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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

WTF is up?

I've been super busy with work.  I work as the Chief Linux Systems Engineer for a fortune 500 company so I'm ... pretty loaded down right now.

I want to release my weather system code soon but I can't get time to do it.

I may talk to Lee Bamber directly and see if he's interested in it as part of the game-guru package.
The fact is the money I make these days makes anything from Game-Guru store sales peanuts so it's not really worth me doing much with as is.  It's hard to find the time aside from that with two kids, a wife, homeschooling, etc.

I like the changes I've been seeing with the release to Lua code for GG which allows full FPS/3rd Person controls.  This should really allow the engine to take off and while I realize some people want this engine to be a simple cookie cutter builder I believe that this is an important step towards legitimacy and allowing people the real tools to work.  I'm a huge fan of open source and crowd sourced intelligence.  Let me quickly explain my rationale on that.

Let's say you're a highly intelligent person.  You design and make an awesome widget.  This widget is a revolutionary leap forward and as such, it provides the common man access to high end tools at a fraction of the cost.

However, it's laden with side work such as debugging, test, analysis, etc.  These unavoidable components which simply eat up your time.  Progression falls behind and soon the product is unavoidably behind even the worst competitors.  Sound familiar?  It shouldn't.  It's the story of Game-Guru.

So given your inability to pay for a large service staff you're forced to do all that work on your own.  This eats up your one truly finite resource: TIME.

Now imagine you take say 30% of that widget and you open it up in a modular fashion.  You break out components into individual chunks which are easily digested.  You then allow several hundred people access to do whatever they want with it, but it won't modify core components.  This is effectively what Lee has done. 

Now what you've done is created a human parallel processing array of sorts.  It's an engine of great power; you have hundreds of people all designing and modifying - creating new things you'd never have time to even conceive of, let alone implement.  It provides a near-permanent longevity to systems that dedicated people will use out of familiarity even in the face of something newer or better.  Take the Fallout New Vegas modding community which is STILL extremely active to this day and makes fantastic, HUGE projects that are whole games in and of themselves.

THAT is the power of open sourcing your code and allowing modding to really take it's course.

Monday, May 15, 2017

How to actually get a job in high-end IT and/or overcome huge odds doing it - Part Two

So last time (see part one) I went into depth (ok, a little too much depth) about my past as a bit of background to show two key features of my life which I feel are important for the readers of this to know.

  1.  I am of minimal formal education.  As such, I am not a massive proponent of going to college (especially with the modern emphasis on useless degrees instead of more rational ones like comp/sci).
  2.  I have been through some serious shit* in my life.
*serious shit includes but is not limited to: family upheaval, near fatal physical illnesses, crippling bills, lack of income, tremendous pain/physical injury, emotional turmoil from relationships, etc. For a more complete (but still partial list) please reference the 'part one' link above.

While I am grateful to eventually to have ended up being a 'phone monkey' it was a massive downgrade from being a junior sysadmin or programmer and I wasn't content to stay there.  For years, I tried in vain to get out of that position.

For reference on how soul crushing this kind of work is to anyone of meaningful intellect, watch this video (which was actually given to us as part of our training at Earthlink, if you can believe that).

As you can see, it's a miserable experience.  A minimum of forty calls a day.  I moved up quickly to other things in the company (livechat support, email, etc).  But at the end of the day, it was all the same only more of it. 

Then came the day Earthlink fired us all.

Well that's not necessarily accurate as it happened in waves, but the first wave came and I recall it being the largest.  They got severances, good deals, etc.  The latter groups (such as mine) were basically screwed on the way out.  No big deal, water under the bridge at this point.  Even at the time, I was happy for it.  I hated working as a support person.

So I tried opening my own business with some seed money from my grandfather.  And while the business was successful in the sense of generating money, it was unsuccessful for a lot of other reasons - namely insufficient money to pay the bills.  So it was income positive but insufficiently so.  The time came for me to find another job.  I heard through the grapevine Sprint was hiring and so I went there.  They paid well but the work was savage.  The environment was extremely rigid; the calls non-stop.  At least at Earthlink it was laid back and there was a break.  That said, it was "real money" so I was satisfied at least once every two weeks (i.e. payday).

After six months I realized this place was even worse than the last in terms of spiritual drain.  So I tried everything I could get out of it. I applied at state jobs.  I got my civil service exam done.  I received offer letters to interview then never got calls back.  Something was torpedoing me and I couldn't figure out what.

Seven years pass.  During this time I sought internal promotion, got it several times, but was still unsatisfied. At some point it was recommended I talk to a headhunter.  I did this, but really not on a broad enough basis to matter (as we will discuss later).

The headhunter promptly lined me up with one phone interview (for a woefully underpaid Linux Asterisk Server Admin job) that I didn't pass because I didn't have existing experience with Asterisk PBX.  Well news for you buddy, no one is going to take 50k a year for a job that pays 90+ when they have the experience.  But hey, that's life, right?

Which brings us to our next lesson:

Employers always ask for more than they can feasibly get.  If they ask for 10 years, they'll take five.  If they "need" a degree from college, they'll take substituted years in work experience.  If they want you to know x,y, AND z but you only know x, q, and b - that's probably enough. 

The above is *MOSTLY* true.  However, as I found out later, sometimes they use unreasonable qualification lists to disqualify American candidates to hire H1B workers.  Video for emphasis:

I've been to the second round interviews for companies like this.  You'll know pretty quickly by their ambush-style tactics and methods that they don't want to hire you.  Just dust yourself off and move on.

So after ten years in internet telecommunications doing support work of varying degrees and rank I decided it was enough to take drastic action.  I applied to dozens of jobs and emailed my old boss (the one who I quit from shortly before being sick).  I devised a plan to get a good job within five years.

He invited me to lunch and we discussed Linux, work, home/family life and providence.  Providence, for those who don't know, is effectively 'God and his subtle guidance on your life.'

I was offered a job strangely at 1am the next day (a Saturday).  The pay was an approximately 10,000 dollar reduction but the experience would be solid gold.   I took the hit for the experience which I realized was crucial to get where I wanted to be.  A nice side bonus is I'd work more normal hours, vs the awful schedule I had at centurylink (which is what Sprint, LTD eventually morphed into).

Lesson: Sometimes you really do need to go a few steps back to go many steps forward.  It's a completely accurate platitude.

The next few years were hard.  I had frequent clashes with my boss the first year; our personalities were still very abrasive to each other.  I made stupid mistakes that he in turn got frustrated with.  I learned, however, and improved.  I scraped my way to higher pay, though it was ... not enough.  I ended up making slightly less than I did at Centurylink and after 3ish years I ran into another situation with my boss at the time.  Ironically I was going to ask him for a 5k pay raise (which from 52k was not exactly significant).  However he came in that morning and raged at me about something absolutely stupid.  While normally this would be depressing I instead got furious.  I held back my tongue and immediately applied to several Linux Admin positions I saw online.


Why?  Well, in retrospect several things of note happened during this time:
  • I got relevant work experience.  I had it before, but now it was in my recent history. 
  • I asked for a copy of a resume from a co-worker so I could compare against my own.  I don't recall how this went down but he advised I clean mine up using his as a template.  I did.  I think this alone had a huge impact on return contacts.  Simply put - get your resume professional revised or find someone who has a good resume and copy it's format.
  • I accomplished some actual things of value.  This is important because employers will ask you for specific situations during interviews and you need to be able to say "Yes, I did this".
What's important here, and I can't stress this enough, is you have to put in your time.

For some people that time is college.  Other people, like me, do it through work experience.  For almost a decade though, I was trying to jump the line to my 'Linux admin dream job' and only after I  took myself down a few pegs mentally and went to do some grunt Linux work did I actually get a shot at a real job.

In prep for this, I did the usual spat of pre-interview stuff you'll read anywhere:
  • I researched the job. 
  • I cleaned up my resume and tailored it for the job I was applying for. (I often use multiple versions of the same resume depending on the job I apply for)
  •  And most importantly, I bought a good suit.  I went to kohls and got a 600$ fitted suit (learn to take your own measurements first here: which was on sale for 50% off.  I made sure to show my prospective employers that I took their job seriously enough to buy a new suit; this remains my 'get a job suit'.  Every interview I've gone to in it, I get a job.  It's that simple.

Lesson: Buy a good, fitted suit.

I got the job.  It was a contract job, which is another important piece.  So many little things here.  Most people, myself included, are scared of contract work.  However having done it, it's so much easier than regular work.  You get paid more, the expectations are lower from your employer, and you get into 'the network'.

Lesson: Get into the IT-contract pool 'network'.

There's a magical place in IT where people actively try to hire you.  They find you.  They email you. they call you.  You get offered jobs without being asked.  This only happens when you are in the contract pool network.  After I took my first contact job (making 20k more than I made at my previous full time job, mind you) .. I started getting calls from headhunters.  Eventually I moved off to another job making around 100k six moths later.

Let me reiterate.  Once I made the necessary life changes, put my time in for Linux administration, adjusted my resume, bought a suit and became willing to do contract work... I went from scraping by on a single income of 52k per year to 100k+ year.  This contract job turned into full time work paying approximately 85k/year.  This is the price you pay for security (and health insurance).   And honestly, I was satisfied with that. 100k+ was nice, but 85k and a secure job were hard to beat.

Of course, I was still in the network.  I kept getting emails.  I kept seeing headhunters - never spurn the headhunter call.  Stay on their radar as much as you can - at worst you get a free lunch out of it (they always love meeting you for lunch).  When a big job comes in, you are their go-to.

So there's a lot of moving pieces, as you can see but it's really not that complicated.

In part three, we'll go into the interview process and how to approach it.


Monday, May 8, 2017

How to actually get a job in high-end IT and/or overcome huge odds doing it - Part One

So I realize that a lot of people out there really don't come to this blog for this, but that's ok - I'm going to talk about it anyways.  This post has been a long time coming.  I've told people this story one on one but never written it down and posted it.

(The following story is true and without my usual embellishment)

First, a little backstory.

I'm an IT professional. Specifically, by trade I'm a Linux Systems Administrator/Engineer (depending on what company I worked for).  What makes me an aberration in most people's eyes is I'm minimally educated from the standpoint of traditional education.  I spent time at four separate high schools and was primarily pursuing an education in programming.  I was, at the time of my graduation, a fairly proficient C programmer.  I could program in Basic, Pascal, C, Hypercard, and a few other languages.  It was a good smattering of skillsets.  My last two years were spent in a local Vo-Tech High School.  This ultimately prepared me for my path.  My teacher at the time felt it was important for us to know Unix (specifically SCO).  So we were taught some basics about Unix and shellscripting.  I had an advantage having already been familiar with  writing some fairly complex batch files for DOS.

Anyways from there I went straight into industry.  I worked co-op my senior year (which means I spent my shop week at an actual job).  Then I was picked up by said job to work full time.

Sounds easy right?  Just turn back the clock to your late teens (19, specifically) and away you go!

Then it all went wrong.

It started with an intense amount of stress at work.  I'd been demoted because I was 'better with hardware' (code words for: "I want to pay you less and still need a sysadmin").  My boss was not an easy man to work for.  He and I clashed regularly.  I began getting sick.  I was puking every day at lunch and assumed it was the stress.  So one day, after a particularly heated moment, I handed him my "I quit papers" as he handed my "You are fired" papers.  By the way, this is a bad idea.  Let them fire you, because I found out later I had invalidated my ability to get unemployment compensation by handing him an "I quit" notice.

A week later I had a bruise on my hip that really hurt and kept me from moving much.  I also felt MUCH sicker.  The vomiting increased and the lump on my hip got huge.  Like 'literal size of a grapefruit' huge.

I saw my doctor, who referred me to a specialist.  Side note: when I quit we were switching insurance at my previous job so I had no coverage, not even COBRA.  This becomes relevant shortly.

The specialist informed me that my lymph node was necrotic (the tissue was dying inside me) and filling with fluid.  The vomiting was caused by the pressure it was exerting on my lower intestine, making me unable to process waste.  He said this was all extremely bad.  Given my age and the size/disposition of my physical symptoms it was a fair chance I had Hodgkin's Lymphoma.  I was also told that IF I had it, given my state, it was safe to assume I had three or less months to live.

This is a pretty rough thing to hear when you are 20ish.   I took it by basically going numb and saying 'well.. fuck it, not much I can do about that, right?'

Up to this point there'd been a lot more in my life that'd gone wrong.  My father was abusive.  My parents divorced, remarried because of me, divorced again.   I'd been disowned by my father about a year prior, etc, etc.  A lot happened in those previous years.  Point is, I was no stranger to problems.  This is helpful.  I think if I'd have lead an easier life, this might not have been so straightforward.

As it was I'd already lost 30+ pounds to this point from a starting weight of 155.  I looked and felt like shit.  I'd lived through some shitty years already.  Being told I had possibly three months to live was just another step in a trail of bullshit stretching back years.

The specialist then drained the black and purple bulge on my hip with a huge needle called a lance and scheduled me for surgery (a biopsy).

When I went in for surgery my blood pressure was 80/60.  I know this because the nurse said "Your blood pressure is 80/60... how are you still conscious?!"

I shrugged and got my surgical work done.  I awoke high as a kite (I recall talking incessantly about wanting to go to college for programming with my eyes closed to the guy next to me and him saying 'can I be on what he's on?').  This eventually calmed down... They then informed me that they removed two lymph nodes because they could tell they weren't cancerous because it was just laying there and not wrapped around anything.  They sent them down for biopsy and I'd hear back soon what it was for sure.

Lesson One:  Never, ever, just 'give up and die'.  And believe me, when death is hovering around like a vulture, you WILL feel like you can do that.

I felt okay for a while and they let me walk.  This is where I discovered I had an allergy to morphine.  There's nothing better than having to violently vomit after having abdominal surgery - ask a woman who's had a c-section for details.

Anyways, fast forward a bit.  I spent a week on a couch recovering.  At this point, my fiancee at the time quit her job because of stress.  So now I was neck deep in medical debt (approx 21,000 dollars) with no savings and now no income.  I had to work .. and I had to work fast.

In retrospect, I should have declared bankruptcy  or asked for more help from family at this moment.  But I didn't because I'm proud and stubborn.   Consider that lesson on the house.

At this point I was in deep shit.

Lesson Two:  No one else can dig you out of your own shit better than you.  So shut up and get busy digging.

I need a job and I needed one fast.   So I applied at <NONSPECIFIC POSTAL COMPANY>.  Now imagine this, if you will:  a sickly, pale, 121 lb waif of a man going to apply at a job that requires you to be able to minimally lift 70 lbs.

At the <NONSPECIFIC POSTAL COMPANY> center I worked at, the first thing they would do was try to make you quit.  They'd deliberately put you on the worst jobs in the building to beat you into submission.  From what I saw there, it was overwhelmingly effective.

I did not quit.  What choice did I have?  I would get up at 2:00am, throw a bandage over my still draining surgical scar and drive to work to do heavy lifting for 5 hours at so-so pay. At one point I slipped a disk in my back and didn't have enough money to see the doctor to find out what it was.. so I just kept working in excruciating pain until one day it slipped back.  To this day, I have back issues.

For the first two months I came home, looked at the full length bruises running up and down my arms, slapped on some Ben-gay, and passed out for a few hours until I had to get up to live/eat/work again.

I guess the lesson here is sometimes the best you can do is all you can do.   Sometimes it's not enough - my money wasn't sufficient to pay bills.   Sometimes you need a little faith in god (sorry to be preachy).  I'm not the begging kind, usually.  I would simply say my prayers and try to remember that sometimes these types of things served a purpose.

Lesson Three:  Trusting in god is hard, but will help sustain you.  Even if you can't, just do the best you can and know that it's enough as long as it your best.

After Six months I was at a martial arts tournament (weapons fighting with foam padded sticks) and broke my hand as well as tore a ligament in between my knuckles.

Here's the thing.  Everyone told me to go to work and pretend I did at work to get unemployment.  I couldn't do that because...

My work ethic matters to me.  (Even though I missed out on short-term gains).

This isn't a lesson really.  Just a statement of fact.  Your miles may vary, but I find that personally speaking, I couldn't be unethical. I'm not saying my life wouldn't have been marginally easier at that point.  I could have coasted by doing nothing for a while, for sure.

Instead I used my union health insurance, got my hand in a 'beer can cast' and went out and found a job by using my newfound dogged persistence.  On top of that, I was in much better physical shape.  My nickname at <NONSPECIFIC POSTAL COMPANY> was 'The Ant' - because I was one of the smallest guys there and could regularly lift more than my body weight.  Kind of silly, but I took it as a badge of pride.

A week later I was employed at Earthlink, Inc. doing basic phone internet support.  Now previously (for almost two years, mind you) I'd worked at the other company doing programming and systems administration work.  This was a big step down, but they paid really well compared to <NPC> or my previous IT/IS job.

Did I mention they had a typing test where you needed a minimum 40 words per minute to get in?  I passed the test with one hand in a cast.

Lesson Four:  It's amazing what you can do when you are REALLY REALLY DETERMINED.

That's probably enough for now.  I'll write more as it suits me, though luckily this is a topic I'm passionate about so you'll probably see more soon.

Oh and for those interested... the illness wasn't cancer.  It was CAT SCRATCH FEVER. 

And here I always thought that was a fake illness made for a song.  Nope, it's real and it nearly killed me.  So if nothing else, you learned that.