As part of our Tales in Tech series we’ve been catching up with members of our tech community to share the journeys, lessons learnt and advice that has helped them through their careers to date.
This week we caught up with Chris Stark from world leading AI enterprise, Amelia (an IPsoft company). After finishing college, Chris started volunteering to gain experience and exposure in IT before being scouted and working his way up to his current position as Lead Infrastructure Engineer. He talked us through some of the challenges he faced when stepping up into managerial positions, his tips for keeping up with the constantly evolving tech industry and his advice for how to stand out as an Engineer.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey to your current role today:
I started my career in IT 15 years ago after leaving college. Initially I found it quite difficult to find a job within IT as everyone wanted you to have experience. It was the catch 22 situation of, how do you get that experience without being given a job? I decided to go down a slightly different route and began volunteering for a local charity where I was fixing simple IT issues with Word and PowerPoint. Then one day, though I wasn’t aware at the time, they had someone onsite from their MSP (Management Service Provider) and it just so happened that they noticed what I was doing and asked who I was. A couple of days later I had a call to come in for a job interview with this MSP, which was a huge shock. Putting myself out there and volunteering had actually paid off. I went to the job interview and the rest was history.
My advice is that there are so many different options out there, and by volunteering you just don’t know what opportunities will arise or who will notice you. 15 years later I now lead a team of talented Engineers at IPsoft who design and implement technical solutions and disaster recovery on behalf of one of the biggest telecoms companies in the UK. I look after six Technical Executives including Network Engineers, Windows Engineers and UX Engineers.
What does a typical workday look like for you?
Day-to-day I’m working with the Technical Leads, overcoming any complex issues that they’ve got. Amelia is very much efficiency-focused and so we try to automate as many business tasks as possible to reduce the mean time to resolve. We automate business processes to enable the customer to work on things that are most valuable to them.
I engage with customers daily, understanding their challenges and identifying where we can add value or any technical solutions to overcome those issues. There’s nothing more satisfying for me than coming off a call with an agreed proposed solution going forward.
What would you say are some of the greatest achievements that you’ve had throughout your career?
I never thought that I would be responsible for managing Engineers, which can be daunting and scary as you don’t really know how people are going to perceive you. But as long as you communicate with them, you can work through most problems. Lots of Engineers don’t want to deal with the confrontation that comes with management, which I understand as sometimes I don’t enjoy it myself, particularly if you have to speak to someone professionally about a mistake they have made. So, one of my greatest achievements would be working outside my comfort zone.
What has been the most interesting challenge that you’ve faced in your career?
Technology is always evolving, one of the biggest challenges is trying to keep up with it. Particularly when you have children, finding the time to read up on stuff or play about with tech is very challenging. The challenge of working with people has always been there for me too. The amount of times I’ve tried to anticipate what is going to happen on a call! But when you get talking to people it’s never as bad as you think.
You mentioned it’s hard to keep up with new technology. Do you have any resource or reading recommendations that have worked well for you?
I’ve always self-studied and find subscriptions to sites such as Pluralsight, A Cloud Guru and Linux Academy are well worth the investment. I would recommend starting with them, even if it’s just by doing a free trial for a month. There’s so much content on there that you can absorb. But there’s also the usual things like YouTube and Google. If there’s something you want to find out just search it and chances are someone has written a blog about it, as the IT community is just so fantastic. I’ve written a few blogs myself. For example, if I’ve taken an exam, I’d write up what types of materials I’ve used, what videos, what training tips I would recommend, and there are loads of experts out there sharing the same information.
Have you attended any virtual meetups? Are there any that you would recommend?
I attended a Burn Sheehan online webinar recently about DevSecOps with Stefania Chaplin which was really interesting. It revealed a much more efficient process for software creation so that was great to take away and think about for my career going forward. I used to regularly attend VMware User Group meetings in London. It was great for keeping up with virtualisation and to take away little nuggets of information from Engineers on things like what to look out for when upgrading to the latest products. It’s a great place to meet likeminded people in the IT space and I’ve made some great friends through these events. Last year a group of us went up to the Leicester Space Centre for the VMware User Group UK meet, it’s a whole day of geekiness which I really enjoy. I do miss being able to break off and chat with people like we do in the in-person meetups, but I like that with virtual events you can work and listen to them at the same time.
What advice would you give to anyone junior looking to rise through the ranks or anyone considering a similar career path to you?
I think as techies we try to avoid speaking to the customers and we don’t like picking up the phone. I used to be like that quite early on in my career, but one piece of advice would be to engage with your customers and listen to their problems. Understand the challenges they are facing and see how you can implement a more sophisticated solution rather than just fixing the issue in front of you. This will obviously bring value to the customers and to the business, which in turn will make you stand out from the crowd.
Where possible, try and find someone senior within the team as a mentor. Talk to them and see if they can help you. Most people aren’t as scary as they seem and are quite happy to sit with you and work through it. Just try to think outside the box and don’t be afraid to be different and try new things as this will bring a lot of value. If you fail, you fail, at least you’ve learnt something from the process.
A massive thank you to Chris for giving us an insight into the world of Infrastructure Engineering and for sharing his journey to where he is now. We hope the advice and insight shared will be useful for anyone tackling any similar challenges and experiences, or just starting out in their career.
As Chris discussed, online resources such as blogs and webinars are a great way of expanding your knowledge and keeping up to date with the latest developments in the tech world. You can read more from Chris’ blog here, and to discover more of our previous webinars such as 'Why Security Aware Developers are the new Security Rockstars’ mentioned, head to our YouTube page and join our Meetup community for our upcoming online events.
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