Episode 040: What to Do When You Don't Have Experience | CloudSkills.fm

In this episode I share some ideas on how you can build up your cloud experience and start making your career transition into roles focused on Azure, AWS, Google Cloud, and more.

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Full Transcript:

Mike Pfeiffer:
Thanks for tuning into another episode of Cloud Skills FM. I really appreciate you guys listening and hope that you’re getting lots of value out of this podcast. This is a huge milestone this week. This is the 40th episode that we’ve published and we’ve been publishing episodes every week so far this year. So things are going great and it wouldn’t be anything though without you guys. So again, just wanted to say thanks a lot for listening and if you enjoy the show, if you’ve gotten value out of it, one of the things that would help me in terms of promoting this podcast, would be if you went on Apple podcasts, if you could rate and review the show, that would be super helpful to me, so I’d really appreciate that. In today’s episode, I want to address something that keeps coming up over and over. This is something that I’ve been answering this question a lot, so over the last couple of years and it’s all about how do you get into a cloud role when you don’t have any experience.

Mike Pfeiffer:
So obviously there’s tons of people out there that’s already in IT, looking to pivot from some other kind of position into Cloud and also we’ve got new people coming into IT that are interested in getting into a Cloud focus role. So I wanted to share my answer with you guys here on this episode because typically the fact is, is the answer is almost the same every time I talk to somebody. It might depend a little bit on their background, how far ahead they are in their career, but I think overall the majority of you guys will be able to get something out of this if you’re thinking about making the switch if you haven’t already. But before I get into like the tactical steps, what I think you should do and all that kind of stuff, and this is something that I’ve done in my career a couple of different times, but I can look back to the late 90s and remember a time where I was answering phone calls on the help desk and I desperately wanted to be in the field working as a consultant.

Mike Pfeiffer:
I wanted to make more money. I wanted to have more responsibility, work on more technical projects, because the reality was I was getting bored doing the same support stuff over and over, but I didn’t have any experience to do that, and I had to get creative, right? I didn’t go to college. Well, I didn’t finish college, I didn’t have a degree. I had no computer science degree. And at that time in 1998 to 1999, when I first started in the tech industry, my first job ever was working at America Online. If you guys remember AOL, I was answering phones there and then I went to work for Gateway Computers, which was the folks that put the computers in the cow boxes and I spent a while answering phones over there and that was really my introduction into working in the tech industry.

Mike Pfeiffer:
I didn’t have a ton of skills, I didn’t have any programming background, but I was hungry, I was super motivated and I learned a lot in those first couple of years doing the help desk stuff, but I knew right away that this is the great start, but I want to go to the next level. I want to work in the IT team, I want to work behind the scenes and make more money, all that kind of stuff. And so at that time, I was just going home after work every single night and I would study, I would go onto the internet, I would read as much as I could. I started studying for the NCSE certification, which was based on the NT4 operating system at the time. And so I would literally stay up all nights after I would go home from work, and all I would do was study until I passed out because I was working towards the certification because intuitively I knew that if I knew that stuff, it would be easy for me to kind of elbow my way into a position working on those technologies.

Mike Pfeiffer:
But looking back, it wasn’t easy. I was living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I was living in this super old beat up dilapidated house in downtown Albuquerque. And if you’ve ever been Albuquerque, you’ll know that it’s, the downtown area, especially 20 years ago, wasn’t the safest place to be. There was times where people would break into my house and steal stuff. And there was a time where my car got stolen from in front of my house and this old house that was super beat up, it looked like it was haunted from the street. And if you were inside the house, it had hardwood floors. That house was built on a foundation that had started to crumble, so the house was kind of slanted. I can still remember one night I took off my jeans, I had some change in the pocket and fell on the floor and it rolled across the entire house because the foundation was not even, it wasn’t stable.

Mike Pfeiffer:
There was no heat in that place, but I had a computer, I had one white box PC in my bedroom and every night I would go in there and I would study. And so one night as I got home from my help desk job and I was just kind of surfing around on the internet, ramping up on different things. I stumbled across, it was just a webpage basically announcing the next version of Windows and so this was a release candidate for Windows NT5, and I thought, “Hmm, that’s kind of interesting.” A lot of my buddies who were head of where I was in the tech industry were working on Novell NetWare and that was another technology and another server operating system that I was studying in great depth, but I thought, “Hmm, this NT5 thing could probably be pretty interesting. This is going to be something coming out soon. This is very hot and very cool probably, so let me see if I can learn something about this.”

Mike Pfeiffer:
So I went ahead and ordered the CDs for windows NT5 release candidates, one or two, I don’t even remember which one it was. And a few weeks later the CDs showed up on my house. Now the cool thing was that I had already had some experience trying to build up lab environments inside my old beat up house down there in Albuquerque. So I had that one white box PC sitting in the corner and eventually I would have a bunch. But when I was first starting out, I just had the one, but VMware was actually a thing. A lot of people don’t know this. It was around in the late 90s, so in 1999 I did have basically an equivalent to VMware workstation. I don’t think they had that concept back then.

Mike Pfeiffer:
I think it was just called VMware because that’s all they had was just the ability to run VMS on your computer and that’s it. There was no service side type of option or anything like that. And so I was able to install windows NT5 release candidates as a virtual machine on this white box PC. And I figured out that, “Hey, there’s something new in this operating system called active directory that nobody has ever seen before.” And so I started playing around with active directory. I started doing things like installing all the components, building domain controllers, creating users and groups and messing around with permissions, joining other virtual machines to the active directory domain, all that kind of stuff. So as the months continue to tick by, I got my MCSE and windows and T four I was still on a help desk, but as I started to gets all of that knowledge, people started to notice.

Mike Pfeiffer:
It started showing up on the phones when I was working with customers. It started showing up in my conversations with my peers. It started showing up when I was talking to the IT guys that were supporting the infrastructure in the call center. People were starting to recognize that, “Hey, this guy knows a lot more about NT4 than maybe even some of our server engineers on the back end.” Right? and at that point I realized, “All right, I’ve got enough context, let me start applying for some of these consulting job positions even though I have no experience doing that, I’m just going to go ahead and give it a shot.” And as I went through the interviews, some of them they kicked me out right away because I didn’t have any experience, others would entertain the idea and we would go back and forth.

Mike Pfeiffer:
And the one job that I finally landed, and it was basically my big break into consulting was for a small company. They were very small. They were just a rinky dink kind of mom and pop type of consulting company where they would build computers for their customers. So they would build a server and a couple of workstations. They would go deliver it, network all the computers, and it was for like, you know, insurance offices, hotels really local businesses was basically the idea. However, client server networking was starting to take off. People were getting on the internet for the first time back then. And so there was a lot of work to do in that space and I got my first job as a consultant doing that, because I knew how to network computers together. But the thing that really basically sealed the deal for me when I was talking to the guy was my knowledge of active directory.

Mike Pfeiffer:
So the guy that owned the company knew that client server networking was going to become a big deal. He was leveraging it to support his customers. He knew active directory was on the horizon. It was an important thing to keep an eye on and he was impressed that I knew more about it than anybody he had talked to. And it wasn’t that I was the world’s authority on active directory. It wasn’t that I was just like smarter than anybody else. It was just because I had gotten in the game. I had played with it and I had messed around with it. And what he knew was that if I was motivated enough to go that far and I actually had that level of knowledge, I think that he knew that I would probably be able to get the job done. And he was right and I worked there for awhile and it was great.

Mike Pfeiffer:
And then I ended up moving to Phoenix, which is where I live now. But that was the catalyst. And I tell that story because if I were going to switch careers right now, that’s the same exact thing that I would do again. And so for you guys that are asking me, how do you break into a Cloud based role when you don’t have any experience? You know the number one thing that I tell people is you have to manufacture your experience. If you just sit around and wait for the projects to come down the pipeline or you’re kind of waiting to get the opportunity, it’s going to be one of those things you’re waiting forever. You got to attack this thing and you’ve got to go out and start building stuff. I’ve mentioned this before in early of this podcast, but it’s worth repeating.

Mike Pfeiffer:
If you want to get into working on things like Azure, you want to be a Cloud architect or dev ops engineer working in the Cloud space, then you need to do that on your own time, if you’re not getting that now, and this is where people get stuck because there’s just so many options for you to do something like that, and then people get paralyzed by all the options that are available. So let me give you a few things that I believe that will work for this. So number one, build an open source project. Now you might be thinking, “Well, I’m not a developer.” That doesn’t matter. Even if you’re an infrastructure engineer, there is a good reason to have a good hub profile and to have a few repositories in there that show things that you built. So if you’re a developer, obviously you want to have a sample application in there of some kind that leverages one of these cloud platforms.

Mike Pfeiffer:
If you’re trying to become a cloud developer, build a sample application that runs on the Azure cloud that runs on AWS, go the extra mile of building an infrastructure template of some kind that lets the people that want to consume that open source project, deploy the code into the cloud because you’ll learn a lot from that as well. And now you’ve got an asset, right? You’ve got something that you built. It’s basically, think of GitHub as your digital resume. Now, if you’re an ops person, what could you put in a repository? Well, you could do an infrastructure as code templates. You could do a step by step tutorial, so don’t get confused about GitHub. Yes, it is a version control system or a hub, if you will, for storing all these different code projects, but it’s not something where it has to be code in your repositories.

Mike Pfeiffer:
Just look at Microsoft and Amazon web services, all of their documentation for their entire cloud platform, every single service, the documentation for that stuff is stored in GitHub repositories. So there’s nothing stopping you from going and building repository. That’s just a markdown file with instructions on how to do something and maybe throw a template or a script or something in a repository. So don’t get intimidated by the idea of an open source project. All you’re doing is creating solutions and showcasing and sharing that with everyone else. Now the challenge with this is that it takes patience. And a lot of people, they just want to score the points right off the bat. We’re living in a culture where you click a button and you get back some kind of thing, right? And so none of us have any patients anymore.

Mike Pfeiffer:
So if you’re going to do this, you’ve got to make sure that you’re running a marathon, not a sprint, right? You don’t want to just shotgun something crappy out there and just think that you’re going to be good and that’s not going to happen. You want to spend some time on these things that you’re building. So for example, instead of building one every week for the next four weeks, that’s kind of, okay. Spend four weeks of building one great open source project that you could put out there and this is going to do a lot of things for you. This is going to give you the ability to go and speak about that solution. If you do this right, if you spend the time to build an open source project that’s actually worth someone else’s time to use, you can then take that idea that content, all of that IEP and then you can now go and speak about it.

Mike Pfeiffer:
You could go to a user group and do a presentation on it. You can do a YouTube video about it, a tutorial. You could a blog post about it. You could go and do a podcast episode about it. You could post it on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter. You get the idea, but now this is something that can sit in your arsenal that you could go out there and share with everyone else. That really takes me into my second thing that I believe that you should do, which is teach people what you’re learning. This is the best way to get basically a different view on the technology that most people don’t have. A lot of people will learn by consuming, right? They’ll watch a video, they’ll read a book, and then some people will lab it up, so they’ll apply what they’re learning and they’ll test it out in the lab.

Mike Pfeiffer:
But very few people will turn around and teach what they’re learning. And that’s really the master stroke to becoming an expert in any technology. You want to see what the technology is all about. You want to apply what you’ve seen so you can learn it. But then you want to teach other people what you’ve learned because it’s going to give you a different perspective on these concepts. So imagine you built some kind of open source solution. You’ve got it up in GitHub, you’ve got all of the keywords tagged inside that repository so people can find it. So it’s now popping up when people are searching for stuff. You’ve talked about it maybe at a lunch and learn, or a meetup, or you’ve done a YouTube video on it. And after a couple months people start finding it and they start reaching out to you because Hey, you’re the person that built that solution and they’re wondering if you can help you as well.

Mike Pfeiffer:
One of the ways that I’m able to fill the sales pipeline for my small business is that I’m constantly putting stuff out there and I’m not worried if it’s going to pay off today or tomorrow or even next week. I know that if I put something good out there, then number one it’s going to help people. But number two, maybe in three, six, nine months, someone’s going to hit me up and going to be like, “Hey, I saw that thing you built and I want to hire you to do that thing.” So these first two things that I’m recommending here, building an open source project, and number two, teaching people what you’re learning. If you go through the process of actually doing this, when you go into an interview, you’re going to blow the person away. I can tell you personally, I interview people all the time.

Mike Pfeiffer:
If you come into an interview with a good GitHub profile, you’ve got some cool projects that you actually have built and you’ve spent the time to do that and you’ve gone out and started teaching people what you’re learning. I’m going to know that not only are you hungry and you know you’re somebody that wants to be in this game, but I’m pretty confident as a hiring manager that you’re going to be the right person to put in this position, because I don’t have any illusions about anybody knowing every single answer. I need people that can figure things out. And when it comes to finding people that are motivated, that are actually doing stuff, they’re not just sitting back waiting. Those are the people I want to work with. And so I think that if you focus on these two things, that’s really going to help you out.

Mike Pfeiffer:
Now the next thing you could do is you could start freelancing. That’s something that I’ve done in the past as well. So after I got into IT consulting and I was working in the field as like an active directory consultants, as a migration experts, somebody building servers and even doing some networking. I decided I wanted to learn web development, so I started building websites with classic ASP, but it’s not like I had any kind of background, or training, or education as a programmer, but I didn’t let that stop me. I bought a book and in my free time I would build a website as best as I could in the early days as you would imagine. They were all terrible and it took me a really long time to teach myself that skill. However, even in the early 2000s there was freelancer sites and there’s even better ones now.

Mike Pfeiffer:
There’s nothing stopping you from going to sites like upwork.com or to toptowel.com or codementor.io, and there’s a bunch of different freelancer sites where you can just go in there, set up a profile, claim your expertise, and then start working projects. It’s only going to take one project before you can put that on your resume and say, “Hey look, I’m a freelancer. I do projects in the Cloud.” And when you’re applying for work, that’s your experience that you’re able to speak to. You’ll also be able to speak to the experience of the talks that you’ve given or the things that you’ve built, the open source projects that you’ve got out there. And so freelancing can be competitive, but if you actually focus more on serving your customers versus making money, you’ll do much better. There’s way too many people on those freelancing sites that are trying to make a bunch of money on the front end.

Mike Pfeiffer:
They’re short term thinking oriented, right? You got to think about it more of as a longterm thing, like it’s going to pay off later, not this week or tomorrow. So go in there as a freelancer, get some experience under your belts and do good work for your customers. Be customer obsessed like Amazon. That’s why they’ve won so much. If you take a look at all the big businesses out there that do the best, you’ll realize that they’re customer obsessed. They care more about their customers than anything else. So maybe that means for you, if you’re going to try the freelancing approach, maybe charge a little bit less going forward because you’re new, but provide great value. And then once you get some points on the board, you can start cranking up the fee that you’re going to pay, or that you’re going to charge to do this kind of freelance work.

Mike Pfeiffer:
So then you might think, “Well what if I do that and people still won’t hire me even though it’s low ticket?” Well, one of the things you could do is work for free. That was one of the things that I did when I was trying to basically get into the web development space. I spent a couple of years doing that only because I did the work on my own time to learn things about classic ASP and then eventually .net development. But once I felt confident that I could actually build a real web application, I went and asked a friend of mine that was running a company if I could do some coding for him for free on the side, and one thing led to another, and next thing you know, I’m building web apps and I’m a .net developer for two years. And so I didn’t have any hangups about working for free.

Mike Pfeiffer:
I didn’t mind because I knew that it was going to pay off for me down the road much later. And there’s no shortage of companies out there right now that need help, especially, nonprofits, small startups. I would do a bit of networking in your local community or do it virtually like on LinkedIn and start hitting people up just to be like, “Hey look, I’m working on this. I’ve been focusing on…” Maybe you’re doing .net core development. Go in and say, “Hey, I’ve been working on that and I want to help you guys. Do you have any projects that I can help you with?” Work your ops focus, is there any scripting or automation projects that I could contribute to for free so I could build some experience? This whole game of succeeding in the IT business is really more about relationships and networking than it is knowing everything.

Mike Pfeiffer:
And so working for free and networking with other people is just a great way to get your foot in the door. If you’ve been doing these other things like putting up open source projects, sharing what you’re learning, the folks that you approach about working for free are going to be pretty receptive to that. Finally, one of the last things you could do, is you could just start your own boutique consulting company. That’s what I did. That’s what I do to this day. My company is all about helping people and businesses work with the Azure Cloud and the Amazon Web Services Cloud, and I didn’t ever ask anyone’s permission to start that company. I went and I registered an LLC, I put up a website on the internet. I put my services on there and I started basically asking people if they wanted my help.

Mike Pfeiffer:
And you know the rest is history. So it could be kind of intimidating. Not everybody wants to be an entrepreneur and start their own business, but if you had kind of a side business, you could still work the nine to five, you could have your own business on the side and then you could start to build that thing up. Again, you could do free projects as a business instead of as a freelancer and you could get some customer testimonials going by doing a couple of free projects. Boom. Next thing you know you’ve got a company you’ve got experience, you can put that right on your resume. And by the way, everything that I’ve said so far, you can put on your resume, you can put your GitHub stuff on your resume. Go in there and say open source projects, list out to the open source projects.

Mike Pfeiffer:
You could go in there and list your freelancing experience, any of the projects where you’re working for free as an individual contributor or as a business owner. Put that on your resume as well. Now, obviously the last thing that most of you guys are already working on is getting certified. That will take you into the darker corners of these technologies, and so that’s just a no brainer. If you’re not looking at certifications and you’re thinking about doing this career transition, that’s a mistake. So don’t even get into this if you’re not willing to do the certifications at this point because it’s way too important. There’s way too many people that are looking for that in these job openings. And if you don’t have that, just start working towards it. It’s not going to take you forever, but you have to start. You got to start putting in the work every single day to get better.

Mike Pfeiffer:
It doesn’t have to be monumental or spend two, three hours, but one daily promise of, "I am going to spend 15, 20, 30 minutes to ramp up, that’ll keep you motivated and keep you going in the momentum from that. The consistency is what’s going to pay off long term. One of the biggest things I see people struggling with is just the fact that they’re not consistent. They’re not following through. They’re not chipping away on it. That’s what it takes, so I hope that stuff served you guys. I hope that those ideas are riling around in your head and that you could try some of this stuff on your own, but remember, there’s no hacks. There’s no shortcuts, there’s no escaping the fact that you’re going to have to put in the work and you may not get these projects from your current job. Stop waiting for your manager to pop into the cubicle one day and say, "Hey, we’re going to Azure. I need you to go to the training and do all these things. That might not happen for you. You might be in a place where you’re never going to get that. Your career is your responsibility. That means you have to ramp up outside of office hours if you’re not getting the opportunity to do that at the office. All right, you guys, that’s it for me today. I hope that these tips have helped you and I will see you on the next episode.

Mike Pfeiffer:
Want to keep up with what’s going on in cloud computing? If so, subscribe to my weekly newsletter and get my top five tips every week for staying on top of Azure, AWS, and Google Cloud. Just go to askmike.io/subscribe to join today. Every week I’ll send out information about Cloud architecture and development, containerized applications with Docker and Coobernetti’s, dev ops in automation and strategies for getting the latest cloud computing certifications. So if that sounds awesome to you, go to ask mike.io/subscribe to join the list today.

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