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Taking a strange route to the channel

Next time you sit in front of a channel executive, remember that they might have started in a very different industry

Channel executives do not come fully formed off a production line, but often get into the industry through various routes.

The great thing about the channel is the diversity of backgrounds that people have come from. In support of this theory, here are some exemplary cases of inspiration.

Juniper Networks CIO Sharon Mandell started her career training to be a professional ballet dancer.

Mandell even tried to graduate from high school early to give her a year to dedicate to auditioning and getting a job – which is very entrepreneurial. Her father disapproved and made her to go to college and start the apprentice programme at Pennsylvania Ballet and the first year at Temple University.

Mandell was a liberal arts student and a competent ballerina, but at the end of the year, a professor asked her what she liked and didn’t like, then suggested computer science.

“I thought he was crazy!” said Mandell. “He described to me how it was a growing field and that if the ballet dancing thing didn’t work out, maybe IT would be a good place to be. And so my technology career was born.”

Were ballet skills useful in IT?

“Creativity is at the core of tech innovation and strong IT teams,” said Mandell. “As companies digitally transform, they are looking to technology for speed and agility.”

Claims for speed and agility in IT corporations are a bit allongé. Mandell’s point is that practice and repetition, hard work and diligence and endless rehearsals are common to both professions.

To pull off those beautiful, synchronised patterns that you see in the great ballets, you have to be aware of where you are in relation to others and constantly make adjustments to create that beauty, she said: “That’s analogous to working on a team to execute a highly complex project.”

A career in ballet is a tough life – is that a good preparation for IT?

“Yes, dancers have thick skins. You’re constantly receiving feedback on how to improve, often have tough and demanding teachers, spend hours in front of a mirror rarely believing you’re performing at the level you should be,” said Mandell, who never finds herself en battu by the constant pirouettes of shape-shifting clouds.

If you think you had a tough introduction to IT, you should experience life on a helpdesk, said John Pickford, CTO of Synapse360. That’s where he started – in a 5,000-user national retail operation.

“Not everyone needs have a go on the helpdesk,” said Pickford, “but engineers, developers and managers should get a grounding in tech support.”

That way, you get a great idea of the dependencies of the applications, departments and individuals, and a reflection on the brand values of the company, he added.

Pickford said he escaped through determination, a plan and the ability to turn negatives into positives. But it’s no laughing matter.

Unlike software engineering, which is a lot like running a comedy club, said Peter Ludlum, who has experience in both. Ludlum is now booking acts and introducing new talents at Synopsys Software Integrity Group.

“Managing the expectations, demands and outbursts of customers is one of the most difficult and frequent challenges,” he said. Mind you, comedy clubs aren’t much easier.

People come without a set idea of what a show should be like and most base their expectations on what they’ve seen on the screen of their TV (in comedy’s case) or computers (in software’s case). Two people can have wildly different ideas of the experience that is being provided.

Then there are comedians. Their market has commoditised, so they are many similar acts making cheap digs. The better ones are the “vendors” of their own new comedy observations, while the majority that get on TV are sanitised single-joke comics, distributors of off-the-shelf political observations. As with software, the few who try to be creative and independent put themselves in danger of isolation. So comedy is like a training course in the politics of the channel.

If you were recruiting talent for an IT business – such as sales staff – forget the comics and concentrate on the enablers – the waiting staff, chefs and security – said Ludlum. They undertake thankless tasks, which instils in them the disciplines of planning, flexibility and vigilance. They catch problems before they escalate.

“When a big name performs, all the local aspiring comics come out of the woodwork and try to get involved with the show,” he said. “The best waitstaff were dispassionate about comedy and not easily starstruck.”

All these tough professions breed a maturity that enables people to tackle anything that the channel can throw at them.

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