A Journey to modern-day IT relevance
We keep hearing this term day in and day out it seems. Attending conferences, meet-ups and other social events keep pushing this down our throats in one way or another. So what exactly are they trying to tell us and how do I take what is being said and put it to use in my world? Well I want to take you on a journey throughout my career and hope to make some sense out of all of this. Also I encourage feedback to help others understand the philosophy and ideas but also to help me grow as well. After all, when I hear what is being preached it totally makes sense to me and I take this for granted and sometimes fail to realize that not everyone sees things the same way.
Early Early Days
I want to start out by putting some context around my age to hopefully set my perspective on all of this. No I am not old and no I am not young. I am 43 years old at the time of this writing. I like many others were raised during a time when computers and coding were not mainstream and were definitely not cool at all. I was a sports jock (Football and Baseball). I lived and breathed sports. I had a great opportunity that laid in front of me to be a future potential professional baseball player. However after many knee injuries and ACL replacements those dreams dwindled away rather quickly. With this being said I actually had another passion that not many people around me knew of. It was the fact that I loved writing code. I began writing code (BASIC) when I was about 13 on a TRS-80 (‘Trash-80’). My father would bring me home copies of Rainbow magazine and I would copy line for line the code and of course over time began creating my own code to do many different things. What I learned from all of this is that I honestly wanted a career which would be rather easy and rewarding at the same time (Most people do right?). So as I grew from around 13 years old until I graduated from high school in 1990 I had it in the back of my head that I wanted to go onto college for computer programming. Fast forward to around 1991 after taking a bit of time off between high school and college I began my journey into college to become a hardcore coder. I began writing Assembler code on a VAX system and absolutely loved being at the lowest of low in a computer system. Getting your mind to function from right to left vs. normal left to right was the biggest hurdle to overcome but it definitely helped in getting my mind to think differently. I then moved onto Quick BASIC (No line numbers and loops :), C, C++, DBase and then dabbled in FORTRAN, PASCAL and RPG. I remember the day when sitting with some classmates and saying “Man, wouldn’t it be awesome if there was a UNIX that could be running on our PC’s at home and not have to spend all of our time in the labs at college?”. We knew about MINIX but it was not free or open. Well that turned into a few of us getting together and beginning to design out what was going to be our own OS written from scratch. After spending some time kicking around all of these ideas and putting some code around these ideas I soon realized the toll that being a coder was putting on my day-to-day life. I did not want to be this man behind a door without a life and not be able to have a normal conversation with others. So I began to back off and I eventually dropped out of college and stopped writing code. I began to level set where I was and where I wanted to go in life with computers still being a focus (Remember, an easy and rewarding career was my goal). So I took a break for a while.
Next I began my journey down the road of becoming more of an admin/engineer. I finally landed what would be my first IT gig around 1993. I was working for a company who built Ham Radios (I have no idea on how to even use one). My role there was to take prototypes, design them out in AutoCad by using a micrometer and bend calculations based on the type of metal being used, draw them in AutoCad and then produce a punch disk to take down to an assembly line in where they would stamp out what I had drawn out. Finding this pretty cool to actually take something that I had drawn out and see the final product was rather rewarding to me. But I wanted more. It was at this same job that I had the opportunity to also begin learning some Novell Netware 3.x and basic networking. This is when I really began realizing how much I really liked making all of these different devices on a network to talk to one another. I then moved onto learning Windows For WorkGroups 3.1x and then Windows NT 3.1 during this time as well. All of this learning of course helped me land my next gig. Which was where I continued to learn additional networking as well as Microsoft Exchange and cloning out machines from Iomega Jaz drives. 🙂 In 1995 I finally was also treated with my first home copy of Linux, Slackware 3.x, oh the joy of loading up 30+ floppy drives and installing the whole OS from these only to find out that it didn’t really work! But that was fine by me being that I enjoyed being able to reverse engineer something and begin to learn how to make things work when they didn’t from the start. And this began my Linux journey to 20 years later of everyday using Linux. Now keep in mind I also equally kept and keep learning all Windows versions inside and out along the way as well. So over the next few years I continued learning Linux, Windows and every other OS I could get my hands on. And finally I was exposed to Cisco networking around 1998. I was lucky enough to have a colleague who would spend countless hours helping me learn network routing and switching and eventually firewalls as well. Did I learn it completely? Absolutely not. However, I did learn it enough to add it to my growing knowledge of how things begin to come together. This also lead me to other learning experiences of hacking and learning how vulnerabilities were exposed and utilized. Then in 1999 I was handed a copy of this thing called VMware Workstation 1.0 and I thought to myself “this is the coolest thing ever” until I got my hands on early VMware ESX, VMware GSX and so on. And it was these products that began my journey from an admin into more of an architecture type role over the years. As I began learning more and more about networking, storage and compute I continued to look back and question myself about where I would be if I were to still be a coder. This also discouraged me as well, because I still wanted to not live in this little box writing code. So I would over the next 10+ years continue to learn a new technology each and every week reaching way out of my comfort zone as much as possible. All of the time always trying to look ahead and see how each additional thing that I learned could be used in conjunction with the previous things that I had already learned. Again, never being an expert but understanding the philosophy and purpose that each thing would/could serve. What I really did not realize is that in some sort of sense I was beginning a different type of development mindset. Instead of writing code, I was figuring out more and more all of the time on how to take all of these different technologies and tie them together to make this bigger thing. Sure, you could spend a ton of money on these solutions but why would I? I could take many of these open source projects and make them function in a very elaborate way, and each different thing I would learn leant itself to the next.
So as time went on and I would say the past 4 years are in mind here. I began to realize for myself that what was driving me day to day from an infrastructure architect type role was starting to get dry for me. All of the years that I had been using Linux it was still amazing to me that it was very seldom where you could find online a blog post or anything that could truly step you through from beginning to end a fully working open source product. It was then that I began a different journey. I wanted to take the countless hours that I would spend in making a solution work and put it into either a complete blog post and/or a corresponding shell script. That a normal person could take and go from start to finish and have a workable solution with very little interaction along the way. Again, another form of developing (Automation, not coding). It was during this time that I also realized that it would be time again soon that writing code would be crucial in my future development. And during this time as well I discovered configuration management tools such as Chef, Puppet and Salt. Each time I would try and take the time to go and learn each of these it always seemed like a setback to me. It seemed that I would have to take the time to learn these elaborate tools in which I could easily still do most of the tasks that I required just writing shell scripts. It was honestly until I found Ansible where I finally gave up writing shell scripts and fully dedicated myself to every solution that I put together, no matter how big or how small it may be into a playbook or role. Again, the whole time ensuring that I could share this code with others and they could reproduce an environment easily by changing a few variables. Another important lesson that I learned during this time of writing shell scripts and Ansible roles/playbooks was the value of version control and continuous integration. As I wrote these shell scripts and Ansible roles/playbooks and committed the code to GIT, I would leverage Jenkins and/or Travis CI to ensure that all of the code was successful and if it was not, where was it breaking down and what changed. It is with these sort of methodologies that I began preaching the importance of these tools to others. Either for just writing up installations of apps, elaborate clustered solutions or even just network configurations. Some are believers and then some are not of course. But my hopes are that being able to share my experiences, methodologies and creating ways for others to learn from will have a huge impact. The fact that for the majority of people do not even know how to get started has become more apparent over the past few months. By being involved in conferences and other social gatherings what seems logical to myself seems rather far fetched for others. Or the simple fact is that they do not even know how to get started on learning some of these tools.
My goal as of now and going forward is to take many of these methodologies and technologies and put them into a consumable format for others to begin learning (ex. here). Maybe someone just wants to learn Ansible for automation but maybe another may want to learn the same but have the ability to test out a network design using different routing protocols while using the exact IP scheme which is being used in production and not have to worry about breaking production. I will be leveraging Vagrant from an ease of defining an environment virtually on your laptop and tying in Ansible along with whatever solution you may be putting together. In doing this I believe that this along with a corresponding blog post will help others to go from ground up and beginning to understand the things that can keep your relevance in IT. Although one may argue that being a virtualization person is good enough, I would argue against that and say that knowing virtualization is only one piece of the puzzle for one to know. Virtualization is like an OS in my opinion. It is purely a building block to a bigger solution. I know I sound like others spreading FUD at events but it is honestly the truth. I heard a great panel discussion that was stressing the importance of taking an admin and turning them into a developer and on the flip side taking a developer and turning them into an admin. This may seem rather fictional to some but it is very much true. You do not have to be an expert on any one thing, however; being able to have an intelligent broad discussion across all elements is key. No matter if it is code, application design, infrastructure or administration. Having the ability to understand each element is absolutely crucial. So I absolutely encourage everyone to get outside of your element and learn and share. And hopefully this does not sound like all of the FUD you hear day in and day out. But I find myself being living proof of what is continually being talked about. And oh, by the way, I have began writing or hacking a bit of code as of late as well. However, I plan on writing a lot of code coming soon. I think for me personally it was a maturity lesson or maybe just a venture of learning what all else goes on outside of code.