I wasn’t the smartest kid in school. I was either bored and making better use of my time in class or frustrated by things I did not understand. Even if I ignore my devastating track record of attempts in mastering the Latin language I was a below average student in terms of grades. During most, but not all, school years I made it to the next level.
The teachers conference decided to issue an official report. It translates to: “He has a very superficial, headstrong work attitude to the extent that he can not apply his knowledge constructively. Although he can work without supervision his written works are so messy, confusing, and incomplete that he sometimes can not even read it himself. He regularly ignores the task so that the result can not be accepted.”
In fact, I took a bit longer to finish school. Constantly choosing adventure over conventional education challenges I ended up taking a little detour on my way to university. In 2017, after serving over a decade in the Radio Signal Corps, I left the Army as an officer to pursue a career in the exciting realm of the Interwebz.
Veterans can be a healthy addition to a workforce that embraces servant leadership. On the downside, veterans are not necessarily top-notch tech people. Likely, we worked with ruggarized, battle-proven tech that is at least a couple of years behind the forefront of technology. Let me translate this to tech slang to drive home the point: When everyone was talking docker and containers, the military world slowly adopted to the idea of virtualization. We just loved the chilling touch of bare metal.
Me and my bare metal 1 MBit/s directed “wifi” antenna with a range of 60 to 80 kilometers (subject to weather conditions).
About a year before my term ended I started to ramp up my self-education efforts to prepare for my civilian afterlife. The problem was that I had no idea where to start and what type of job exactly I was in the market for. Sure, I had the chance to get some exposure to the civilian world earlier in my career by providing side-job consultancy services on information security. And yes, when I later wrote a book about IPv6 networking I once again got in touch with the reality of the outside world. But other than that, I was mostly qualified to lead people, educate young adults, manage assets worth millions of Euros, and apply risk management to a myriad of unexpected situations. Furthermore, one of my top skills was planning, building, and operating wide area radio networks in unfortunate (read: war) circumstances. Some of my skills would be valued by potential employers while others would not score any points. In hindsight, joining the military wasn’t my greatest life choice.
The (un)importance of certificates
Having spent years in the astonishing bureaucracy the military is I longed for getting “certified”. Certifications go a long way in a government job and it never hurts your government career to be certified for something. Usually, the more certificates one has the better. I wasted a lot of money on certificates. Here’s a best-of:
- ITIL Expert
- It’s basically common sense for big corp IT, but without user trust.
- When I added that one to LinkedIn I even got a few offers, mostly from boring companies but not The Boring Company. ba-dum-tss
- ISO 27000 Information Security Officer
- Here’s the officer again! Nice title. It bored me to death.
- Service Integration and Management (SIAM)
- I honestly don’t remember what this was about. Probably something with managing third party contractors and IT. Nevertheless, I’m certified.
- Management of Risk (M_o_R)
- Yes, the underscores are part of the brand name. D’oh!
- This one may have been one of the more useful ones, though. A lucky pick!
There are many more! For added hilarity, I listed all my certificates on LinkedIn where they are still present today and lure recruiters. They also serve as a reminder to myself to never go down that road again. Today, I consider the majority of my certificates useless. Lesson learned.
While I was getting more qualified for even more boring jobs with high certification requirements it happened that the Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) book landed on my desk. I don’t remember exactly how that happened. My friend Fred worked at Nest in Palo Alto when they got acquired by Google. His Silicon Valley stories always raised my interest. I was particularly curious how tech companies run their production systems and how they apply risk management. Somewhere around that time I had been advised to buy the SRE book. I digested every chapter of the book. I was (and still am) inspired by the tech and practices described in the book. With SRE the industry found a quite good balance between human needs and operation demands. It’s clear objective of not feeding blood to the machines and establishing a blameless culture is what turns a scary job into a positively challenging adventure with a guarantee for surprise adrenaline every now and then…
SRE is about scalability on many levels. First and foremost, on the human level. We run computers that run computers that run computers…
Getting my hands dirty
I entered “Site Reliability Engineer Munich” into my favorite search engine and applied to the first three jobs posted by companies that sounded cool and interesting. Eventually I joined eGym which has been on a success streak and needed help becoming stronger on the SRE side of things. This allowed me to educate myself about SRE, try out new approaches, and help the operations team to sell the idea to the rest of the engineering department.
Eventually the team would re-organize to become the SRE team while establishing a close relationship with a development team for shared services. On-call was staffed with developers and SREs alike and we slowly adopted some SRE practices while respecting the existing culture of autonomous teams running their own infrastructure and operations. I enjoyed my job very much, mostly because I believed (and still believe) in the product but also because I was able to move things forward.
And then I was approached by a Google recruiter and a Facebook recruiter within the same week. At first I declined interviewing, I was happy with my job and also way too busy further establishing SRE within eGym. However, when I saw potential salary negotiations coming closer I felt like I should take the chance and evaluate my market value. What better way to get firsthand data than getting an actual offer?
After interviewing I got offered a Production Engineering role by Facebook in London and a Site Reliability Manager role by Google in Munich. This gave me a good starting point for the upcoming compensation discussion. Fun fact: When I got the Google offer call I had to duck into an abandoned storage room due to lack of privacy in the office.
Me nervously getting ready to answer an offer call in an abandoned storage room.
When faced with more options I could have dreamed of I took a week of vacation to consider my options and get consultation from my future wife. It was not an easy decision for me. I loved my job, most of my role, and most importantly I had a great, growing team. Eventually, I decided to stay a little longer with eGym to deliver upon an important migration project. After that, in January 2019, I joined Google Munich.
What does it mean to be qualified?
One important aspect I learned during the interviews is that skills and knowledge are two very different things. For sure, a job at Google asks for a lot of knowledge. But that knowledge is what I would call a healthy base. Knowing every detail of every technology that is related to my role would not have helped me much in the application and interviewing process. Once I achieved a certain (admittedly advanced) level of knowledge I had to demonstrate skills as well. Skills in this context means the application of knowledge, the ability to deal with occasional lack of knowledge, the constant striving for filling knowledge gaps and re-learning and questioning the status quo of technology. There is not a single day that goes by in an organisation as large and complex as Google where you do not have to acquire and apply new knowledge. Knowing and learning things is the bare minimum. Effectively applying knowledge in ambiguous situations is one of the major skills Google is looking for.
With that in mind, the answer is much easier: You are qualified when you found a healthy balance between knowledge and skills. What qualifies one is not the education, not the background, not previous tech jobs, and also not a track record of brilliant achievements at the expense of other people. Collaboratively applying knowledge in situations that come with varying levels of uncertainty, are inherently complex, and often loaded with human factors is what sets one apart and qualifies one. So much for certificates…
- If you liked this article, you may enjoy John Washam’s post Why I studied full-time for 8 months for a Google interview.
- I can also recommend How to get into SRE in which Alice Goldfuss shares her path to Site Reliability Engineering.
- Fellow SRE and my co-worker in now two companies Kordian shared his journey as well.