From Hero to Zero… and Back
How I recover from a 90’s computer science diploma in the age of the cloud
“All you’re going to learn here in computer science studies will be outdated before you’re finished — so better get used to re-learn continuously”
Having spent a good time of my 20s with not too intense computer science studies, I discovered at one point in time that I would never be disciplined and patient enough to become a genius programmer. (as I originally intended)
However, the quote above, coming from one of my favorite teachers at university, shaped early the way how I learnt and reflected on learning processes and principles. So I started being a digital solution consultant in the early 90s, and am still in that business today.
In enterprise consulting, you are in that perfect meta world where stacking abstraction layers starts your career, and there’s a good chance you’re getting addict and make even more money from it on the higher meta levels. But abstractions always come at a cost — the tissue might be thin but layers on layers on layers tend to get wobbly if you stack them to high. And if the ground starts moving substantially, your wobbly tower might be in danger of collapsing quicker than you can regain balance.
Cloud technology is that paradigm that shakes the ground quite a bit in these times. Over here in Europe, especially Germany, maybe a bit later than elsewhere. Businesses as well as indivual in those businesses have all their own way of dealing with these strokes. The most prevalent strategy I see is “Ok, this will pass like the other fads did. Just put ‘Digital Transformation’ on your powerpoint titles and go on”.
I don’t think that’s the case, and I personally felt more and more uncomfortable in seeing new things coming to life with unpredecented speed and innovation power, leaving behind the wisdom of the 90s and 00s and leaving behind my personal knowledge set, too.
A wakeup call that set things in motion about 2 years ago was the “Learn Enough to be Dangerous” story of Michael Hartl, who wrote the ingenious Ruby on Rails Tutorial. It gave me important insights into web development principles some years ago (as a consultant, not a developer). His claim is that technical sophistication is the single most valuable skill you can learn in the 21st century. This fits perfectly to my own perceptions of the matter, and his story gave me enough courage to unearth my rusty programming and Unix command line skills and connect it to the modern world.
So I decided to relearn from scratch. Back to 101. Scary? You bet. It’s like heading with your old bicycle you just rediscovered in your garage onto the supersonic highway. Having fun? You bet even more. Its great to see that good old TCP/IP technology still drives everything, including stone age tools that have a comeback in cloud mechanics. Everything evolved immensely since the 80s but it helps to have those old connection points.
What did I do? In the past 6 months or so I had a brief trip into modern software architecture principles, refreshed my knowledge of version control with Git & friends, intensified my front end capabilites for HTML, CSS, JS, understood finally what node.js is about and made an attempt in creating a reactive web application written in Vue (I still am not the genius developer, I learnt), managed to get my first accreditations and certificates for AWS cloud services, and started to work with containers, configuration management, and infrastructure as code. Thanks to Yevgeniy Brikman for sharing his knowledge here at Medium.
Of course, I can today tie in much more than in my university years my know how about enterprise dynamics and demands, understand the change that IT organizations need to develop the new paradigms, and connect the new tech capabilities to the digital business strategies that everyone is so eager to reach.
This makes it even more fun to start new strategies bottom-up, and trigger corporate change not from the executive’s power point slide deck but from the technologist’s successes and insights. Successful cloud business is indeed tightly relying on this technical sophistication of the acting players.
As a somewhat natural consequence out of this process, I decided to quit my Senior Executive Job at a classic on-premise solution consultancy and hit the road again with the core technology that makes the cloud move. From January 1 on I will follow that road in my new professional role to create, coach and deliver cloud deployment strategies.
Learning out Loud
My next steps? An important part of that business is the automation and reorganisation of Development and Operations to achieve the speed and agility everybody wants of the new technologies.
This is an organisational challenge as much as it needs a sophisticated technological master plan to get things rolling. To become a credible advisor even in complex constellations, I will continue my bottom-up learning path until it finally coalesces with my enterprise consulting skills of the last 20 years.
In my private life, I have the honor to manage operations of a newly founded private school, and I chose to create a learning path by taking CiviCRM, the CRM system we actually use in a more or less savaged on premise infrastructure, and create a DevOps path that allows to define, deploy and operate that system in the AWS cloud in a most automated manner.
This starts at creating the basic infrastructure, defining the containers that are needed for the applications, and bring everything to life, more extensions to follow. I chose Terraform for various reasons for infrastructure management, and am still in the process of learning enough about machine configuration management to identify the technology I want to use. Might be easy for an experienced sysadmin or developer — for me it will be surely an interesting journey.
Its my plan to share my learning path publicly in a near-time manner. It will not be a “lessons learned” conclusionary documentation with all errors and dead-ends carefully edited but rather the progress I am making in taming the overall challenge.
So let’s follow that path, and have a good laugh together in some months about the stumbling first steps I did ;)