Newbie Guide to Systems Engineering

In recent times, I have had the privilege to work with a bunch of talented and aspiring graduates at VMware starting off their careers as systems engineers. It is quite interesting to think about how their journey is far different from mine years ago.

For most of us (of a certain age), we started off doing professional services, hands on work, countless hours in the data center and eventually making the big break in systems engineering. For the newbies at VMware, they are fresh from university and the concept of the data center in itself is foreign to most of them.

They have a very different view of the world may be different but their willingness to learn and ability to absorb reminded me of myself when I started out. Some may say systems engineering can’t be that hard, but in my opinion, it is not just hard, it is extremely difficult to do it well. I may not necessarily be the thought leader in terms of coaching new SE's, but I would like to share a few pointers for anyone starting out...

Opportunity

The ability to understand, memorise and pass certifications, out from school is second nature for most but it is not a reflection of the skill sets required in the field.

Many complain about their inability to get opportunities to have field practice due to the organisation structures, setups and/or politics. Frankly, if opportunity doesn’t present itself, create that opportunity!

Offer your services, be shameless in tagging along for sales calls, volunteer to drive a discussion and much more. I don’t believe in sitting and waiting for opportunities.

You want it, show them you want it. Volunteer to do more than you should.

Troll the Intranet

The largest repository of field experience are often found internally in knowledge base articles or internal forums. Issues with products, off the manual type deployments and real life know hows are often discussed in detail. Subscribe to those threads, read it religiously and have a go at searching for answers when nobody has one.

Everyone can read a manual, but solving an issue nobody can is a whole different level.

Lab Work

Some may have differing opinions but I am a strong believer that a SE with the ability to sell and have hands-on ability is the way to go. You learn the solution faster by doing it, experience the bumps and capability not just from slides.

What many don’t realise is the confidence that it builds. How many times have you committed to a feature that you have read on slides but you are not sure how it works? How many times have you been asked if a solution would work given a slight deviation of how it was in slides?

If you have done it in the lab, broke it and reassembled it, you speak with a different air of confidence. That knowledge and know-how translates in a customer setting.

Speak Up

New SE’s often know a lot more than they think. It is the self doubt that they need to get past. Afraid of saying something irrelevant or wrong? Is it your turn to speak up? Do I correct the customer? Does all the scenarios resonate with you? My advice, don’t be afraid to fail. If its wrong, or you spoke out of place, learn from it and hopefully it will be the last time it will ever happen.

A senior is merely a senior, doesn’t mean they are always right. Challenging them helps with your learning process and the same applies to customer scenarios. You represent your organisation and you wear the badge, chances are, you are often more knowledgeable about the solution than the person sitting across from you.

Soft Skills

I don’t fault you from learning from slides, manuals and every single possible document that you can get your hands on when you start your journey. Being technically sound for a SE is a given. Having said that, it is not just technical knowledge that you need to know.

SE’s need to master the intricate art of reading a situation, understanding body languages, sales positioning, structuring deals, and much more. Some may say, isn’t that what a sales guy would do? You are spot on, but a SE also needs to have these capabilities to understand and complement the sales teams. It may not be your key responsibilities, but extremely crucial in a winning team.

Unfortunately, this is not something that you can read and learn from a book. Find yourself a mentor, observe them, ask them, get tips from them as to how they work through their opportunities. I will admit this is a difficult skill to master.

Don’t Stop Learning

Its cliche to say that we continue learning throughout our careers, but it is true especially in tech. I only have one advice, don’t let anyone be a barrier/roadblock to your ability to learn.

True story. When I started off, I wanted to learn networking but no customer would allow me to touch their networks. Fair point, given a mistake would potentially take an entire enterprise down. So, I saved up many months of my paycheck, bought a full rack of used Cisco switches and learned it all by myself. If you think network was sensitive, SAN storages was a no go for newbies. I was intrigued by storage and backup and unlike switches, not seemingly easy to afford even a used tape library, FC switch or storage system. So the only way I was gonna ever get it, was to inherit it. I worked (read earlier “soft skills”) very closely with a trusted customer and built a very good rapport over time. When he decommissioned his storage system and libraries, he gave it to me as home lab kit as long as I proved that the drives were zeroed out before I took it off site. Wah lah…. 3 enclosures of EMC CX200, McData switches and DDS4 tape library!

I’m sure the above list is not exhaustive, and many SE’s would have done it their way, however these key principals have worked for me, even after so many years. So happy selling, and I wish you every success!