If you’ve ever wonder what a “Technology Services Manager” actually does, then read on!
After Sam interrogated me on his blog, I thought I would return the favour and ask him almost the same questions in return. We covered a variety of topics, such as career changes, moving into a management role, delivering IT in COVID-19 times, etc…
I hope you enjoy the read.
Round 1: About you
Name: Sam Akroyd (only my mum calls me Samuel if/when I misbehave)
Role: Technology Services Manager
Business: Stagecoach Group
Hidden Talent: I used to play basketball for the Heaton Hurricanes when I was younger. I also used to be paid to play Battlefield 1942 when I was supposed to be studying at university.
Favourite thing to do outside work: I still enjoy playing a bit of computer games in my spare time and I enjoy going for a walk.
Guilty pleasure: Enjoy a bit of cheesy music (such as Black Lace ) and I have been caught on work events doing the Macarena.
Round 2: Your job
I was hoping you were able to give us a bit of a background of your career please?
I left college and went to do a Computer Science Degree at Salford University (near Manchester) which I found was a bit out of date (I was already building gaming computers at the time).
I then moved down to the South of England doing front line support at the NHS. I was lucky to be put under wings of two women [Note of the Editor: Sam discusses the importance of these two mentors in a blog post]). They saw I was asking more questions than anybody!
Personal situation meant I moved back up to the North of England. I did 2nd line support, got made redundant during the 2008 crash but then joined a construction company called Styles & Wood, doing 2nd line support and this is where I discovered VMware.
I was using ESX 3.5 back in 2009. I learned some networking and storage and eventually moved to BetFred (betting company). I didn’t stay there very long but met some very bright people there (including Dan Pass).
I then moved to Stagecoach as a 3rd line server engineer in 2014. I started as a Wintel engineer, picked up Linux skills and was promoted to Server Team Leader.
Over the last 12 months, I have been looking after the whole Infrastructure & Networks.
How did you find the transition from being “one of the team” to being the manager? Was it something you had actually planned?
I didn’t really want to do management. It was more the ‘Leadership’ aspect than the ‘Management’ that I was attracted to.
I like be involved in every decision and voice my opinion (whether it be wrong or right) – but I naturally try and take the lead with things. And at the time, nobody else did.
So I was quite happy to take that lead. The transition was quite tough because you go from being one of the ‘guys’, with people who had been there longer than me to me becoming the ‘manager’.
But I quite enjoy it now. I’d like to think that, because I have had a background of having done every single job – 1st line, 2nd line, 3rd line – people generally have a little bit more respect for people when they know are capable of doing their job, rather than being just a “manager”.
I would never asked anybody to do something I’m unable to do.
And although I am kind of looking at strategy and other things, I always try and keep my hand In the technical pie. If I want to introduce a new technology, I make sure I’ve tried it myself.
Going back to your original question, I think the transition to managerial was tough, because you have to sometimes tell people what to do and that’s hard when you’re their friend, but if they have respect for you, they’ll happily do it.
So what does a typical day look like for you?
I would say probably 20% is managerial stuff – checking in with the guys how things are going.
Generally, I always make sure the people I hire don’t like to be micromanaged. These are adults. They’re experienced. I don’t feel they want to be micromanaged nor do I want to micromanage.
We have a weekly catch up, morning stand-ups and and they know they can raise any issues with me throughout the day.
Project-wise is where I spend a majority of my time – let’s say 60% – doing various projects calls then probably the remaining 20% will be me spending time doing technical stuff. That might be me trying some new technology or helping somebody out with X or Y where I might be more experienced.
Then in my evenings, I might spend some time around with technology because I’m a weirdo.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
The selfish part of me used to be only get rewarded when I would fix something or I implemented something
But the one thing with being a manager that has surprised me is the feeling of pride when somebody in your team is able to do the same thing.
There’s plenty of projects that’s been on Stagecoach that I’ve not really had a hand in, other than the very high level architecture. To see them being implemented by someone I’ve hired or someone I’ve worked closely with is actually as rewarding to me as doing it myself. The business still gets the same benefit, whether I put it in or any of my colleagues.
I still get the most out of doing implemented something new – Terraform for example – but I think the reward of completing a project now and seeing it being used by people, irrelevant who’s completed it, is probably my biggest buzz.
Could you tell me some of the recent interesting IT initiatives at work?
There’s two sides to this: initiatives beneficial to the business and initiatives beneficial to our end-users.
[Note of the Editor: remember, Stagecoach is a transport company so here Sam explains something a digital initiative that is essentially Uber for buses]
We are actually working at the moment on a thing called Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) – effectively Uber-ization of buses. That’s actually been launched in Sunderland (UK) with a 3rd party. It’s a really big change for for the transport industry.
I think that could be a real game changer for how people approach transport in the future.
I think the thing that needs to be highlighted is while the government is very much trying to reduce emissions and car usage, realistically the most efficient way to get people from A to B is not 1 person in 1 vehicle but, for example, 50 people in 1 vehicle. It’s better for the environment, something we should all care about.
With DRT, I can click a button on an app, and then go on a bus from X to Y location at 8pm – instead on a scheduled timetable.
Internally, Office 365 and Microsoft Teams have really changed the way we operate as a business, particularly the last few weeks.
With everybody working from home….people sending emails is just not really practical. Being able to video conference or voice call or send a message or a file without a formal email is awesome. And while it’s not revolutionary, we’ve had some fantastic feedback from our CEO and downwards about what differences this made to people’s lives.
Do you have any horror stories of customer disasters that you can share?
A particular business had a virus on thousands of devices because it did not want to pay for their antivirus…
What was the biggest mistake of your career?
[Note of the editor: to ease Sam into this question, I proceeded to share my own personal disaster where I caused a routing loop inside one of the largest UK service providers’ network. Ooops.]
About seven or eight years ago, I was doing some firmware upgrades at a DR site. It had been a long day.
I just finished doing the firmware upgrade and I was just waiting to finish. I was bored waiting for the SAN firmware to finish. I started tidying up the cables at the back of the SAN and accidentally pulled it out halfway through its firmware upgrade. I had to call IBM Support and they had to send an engineer the following day.
We had to re-seed the data over a 10 Mbps link and it took 3 weeks. Fortunately, it was the DR site! I learned from it to plan and over-plan!
Round 3: Technology
Let’s start with personal tech, what is in your arsenal at the moment, both at home and work?
I’m absolutely obsessed with gadgets. My personal Laptop at the moment is the MacBook Pro and my work laptop is Dell XPS 13: I am a big fan of small laptops and I don’t like carrying anything big and clunky.
And then I have a desktop machine at home for my gaming.
II have every gadget over the sun, including these funky cables I crowdfunded on Indiegogo. I hate carrying cables and this will resolve every scenario.
I’m also very excited about the new iPad Pro at the moment.
Let’s move into the enterprise tech world, what tech would you love to see the death of – but won’t go away?
Archaic database engines and their incredibly annoying and complex licensing models.
Every business and every app needs a database of some sort. And I resent the tens/hundreds thousand pounds that is often banded around for what is essentially the same Tables/Records/Fields structure that has always existed since the dot.com era.
And I find it credibly frustrating: it’s my real bugbear, certainly when if you come at it from a customer perspective.
When you’re trying to create a project, you know your budget can be sucked up very quickly by a resilient database back-end and there’ s no need for it to be that expensive.
What are the worst things a vendor can do? What is a bad vendor pitch?
I think the biggest problem I have with vendors at the moment: ambulance chasers are rife. People who have never spoken to me ever are now adding me on LinkedIn, sending me emails. That is the worst way to do any business with me, ever.
Outside of this, I think the biggest problem I see when when businesses come in is just a lack of listening.
People like to do a sales pitch, to sell a product and that’s fine, because that’s what you’re there to do. You’ve got a product to sell. I get it. But actually, that sales pitches is irrelevant if you don’t understand the customer’s requirements, nor do you understand the customer.
But the first thing you said was: “What is the problem you’re trying to solve?”
And that was actually a big reason why Stagecoach’s relationship with VMware has flourished so much is that your company that listens.
We have numerous VMware products outside of VMware Cloud. and that is one thing that is runs through the business is that there’s no hard sell.
Round 4: Covid-19 Pandemic
How ready were your business for it?
From our perspective, the challenges have been quite tough. We are mature in some areas (moving to the Cloud and things like that) but less in others. But a lot of it’s down to our industry: it’s a very hands-on job running a bus company!
You need people to clean the bus, to fuel the buses, to drive the buses, to count any cash that comes in from the bus, so it’s still a very hands-on job.
So many people can’t actually work for home. One of the initial challenges was to identify those roles that are capable of working from home (finance, marketing, IT).
Then it was to make it as seamless as possibly for those users. So we’ve made use of technologies like VPN, services like Okta and we’ve got VMware Workspace One for Mobile Device Management.
A lot of our users still use desktop machines and to actually roll out laptops was quite challenging because we were not the only company that wanted to do that!
So getting hold of stock was tough but it’s fair to say that the business was really pleased with our response. We’ve had very little complaints internally from customers.
As mentioned earlier, I think we rolled Teams out to 3,500 users in just under 48 hours.
We were already using Teams within I.T. but we had not rolled it out to the rest of the business. We put together training packs and guides and a dedicated Office 365 support team. In the first week, we had over 1,000 meetings. In the past 30 days, we’ve had 3,000 meetings, 3,000 1:1 calls and 150,000 chat messages!
Last question – what would be the first thing you will want to do when this is over?
Go and see my family. I’ve got a new-born son and everyone is desperate to see him!
I hope you enjoyed reading Sam’s interview. If you want to read more about him, go and check out his excellent blog.