Live Outside Your Comfort Zone. It Will Be Worth It.

On October 22, 2018, I will be joining Gestalt IT an Event Lead for Tech Field Day. This is an exciting moment for me and the culmination of nearly 3 years of effort consciously attempting to grow my career and change my attitude about work in general. In essence, I decided to live outside my comfort zone. If you are interested in learning how I reached this point, read below.

Some Background

Folks who know me through my involvement in the tech community may think I materialized out of nowhere some time in 2016. From the time I started my career in the early 2000’s until just a few short years ago, I was just another anonymous systems administrator, and I was fine with that.

I stuck in one role in particular for a very long time. I joined a financial services company just a couple years into my career and during my time the organization experienced tremendous growth, as did my experience and responsibilities.

The Turning Point

Somewhere around year 10 though, things started to stagnate. I was working on less new and exciting projects, and I was spending more time maintaining the existing infrastructure. I also started to wonder what would happen if I kept doing the same thing for another 10 years. Would I wake up one day as the tech dinosaur with out of date skills, clinging on to my legacy infrastructure to maintain relevance?

I didn’t want that to happen and decided in late 2015 to start looking for something new. In early 2016 I started updating my resume and looking at what was out there. I also got more involved by visiting user groups and networking with people. I would introduce myself, ask people what they do, listen and find out who was hiring.

A New Attitude

All that hard work paid off when I started a new job as an Infrastructure Engineer with a service provider in April 2016. During my time there I was fearless about asking people questions about how we did things and why. When a new project came up, I would gladly volunteer but admit that it was something new to me and I may need help along the way. If I made a mistake, I would own up to it, learn from it, and not make the same mistake again.

All of these activities were counter to my first instincts. As a long time systems administrator with sole possession of most projects at my previous employer, I was THE guy. I knew everything about the infrastructure; and when we had a new initiative, I would take it upon myself to learn the new technology in question and become the master. Sometimes this came at the expense of the project timeline or a less than ideal architecture for the solution.

Being willing to admit I was over my head from time to time and ask for help meant that a project would be completed on time. Having an expanded professional network meant I now had connections that could help answer questions when I was trying to familiarize myself with new technologies.

The Effects

I worked on a great team and learned a lot in a short time span. During this time I also took on the leadership role at my local VMUG and started engaging more with people on social media, particularly Twitter. This led to a greatly expanded professional network. After only 1 year in my new role I had the opportunity to change organizations once again thanks to the connections I had made. In May of 2016 I joined a SIS as a pre-sales architect.

I was glad I made the change almost immediately, but also a bit nervous. This was a brand new role for me. I had been an IT practitioner for my entire career up until now. Now most of my time would be spent designing solutions, presenting to customers, and learning the new technologies that may be of interest to my customers when I wasn’t busy with everything else.

The payoffs from this gamble were almost immediate. I was glad to leave behind the on-call life of an engineer and have a more predictable work schedule, not to mention the nice pay increase that comes with a sales aligned position. My public speaking skills were also improving as a function of my job.

An Ever Expanding Network

The need to keep up to date with new technologies meant I was traveling to multiple conferences per year. As a result I met many of the people I knew via social media, blogs and podcasts. I decided to march straight up to anyone I recognized that I had not spoken with before and introduce myself.

I consider myself an introvert like most IT geeks, but it didn’t take much to have a short conversation. I would tell them that I liked their podcast or a story about how their blog helped me out, something like that. But as a result of all this socializing I was forcing myself to do, I was growing my professional network, making some new friends, and actually having some fun!

Enter Tech Field Day

For those unfamiliar with Tech Field Day, it is the original “IT influencer event” and is the brainchild of Stephen Foskett. I first attended Cloud Field Day in August of 2018 and also participated in Tech Field Day Extra at VMworld 2018 a couple of weeks later. I had wanted to attend for awhile and had previously applied to be a delegate. But it wasn’t until my network of peers and friends recommended me personally to Stephen that I received an invitation. Chalk it up to spending more time making an effort to meet people and make friends.

Less than a week after VMworld I received a couple of texts from Stephen.

“Hey it’s Stephen Foskett I’m wondering if we could talk sometime about your job and your future.”

“You seem to have a talent for organizing nerds and getting stuff done, and that’s a rare gift.”

I had a pretty good idea of what Stephen wanted to talk about based on these two texts and the story Tom Hollingsworth told me about how he came to work for Stephen. Over the next few weeks I had several conversations with Stephen and other members of his team.

Just three weeks later I was offered the opportunity to join Gestalt IT and become an Event Lead for Tech Field Day. I will be responsible for scouting new sponsors and delegates for Field Day events and for leading and ensuring the success of the events themselves.

There is no denying that this new role will be an enormous change for me and brings things like risk and uncertainty. This is the definition of living outside of my comfort zone. Every job I’ve had until now has been much more technical.

Although I’ve spent time organizing events, securing sponsors, etc. as a VMUG leader, this is on a much larger scale and the paycheck that my family depends on now relies on me excelling at a role that I am completely new to. And I couldn’t be more excited.

I directly attribute this incredible opportunity and massive career change to my change in attitude less than three years ago. I will try to sum up below some principles that I live by that I believe have helped me several times.

Avoid Smart Kid Syndrome

What is Smart Kid Syndrome you may ask? I had not heard the term until a recent episode of the Nerd Journey podcast, but it sums up the point I want to make very well. Imagine a kid who is good at everything. You’ve probably met more than one in your life.

Math and reading come to them easily and they excel at everything in school. Every new thing they try they are instantly good at, until they aren’t. At some point every smart kid finds out that they aren’t necessarily the smartest kid in the room or the best at something that their peers are better at.

At this point the child can either grow as a person and accept that they need to try hard and always look for ways to improve, or they will recede into their comfortable or familiar skills and will not be willing to try anything new.

As I mentioned in the introduction of this post, I spent a long time being an anonymous sysadmin and being content with it. I was good at my job and didn’t see a need to try anything new. When I made the decision to challenge myself on a regular basis, the benefits were readily apparent. I was constantly learning new skills, meeting new people, and having fun.

Ask for Help

Once you get used the idea of not being the smartest person in the room, you’re also going to have to get used the idea that you can get things done quicker or more effectively if you ask someone with more skill or experience for help. In my experience, most people who are an expert at something are very willing to help or even teach their fellow nerd in the realm of their expertise.

Let’s face it, we IT geeks like to show how smart we are. If you give one of your peers a chance to show off their skill they tend to relish in it. When you try something new, hit a wall, and subsequently break through it (even with some outside help), you’ll be prepared for the next time that task comes up. You’ll also have grown your skill set and become more well rounded as a person.

Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

Make no mistake, living outside your comfort zone is a lifestyle change, not just a temporary project. If you are going to succeed in this mindset, you need to commit to it and grow to accept it.

I think of it as similar to dieting. If you are not a healthy eater who occasionally diets to lose weight, your weight will yo-yo up and down but you will not necessarily be living a healthy lifestyle. Once you commit to exercise regularly and eat healthy foods (with the occasional cheat meal), you’ll find permanent lasting change and a different attitude to life in general.

The same is true to living outside your comfort zone. If you make a commitment to always be open to new challenges and constantly be on the lookout for new opportunities, I guarantee you will be glad you did.

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