Author: Mark Wingrove

Work-Home-Life Balance (Balance in the IT World)

Go to work…


Get home, work some more…

Try to sleep, worry about work…

Wake up…


Sound like you?

We all attempt to achieve the allusive work-life balance, and in some professions balance is especially difficult. Working in IT is a demanding profession. Mostly, you’ll find it’s demanding of your time, all of the time, anytime. An IT professional is expected to work at home, at night, and on weekends. These hours are considered (by sane people) as home time, therefore it should (and in many cases is) acceptable to handle some personal tasks during what is generally considered work time.

To be fair, the odd hours we keep are necessary, and in most cases unavoidable. The users and companies we work for get twitchy if the system(s) are maintained during the day. The good news is that most IT managers recognize that the job forces us to keep an unorthodox schedule.

This schedule is, however, less accepted at home. Be prepared to field comments such as; “Are you working again!” or “Why are they calling you on your day off”. Children are particularly sensitive this odd work schedule. “Daddy, are working today?”

Officially we work nine to five, forty hours a week. Most of us know this is a fantasy, we work 9-5, then logon from home and work again from 8-11. This is assuming everything is stable. User requests can (and do) come at any time, requiring prompt attention. During an upgrade, or outage all bets are off. We will be working (as we should) around the clock until the issue is resolved. Employers don’t usually have an officially policy to handle these odd working requirements. The “policy” is to turn a blind eye and let the department deal with it internally.

This schedule can cause undue stress at home. Spouses become frustrated with the excessive attention devoted to work, and lack of attention directed to home and your relationship. Children don’t understand why daddy’s always busy. Lastly let’s not forget about the toll it takes on you. It’s unhealthy to live a monolithic life focused solely on your job. Are you living to work, or working to live? Don’t let your career consume you. While your job is certainly a part of who you are, it should not be your defining property.

The only way (I see) to balance work, home and life is by disregarding the traditional work / home boundaries. What does this mean? It essentially means to try working a very flexible schedule. If know you’re going to be working at home tonight, go home early, and pick up the kids at school. If you’ll be working late tonight, meet your spouse someplace nice for a two hour lunch.

Now for the hard part, following my own advice.

Editor’s note: Mark, when he worked for me, worked insane hours.  He pulled all-nighters multiple times, and we would spell each other when we were into a long slog (he’d take the midnight hours, usually), including that one time I pulled 5 all-nighters in 8 days.  I’ve never encountered such a dedicated work ethic, and I’d LOVE to see him take his own advice!

The Learning Curve

How do geeks learnAs a geek I’m often asked, “How do you know this stuff?”

Well, there’s no magic bullet, we (geeks) do not have inherent knowledge of technology. We didn’t simply wake up one morning and build a network, or repair a server. A good system engineer will need to be an excellent troubleshooter, this skill, like art, can be cultivated and groomed, but is very difficult (if not impossible) to learn. Like art, you’ve either got it, or you don’t.

The journey to becoming a good system administrator / engineer (i.e. geek) will require all forms of learning. Traditional methods include; reading, classroom instruction, seminars, and most important hands-on experience. Non traditional methods are (CIO’s, Directors, and the like cover your ears) system failures, crisis and emergency repairs.

Let’s start with the easy stuff, traditional learning. Reading is essential to learning technology. Yes, it’s arduous, and the three inch thick IT books (replaced by gigantic PDF’s) are about as exciting to read, as your mortgage papers, and usually written as well. Fear not, it’s rare that it will be necessary to read one of these monsters from cover to cover. Read the first chapter or two, skim through the rest and add it to your library to use as a reference as needed (and you will need it). The point here is that unless you’re a true genius, you can’t retain all of that information anyhow, understand the concepts, and refer to it as needed for the detailed information and procedures. Classroom instruction will have higher learning retention than reading (at least it does for me). The reason for the higher retention is the hands on experience most classrooms provide. The triple play of lecture, reading and doing, drives the lesson home. Seminars are good resources to discover what’s available, and to keep up with the new technologies, products and trends. The seminar will rarely teach you how to use or implement the new technology, but only serve as an introduction.

There are two ways to retain 100% of your knowledge: repetition and crisis. I certainly don’t recommend causing a crisis as a learning tool, but if you’re in IT long enough, crisis will find you, and you will never forget the solution. A crisis forces you out of your comfort zone, requires you to dig deep, and implement a solution in minutes or hours, not weeks and months. This rapid problem solving and the associated stress will set the knowledge firmly into your grey matter.

Did you know that Microsoft clusters rely on the disk signature in the MBR (master boot record) to mount the drives? I do. How did I learn this, well it wasn’t in any book I read, or covered in during my clustering class, I learned this one the hard way.  After an otherwise successful SAN migration none of the clustered servers would come online. The event log said that the disk could not be found, but the disks were mounted and accessible to the nodes, this didn’t make sense. An hour or so of combing the internet reveiled the solution. Using DISKPART it’s possible to edit the disk signature. Fortunately the signatures it was looking for were listed in the error messages, and after all of the signatures were updated; the clusters came online to the great relief of my boss and myself. I will forever remember the relationship of disk signatures and cluster volumes, I’m now what some would call, an expert.

These catastrophic events can also make or break a career in IT, did you attack the problem head on, and deliver a solution, or did you pee your pants.  The best IT professionals, have done their homework, learned their lessons, and most importantly (but hopefully not often) can work under the enormous stress of a crisis and apply their knowledge.

That’s how I know this stuff.

Photo courtesy of Seth Sawyers.

Introduction: Mark Wingrove

Editor’s note: Mark is our “true geek”, who will largely be blogging about actual geeky stuff. He has had the (mis?)fortune of working for Jenn at a previous job.

The True GeekAccomplished IT professional with a 10-year track record of successful technology management, and administration within various industries. I found my way into the IT world by way of geology. Yes, rocks. While studying geology, I was heavily involved in geographic information systems (GIS). GIS is computer mapping and modeling in the areas of earth science. With my computer background attained as a side effect of my dealing with GIS, I found myself working mostly with the IT department at my first job out of college, even though I was hired as an environmental chemist.

This being my first attempt into blogging, or any form of public communication, I enter with great enthusiasm and trepidation.

My reluctance (and fear) of writing was instilled at an early age. The first poor grade I ever received was for penmanship in the fifth grade. This compounded my aversion to writing, and I avoided it at all costs. For my part, if practice makes perfect, than the lack of practice… well, let’s just say my last bad grade wasn’t in the fifth grade. So, I use this blog to gain the practice I should have gotten so many years ago, and also to share some knowledge and lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Photo courtesy of johnmuk.