Why I Went Head Hunting at RadioShack (and not IBM SoftLayer)

February 26th, 2015

Like most people my age that work with computers (and grew up in the US), I spent a lot of time as a kid at the local RadioShack. When I heard about their massive store closings earlier this month, I had some nostalgic thoughts and remembered how I first learned about technology from the local RadioShack sales reps.

When RadioShack announced its massive store closings earlier this month, I had some nostalgic thoughts.  Like most people my age that work with computers (and grew up in the US), I spent a lot of time as a kid at the local RadioShack.  Ours was in a shopping center called “Village Center” in Yorba Linda, California - sandwiched between a smoke shop and the local grocery store.  My brother and I would make up excuses about needing some obscure battery type and then we’d spend hours picking through transistors, RC car parts and different models of walkie talkies / low band radios dreaming about all the police conversations we could overhear!  I think I might have even played my first Duke Nukem game on a Tandy PC while mom wasn’t watching. Needless to say, many memories from my early nerd-dom happened in this store.  But one struck me in particular -- and that wasn’t about gadgets or electronics, it was about people.

Circa 1990 in sleepy Yorba Linda, RadioShack was the best place to go and chat up a local nerd.  Everytime I walked into the store, some guy (yes, always a guy at that time) would come out and ask me if he could help me -- with literally anything.  From making a remote controlled volcano for a school project, to the latest DOS version on the hot new PC, this guy would know a bit about everything and actually seemed to enjoy talking to a 10 year old about it.  Score!

The Modern Apprentice

At Packet, one of our core missions is to generate opportunities in local, disadvantaged communities for tech-based careers.  It’s why we raised over $10,000 for Coalition4Queens this past December.  

Most tech groups focus on grooming software developers -- a huge, booming market.  But even though we’ve got a fair share of pure devs in our ranks, Packet (like other hosting and cloud companies) has a cadre of lower-on-the-stack engineers: network operators, datacenter technicians, hardware nerds, system admins.  And, in contrast to software engineers, almost nobody goes to school or attends formal training programs for any of these jobs.  They are, from what I can tell, some of the only “new economy” careers that are 100% apprentice based (New York State lists the glorified “Micro-Computer Repair Technician” occupation as a 48-month apprenticeship, but that listing seems a bit outdated).

So what does it take to be a great backbone internet engineer, an awesome datacenter tech or a leading linux sysadmin?  I bet if you surveyed the NANOG membership rolls or rank and file at the largest cloud platforms, you wouldn’t find too many 4 year degree holders!  From my experience, it takes only a few key personality traits:

  • The desire to understand - I look for people that watch How It’s Made or play with Arduino’s when they’re not fixing their car by themselves (yes, people still do that!)
  • A distinct lack of fear in trying new things - This doesn’t mean having confidence in a subject, but rather not being embarrassed about not knowing something in advance of doing it.
  • A respect for machines - Using electronics or loving new toys isn’t the same as respecting machines, automation and invention.  There’s got to be a little awe or wonder in the whole experience to hold people through the doldrums of 20,000 word man pages.

On The Hunt for Tinkerers - at RadioShack!

So even though RadioShack has changed dramatically since I was 10 (I mean, c’mon, “the Shack?”) -- I walked by my local and soon-to-be-closed RadioShack this past weekend.  I wasn’t looking for a hearing aid battery -- I was on the hunt for tinkerers that could apprentice at Packet.  And, just as I remember, I was greeted by somebody who wanted to talk about gears, gadgets and gizmos.  As soon as I could get him off the topic of Beats headphones and Galaxy phones (30% off everything, by the way), we chatted about how to fix all this stuff that they sell.  And I told him about datacenters, fixing broken servers and figuring out how big routers work -- and, needless to say, he was interested in how all this stuff works and why we need it.

So, that’s why I’m spending my weekends canvassing the local RadioShacks.  Our industry desperately needs men and women who love to fix things, want to know how things work and who aren’t afraid of a steep learning curve. You can't always get or afford that type of person by culling through resumes from tech giants, like IBM or HP, but if you're committed to grooming new talent and are comfortable with the inital overhead of the apprenctice style model of job training, it's an extremely rewarding way to introduce young people to the inner workings of the Internet.

So, if you're a tinker-er, a modern day inventor, a fixer or a mechanically inclinded hardware geek, reach out to us at Packet or another hosting company in your neighborhood. I think you'll find we're excited to teach people everything we know and love about bare metal servers, optical networks and the latest Linux operating systems.