintenance nightmare. Why? Because we could not do what the customer wanted for the simple reason that we did not ask them, then tell them back what they said (and repeat until done). That's the only way to be sure you are doing the right thing. What we wound up doing was writing and rewriting and rewriting until we got it right.

The final irony? Years later the customer asked me why we hadn't written a proposal, a specification and a design specification. They said it would have sure made things a lot easier for them! Now that I'm older and wiser, I would have held my ground and done the right thing regardless of what the "expert" thought.

The next thing to do is to do the best possible job that you can do. So do whatever you need to do to understand your job. Read books, attend seminars, network with peers, go to classes and continue to learn every single day. That's right, set aside some time every single day to get better at your job.

If you want to be a webmaster, then BE a webmaster. Learn what it means, learn how to do it, and learn what you need to learn. Then put your learning to work and be the best webmaster you can possibly be. Create excellent web sites and deliver excellent products to your company, your users and your customers.

The final advice, perhaps the most important thing of all, is to be happy with what you do. Be happy with your job. After all, you spend a fair portion of your life, perhaps the majority of your life, working. If you don't enjoy what you do, then are you truly happy?

I've seen more people miserable with their jobs that I like to think about. People who are hanging on to collect a pay check instead of doing something they really like.

I know none of this appears to have anything to do with computers or the internet or anything else, but it does, believe me.

We IT people tend to be introverted, we tend to think of computers as more important than people, and we tend to have these huge, silly biases which do nothing but make our lives difficult. All of this gets in the way of doing our jobs and, more importantly, being happy with what we do.

So learn and continue to learn. Be happy and stay ethical. Treat others with respect and communicate freely and opening with everyone. And be the best that you can possibly be. That's the advice that I will give anyone who asks.

Richard Lowe



 4:53 am on Jul 27, 2002 (gmt 0)

Great article Richard. The real world examples you give are great and I'm sure many here can relate to similar situations.

brotherhood of LAN

 5:08 am on Jul 27, 2002 (gmt 0)

I second that, great post Rich......it must be the name Richard that sparks some sort of ingenuity and clarity ;)

Good to see that after many years of success - you still believe in core values and remember your roots - something, at a young age, I hope to do too.

Richard :)


 5:16 am on Jul 27, 2002 (gmt 0)

Next time I feel like telling someone to "Get a life!" I'll point to this post. Nice one Richard.


 9:51 pm on Aug 6, 2002 (gmt 0)

Yeah its a good one! =)


 11:32 pm on Aug 6, 2002 (gmt 0)

Great article. May I add one thing?

Take responsibility, no matter how much it hurts. Let credit trickle down and complaints trickle up, but be careful about trying to let blame trickle down and credit trickle up (does that make sense?). If someone makes a mistake while making a good faith effort to carry out your instructions, that is your error. By denying that fact, you only undermine your credibility and the loyalty people will have towards you.

it must be the name Richard that sparks some sort of ingenuity and clarity

Sure, just look at Nixon!


brotherhood of LAN

 11:43 pm on Aug 6, 2002 (gmt 0)

Its like snakes and ladders....maybe thats why so many spammers have snake oil to sell ;)

creative craig

 8:44 am on Aug 7, 2002 (gmt 0)

wow, I got alot to learn there as a lowly 21 year old, made me feel inspired in a sort of corny way! :)


 12:54 pm on Aug 7, 2002 (gmt 0)

ya I agree with Craig, you only realise how much you still need to know after reading through the threads here.



 1:25 pm on Aug 7, 2002 (gmt 0)

People are not machines, they are not commodities and they are not objects to be manipulated. People have feelings and they are to be allowed to be themselves, to have rights and freedoms. That does not mean you let them do whatever they want (you have to manage things if you are a manager) but you have to understand, communicate and respect them.

Can I work for you ;)

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