My career in technology started out different from what you might expect: how often does a special educator end up working as a support engineer? In the late 90’s, the “Dot-com bubble” made it all possible. And it proved to be a life-changing decision.
For many years, I worked in various positions at the same global technology company. After being in support, I helped manage the local subsidiary’s Microsoft stack, with a focus on their e-mail infrastructure. One day, my boss came to me and asked if I knew something about SharePoint – I didn’t. And that’s where it all started.
Taming the beast
SharePoint has always been a very complex product with a broad feature set. That works to its advantage, but that also means there are some downsides. SharePoint’s vast amount of possibilities is good because you can leverage the product for many different purposes. The downside, however, is that no one knows it back to front. Working with SharePoint is a continuous quest for information. It still is, even in this cloud era.
Even after working with the product almost fulltime for over 10 years, it doesn’t make me comfortable saying I’m an expert – by no means. Sure, I know a lot about setting up and operating a SharePoint environment and all its dependencies. And yes, you might consider me an authority when it comes to hybrid SharePoint deployments. But I’m not much of a developer, and you probably shouldn’t hire me to talk to your CEO about how SharePoint can support your digital transformation strategy.
I know I suffer from “imposter syndrome” quite a bit (you should definitely Google that if you don’t know what that is), and I know many people in our space who do. But still, if working with SharePoint doesn’t make you modest about your abilities, nothing probably will.
In my mission to search for information that would help me in my job as a SharePoint administrator and consultant, I stumbled upon many blogs, websites and forums. After a while you learn who the thought leaders in your field are and where to get information that bears a minimum of authority. But even then, you come across many questionable blog articles and plain out bad advice that you should certainly not follow. How do you know which advice is to be trusted? It’s something I often ask myself still today.
Fast forward to April 6, 2009. London was still recovering from massive protests against the G20 Summit a few days earlier, and an ongoing Tamil hunger strike to raise awareness about the war in their home country. And there I was, right in front of Westminster Abbey where the protesters were. But I was there for a different reason: the first European SharePoint Best Practices Conference, happening at the Queen Elisabeth II Conference Center at that very same spot. This conference would change it all for me. And not just a single time.
I was already following some of the speakers at the event through their blogs or Twitter, but it was a very rewarding experience for me to meet so many of these great minds in person for the first time. I remember looking at the speaker list and taking notes on who to track down on social media to broaden my network. What also struck me is how normal these SharePoint rock stars were, how they didn’t make fun of my stupid questions and how they were such a friendly bunch. It’s funny to see how many of the people I looked up to at the time I now consider to be very good friends. You know who you are.
Putting myself out there
The London conference rebranded a few times and maybe skipped a year or two, but I kept coming back. Everyone I wanted to see was always there, and their enthusiasm was contagious. I convinced my boss of the fact that that conference was the only thing worth spending my training budget on. And after a few editions, it dawned on me: I wanted to be a teacher too!
I started a blog and began writing about the little things I cared about in the SharePoint IT Pro world, such as good database maintenance practices. It’s kind of amusing to see that’s still one of my pet peeves. It took me almost two years before someone from the BIWUG user group approached me and asked me if I wanted to do a talk on the subject. I don’t remember exactly why, but I said yes – and on September 8, 2011 I presented my first user group session. Those 60 minutes were very intimidating, and I’m so glad there isn’t any footage available (at least I think so). But it went great, and I wanted more. Less than two years later, I was standing on the same stage at the London conference myself, doing a session. It was my first international speaking engagement, and many more would follow. Unfortunately, the session was recorded this time.
Follow your passion
I enjoyed being a teacher, learning new things and sharing my knowledge. But I wanted more. More public speaking and more SharePoint. In the beginning of 2013, I left the mothership and somehow convinced Xylos to employ me. And that turned out to be another good decision. I’m spending my time doing the things I love the most: working on SharePoint deployments and inspiring customers to get their organizations to the next level with technology. That’s where my passion lies. That’s what gives me energy. And those are exactly the opportunities Xylos provides me with.
Over the last 5 years I’ve been speaking at more than 70 events, conferences and user group evenings. That’s a hell of a job, but a very rewarding one. Xylos’ support is phenomenal, and that’s not obvious at all – the return on investment cannot easily be calculated. We are a Belgian company with mainly Belgian customers, but we think it’s important to be out there and be actively engaged in the community. That community, by the way, is no longer limited to SharePoint, but encompasses the whole Office 365 and Azure ecosystem. For Xylos this means market visibility and leadership.
For me personally, the interactions with the different audiences throughout our community and the friendships with my fellow speakers make it extra valuable and worthwhile. I also invest a lot of my personal time in preparing for and going to these events. That wouldn’t be possible without the tremendous support of Xylos and my family. Passion only gets you so far.
Microsoft Most Valuable Professional
The icing on the cake came in October 2013, when I was awarded Microsoft MVP for SharePoint. In July I received my fifth award, and I still consider this one of my biggest accomplishments.
Being an MVP is not about being the best of the best, but about being passionate to inspire people with technology. And yes, we might do some free marketing for Microsoft but we also give them a very hard time when we need to. The annual MVP Summit in Redmond, Washington is great fun and we get to learn about a lot of new things. But we are also there to tell Microsoft how customers and the broader community feel about their products and offerings, what they like and don’t like. Having a direct line to the different product teams is a nice bonus but the new Microsoft is already very different: look at all the open source initiatives they are launching and supporting.
How to follow your dreams?
- Be bold
- Take risks
- Be passionate about what you do
What makes for a good speaker?
- Acquire as much knowledge as you can – be an expert
- Keep It Short and Stupid – don’t make it too complicated, keep to one subject per presentation.
- Engage your audience, tell a story.
- Practice, practice, practice!
Join the team
Inspired by my story? Ready to join an awesome team of SharePoint and Office 365 professionals? We might have the right opportunity for you. Follow your passion and contact me!