This interview is part of ITworld's regular "How I Got Here" series which focuses on the career path of successful IT professionals.
Going from being a political lobbyist to an IT consultant was a decidedly unusual turn in Mike Valuck’s career, but it was one that satisfied his desire for something rational amidst the often irrational and unpredictable quagmire of statehouse politics. But his solid background in public administration turned out to be just the thing for a career as a consultant, where communicating, convincing, and relaying information are key parts of the job. As a young man more interested in writing legislation than in writing computer programs, Mike began a successful career as a lobbyist for municipalities in the state of Michigan, but later found computers a lot easier to understand than politicians. All it took was a keen interest in IT, some self-study and a handful of certifications, and career number two was well underway.
Name: Mike Valuck
Current position: Senior Consultant, GlassHouse Technologies
Hometown: Milford, Michigan
Years in the Industry: 13
Ask me to do anything but … For the most part, I do pretty much everything. I might not like it, but I do it. That’s one of the things I like about it, everything’s a learning experience.
Something most people don’t know about me: I would love to be a professional sailor.
Favorite technology: I’m really impressed by what a lot of the new PDA phones can do, I think it’s going to be interesting where those go.
Favorite non-work pastime: Sailing
Philosophy: Follow your bliss.
What I'm reading now: The Confederacy of Dunces, by Kennedy O’Toole
Favorite quote: It’s from one of my sailing skippers: “Perfection is good enough, excellence will be tolerated.”
Ideal vacation: Charter sailing in Tahiti.
You went from political lobbyist to IT consultant. That’s a major switch, how did that career path evolve? I definitely didn’t follow the traditional path. Around here in the Detroit area, you would have a Masters in Information Science, but back in my day there wasn’t a lot available. It was all just programming languages like FORTRAN, Basic, and COBOL. Where did you go to school, and what did you study? I have an undergraduate degree from Michigan State in political science. From there, I got a Masters degree from Western Michigan University in Public Administration. I always thought I would be a city manager or something. I always enjoyed government. What was your first job out of college? While I was getting my Masters, I started working for one of the state commissions, then went down to the House of Representatives and worked in Jefferson City, Missouri for a while. I wrote some legislation down there, then came back to Michigan to a full time job. I became a legislative assistant here in Michigan in 1991. When you were in high school, were you only interested in politics, or was there an inkling of technology in your mind back then? Not at all. I was just doing college prep and all the AP placement classes, getting ready to go to college. What led you to the political lobbyist career? I had always liked writing legislation. The main part was trying to do something beyond yourself. The things that you are writing impacts everybody in the state, and in Michigan, that’s millions of people. I always looked at it from the standpoint of having a positive impact on folks through the legislation that’s being passed. I thought, what an ideal job! You know what’s happening before it happens, and hopefully, you’re doing the right thing. When did you realize you wanted to move away from the lobbying business and into the IT business? We were getting a lot of data from the Department of Treasury, and we were starting to do analysis on the financial health of the cities and villages of the state of Michigan. So I spent a lot of time learning about the computers and the network, and it became more than just a hobby. I found myself spending more time with computers and getting the data for the argument, than I was actually spending doing the argument. Was there a single moment when it really clicked that you wanted to switch careers? It came down to a really simple bill. We had a bill that said the municipalities were going to be mandated that if they found a minor in possession, or a minor with a DUI, the local agency “shall” call the parents if they can be identified. That’s a mandate, and the state had to provide a budget with that. So I said, according to the state constitution, you guys owe us money for the phone bill. I had an agreement with the Senate judiciary committee that they would substitute “shall” with “may,” since most municipalities did this as a courtesy, and it was logical that you don’t have to pay us if you leave it as “may.” I shepherded this bill with the word “may” in it, and on the third reading, a state senator substituted it back to “shall.” And there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. This was a bill that was simple from the standpoint of what the municipalities wanted, and we spent hours making sure that this one word didn’t change, then in 30 seconds it was substituted back and it was done. It was like betting on a sure thing, then losing. That sounds like a very frustrating experience. Very much so. You just didn’t see it coming. That was what was so hard about it. With a computer, if it’s acting funny, or it gives you different results, there’s a reason for that. When something doesn’t happen right with legislation, sometimes you can’t explain the reason for that. So at that point you decided you wanted to go into the IT business. I had been working a lot of hours. And when I looked at it, I said, I think I like the IT work better. I was talking to the Secretary of the Senate, and it turned out that they had an IT help desk that they were going to expand, and I put in a resume for that, since everything that I’m doing now on the lobbying side will help them, except that I won’t be lobbying. I would be taking all the information, and then train the senate on how to use these tools and find this data. It took me about six months to make that decision. I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to go in that direction or not, but the tipping point was that it was just too lucrative financially. So it was a fairly easy transition. Yes, it was. It was a little awkward at times. I’d go into somebody’s office and be working on a database question, or explaining where to go to find data. I remember going into one office and they asked me about some back-door discussion about a piece of legislation which I had been working on previously. I said, okay, I can tell you the context, but I can’t tell you the specific stories, because I don’t want to compromise all sides. Then what came next? I was in that position for about a year and a half and then I got called by a third party recruiter. They needed a database specialist for Metropolitan Life, and it was another 25% pay increase, so that’s another offer I can’t refuse. I went into that for two or three years, going from DBA to systems engineer to senior systems engineer. And all this time you were completely self-taught in IT? Very much so. This had all been just a hobby. How did you go about that? I invested heavily, staying one step ahead of wherever I was. I bought my own computers, my own software, and was always showing whoever I was working with at the time what the next step forward could be for them. Was there a lot of new technology when you go to the corporate side? Back in the Senate, we were using Macintosh and some very old IBM machines. When I got to Met Life, it was a little different. They were running Banyan Vines servers on IBM, and that was a whole new world coming away from Novell networking. I had to learn all about Banyan, and then when Microsoft absorbed them we moved to NT 3.5.1 and then quickly to NT 4.0, and again, all that was self-taught. Were there ever any questions about your education? Well, I have a Masters degree in public administration. Sooner or later, somebody’s going to ask me what my IT background is. Well, I had done the work but at that point I realized that having some certification would definitely, at least on paper, show that I knew what I was talking about, and then I would just let the experience speak for itself after that. I started the Banyan certification, but after they got absorbed that got dropped. So I went down the Microsoft track and became an MCSE. It’s actually not that unusual, a lot of very successful IT people don’t fit into the narrow IT educational background. How did the political lobbying background help your IT career? It was all the customer-facing skills. You can look at the archetypical IT person who huddles down in a cube in the corner, and gets an assignment and cranks out a bunch of code, you press a button, and it works. But when you try to talk to them or get them to explain something, it’s all guttural noises and short sentences. I don’t fit that mold. It’s nice to be able to take an anecdote or some sort of analogy from somewhere else in a broad base, and explain computers in other terms that somebody at a higher level understands. Remember, lobbying is just sales. I’m selling words and concepts. Now with computers, I’m explaining concepts, and sometimes I have to explain them pictorially or verbally, or using some analogy relating to somebody else’s experience, and try to put it together for them. So in a way IT consulting is a lot like lobbying. Sure. The technology we do at GlassHouse, if it’s something the customer needs or wants, it sells itself. So what you’re trying to do is explain it well enough so that they see that yes, this is a product that solves my problem. How did you get introduced to GlassHouse? I had been looking at contract renewals for my eighth year at the state of Michigan, and there was a lot of sabre rattling there. I just said, this is my eighth year here and I’m tired of that. I’ve proven my value every year and they’ve approved my contract every year, and I had risen as far as I was going to go. I decided it was time to get off the Microsoft certification treadmill. It had become commoditized. You can go out anywhere and find an Exchange Enterprise person. It was time to distinguish myself. I wanted to have some interesting projects, and one of them was when we had VMWare come in and show us ESX Server 2.5, and that opened my eyes. The state had 2,800 servers and multiple data centers that they could virtualize, and I said, ‘Wow, look at what people can do with this!” Just the internal costs we could save were tremendous. I ran a pilot project for the Unemployment Agency and showed them how to save $250,000 in hardware. I went and got my certification and took classes in it, and invested in myself just like I had done in the NT world. I started talking to people, and was put in touch with the person who had written the book on ESX. We started negotiating in the fall of 2007, and I accepted a position with RapidApp, where he worked. RapidApp was in the process of being acquired by Glasshouse, so by the time I started, GlassHouse had already completed the purchase of RapidApp, which became their virtualization arm. What is your advice for somebody who wants to go into IT consulting? I come from a side where I respect technical ability, so I would definitely recommend a high level of technical skills. But it has to be paired with good communication skills, and good presentation skills. You need to know how to handle yourself in that meeting, and how to write that email, and how to deliver the document. It needs to be in the correct verbiage, not misspelled, and you have to have thought through about what you’re writing and use the right words. That’s me and my background. In lobbying, you had to make sure you picked your words very carefully, because when you wrote them down in the form of legislation, you had to know exactly what that’s going to mean.