Podcast Episode 24

IT Career Journey- Upskilling for Executives

Dive into the world of IT career growth and upskilling for executives with host Ryan Davies and guest Terry Kim in this insightful podcast episode. Terry, the Founder & CEO of NexGenT, shares his incredible journey from the Air Force to Cisco Systems, emphasizing the importance of breaking into the tech field without a traditional college degree. The conversation explores strategies for executives to foster continuous improvement, develop strong coaching and mentorship programs, and navigate the evolving landscape of IT skills. Terry sheds light on the pitfalls executives face, such as knowledge hoarding and the risk of becoming obsolete. The discussion also delves into the significance of emotional intelligence and business acumen in IT leadership. Tune in to discover the keys to successful upskilling, the value of meaningful projects, and the importance of hands-on training in today’s dynamic IT ecosystem. If you’re an executive or aspiring IT professional, this podcast provides valuable insights into building a skilled and resilient team, staying ahead of technological trends, and fostering a culture of continuous improvement.

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Ryan: I’m your host, Ryan Davies, and I’m hosting today’s discussion on the IT Career Journey- Upskilling for Executives with my guest, Terry Kim. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Terry: Thank you for having me. Glad to be on the show.

Ryan: Really excited to dig into this topic with you. A little bit about Terry for our listeners. He is a mission-driven CEO working on reinventing higher-tech education and making it more accessible to the people. He is the Founder & CEO at NexGenT and the zero-to-engineer training framework methodologies; and he’s trained thousands of engineers for the US Air Force and has worked at CISCO Systems and works as a systems engineer prior to founding NexGenT. And you know, you’re very passionate about solving some incredibly huge problems at a large scale around poverty, education, climate change, and providing the access world access to clean water. in order to do all of those great things. I mean, you’ve had quite a career journey that’s brought you here. So, for our listeners, please tell us more about your career path and your career journey to date.

Terry’s Career Journey

Terry: Absolutely, Ryan, thanks. So, I’ll go back to, I guess, when I was 20 years old, and it was back, you know, I’m kind of dating myself here. 1999 is when I watched the movie Matrix, and I was hooked on this concept of a future of just so much technology. It really got me excited, and that sparked my first interest in the world of information technology. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a job at the time; the department wanted a bachelor’s degree and experience and all that. And, how does a high school dropout break into this world of tech, and believe it or not, you can break into this world without a college degree? And that’s what I put in my blueprint in my book Zero To Engineer, the story of the American dream. This is my origin story, and it talks about how you can break into this field with real-world training, mentorship, and a couple of certifications. To break my way into the field, my entry point was the Air Force. So, instead of going to college for four years, I decided to cut my teeth in the United States Air Force, and I waited six months for a job called the Three C2. It was a network controller position with a top-secret clearance, and the recruiter actually sold me on the idea that I could possibly work on the Air Force one and set up all communications for the president. That really got me excited, and I joined the Air Force, started on the help desk, and worked my way to a network engineer, eventually becoming a network technical instructor at Keesler Air Force Base. And that’s where I would train basically high school graduates, 18, 19, 20-year-olds, in four months to become engineers on the battlefield. And that’s where I really understood that you could learn a trade, these trade skills or skill sets in a matter of months, not years, and not have to put yourself through a four or six-year education system in order to break into this field. So I cut my teeth in the Air Force and then got out as a network engineer and instructor and my dream job at 21. Actually, when I joined the Air Force, when I did all this research, I discovered a company called Cisco Systems. They were basically building the plumbing of the internet, I thought, and the infrastructure to support all this vast technology that was going to be online and back, just to give you some context. 1999, there were 1 million devices connected. Now, we have over 20 billion devices connected to the World Wide Web. 

So you can see how much drastic innovation and changes have happened since I started my career back in 2000. And now, you know, we’re sitting here in 2023 talking about this. That was my career path. Air Force, I worked my way up into a senior network engineer role, and then eventually got recruited by Cisco at the age of 31 or 32 and got into my dream job. That’s how I broke into this field.

Upskilling for Executives

Ryan:  It’s amazing. And I think that’s a great, you know, conversation around. You hear a lot of, no, you need your diplomas, you need your degrees, you need to go through all this. But part of whether you’re an executive and your upskilling or whether you’re executive and you’re trying to hire and fill positions, you know, there’s a lot to be said for hands-on training and the benefits that that provides. So tell us about some of the instances you’ve seen around that where you’ve been able to see some very successful companies, do some great hires, and really upskill people by throwing them into the fire a little bit and giving them that hands-on training as opposed to, maybe the more expensive hires out of school and things like that and help, not, only upskill those people but upskill your entire workforce.

Terry: Yeah, absolutely. The go-getters that are really self-taught and quickly learn that, like adding value to any organization, is projects. So instead of looking at the IT center as a cost center or for technical support, the mindset is that you have to shift your perspective and understand that if you, as a worker, are adding value and working on the most cutting-edge technologies and projects, you’re going to solve a lot of business problems and give that business an edge against their competitors. So that’s what I always advise our students or any engineers or aspiring IT pros that I’ve mentored over the past decades: It’s around project projects that are going to add a lot of value. And a lot of it is the self-education. How are you keeping up with the latest technology that Cisco, Amazon, or Microsoft has to offer? Are you keeping up with the certifications? A lot of students make mistakes when they plateau and hit the ceiling, and that’s really because of their lack of motivation to step up and move up inside the IT ecosystem. You know, having spent 25 years in the IT ecosystem, I can tell you that it’s very vast and wide, and there are customers, there’s the public sector, there are service providers, there’s government, there are so many areas you can work at bars, value-added resellers for those that don’t understand that acronym. Still, there are managed service providers, technology companies, and Fortune 500 companies. So opportunities are endless, and to close this, a question is around that upskilling or reskilling that I’ve seen working with executives: Are they okay with hiring college grads? But what they’re finding is that the college grads don’t have enough hands-on training. So, that’s a fundamentally different approach to how we train in the military versus how we train in the civilian sector in the military. It’s about does this person has the job skills in order to be job-ready on day one, and reading a bunch of books and understanding theories is not going to cut it. You have to get your hands-on experience and that means rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty like any vocational job. Imagine if you had to go to college to be a car mechanic; that would be a nightmare. Or having to get an MBA to be a car mechanic, a hair salon, or a casino dealer. All these types of training are hands-on practicals. It’s real-world based.

Terry: And what we find in, at least in the organization where I worked is if executives can create a concrete upskilling program where they can take their interns or apprenticeship or junior workforce and give them the proper training and proper projects, it’s going to upskill them. So they don’t have to look for other education opportunities or opportunities and jump ship because that’s what we see. The guys that are making the 100 K, 200 K, and 250 K are just moving around different organizations. But what organizations need is an awesome apprenticeship program that they can see inside that organization and then upscale and cross-train on different technologies. That is my advice.

Building a Strong IT Team

Ryan: That’s amazing. And you’re a very big believer obviously in continuous improvement and continuous growth, right? So that’s something that you talk about quite passionately and the need for it in the system for it. You could shed some light on that as well, for some executives that are looking for some advice around that area.

Terry: Yeah, absolutely. I think when you build a team, it’s all about working on the latest technologies. That’s what drew me into it in the first place. So, if you have an IT workforce that is really about the company’s mission and the different it projects, how do you inspire them? How do you push them to level up and continuously improve? Here at NGT Academy, we have a company value that is called Kaizen. Chapter three on habits and rituals inside this book is where I break down the concept of Kaizen. Kaizen is a Japanese concept that Toyota manufacturing actually brought to the Western world back in the early 1900, and it’s around continuous improvement. So they had an assembly line, and whenever something bad happened or a fault, they would raise a red flag, and the entire manufacturing plant would stop; they would fix that, improve it, and see how they could make it better. Then, they would turn that cycle back on, and they would continue to rinse and repeat this to create efficiency and productivity. And when we look at the concept of just habits and rituals, it’s like, how are you growing every day? Kaizen can be broken down into improvement, quality, advancing your career, continuous learning, finding success in reaching your goals, and then implementing success. So, if you have any problem in your business, you can take that one problem, analyze it, find a way to make it better, and then continue to do that. And I can give you a perfect example: let’s talk about fitness for a second just as a perfect metaphor. I might not be able to do one pull-up today, but I’m going to try to do one pull-up, and let’s say I can accomplish that. Guess what? Tomorrow, I can try to go for two pull-ups, and this power of compound interest is so effective that the math equates to if you can improve 1% every day in 365 days, you would have improved that particular area of your life by 37 X. How old is that?

The Future of Upskilling

Ryan: Yeah, that’s first of all, it’s a great message for me to remember to go and work out after we’re done our conversation here because I was lazy before and thinking, you know what, it’s Monday, I might just kick this down the road until tomorrow and start fresh. Now. It’s like, no, you’re right. It’s those gradual improvements and continuing to see results and experiencing new highs, you know, breaking new barriers and doing that

And that’s a lot of what upskilling is as well, from the executive standpoint, right? Do you see a lot of executives abandoning their own upskilling in order to invest in other areas, or do they just get stretched too thin? And is it important that executives take that time and set it aside to ensure that they’re upskilling, not just their teams or their processes but themselves personally as well?

Terry: Absolutely. So, management is a top-down thing that, if the leader has these values, is going to affect the team as well. So, how do you envision yourself building this team? Are you looking to build a small team for maintenance and support, or are you really trying to innovate within your it department? Now, I want to innovate, and I want to build this team in-house. You need to basically groom and bring up a team of subject matter experts in all areas of your business, or you’re going to have to rely on heavy consultants that you’re going to pay 250 -$300 an hour to bring in those subject matter advisory. So there are two ways to approach it. Build a team in-house or rely on heavy consultants. I recommend building that team in-house. So you have rockstar candidates that can reduce your barrier to entry to innovate or to do certain key projects that you might pay 2 to 4 X more because you don’t have that in-house team.

Ryan: Where do you see executives kind of, I don’t want to say failing, but maybe it’s like, you know, they have setbacks in this, is it, they don’t know where to start, is it they get overwhelmed with the process? Is it that they don’t have a documented process? I’m sure there’s an endless list of traps and things that you see. But are there certain things where you say, hey, here’s where you need it, and here’s what’s going to get you started again? Where’s that first pull-up coming from?

Terry: Yes, that’s a great question. What I’ve seen interacting with a lot of CIOs and VPs is It really depends on the organization and how big they are. But they are in a constant battle of solving business solutions, working with vendors, working with consultants and contractors also trying to build their team up. Sometimes, they do lack certain standard operating procedures or playbooks when they’re looking at innovating with new projects. So, it’s good to build self-awareness and really audit your team and really figure out, maybe even do a swat analysis, right, of strengths and weaknesses across your team. And where are you deficient in terms of skill sets? Maybe you’re deficient in AI or cybersecurity, maybe more on the offense, maybe on the defense, like how are you going about auditing your processes, your sops, and your playbooks and also, most importantly, your talent, how are you retaining the talent? How are you upskilling that talent? And if you’re not doing that, then How are you relying on, you know, delivering world-class projects to your business? It could be consultants. And so that’s something that I highly recommend that executives and managers do, which is auditing their team and trying to assess where they’re deficient. Are they innovating, or are they just part of another that’s just looked at as a cost center? Because I’ve seen that happen a lot of times where a lot of VPs or CIOs might be just comfortable, right? Lack a better word; they are just comfortable with what they have. And they’re not looking to push the boundary of trying to innovate because they’re scared to spend money, so to speak. And I’ve seen that really hurt organizations as well.

Ryan: It’s one of those things where it’s hard to prove it until you look back, and it’s like a soft skill, right? Sometimes you’re like, well, soft skills, not easily quantifiable or measurable. But again, when you look back, and you go, look at the turnover that happened here, look at the hiring costs, that we have to go through in the time that the hours it takes to interview people and hire and onboard and train only to have them go somewhere else because we’re not, providing for them, right? So I know that you’re a big proponent in coaching and mentorship, and that’s, you know, that basis and that skill set. So again, tell me more about your examples around how you see successful coaching successful mentorship in action how people can measure it because it’s really hard to do that.

Terry: Yes. It is hard to do if there is no documentation. So one is building a system like what are you going to use to document areas where you are providing coaching and then following up with that coaching to see how they’ve improved. So, one is like making sure that you have KPIs that you’re measuring one through 10. Maybe it is these 100 skills that you want on your front-line tier one to work on. It’s certifications that you want people to work on so they can upskill in some cloud technologies. And I don’t like the fact that we sometimes measure people who have the most certs in the IT world because it’s not about the certs; the skills are really in the project. So, you know, if you’re an executive, it’s getting your team to shadow some of the senior consultants that you’re bringing in-house, it’s maybe pulling them into more a strategic meetings to your steering committee or your budget planning process, that way you can really groom them and, and coach them because it’s your team at the end of the day. So instead of looking at them as a support or cost center or a head count, it’s like, no, how am I going to groom this person to become a manager one day or to become a senior project leader oo on my IT team? And when you start asking these questions, the answers come to you, and it’s pretty common sense. It’s just about implementing it and getting it into practice.

Ryan: So, with that in mind, I mean, I think it’s a great kind of follow-up to that if you mentioned your certifications could almost be considered a commodity now, right? So, with that in mind, in what areas should you see the innovators upskilling now? And what should you really be focused on if not obtaining more certifications and, you know, that sort of side of things?

Terry: Yeah, other areas that managers can really improve or even individuals inside it is to work on more meaningful projects. That’s adding value one, and then two is really the executives focusing on even EQ skills right outside of technical skills. Sure, your team knows how to do XYZ commands on a certain device. But how about participating in business meetings? How about being able to do research on trending technologies and analyzing, you know, the upsides and the downsides of looking at this particular set of technologies otherwise inside it, if you’re not always on the bleeding or cutting edge, I would say you’re going to be left, be behind. You’re not going to have any value to add.

So whether you’re a CIO, whether you’re an engineer, or maybe you’re on a help desk, listen to this, and you want to move up, find ways to add value, not only across the team, but you know, for the organization itself. And the best way you can add value is by working on personal development and outside of technical skills. It’s the emotional intelligence, it’s the business acumen. These other skills are sometimes not looked at. And when I realized, wow, I need to learn some business acumen, like what the CFO is saying, what the VP is saying. I need to start really understanding how innovation works and how these technologies can really change this business unit, you know, sops and playbook quite differently. And I’ll give you a perfect example. When I was working at a credit union, they were considered in the dinosaur ages because they didn’t refresh their technology for 20 years, but they justified it because it was like, it’s still working if it’s working, you know, let’s not touch it, right? Let’s just keep it the way it is. And, that is a recipe for disaster because you will be obsolete, just like how Blockbuster is no longer around today because they forgot to innovate with, you know, Netflix and to be able to compete with them. So that’s the challenge, and that challenge creates an amazing opportunity for all those who are listening to be able to add massive value and move, work your way up the corporate ladder, and work on the latest cutting-edge technologies. Who doesn’t want to do that?

NGT Academy and “Zero to Engineer” Book

Ryan: I watched Blackberry last night for a story about adapt or die. It’s like literally everyone wants the keyboard on their phone, and no one’s ever going to get away from us; no one wants to type on a screen, and sure enough. It’s, don’t get too caught up in yourself and make sure you’re making those adaptations to make it better for, again, provide the value, right? And for the leader side of things here, I want to touch on the fact that you make a point of development and providing resources and things like coaching and mentoring. So, in your world, that means, like you just said, access to what’s important to them. you don’t want to be holding all your cards close to the chest, sitting in the sea-level suites or the VP rooms, right? But also providing resources. So what, what type of resources and access do you see from successful companies? You know, where people are saying great, I can take advantage of this. What sort of things do you see in place?

Terry: Yeah. So regarding upskilling, we at NGT Academy work with enterprises where we’ll see in an apprenticeship program taking, you know, existing entry-level folks on their team instead of seeing them leave the organization. How do you retain your tier one guys and upskill them because they already know the mission, they already know your team, and you’ve been working with them? But I promise you they don’t want to stay stuck in that position for 10 years, right? So, create a plan where in two years, they can move up, and then another three, they can move up. So, showing a 4 to 6-year career road map going up, the organization is going to be very important, and you’re going to expect turnover and half turnover. So why not create an awesome in-house program where you can cross-train and upskill? Imagine this: imagine instead of a pyramid, your top tier guys, you have one or two. But what if he leaves? Then it all crumbles. But have your top-tier guys mentor the mid-tier guys, have your mid-tier guys, you know, train your tier one guys, and it starts pulling up the talent, up house.

What I found is that that’s a very healthy way to create a solid team with redundancy with backup and to make sure that knowledge is getting shared in-house because a lot of people will hoard that knowledge. It’d be like one guy has all the keys to the castle, and if he leaves during a world of trouble, and I think that’s where I see the worst planning around CIOs and executives is they have one or two guys holding all the keys to the castle. Why not build a solid team? Build in redundancy, share that knowledge base, and make it easy for the entire team to share that. That’s a better approach to upskilling and reskilling and then assigning them more projects. Have your tier, have your bottom and mid-tier guys be the support for some of the big projects that the top guys, your one or two guys, are leading on versus just working with the vendors and account managers, and project-based training is the most beneficial for your team period and shadowing and that, that that requires a lot of shadowing and knowledge transfer. Documentation is another key aspect of training, and then making sure that they’re staying up to date by sending them to the latest conferences. working with training providers like ours or someone else’s to really keep them sharp. That’s important. So training shouldn’t be like a once-a-year or once-a-quarter thought process. It should be 20% of the work hours. So, maybe carving out one day a week or two hours a day where your team is, all they’re doing is learning new skills.

Ryan: I love that. That’s again; it’s one of those things that if you don’t put it in your calendar, it doesn’t happen. If you don’t plan for it, it’s not going to work. And I’ve seen the most successful companies, and I’ve heard it myself. Well, if you want to move up, you better have somebody ready to replace you. So that’s the point there. So, with that, what I’d love to do is turn it over to you. Tell us a little bit about NGT Academy, about the book, and how people can get in contact with you and learn more.

Terry: Yeah, absolutely. So, I started NGT Academy in 2016, and the idea was, wow, these colleges are charging 80 to $100,000 for a four-year bachelor’s degree in networking or cybersecurity. And I thought that was ludicrous, and I thought it was like a scam. I was like, this is crazy like these nonprofits to profit organizations. And I don’t remember the late-night commercials from ITT Tech. So they were huge, and I was, at Cisco, at the time, at the top of my career; I was like, that’s BS Right? And, in 2016, they got shut down the same year we started NGT Academy NexGenT. And you know, it was like we needed to provide an alternative to college like this. My co-founder and I were both instructors. He served eight, I served five, and we knew it could be done in a matter of months and not four years. So it really was a burning passion of mine to bring this out to the road because if I was 21 and I saw this program in NGT, you can train in four months versus four years. I would have skipped the whole Air Force, and I would have saved myself a lot of trouble and time. But no, the Air Force was good to me. this book will teach you how to break into IT without a college degree. It comes with a bonus, a certification course, and the CompTIA Network Plus; it’s the number one certification I recommend if you’re just getting started in it. And a lot of rookie mistakes I would avoid is getting the A plus; a lot of newcomers come to me and like, hey, I’m studying for the A plus. Well, what if you get that? A plus, you’re going to pigeonhole yourself into the help desk.

How about another path that could give you two times more to pay to start off as a junior engineer? And that’s what I teach you in this book. Not only do I teach you the pathways to ecosystems, but I also give you my personal stories of how I climbed the corporate ladder and how I went from 28,000 to breaking six figures in just 23 months. And I will lay out the entire blueprint, and you will also learn about mindset and principles. So, I used different strategies and frameworks not only to study but to accomplish all these goals that, you know, was my American dream.


Ryan: It’s absolutely perfect for anybody. Whether you’re starting out or you’re an executive, there is something there for you for sure. Zero to Engineer is the book NGT dot Academy, which is the website to go to and check out to learn more about Terry Kim and all of the great things he’s done. He provides to you for upskilling your staff for upskilling and how to build that plan of, as you said, succession and retention. The cost of retention is so much lower than trying to acquire and poach new talent. So, Terry, I want to thank you so much for sharing this with us today. We’ve got a lot more topics we could cover in the future as well. I’d like to have you back again and cover some more off.

Terry: That’d be great.

Ryan: Thanks so much, Terry.

Terry: Yeah, thanks, Ryan, for having me on the show. And yeah, If you want to start a career, it’s never too late. We’ve helped 18- to 64-year-olds break into this field. And so, from zero to engineer, you can grab the full book on zero to engineer.com/book. If you visit that link, you can get it absolutely free and just pay for shipping and handling, and we’ll ship that book to you and any executives listening. Suppose you want us to help you with an apprenticeship program or upskilling. In that case, We cover network engineering, cybersecurity, data science, and AI machine learning. I’m missing one product, Product  UI UX, and oh, Dev ops and Cloud are getting super hot. So we have that track that’s launching here in December. So, thanks, Ryan, again for having me on the show.

Ryan: It was a blast. I absolutely love it. Terry Kim. Thank you again. I want to thank you. Thank you a minute. Thank you for this amazing podcast IT career journey and upskilling for executives. And I also want to thank our listeners. We can’t do what we do without you. So until we meet again with another amazing TBR episode, I’m your host, Ryan Davies. Take care everybody. Thanks so much.

About Our Host and Guest

Director of Marketing – Ekwa.Tech & Ekwa Marketing
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Founder & CEO at NexGenT
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“But what organizations need is an awesome apprenticeship program that they can see inside that organization and then upscale and also cross-train on different technologies. So that would be my advice.”

– Terry Kim –