From Behind the Chair to Behind the Keyboard: How Hairdressing Prepared Me for Network Automation
Hairdressing taught me invaluable people skills that strengthened my network automation career. You may have some of these key transferable skills, too.
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Every developer lead has been there. You’re mid-phone call with a client who is experiencing an outage or chaos in the system. She’s stressed out, balancing feedback from stakeholders across her organization, weighing the potential impacts of the issue, and relying on you for advice and solutions.
In these pivotal moments, I’m often hit with a sudden sense of déjà vu from when I was 16, working as a hairdresser in my first full-time job, facing a customer whose hair color was left on too long and oxidizing, causing the microscopic outer layer of hair follicles to peel back and release green color pigments.
Helping the customer turn her Worst Day Ever around took more than just transforming her hair from shamrock color back to its normal brown. It was also being a calm presence behind the chair, talking her through the process and giving her the confidence to believe we’d fix it. Those 15 years behind the chair taught me that success is 50% technical skills and 50% communication skills.
Here are 3 'soft skill' lessons from my salon days that have shaped my developer career.
1. Listening to Learn and Learning to Relate Across Levels
It’s critical to listen to your clients’ needs. That’s easy to say but sometimes hard to do.
For one thing, people don’t always need something fixed, at least not immediately. Sometimes they just need someone who has been there and done that to look at something with them and share ideas. For another thing, what clients want is not always what they need — and that is not always something they want to hear. Active listening and discussions yield visibility across the client’s 'stack,' to translate "I want to look like the latest magazine cover model," or "We need to be more agile," to "I want to feel more confident when I start my new job," or "We need to move all our infrastructure to the cloud."
As a hairdresser and later as an engineer, my default mode was often "I can fix it." Learning to actively listen gave me better visibility of my client's pain points and when they wanted ideas versus needed something fixed. Understanding how the clients’ process worked allowed me to communicate my advice and ideas in a way that there were more likely to listen to and sign off on. It also helped me be more at ease talking with a variety of client types, from a new network engineer to a CTO.
2. Walking In a Client’s Shoes
The daily work grind can be wearing, and it is easy to fall into a wash-rinse-and-repeat mode on projects. However, no two clients are the same, whether they’re sitting in your salon chair or troubleshooting projects with you across cyberspace, and their problems won’t necessarily have the same fix. It is important to step into your client's shoes and treat them how you would want to be treated:
- Respect their time, no matter the title or status level of the person you’re working with.
- Fully engage and listen to what they are saying — and not saying — about the issue to understand what is stressing them out.
- When it comes time for the plan, steer clients toward options that tackle their issues head-on based on their individual needs and resources.
Demonstrating genuine empathy is a true superpower — one that can offer valuable insights that can make difference between a collaboration success or failure.
3. Practicing Professional Patience
It’s not personal; it’s just business. Nine times out of 10, when you get that urgent client call, they’re not reaching out to tell you what an outstanding job you and your team are doing, or to chat about their weekend plans. It’s because something has gone wrong, and they need you to fix it… like, yesterday. The important thing to remember during the shouting, virtual finger-pointing, and going around in circles on what to do next is that most of the time, it really isn’t personal. The client is stressed out because of something serious that is outside of their control, and that stress pours out like steam from a kettle. This is the time to call on your powers of patience and listening:
- Let the client talk.
- Guide them back through the problem calmly to work out what happened.
- Focus on the facts, not the feelings.
- Reassure them that you’ve got a plan and are on it.
In today’s increasingly digital business environment, the need to continue honing and upgrading skills is a given. Technical upskilling is one part of the equation; the ability to effectively communicate that technical expertise to counsel clients is the other. Whether you’re a CTO reimagining a corporate technical strategy or the developer creating systems that bring that plan to life, translate the 'people skills' you’ve built through your own unique experience to advance your IT acumen — even if you started out as a hairdresser, like me.
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