Category Archives: Professional Development

Ask Tom – Do Certifications Matter? – July 14, 2017

DISCLAIMER: I work with CWNP as the CTO, but these opinions are my own and I have held them for more than 20 years now.

Tom,
I have been thinking about acquiring the Security+ and CASP certifications in order to move my IT career in the direction of Information Security. Do the certifications matter or should I just focus on gaining experience?

Sincerely,
Refocused IT Pro

First, there is no replacement for experience. Get experience and get expertise. Expertise does not exist without experience. You can become a professional without experience, but it requires experience to be an expert because an expert has fine-tuned experiential impulses and awareness that do not come through reading, attending classes or gaining certifications. At least not entirely.

Second, yes, you should get certifications. If you want to work in wireless, get the CWNP certifications. If you want to be a DBA, get database administration or programming certifications. If you want to work in security, get at least one certification related to testing (ethical hacking, penetration testing, whatever you wish to call it), one certification in security management like CISSP, and the go to certifications of Security+, CASP and possibly the new CSA+. Furthermore, shameless plug coming, I would get the CWSP certification as not other cert so thoroughly covers Wi-Fi security. Remember, along the way, it is about saturation in knowledge to enable quality experience development above all.

What do certifications prove? They prove you learned the material required to pass the exams (assuming you did not cheat, which will evince itself soon enough and you’ll be out of a job) and I’d rather have someone working for me who has the knowledge and has proven it than someone who claims the knowledge but has not.

As I’ve always said, “Certifications prove you can pass the exams. Not having a certification proves nothing.” It’s really that simple.

Now, I can hear someone arguing, “But Tom, I have significant experience and my resume speaks for itself.” Great! I would rather have someone with significant experience and no certifications than someone with certifications but no experience. However, I’d rather have someone with both. Why? The acquisition of the certification tells me something about the individual (maybe I’m wrong, but I’ve talked to many other IT directors and CTOs who feel the same way). It tells me they are willing to continue their learning and invest in their future. I am comfortable with that person.

I may hire an individual for a job role and not even specify certifications as a requirement. However, when filtering the applications to select candidates, the listed certifications or continued education weight heavily in my decision. Just because a job posting does not list a certification as a requirement, you should not assume your certifications will be of no value to you.

So, in the end, while this is my opinion (held strongly) and not based on empirical data, you are better off having experience and certifications than experience alone. This is, of course a general statement, much like a wise saying of Solomon of old, but it holds true in most cases that I’ve seen.

Good luck on your transition!

Tom

Ask Tom – Getting into IT – May 14, 2017

Tom,
I am interested in changing careers and want to get into the IT world. I have a Bachelor’s degree in another area and am wondering if a Bachelor’s degree in IT/IS is needed. What are your thoughts?

Sincerely,
Job Changer

Dear Job Changer,
Absolutely not! In fact, many of the best IT professionals you’ll ever meet have no degree at all. The three keys to success in IT are:

  • Self-Management Abilities
  • Relational Abilities
  • Technical Abilities

Interestingly, these are the same keys to success in any career, IT is simply no different. However, each career has a different balance among these abilities. For example, early in an IT career, it is weighted heavily toward technical abilities. If you later move into management it becomes more weighted toward relational abilities.

So, my recommendation is simple: find the area of IT that interests you the most, that you can be passionate about, and dive in as deep as you can. Certifications, self-study, learning beyond “what is expected” and you will do great!

Tom

Of Inches and Feet – Or the Origin of a Poor Measuring System

Have you ever wondered why we use inches and feet in the United States or where it came from when the metric system seems to make so much more sense. I mean, really, 12 inches in a foot, 3 feet in a yard. How is this easier than 100 centimeters in a meter? Additionally, the centimeter being smaller than the inch, the metric system, without even addressing millimeters, allows for greater precision. More precision, simpler extrapolation from one unit to the other, where in the world did inches and feet come from?

Well, the inch, according to some, was originally the width of a man’s thumb. Therefore, as he was working he could simply measure out three thumb widths, or four, or five, or whatever length he desired, and he would have consistency in his measurements – within some measure of variance. The important thing to remember is that HE would have consistency in HIS measurements. If another man measured out the same three thumb widths, the actual length, width or height would vary. But, since every item created in the days of yore was a one-off item, this was not a real problem for many craftsmen.

Eventually, around the 14th century, the inch was defined as three corns of barley placed end-to-end. Of course, whether you use the human body or a plant member to define measurement, you are going to end up with inconsistency.

The yard was originally the length of a man’s belt or his girth, according to some sources. Again, depending on your dietary practices, your measurement would be different from another man’s. And your measurement would differ throughout life – at least mine would.

Interestingly, over the years, consistency was developed not for a pure desire for standardization, but out of governmental desire for more taxes. According to The Weights and Measures of England, by R. D. Connor, standardizing on yards and inches (instead of yards and handfuls) was implemented to prevent cloth merchants from avoiding taxes. We can always count on the greed of rulers to provide a standard if nothing else will do.

Thankfully, the modern world is moving more and more to the metric system (in fact, most of the world outside the U.S. these days) and we can get away from what is now a consistent but confusing system and use a consistent and simple system. No longer will I have to teach my small children or grandchildren creative techniques for remembering 12 inches make a foot and 3 feet make a yard.

Now we just have to get rid of miles so we don’t have to talk about 5280 feet in a mile anymore. 1000 meters in a kilometer is so much easier, don’t you think?

What If? Have you ever wondered what the world would be like if we always listened to the experts?

You walk down the front walk of your summer home and approach the moving truck parked in the driveway. It is a normal thing in today’s advanced society to work for the same company, but roam from place to place. You think to yourself, “How did they ever live without these portable computers all those years ago?” The ability to take a computer on the road with you wasn’t even a dream in the beginning, but now it’s a reality.

You open the rear door of the moving truck and step up through the narrow opening. The area is very crowded, but there is just enough room for your office chair and a few spare square feet of desk space. “Ahhh… advancements in technology,” you say to the bare walls of the truck. “Now then, let’s kick start this baby.”

After a long day of work in these tight quarters, you step out of the twenty-six foot moving truck and walk back into the house.

You are probably thinking, “C’mon, Tom. What are you talking about? There are no portable computers that require a moving truck to haul them.” Right you are, but this is – WHAT IF?

Here is what was reported in 1949:

Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps only weigh 1 1/2 tons.
-Popular Mechanics, March 1949

Didn’t know someone said that? Just hold on because there is much more to follow.

The truth of it all is that we’ve all been deceived. They have tried to convince us that these computers are worth something. The things we’re doing with them aren’t really productive, they are worthless. You don’t agree? Why not? A couple of really important people did:

Worthless.
-Sir George Bidell Airy (Astronomer Royal of Great Britain), in reference to the potential value of Charles Babbage’s analytical engine. Charles is considered to the the inventor of the computer today.

“What the ____ is it good for?”
-Robert Lloyd (an engineer at IBM) in response to colleagues who insisted that the microprocessor was the future of the computer industry in 1968.

Do you agree? Neither do I, but what if we had listened to them?

How many new computers are shipped every year? Not too many, as a matter of fact it has averaged .09 computers every year for the last forty-five years. Wow! How did we ever do it? Since 1943 we have developed and marketed five whole computers.

I realize that this sounds a little far-fetched, but I can prove it:

“I think there is a world market for about five computers.”
-Thomas Watson, Chairman of the Board of IBM, 1943

In reality, however, we have produced and marketed, not only millions of systems, but literally hundreds of different kinds of computer systems as well. He said five computers, but look at this list of computer types over the last thirty to forty years:

  • ATARI 800
  • IBM
  • Apple II
  • Apple IIe
  • Apple IIgs
  • Apple Macintosh
  • Commodore VIC-20 (I loved this one.)
  • Commodore 64 (Another personal favorite.)
  • Commodore 128
  • Commodore Amiga
  • TRS-80
  • Tandy 1000
  • Adam

I could go on, but I believe that my point is made – but what if?

We don’t need you. You haven’t got through college yet.
-HP Executive, 1976

Get your feet off my desk, get out of here, you stink, and we’re not going to buy your product.
-Joe Keenan, President of Atari, 1976

There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.
-Ken Olson, President of DEC, 1977

It is a really good thing that we didn’t listen to these wise people. If we had, we would have undoubtedly been greatly delayed in the development of the personal computer system. The first one, the HP executive, was responding to Steve Jobs when he offered HP his Apple II computer design. The second quote was Atari’s response to Steve, and the third quote is just a bit of wisdom from the era.

Steve ignored these people, and financed the development of the Apple II himself. This act launched the personal computer revolution as we know it today – for the most part anyway. But – what if?

Well, we could go on talking about people like Bill Gates and others. But I’ll be nice and simply end by saying I am really glad I have over 8 GB of RAM in all of my computers. Aren’t you, Bill? Or maybe he still has 640k.

Aren’t you glad that you have never said anything that turned out to be wrong in your life? I know I am!

Oh yeah… now for my prediction of the future. I predict that we will all evolve into computers and then the computers will rule the world. It will be like a matrix kind of thing. I wonder if anyone else has ever thought of anything like that?

The reality is that experts can often get caught up in their knowledge of the present and lose sight of the possible.

The point of it all is this: as we enter the new year of 2017, dream. Dream and don’t let those around you say your dreams are impossible. Just dream, plan and act and see what your future may hold.

Happy holidays!

Earning Dividends on Your Mistakes

We often think of mistakes as horrible things. We label them bad, negative or as a failed action. However, it’s possible to learn a lesson that brings value from our mistakes. In reading a book published in 1911, titled How to Systematize the Day’s Work, I came across the following excerpt:

Dividends on Mistakes

A mistake may be made the keystone of system – the foundation of success. The secret is simple: Don’t make the same mistake twice.

The misspelling of a customer’s name – an error in your accounting methods – an unfulfilled promise; these are valuable assets if they teach you exactness.

Let your mistakes shape your system and your system will prevent such mistakes. When you discover a mistake, sit down then and there, and arrange the system to prevent its repetition.

Paint it on your walls; emblazon it on your door; frame it over your desk; say it to your stenographer; think it to yourself; burn it into your brain; this one secret of system, this one essential to success: DON’T MAKE THE SAME MISTAKE TWICE. (emphasis original)

As I read through this section, I couldn’t help but think about the years of teaching I’ve delivered on documentation and its importance to effective troubleshooting and operations and also the process of becoming an expert. This concept of learning from your mistakes is a big part of becoming an expert and it is a significant factor in becoming an effective technician. Ineffectiveness is often born out of the ignoring of our mistakes, which results in their repeated occurrence. What an excellent insight to begin the new year!

You Ate Your Cheese

“Who Moved My Cheese?” is one of the most popular books in history that addresses change and how to cope with it in your life; however, I would suggest that, for IT professionals and many others, we need an eye-opening, honest book with a title more like, “You Ate Your Cheese.”

You see, the point is that most of the career challenging and life altering work-related changes that occur can be predicted in the technology sector. For example:

  • If you still desire to be supporting Windows 3.1 computers, you ate your cheese.
  • If you still think modems are the best way to connect to the Internet, you ate your cheese.
  • If you think dBase is a modern database, you ate your cheese.
  • If you think Apple is the winner in the mobile phone space, you ate your cheese.
  • If you think InfoSeek is the best search engine, you ate your cheese.
  • If you think Colorado Jumbo 250 tape drives are still a good backup solution, you ate your cheese.
  • If you think Zip drives are the greatest external storage solution ever made, you ate your cheese.
  • If you think 802.11b wireless is fast enough, you ate your cheese.
  • If you think you can control every device users bring into your environment, you ate your cheese.
  • If you think Commodore will make a comeback, you ate your cheese.
  • If you think Windows XP is here to stay, you ate your cheese.
  • If you think Mac OS X will win the OS wars, hmmm, let’s wait and see.

OK. This should be enough to make the point. You eat your cheese when you stick with the knowledge you have and do not grow and learn with the industry. If you think you can master a technology and then just work with that for 20 years, you’re in the wrong industry. I suggest that you consider returning shopping carts to their storage locations at the local departments store. It’s one of the few jobs I know of that is still pretty much like it was 20 years ago. Even in that job, many facilities now have motorized cart pushers to ease the strain on the staff.

Do you see the point? You must continue learning in practically all jobs these days and this is particularly true in IT. If you find yourself in a situation where your skills are no longer in demand, no one moved your cheese, you ate your cheese. It’s time to become cheesemakers and not just cheese eaters. When you use up all the skill you have, it’s often too late to develop new skills. Cheesemakers develop skills continually. Certifications are a great way to do this, but simply learning new skills that you can apply for your current employer or customers can be a great way to evolve over time so that you never get into a situation where you’ve eaten your cheese.

So, the next time someone tells you that someone else moved their cheese, just look them in the eye and kindly say, no, you ate your cheese.

NOTICE: This post is not intended to cover all scenarios in life and is likely to have missed many situations where cheese is indeed moved by a third party. In such situations, advice from books like Who Moved My Cheese? may indeed be helpful. Individuals should consider this post to be advice only and not a medical, physical, emotional or psychological solution to the trauma induced by the moving of said cheese.

Three Steps to Becoming an Expert

NOTE: This is an article I wrote several years ago. I hope you enjoy!

Have you ever noticed that experts make more money than generalists? That’s because they specialize and generalists generalize. Or, as Zig Ziglar says, they are a wandering generality.

How did I become an expert in certain areas? How have others always done it? It’s really simpler than you may think and I’m going to reveal it to you in this brief article.

There are three easy steps to becoming an expert:

  1. Choose the Expertise
  2. Make Your Knowledge 90/99
  3. Tell Them What You Know

Let’s look at these three steps individually.

Choose the Expertise

The first step is really the hardest. You wouldn’t think so, would you?

The reason this step is the hardest is because it is the step that the other two are built on. If you ever decide to change your mind about your expertise, it means learning all over again. Therefore, you should put lots of energy into this step.

So, how do you decide on your expertise? Look at what you love and enjoy.

Do you like fishing? Become an expert at bass fishing in the lakes of northern Ohio.

Do you like gardening? Become an expert in growing African flowers in American soil.

Do you like politics? Become an expert in inaugural addresses and their impact on the presidential term.

Notice that I took a generality and made it a specific. You should do this too. I am not just an expert in the field of computers, I also specialize in technical communication skills. I am a general expert in computers/networking and a specialized expert in technical communication skills.

Make Your Knowledge 90/99

I state this when teaching classes on personal growth and I am often asked what I mean. Well, that’s the intention of the statement – to get you to ask.

Here is the answer: You should know more than 90% of the people about your general area of expertise and more than 99% of the people about your specific area of expertise.

Remember that I am a computer expert specializing in technical communication skills. I know more than 90% of the people when it comes to computers, but I know more than 99% of the people when it comes to technical communication skills.

How do you accomplish this level of knowledge? Read, read and then read some more. Go to training classes. Read at least 5 books on the topic. Subscribe to and read 2 or 3 magazines on the topic. Attend 2 training classes per year on the topic. Get experience with the topic.

If you do these things, you will definitely be a 90/99!

Tell Them What You Know

You have to tell people what you know or they won’t know you know.. ya know?

The easiest way to tell your peers and managers (or anyone else) what you know is to put it in writing. Write tips and articles for the company employees (like the one you’re reading and enjoying now).

Depending on your desired goal, you may consider writing magazine articles and offering them for free to various publications. Start a blog on the area you’ve chosen. These days, it’s one of the most powerful ways to become known as an authoritative expert. You may even decide to go for the gold and write that book!

Summary

If people look at you as an expert, they will respect your opinion much more. As a matter of fact, if they don’t look at you as an expert, they probably won’t even listen to what you have to say.

In order to become an expert you must first determine the area of expertise you desire. Then come up with a specific area of that expertise to become even more knowledgeable in.

Focus on the 90/99 rule. Make sure you know more than 90% of the people in your general expertise and more than 99% of the people in your specialized area of expertise.

Tell people what you know through articles and tips. Go for the big one and write a book. Do what it takes to get your name out as an expert.

Yes! You can be an expert!

-Tom Carpenter

Three Reasons Why My Surface Pro Is A Beast Compared To Your Non-Windows Tablet

1) Running Windows Apps
…and I mean all Windows Apps. I can run a Windows XP VM, using VMware Player or other tools, and then run most any application I desire – even those not directly compatible with Windows 8. Yes, it is a bit clunky sometimes trying to “click” in the right place with my fat finger, but pulling out the pen typically resolves this issue. The point is that I can run very important software apps for an IT geek like me, such as protocol analyzers, spectrum analyzers and programming tools and I can run them all in their full-blown power – not in some limited, nearly useless, tablet version.

 
2) It’s A Computer
…a real computer. Running with 4 GB RAM and a lickety-split fast processor, I can do anything other basic laptops can do. With a small USB 3 hub, I can connect multiple USB devices at the same time. The Surface Pro, and its sister Windows 8 Pro tablets now coming out, is the only tablet that can “really” be used as a tablet and then as a desktop computer. When I go into my office, I can plug it into a USB cable (attached to a powered hub) and have full access to external storage, keyboard and mouse. Then I plug in the video cable and I have a large screen monitor. The performance is as good as my 2 year old desktop sitting across the room.

 
3) It’s A Tablet
…in spite of what many have said (mostly those who have not used it), the Surface Pro is a tablet. Granted, it’s a bit heavier than an iPad, but, then again, it can do a few thousand things the iPad can never do (because of its limited interface options and applications – that’s right, I just said the iPad has limited applications over the Surface Pro because it cannot run all of the Windows apps released over the past decade or more [see reason number 1]). The touch sensitivity is equal to my iPad and my best Android-based devices. No problems there.  The pen is very accurate and makes for excellent diagramming – far superior to that available on either the iPad or the Android-based tablets.

 
As a side note – I have used iDevices off and on for more than three years and Android-based devices during that time – I have lots of experience with all three device types. I have waited a couple of months to write this post because I was initially blown away by the Surface Pro and I thought, “surely this is going to wear off and I will see the flaws in this device that make it less appealing than the Apple or Android devices.” Based on the reviews I had seen to that point, I thought I must be confused about how great it is. Now, after more than two months of use, I am more convinced than ever that, for an IT geek, the other tablets can’t even come close (though this may not be true for the general user). Going back and exploring those reviews again, it became obvious to me that most negative reviews fell into one of the following two categories:

  • Reviews by people who had not used the Surface Pro but commentated only on its features.
  • Reviews by people who had used Apple devices for nearly all their work (laptops and tablets) for several years.

Certainly, people in the first category, should not be taken seriously. People in the second category should be taken very seriously because they do present an issue for Microsoft. Microsoft has to address the learning curve for that group (and it includes many, many younger buyers today). But I don’t work for Microsoft marketing, so that’s their problem and this adaptivity is not in any way a reflection of usefulness or value for those who are willing to adapt. Stated another way, if a device is harder to use for someone who has been using another device, this is not an important  factor in the measurement of either the usability or the functional usefulness of that device. It is simply proof that they know how to use the other device better. Simple as that. From a functional perspective, no one can argue with sincerity that the iPad or Android tablets offer more than the Surface Pro (with the possible exception of access to memory cards, but that is easily solved with a USB memory card reader – though it is, admittedly, not a pretty solution).

 
The reality is that I could go on with another thirty reasons that the Surface Pro is far better for the average IT geek than the other non-Windows tablets, but I simply lack the energy to persuade you. My goal is not really to persuade anyone anyway – just to be a voice that is not influenced by the anti-Microsoft bias that is so common out there. Here’s the way I would summarize it. Do you want a device that can do all the following in equal capability to a laptop while being a true tablet?

  • Run advanced IT software
  • Access custom USB hardware
  • Run virtual machines
  • Run Office – real Office or Office-like applications with all capabilities
  • Access hundreds of thousands (millions ?) of full-featured applications
  • Current access to tens of thousands of custom Windows 8 UI apps (with a growth rate surpassing 100,000 by the end of summer) – think of these as the “tablet” apps for Windows 8
  • The best Internet browsing experience of any tablet (remember, you can install Firefox or Chrome on here – and I mean the real ones, not the lame tablet releases [smile])

Then Surface Pro (or one of its sister Windows 8 tablets coming out from other vendors) is right for you. Certainly, it’s not for everyone, but I cannot even fathom thinking the competing OS-based tablets are better tablet tools for the standard IT pro. However, many will disagree with me and just keep complaining to software vendors about the fact that their needed IT tools are just not available for the iPad that they use.

 

Just sayin’

Zig Ziglar – You Will Be Missed

I know, I’m an IT guy. Why am I talking about a sales trainer and author from the 1970s? Because Zig Ziglar became much more than a sales trainer throughout his grand career. He was a trainer, motivator, leader and mentor to so many including me. On the morning of November 28, 2012, Zig passed at the age of 86.

Many people have influenced my life over the years. In the tech sector, Mark Minasi responded to my emails in the 1990s (I was shocked) and shaped my perception of what an author should be like and how an IT industry expert should interact with his or her customers. In the religious world, Jesus (without comparison) has impacted me more than any man and my Pastor, Richard Collins, has had a profound impact on my life.

From a business perspective, no one has probably impacted me more than Zig Ziglar. Sadly, I did not have the chance to meet him, but his audio programs and philosophies have strengthened me through tough times over the past 20 years. I would describe him like this, “Zig Ziglar was a leader and not someone who talked about leadership.” Why? He wasn’t afraid to risk everything to stand up for something. That’s a leader. Someone who tells you how to lead, but doesn’t stand up for something, is really no leader at all. Zig was a leader.

Yes, he is gone, but his legacy remains. It remains in me. It remains in thousands. It remains in books, audio and video recordings that will live on. It remains, because it had an impact. It remains, because it came from passion. It remains, because it should.

Zig, I truly do hope to see you, at the top!

Tom

Value of Certification

While reading through the most recent issue of Information Security Magazine (which is really just a Web site more than a magazine now days), I came across a well written article titled Determining the Value of Infosec Certifications. I was enjoying the article until I came upon those wonderful cloaking phrases like "in my experience" and "it did surprise me." The first statement indicates that the author doesn't care what statistics say when they disagree with his or her opinion. The second statement is an admission of the fact that the survey data disagrees with his or her opinion. The point is that the author of the referenced article is insisting that his view (certifications are not that important) is more correct than the statistics. In fact, when 54 percent of the respondents of a survey said that they received a promotion directly related to having a security certification, the author said that this was just their "perception" and that he was surprised by this.

Maybe this author should look at government employees working in security who are absolutely required to have certain security certifications if they want to continue in their roles. There is no question, regardless of anyone's opinion, of whether these employees are benefited (in their job opportunities) by having certifications like the CISSP, CWSP, Security+ and CASP.

Now the author is right about one thing: very rarely do professionals gain employment exclusively on a certification. However, this does not diminish the value of the certification. Yes, experience is important; however, give me a technologist with ten years of experience with no certifications and another with the exact same experience and multiple certifications, I'm going with the certified candidate every time. Why? Because the possession of the certification tells me something about the individual. It tells me she or he is not an arrogant know-it-all who feels that her or his methods are always right. This makes me feel more comfortable as an employer. I can trust that they will not "do their own thing" regardless of the damage it may do to my organization or my client's organizations.

I'm very appreciative of the article's author for pointing out that experience is essential. He is right about that for sure, but certifications tell us the individual is willing to learn and prove his knowledge. When someone tells me that certifications don't prove anything, here is my simple response, "Not getting certified definitely proves nothing." Think about it. The truth can't be more simple: getting certified proves you have the knowledge to pass that exam; not getting certified proves that you are not certified. Certainly, gaining certifications relevant to the area in which you wish to work cannot do you any harm.