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Val Langmuir – IT Should Be Invisible

In this episode, Sarah Tenisi speaks with Val Langmuir, Director of IT at large nonprofit based in San Francisco.

Val describes IT specialists as the people who “work on the plumbing” that allows your device (specifically its computer system) to function securely and productively. Sarah agrees, saying that it is the job of the IT practitioner to “make IT invisible”; however, this opens up a whole world of misconceptions regarding what IT really is and how the general public perceives professionals in this space. Val says that preconceived notions simply come with the turf. In fact, if the consumer begins to “notice that the IT is there, something is not working.”

Listen in as Val discusses why IT should be “invisible”, how IT professionals go about disaster recovery to tackle single points of failure, future-proofing for changes of all sorts (ex. hardware, software, company transformation, economic downturns, etc.), and how to know whether the IT field is a fit for you.

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What You’ll Learn in This Episode:

●      [1:04] What exactly is “IT”?

●      [3:24] Why IT should be invisible

●      [6:49] Defining “digital transformation”

●      [9:15] Troubleshooting and disaster recovery in the IT space

●      [12:53] Tackling change management

●      [15:34] Moving to a more remote workforce

●      [18:11] IT for nonprofits versus for-profit companies

●      [21:16] Capacity planning for IT

●      [23:36] Technology as a tool versus technology using you as the product

●      [29:30] Val’s path to the IT field

●      [32:38] Challenges that Val encountered throughout her career

●      [35:31] How to know if IT is a fit for you

●      [38:14] Val’s parting nugget of wisdom for IT professionals

Key quotes:

●      “IT is not fixing computers. IT is the infrastructure, the plumbing, that goes underneath all of the systems that people use to do business these days. In fact, today, it’s more than the plumbing. It’s like the air that we breathe.”

●      “The majority of problems that we see when systems go out are the results of planned changes that were not executed correctly.”

●      “Just because you can’t see IT doesn’t mean it’s not there. IT is there and there’s a tremendously fun career in making that happen. You can definitely get a great several years, many decades if you’d like, of doing this, and there’s always going to be work.”

●      “In order to do your work, you need to have IT. In order to have good IT, the IT should be unobtrusive and should let you do your work. It should keep you safe and secure. It should keep you productive. But even though it’s unobtrusive, you must not forget that it exists.”

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Transcript

Sarah Tenisi:  You’re listening to Tech Me Seriously with Sarah Tenisi, CEO of TenisiTech, candid conversations with professional women exploring their passion for what they do.

Sarah Tenisi:  Hi, I’m Sarah Tenisi, the CEO of TenisiTech and the host of Tech Me Seriously. Today, we’ll be speaking with Val Langmuir, the IT director for a large nonprofit in San Francisco. Between the two of us, we have 50 years of IT experience and I’m super excited to have an opportunity to talk IT with Val. Val, how’s it going today?

Val Langmuir:  Sarah, it’s going great. Thanks for inviting me on your podcast. I’m so excited to talk about IT with you.

Sarah Tenisi:  You know, it’s not every day that I get to actually talk about IT with IT people. The major question we’re going to ask today and the thing that we’re going to dig right into is what is good IT and IT strategy and why does it matter? So to kick us off, I want to start by talking about what is IT? I think there’s a really common misconception that it’s all about fixing computers. So Val, tell our audience what IT is really about.

Val Langmuir:  Well, Sarah, I mean, it depends on which way you want to come from it. But let’s see, what IT is not really is fixing a computer. What IT is, is the infrastructure, the plumbing that goes underneath all of the systems that we use. Every day, these days, we are dependent on the internet for our work. We’re dependent on computer networks. We’re dependent on these things functioning correctly. And just the same way that in a house, you’re dependent upon your, when you turn the facet on, water comes out. When you flush the toilet, it flushes. There’s no breaks in the plumbing. There’s no break in the pipe. Everything works. But you don’t think about that. You just think about, I need a glass of water. I’m going to go to the sink and get a glass of water. You don’t think, oh, how does this plumbing all work? Well, that would drive you crazy. And there are specialists, people that work on plumbing. You have to pay them a lot of money and they come and then you forget about them right away. So with IT, it’s like that. You have people all time working on that plumbing and you don’t see them.

Sarah Tenisi:  Well, and I think that that is the biggest thing. That is the biggest challenge as IT people that we have is that it’s really our jobs to make IT invisible. But if it’s invisible, then no one really gets it. And so there’s such a conundrum there because how do you explain it to someone that it’s not just about fixing a computer? And the way that I always think about it is there’s really two core components. We have to provide that platform and we have to do it securely. So the first one is security. And the second one is productivity. So on top of that plumbing and that foundation, we then have to layer on the security. And once the security is in place, we get to layer on the IT productivity, which is then when people start to see it, right? Then it becomes about your computer. Then it becomes about the applications you’re using and how employees do their day to day job. But being invisible can really be a struggle even when it’s a core objective.

Val Langmuir:  Yeah, absolutely, because IT should be invisible because people are doing their job and the IT is there to make them productive and to help them do their job. And as long as they are noticing that IT is there, it’s probably because something’s not working. And ideally, they should be able to go to their computer, open their document, work on their document, whatever it is that they’re doing, work on their database, send their email, print whatever it is they need to print and go home. But if something doesn’t work, that’s when they see us and that’s when they call the help desk, that’s when they have a problem. And then so then it becomes a bit of a problem to get budget, variety things because as long as you’re doing a good job and everything’s functioning, well, why do we need to spend money on this? It’s fine as it is. I don’t have any problems ever says the person who’s giving you the money or not giving you the money.

Sarah Tenisi:  I love that you said that because in our job as an IT services firm, we will often hear that, hey, IT is really running great these days. Do we actually need to pay so much? And I’m always like, yes, that’s why it’s running great, right? Like it doesn’t run well if you don’t have people, as you said earlier, focused on it 100% of the time. I mean, this stuff isn’t really magic, right? It might seem that way, but in fact, it’s not. I think there’s a lot going on from an IT perspective these days. And it feels like one of the things that has potentially raised some of the visibility is COVID, right? Like now people are trying to figure out how to work from wherever.

Val Langmuir:  Well, right, exactly. My organization is almost 500 staff. And before COVID, we had fewer than 20% of people had a laptop. So maybe it was 20% on the outside. And most of those people, they used the laptop to go to a conference room. They didn’t use the laptop to work at home because they were on premises most of the time. And there were a few working from home. But now almost half of our workforce is remote at least some of the time. And we had to work out how to make that happen. And that certainly gave IT some visibility because people were screaming, wait, how come I can’t work from home? Well, first you would like to have a laptop, wouldn’t you? Then you’ll be able to work from home. But now I need to order a lot of laptops and make it all happen. That took a long time for we have limited resources.

Sarah Tenisi:  Well, and I think everybody at the same time was doing that transition, right? And there were a lot of companies in the same space, not in the same space, but in the same situation as you were where remote wasn’t really the thing. And I think there were a lot of companies where remote was already the thing. And so what I really started to think about is that concept of digital transformation and our audience can’t see us, but I’m doing rabbit ears around digital transformation because that was something that was talked about all the time 10 years ago. And it feels like it’s being talked about a lot right now. And one of the things I think would be good for us to do is just talk about the idea of what digital transformation means. And I think it’s so relevant in these COVID times in a pandemic or really any kind of disaster. So, I mean, I want to kick it over to you. When you hear that phrase digital transformation, what do you think about?

Val Langmuir:  Well, I think it’s a buzzword, but let me just riff off it and say, well, we have the need to be able to do the manual processes in a digital way. We need to take away the physical walking around and handing people pieces of paper and replace it with handheld devices doing something with an app. That’s a digital transformation. Another thing is we’re transforming our working in the office to work remotely. That’s a digital transformation. But what I just heard you say was about disasters. And I want to talk about that for a minute. Sure. Can we jump into disasters? Yeah. Well, because COVID has been a bit of a disaster. Yeah. In my world in IT, I’ve been in IT for 30 or 30 years. And our focus a lot on disaster recovery, business continuity planning. And what that means is we have to remove the single points of failure within our systems. And we have to make it so that if something goes wrong, everything still works. That’s not so easy, actually, because it’s all very well. I mean, thinking about a retail IT, like, well, consumer IT, your power goes out. Okay. No IT. Your laptop hard drive fries. Oh, no IT. You can’t do anything. Yeah. In today’s world, we’re dependent on all those things. And so we need to have backups for everything. We need to have secondary way to get to the internet. We have to have an uncomfortable power supply in our data center. All of our servers need to have multiple hard drives doing the same thing in case one of them fails. They need to have multiple servers in a cluster operating application in case one of them fails. All of that has to be done. Nobody has to know about it. It has to be invisible and it has to work.

Sarah Tenisi:  I think that’s part of it for me. And I think you’re right. Like I tend to think about digital transformation in conjunction with disaster recovery because it’s a way to tackle those single points of failure. And I think we have examples of what happens when the plumbing isn’t right. What happens when the single point of failures aren’t taken care of? And I think a good way to ask the question is, what happens when the pipes burst? Right? We’ve seen a lot of recent examples. So do you want to talk about some of the recent happenings from an IT perspective?

Val Langmuir:  Well, sure. That’s a good cue. Thank you. When we talk about, well, when do pipes burst? Well, why do they burst? For one thing. Yeah. When we first, because something wasn’t put together properly, do they burst because something wore out? Or did they, or did that, or it was not actually really a burst. We were actually adding some new plumbing or we were repairing something. We were upgrading something. We installed a brand new low flow toilet, but something wasn’t done completely correctly. And now there’s water everywhere.

Sarah Tenisi:  I love the example we were using.

Val Langmuir:  So well, I mean, it’s plumbing, right? So we can start talking about toilets, but let’s not talk about when people drop their cell phone in the toilet, because that’s a help desk thing. And then that’s the front facing IT. And we’re going to talk about the back end. Exactly. Usually what I find is, what I’m trying to get at is that the majority of problems that we see when systems go out is as a result of a planned change that was not executed directly, or that somebody didn’t think of something. Right. So for example, last week was a week before last now. Yeah, we were down. Microsoft emailed in the work all afternoon for us. And certain Microsoft data centers were affected by a planned upgrade that Microsoft did that they had not been thoroughly tested. And so they had to roll it back because people couldn’t get their email for four hours.

Sarah Tenisi:  It was a massive, massive outage. I think a bunch of our listeners were probably impacted by that.

Val Langmuir:  I’m sure they were. I know that not every of not all of the Microsoft data centers were affected, but all of the ones that served the West Coast were. Right. So here we are in California with a very big IT footprint. And lots of people couldn’t get their email. And there was a lot of stuff they couldn’t do. And the result, it was like my point is it was the result of planned maintenance that wasn’t properly planned. And Microsoft, I’m sure, means to plan things very well. They’re a giant company. They’re an IT company. They’ve been around for a really long time. I’m sure that they’ve had a big, off-direction report about this. And they’ve changed some processes, no doubt. But my point is a lot of the problems come from a planned outage. There are planned maintenance that goes wrong. And I think the same thing happened to the Japanese stock market. And I think that’s also what happened with Southwest Airlines not long ago. Was all planned stuff that went wrong.

Sarah Tenisi:  Well, really big examples, and it’s kind of interesting because I think that could certainly be one of the core tenets that we were talking about. Right. As you’ve got to have a planning strategy. So IT should be invisible. If you start with that premise, then how do we and IT work to make it invisible? And so you just hit on a really important piece of that. And that in our world, we would call that change management. So how are we testing the changes? How are we even deciding that a change needs to happen? Because on the flip side of it, you get a lot of IT teams that feel like, well, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. But it doesn’t really work that way in IT. Because of this maintenance and upgrade schedule that the world is on. So if you don’t upgrade, then you also have issues. So let’s go back to a couple of those core tenets. You touched on a big one, planning and change management, infrastructure, removing those single points of failure. What else is there?

Val Langmuir:  Well, let’s just talk about change management for a minute then. Let’s just keep on that one for a second. Because that’s super important. You said, why do we have to keep upgrading things? And things have to be upgraded because everything is running on software and software changes over time. The software code says the same, the date changes. And then eventually, something goes wrong because just because the clock ran, something what goes wrong with that software, and it has to be upgraded to account for things that popped up. And that’s just an odyssey of IT because it’s all based on software. And hardware also has a lifetime. And hardware improves. And the software that you run, it gets upgraded. Microsoft Office gets upgraded, needs more resources on the desktop computer. Yeah, that’s an example of the front end, but the same thing happens on the back end too. That hardware, I mean, I used to complain about planned obsolescence, but really, I mean, hardware only last five to seven years for the network hardware. And you have to replace it with new network hardware by which time there have been changes in technology and things have updated. And then that stuff’s not compatible with the other stuff and you’ve got to keep doing it. So the goal is really to foresee what changes you might need to make and make them all in a measured way that is predictable and that you’ve outlined six months to a year ahead that you’re going to be doing it. And then it stays invisible. Of course, the problem with, okay, now, how about invisible IT? The problem with invisible IT is that it’s invisible. And then people don’t understand when anything goes wrong with it. It’s like, this is all invisible until you did something. What did you do, you guys? Well, we had to do an upgrade and it didn’t go as we planned.

Sarah Tenisi:  And I think we’re kind of getting to this really, this simplified vision of it, right? No one complains about things getting smaller, faster, cheaper. And that’s what we’re talking about. That’s kind of what the IT challenges is to keep things faster and cheaper. And so there’s work that needs to be done to get us there. And as you said, there are these kind of calendars that we work within. You know, there’s maintenance calendars, there’s upgrade calendars. There’s how about sweating the investment that your company has spent, right? That’s like a three year investment is the way that I usually talk about it with people. And so I think that there are ways to build that strategy around these core tenants that we’re talking about.

Val Langmuir:  Right, absolutely.

Sarah Tenisi:  So I kind of want to touch back on a recent example of COVID, right? And having to start some of that transformation that companies in a lot of cases weren’t necessarily ready to make. Does it feel to you that we’re moving toward a more remote workforce?

Val Langmuir:  Oh, yes. I mean, if you just think about San Francisco right now, the tech giants who are in San Francisco have all pretty much said they’re going to be working remotely through the end of the year, through the middle of next year. And so those tech giants, they’re letting people work from home and they’re not going to want to come back. They’re not going to want to bring them back. They’re going to want to downsize all of their buildings. And San Francisco may suffer a slight real estate slump. You may find that rental prices, in fact, they’ve already dropped in San Francisco, they may stay a little bit, you know, 10% in no big deal. I think it’s going to make big changes. I think for my organization, we didn’t have a policy that allowed people to work remotely. And that’s now going to change. Also my organization was, was tight for space for its office space. And we’ve continued to grow during COVID. And now we don’t have enough room in our offices to put everybody if we came back. Right. And so now we’re going to have to either get new office space or we’re going to have to embrace working remotely and working part time remotely for people who can and working full time remotely for people who can. And as long as we’re all laptop and we remove our single points of failure, which prevent those laptop users from accessing our systems, then we’ll be able to do that. We have to introduce and we have right now a lot of organizations and we’re one have got on premises phone systems with physical phones connected to physical PBXs connected to physical phone lines that people have to pick up the phone and dial with. Well, that’s actually a bit archaic nowadays. We can go all voice over IP and put an app on our Delphone and not rely on our building to in order to make our phone calls. That’s just one if that’s an IT thing. Okay, it’s a phone, but it’s an IT thing. Phones are IT now.

Sarah Tenisi:  Right. And that’s and that’s a digital transformation thing, right? Because phones are going from this antiquated old school switchboard. I mean, a lot of people have moved on from that, but it’s a good point. I mean, when did phone something that you plug in become IT? And I think that that’s something that we we deal with a lot in IT, you know, temperature monitors for some of our healthcare clients. It’s like, wait, is this IT because you plug it in? And like, I think a really common answer to that is, yeah. And so I want to talk about what you’re dealing with in your role. And I want to explore whether or not IT in a nonprofit is different than IT in a for profit and should it be? So what are your thoughts there?

Val Langmuir:  Okay. So that’s a good question. I think at the end of the day, it shouldn’t really be different. And it is sometimes. And the reason why it is sometimes is because of resource. Because for profit companies usually have plenty of resources. They have investors. They have a for profit business model, meaning there’s profit, meaning there’s money that can be invested. A nonprofit often starts with nothing. And their business model is to give things to people and to help people. And it’s not to make money. And sometimes they just isn’t money to do stuff. So an organization that’s a small nonprofit will be scrambling to just do things the cheapest way possible. And the company that starts off as a small nonprofit and grows to a big nonprofit still could have some shaky foundations there from when they got started. And then it’s the job of IT professionals to dig that dig out of that and to transform it into something to make it over. Right? It’s like you bought a shack. Now you’re going to make it over into a nice house. Yeah. You’re going to redo all of that plumbing because it has to be done to move forward.

Sarah Tenisi:  I was just going to say, might you say we use galvanized plumbing at the beginning and it’s time to move to copper?

Val Langmuir:  Something like exactly. So we used a galvanized pipes and it’s like, well, that didn’t last very long. So now we have to go and upgrade to copper. But we couldn’t afford the copper in the first place because we didn’t have it. We got some free pipes from some old plumbing merchant, right? And we used that. And so when you’re working for a nonprofit, what you have to get away from is this scarcity model. We have to act like we’re made of money, even if we’re not. We have to do things for the sensible reasons. And we have to buy the quality thing that’s going to last and we don’t want to buy something that is the cheap solution, even though that’s what we might have had to do when we were 20 people.

Sarah Tenisi:  Well, and I think what’s what we’re hitting on is something that comes up in our business at TenisiTech a lot. And that is we’re going to be, we’re brand new. We’re 20 people. We’re a nonprofit. I almost feel like it applies across the board for new companies. We’re going to start out by being scrappy, which in my world means we’re not going to spend any money on IT. And it’s funny because they might not spend it on the outset, but you will spend the money to get reliable IT. And so I feel like I spend a lot of my time trying to explain to people this concept of what good IT is and why you need it. And I think that would be something that I’d like people to walk away from here is that, look, you’re going to spend the money, whether it’s today or in three years. And I can guarantee that once you have 50 employees using those antiquated systems, you will spend more for migration projects and for that transformation than you would have at the outset if you had done it properly from the get go. And I think that that comes up for me all the time. It’s like congratulations for being around so long or congratulations for getting your feet off the ground. Now we kind of have to go backward and build this back up.

Val Langmuir:  And that’s another practice of IT is capacity planning. Yeah. So when you start with something small and you have to have your future long range binoculars on and see what’s coming up in what’s coming up for the organization and what’s coming up in IT. And you have to know what those trends are and prepare for them. Yep. So that you say that, well, we’ve got a fleet of two year old computers. That means that next year we should be replacing all of those computers. That’s a simple example.

Sarah Tenisi:  Yeah.

Val Langmuir:  But it’s more than that. It’s like when you come into some place to start running the IT and it’s been done in the scrappy way, but now it’s time for people to grow up. Now you have to make a plan to make that happen, to make that change happen in the least disruptive way so that you’re still invisible. Yeah. Because if you’re visible, then people aren’t getting their work done. So you keep moving stuff along without bothering them.

Sarah Tenisi:  Well, and I think like when you talk about capacity planning, right, another way to think about that is future proofing. Right. And I also feel like if you started off super scrappy, you probably don’t have people in the room to be doing that future proofing and that capacity planning. So it can become a little bit of a vicious cycle. So I feel like that’s part of the point here is that this is plumbing. This is foundational. And if you can, you’ve got to get somebody in the room that can start off potentially scrappy, but also know what you’re going to need to do as your company transforms. I mean, that’s the point of getting a business started. You’re planning to grow. You’re planning to provide something that’s needed in the world. One of the things I want to do explore with you is the concept and the difference between using technology as a tool versus allowing technology to use you as the product. So I feel like this, this kind of shapes the way that employees and staff are used technology in their personal lives and what it brings back to the companies that they work for in terms of potential pitfalls when this happens. So I mean, do you have any thoughts on just that concept of technology as a tool versus technology making you the product?

Val Langmuir:  It’s beware of using free stuff. Right. Exactly. Because if it’s free, they’re getting something, but you don’t know what it is they’re getting. Yeah. What are they getting? They’re getting all of your personal data. Yeah. So like this social network, they’re getting all your data. Now they can, they can serve you nice ads. You’re going to buy stuff all the time and now you’re the product.

Sarah Tenisi:  Well and it’s funny because I hear people get really outraged about like encryption back doors. You know, the government has encryption back doors and some in some technologies, not and everything, but they ask you to use technology that they have a backdoor in. You know, if you’ve worked in government contracts, that might sound familiar. But what’s interesting about that is I’m always like really surprised at the outrage when we’re just giving it away all day long. Like we’re giving ourselves away through technology to become the product for, as you said, social media companies is probably the best example these days. And I’ve obviously been spending some time thinking about this. And I think about what that brings into an organization. And as an IT director, what are some of the things that we need to worry about as IT professionals when that’s happening?

Val Langmuir:  I don’t know. I mean, I’m thinking I’m just trying to come up with a good answer to that.

Sarah Tenisi:  Yeah, let me jump in. Here’s where I feel like it comes into play. We’re so busy giving away our data, right? That when people ask for it, i.e. in a phishing attack, we’re kind of willing to give it away. And if you think about it from an IT perspective, and I mean, this goes back to that, what’s the point of IT and me saying it’s about security and productivity, right? I think that that begins to create very real security issues within a company is the phishing kind of example. Well, right.

Val Langmuir:  And another thing is people like to download things, don’t they? Oh, yeah. But that’s another security thing. People want to download something. They want to download a movie. And people install a bit torrent application onto their computer, and then they start saving all of these torrents onto the file server. And now the organization is liable for whatever they’ve done. And they can get us into trouble for the fact that we’re storing pyroted software on our system unbeknownst to us. So that’s where you have to have endpoint security and policies to prevent people from doing that kind of thing.

Sarah Tenisi:  Yeah. So that’s the best one is when someone leaves or I’ve seen examples where people have been let go because they’ve had pornography on their computers. And it’s like, you knew this was a work computer. Like everyone these days signs something when they started a company that says, this is a work computer. Like all of everything I do at work is on this computer and this is a, this is not a personal computer. And yet you still see stuff like you’re describing where you’re like, um, this was the only place you saved your wedding photos. And so there’s always this like point in IT where it’s like, Hey, we’re trying to help you out. Like we’re telling you at the outset that these are not personal computers. And so I think that that is one of those things that continues to surprise me about that intersection of my personal life and my work, it life.

Val Langmuir:  Right. I mean, I must admit I haven’t purchased a personal computer for many years now. I do use my work computer for everything, but I’ve got external hard drive for my personal documents and I’ve got my personal drop box and my personal and I’m giving all the data to drop box and I’m giving all the data to Google and it’s all up there being safe in these things. At least I’m paying for those accounts. And so that means I feel like I feel like I’ve got some right to privacy on that data. Who knows if that’s really.

Sarah Tenisi:  Well, I think paying for it. And this goes back to if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product. And I feel like people get that now. I feel like that’s almost the cliche because people understand it. But I think what you’re touching on is really important. And I talk to a lot of entrepreneurs and it surprises me how many of them still have free Gmail accounts. Right. So if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product. And so I don’t know if it’s the right way to say it, but you’re not paying for the security and the privacy if you’re not paying for it. Right. And so I think you’re right. If you’re paying for these external accounts, then you have that expectation. Now whether or not that expectation is correct may require a little more research. But I think that that’s actually a really important aspect to this is are you paying for it.

Val Langmuir:  Right.

Sarah Tenisi:  So yeah, let’s transition. I want to kind of talk about something a little more personal here. Because another thing that I find funny about IT in general is that very few people grow up wanting to get into IT. And we recently had that team roundtable, like what were you going to do before you knew you were going to be an IT? And just to kind of kick us off and give you a second to think about it, you know, I studied computer science and programming for three years, all math, all programming. Before deciding it was a poor fit and realized I wanted to be technical, but not an engineer and not to date myself. But back in my day, there were no management information systems. Like when I was making that determination, that programming wasn’t going to be it, there was no MIS program at my school. And it took another three years before that became a reality. So I was an admin assistant. And I spent a lot of time talking to people in IT saying, Hey, what are you guys doing over there? I should be an IT. But it wasn’t something I grew up knowing I would do. So I mean, what about you, Val? What was your path like to the IT field?

Val Langmuir:  Well, thank you for asking Sarah because I have a great story about that. So I was not, I didn’t think I was going to do IT. There was a computer science program at my school, but there was it was before your school. So it was even more archaic. We were using Fortran on a shared, you know, on a time sharing system with green screens and punch cards. Oh, man. We were, it was old. It was old school. I’m a math graduate. Yeah. And I left school. I didn’t know what I was going to do. And I did kind of odd jobs. I followed bands around and I was driving them around and being a roadie. And so that was, that was fun. But it wasn’t going to make any money. And eventually I decided I was going to, you know, I thought I would look into some other kind of career. And well, actually it was Margaret Thatcher. Margaret Thatcher. Margaret Thatcher. Margaret Thatcher got me into IT. Okay. And see, this dates me. It’s a long time ago. Margaret Thatcher was prime minister of the UK in the 80s. Okay. And she, she did some terrible things, but she also did some good things, a few good things. And I was claiming unemployment benefit. And there was a program that she put in where you could take a 16 week course and you would get the same unemployment benefit money. And you could pick a course. You could get accepted onto the course 16 weeks of which the last four weeks was an internship which you would find yourself with a business. And then, so that’s the business friendly part of it because it’s Margaret Thatcher. Somebody’s going to get your work for four weeks for free. I love it. Okay. And so there are a couple of different courses that I looked at. One was a woodworking and cabinetry. The other one was called microcomputers in business because they didn’t call it a PC. It was called a microcomputer. All right. And so I went to the interview and they asked me things like if you went to somebody’s house and they had a VCR, which is what we used then, and it was a different one that you’d ever seen, would you be able to record television from that thing without looking at the manual? And I’m good. Easiest thing in the world. I could do that with one hand tie behind my back in my eyes shut because that’s how I roll. I have the aptitude for that kind of thing. That was one of the many answers that I gave that provided me entry into this 16 week course. And in that 16 week course, I learned about opening up computers and seeing how they were put together. I learned about how to use the word processing program. It was WordStar. I learned how to use a database program. It was debased to. I learned how to use a spreadsheet. It was called supercal. Nobody knows what that is anymore. That’s so funny. We learned how to use business applications as they were at the time. And we learned how to put together a computer and we learned how to install a computer. And we learned how networks worked in a very basic way.

Sarah Tenisi:  Cutting edge stuff. I mean, cutting edge stuff in the 80s for real. And that was in a 16 week program. I want to circle back to that. But I want to ask for you personally, have there been challenges along the way?

Val Langmuir:  Well, they certainly have. I mean, a lot of the challenges are to do with that this is not a field that women get into. Yeah. It’s more now. I see women working in the field now. I mean, you have got some very talented women working on your 10 easy tech team.

Sarah Tenisi:  We focus on it for sure. Yeah.

Val Langmuir:  Yeah. And it’s great. But 30 years ago, and especially in England where I was living, it was a challenge. I got a job. It was probably 1988. And I was working doing PC support and networking. And my job involved, crawling under people’s desks and running cables, plugging computers in, putting the sort of thing that people do. Desktop support people do. And I had a dress code where I had to wear a skirt and hose.

Sarah Tenisi:  Yeah. Yeah. Not great for being under a desk. Yeah.

Val Langmuir:  Now, people can’t see me, but I’m actually pretty butch. And skirt and hoses. I want to wear anyway. I love it.

Sarah Tenisi:  And I didn’t want to wear it then.

Val Langmuir:  And I don’t want to wear it now. Right. And for somebody who likes to wear it, it’s not practical to be under a desk in a skirt and hose. It’s like, it’s going to snag. It’s going to get that hose is going to replace everything your day.

Sarah Tenisi:  Right. And you’re in a skirt on your hands and knees.

Val Langmuir:  Yeah. It’s just, it’s just not good. So it wasn’t just that, but it’s also, you know, being the only woman in an all male group, you either have to be one of the boys or you get constantly, you know, made fun of or more likely both. People take you, don’t take you seriously. They trivialize you and they don’t believe that you’re smart.

Sarah Tenisi:  Yeah.

Val Langmuir:  And now things have moved on, but they still, there is still those challenges to do with gender. And I hate to bring it up, but there is, it’s the elephant in the room.

Sarah Tenisi:  I’m with you. I mean, I’m pretty optimistic that it’s changing. But like I just said, I really do focus on hiring women. And I think that I sort of want to talk about that aptitude question again, because I think that’s part of the thing is it’s hard to recognize aptitude for IT because it’s actually all around us these days, you know, like that’s part of why it’s funny is that people don’t even realize that there’s this entire career path that they can take. And aptitude for IT, I think is shown in a variety of different ways, right? It’s, are you analytical? Do you know how to program that VCR? Are you afraid of a thermostat? You know, are you methodical? But a lot of people don’t even know this thing exists. And there’s, you know, this Margaret Thatcher program is a really early version of, you know, Europe, which is an organization here in the Bay Area that helps kind of get people into IT. But I feel like that’s kind of an important piece to this is how do you know that IT might be a good fit for you?

Val Langmuir:  Quite exactly. So here’s some examples. Yeah. So if you liked playing with erector sets, if you even know what that is, when you were a kid and you liked building things, then maybe you might want to work in a data center and build computer racks because that’s just so much fun. And you’re putting things together and you’re making them look nice and you’re serving a good purpose and the data center jobs pay quite well. Yeah. What if you really just like solving puzzles all day long? Well, you might want to be a systems engineer or a network engineer. But if you just like really good at math, well, you know, that’s also networking. Yeah. You know, and if you’re good at problem solving, if you enjoy puzzles, an IT career is excellent for people.

Sarah Tenisi:  That is, I mean, I couldn’t have said that better. And yeah, oh, sorry, go ahead.

Val Langmuir:  You know, I have one more thing, you know, and if you, and if you like customer service and you want to be in customer service, all of the front end jobs in IT involve a service desk and you’re answering people’s questions, you’re helping them to do their work all day long.

Sarah Tenisi:  I think that is exactly it. You know, it’s really about finding some of those core strengths. And I think people would be amazed at the opportunity that’s out there for them. And that’s part of how I find people. You know, I find those good customer service people. Maybe you work in a restaurant and you are a rock star. You’re super organized. You can remember all those orders without writing them down. And you know, you’re just kind of an enthusiastic person. I love that type of person for IT. And you know, to kind of the erector sets of today, even though they come with like super detailed instructions are like Legos, right? Do you love putting stuff together? And I think that part of my mission at Tennessee Tech is to bring those people to the table because they’re, it’s not necessarily a traditional career path. It probably is more today than when either of us were getting started. But I want people to know that there’s a career here and it’s amazing the opportunity that IT locks for people, right? For employees, but also, I mean, for people in their personal lives as IT technicians, IT sis admins and architects, you know, there’s an unlock that you get in your personal life that you then can use to unlock the employees that you support at work. And so you could tell I get really excited about that. But you know, that’s kind of where I feel like it is. If we’re going to leave people with one nugget that they could take with them out of this conversation, right? And we’ve talked a lot about IT at work. We’ve talked about, you know, how you get into IT. What do you feel like that nugget would be?

Val Langmuir:  So if I’m asked to leave a nugget of IT wisdom for people, what I would say is just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. It is there. And there’s a tremendously fun career in making that happen. You could definitely get a great several years, many decades if you’d like, of doing this and there’s always going to be work. Another thing that I would say, because that might not be the best nugget, is that here’s another one. You know, IT, we’ve talked about IT being like a plumbing and that is what it is. That’s not a very good nugget.

Sarah Tenisi:  No, I mean, I think I love this idea that, hey, it might be invisible, but it’s absolutely there. And I feel like there’s something that ties together the privacy piece too. You know what I mean? There’s a lot going on behind the scenes. And if you’re going to be secure and you’re going to be productive, you’re going to need a good IT staff.

Val Langmuir:  IT is the plumbing. It’s the infrastructure that runs underneath all of the work that people do in business these days. And when I got into IT 30 years ago, it wasn’t, but it is now. And there was no such thing as email. Great. But there was no such thing that we knew about as email in the 80s. But now people need it all day long. All day. Before, there was a rotary, there was a rotary phone. And now there’s an iPhone. That’s an IT thing. Yeah. So IT is the infrastructure that runs under everything. It’s like the air that we breathe. It’s more than the plumbing. It’s like air. In order to do your work, you need to have IT. And in order to have good IT, the IT should be unobtrusive and should let you do your

Sarah Tenisi:  work. And it should keep you safe.

Val Langmuir:  And it should keep you safe and secure. And it should keep you productive. And even though it’s unobtrusive, you mustn’t forget that it exists. Because as soon as you forget that it exists, you’ll neglect it and it’ll get out of date and you won’t be secure and your work will not work. So you have to invest in it in a continuing cycle. And it doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune. It just means you have to be wise and keep up with it. Just keep maintaining it. Get that boiler serviced. Otherwise the central heating will fail.

Sarah Tenisi:  Let’s wrap that. I loved it. I could talk with you for like three hours about this stuff.

Val Langmuir:  I really enjoy our conversation, Sarah. I hope we’ll do it again.

Sarah Tenisi:  Thanks for listening to Tech Me Seriously with Sarah Tenisi. You can connect with Sarah on LinkedIn at Sarah Tenisi or you can send her an email at sarah@tenisitech.com. I’m Marcus Edwards. I’ve produced this episode. So until next time, cheers for now.