Welcome to the first installment of Inside Tigunia.
What is Inside Tigunia? Well, it’s a conversation.
There are a lot of so-called technology experts out there nowadays. It’s an entirely unregulated term. As a technology company in the SMB space with a fully remote workforce, servicing many clients and customers remotely, it can be tempting to give in to this buzzword.
But to us Tigunians, it’s not a buzzword. We only hire the actual experts, with the experience and authority to prove it. Those experts are also humans, with families, hobbies, and hearts.
Inside Tigunia features full-length, candid conversations to introduce our team to our friends and clients.
This month’s spotlight will be on James Nicholas, Vice President of Information Technology.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Hello James, thank you for joining me today.
It’s my pleasure, I’m happy to speak with you.
First question, how did you first find yourself working in the, what I’ll call, the information technology and security field? And I guess that’s part of the question, as well. Do you consider that to be your field or is there another term you would use?
I started by getting into IT infrastructure and security specifically because I was going to school for mathematics and artificial intelligence. I was looking at doing programming and development work and that seemed really fascinating to me. It was actually a shift from an early on vision where I’d wanted to become a physicist. And I really liked physics and the science behind it. I took some psychology courses and some computer courses, and I really liked the principles and logic around psychology, and I thought the idea of turning that into artificial intelligence was fascinating. And while I was in college to do that, I was also just a naturally curious person, so I started digging deep into the hardware of things and understanding how electrical signal could actually carry information. So, I dug really deep into that, probably more than I needed to. And then I got a job working at the college campus to assist with IT requests.
I later decided to change majors and directions and I really enjoyed the network and server infrastructure and the idea of securing an organization or a business in a digital way. And that’s what drew me into it. It was maybe a little bit by accident and a little bit by encouragement from people I knew that happened to be in industry.
And to your question about whether or not I refer to IT and security as my industry, I would say yes. I like to encompass the whole field as business technology because most technology is driven by business. You’ll notice that at Tigunia we don’t have an IT department, per se. Even though my title is VP of IT, we call it the platform department, and that’s because every technology runs on a platform and our department actually covers the platforms of those systems. We don’t really dig into the applications; we have other experts for that. We handle everything that works behind the scenes to make everything else work. We are the platform team and so that’s the reason because that, to me, is a better way of encompassing the security teams, the server teams, the Network Operations Center, et cetera. We all handle platform.
Interesting. Since you started out at your college, what has your experience looked like since then?
I suppose it’s been crazy. I did a lot of different things. First, getting into the industry in a meaningful way was actually very difficult. Most organizations back then required that you either had a degree or that you had many, many years of experience. They didn’t really take on people that were green. You already had to know the thing in order to come do the thing, and so it was a cart before the horse condition that existed. So, I studied a lot and had to demonstrate my skills. I actually ended up doing some free internships for a few organizations.
Then I ended up starting at an organization that paid me to do it, which was administration for multiple companies that they owned. From there, I found that I was actually quite good at it, overhauling the infrastructure, making sure it was set correctly, aligning it to the business’s objectives, training them so they could manage it themselves, and moving to the next organization. I then moved into the managed service provider space. From there, I ended up meeting <Tigunia’s partners> Bret and Marc and came to Tigunia, and the rest is history.
Alright. How has the industry itself evolved since you started?
Oh, so tremendously: operationally, technologically, the industry has changed a lot. And then just even from an expectation at the onset. There’s a lot of people jumping into the industry now that kind of skip what we used to refer to as the basics. The ladder of how you get into the industry is very different, and what the industry is because of the technology changes and growth is different. So, there’s a lot that we could talk about there. Industry side, I would say the biggest shift that I see is related to how the market has changed and what we consider the IT department. It’s different based off of the size of business.
At Tigunia, we focus on what I refer to as the SMB enterprise. So, organizations that operate in the same way as an enterprise but are in the more small- to mid-size range. A true small business that’s a handful of people has very different challenges than a business that has 100 people or 500 people, et cetera. But technology has evolved to change that; the security landscape has had drastic changes. Some examples: back 10 or 20 years ago, IT was a black box for most people and there were a lot of iterations where technologies have come out to try and make it so that people can use technology to advance their business objectives or personal objectives more easily.
And there’s been huge jumps over last several years. You could think of the jumps in smartphones, really starting with the iPhone, right? Like BlackBerry wasn’t really an IT thing as much as it was like a business tool. But then you start getting that general release of something like an iPhone and it exploded the way people look at technology and mobility. Bring Your Own Device became a thing, and then here at Tigunia, we’ve coined the idea of Bring Your Own Office (BYOO) as becoming a next evolution of that same type of trend. When you look at different-sized organizations and how they handle breaking out IT, whether or not it is its own department, whether not it’s under accounting or HR operations, or whatever. I think there’s a right answer, and there’s a wrong answer on that, but everyone seems to take a different approach to it. And how you handle what IT is has changed a lot.
Backups aren’t enough. Being able to rebuild it in a month isn’t enough. Most of our organizations that we help have a restore time objective that’s within hours and minutes, not days and weeks.
Our mission that I like to describe for IT these days is three things: it’s making sure that the business can operate, and that makes it an operations thing; it’s making sure that the business is securely protected, which for large organizations might be a legal team, and for smaller organizations that might be HR or accounting; and it’s making sure that the business is recoverable. Backups aren’t enough. Being able to rebuild it in a month isn’t enough. Most of our organizations that we help have a restore time objective that’s within hours and minutes, not days and weeks. So that changes things a lot. Those are the three areas of it that I would say right now, and they are so crucial to every business that every business needs some of it.
And then you have the big changes as far as managing things on premises or moving things to the cloud. Some organizations are still wrapping their heads around it and some have fully embraced one or the other as their approach. I think there’s a cycle that I refer to as a sine wave for small organizations doing most things in house and then they start to outsource things; and as they get bigger, they come back to bring it in house. Then as they continue to get bigger, they outsource yet again and that continues for all for all the different sides of organizations until you get up to somebody like Microsoft or Amazon where you do it all yourself because you’re that big. That’s where the sine wave ends.
Right, makes sense. If you could, at any job, describe a time when you were able to improve upon an existing design or workflow.
I think improving an existing design or workflow is something that we at Tigunia expect of all of our people on a regular basis. It’s always about improving and growing. And it’s not improvement for the sake of improvement. It’s not about chasing a shiny toy. I have a phrase that is used quite heavily by a number of solution consultants, since we’re here to solve business problems: it’s the idea of using technology, if necessary. You don’t always need the expensive RFID reader when a post-it note would solve the same problem. So, to that end, there are some clients that we’ve worked for where what they needed was an improved business process. But what they’ve asked for was security on their files.
What we found out was that the organization, after peeling back the curtain and asking the correct questions, had several different departments that all had very similar processes where they were recreating and double-entering the same information into multiple different systems. So by being able to take the outsider perspective and looking at technology not as a thing they have to buy or a burden they have to carry, but looking at it as a means to an end of making their business more effective, we are able to say, “Hey, what if you changed your process from having this resource take and ingest the data, passing the source material over and having other resources ingested, and streamline it so that we can have data entered in one place, have automation, place it where it needs to be, and use technology to automate the pass between departments?”
What’s important is how we get there and that we get there in a way that’s beneficial to the people that work at the organization, and the organization as a whole.
Now, this company, to give you a little bit more of a clear example: They were a publication company. They did a lot of different publications and had to track the people that were subscribed to those publications. They had to track the people that were editing. They had to track the people that were writing articles. All of those different things were needing to be tracked and they had multiple departments that would touch these different contacts and each of them use different tools for those contacts, for those records, and for the things that transacted around it. They all ended up funneling back to the same place and then because of mistakes or errors over the years, they had added a human element to do validation and make sure that things were good.
What that resulted in was a lot of overlapped manpower. It ended up with overlapped technology. And we were able to simplify the process, start to finish, to take an idea all the way out to publication and the shipping of those publications. But it was a lot of effort for the company because it meant changing their processes and, anytime you’re making a change to a human-based process, well, you have to make sure that you’re taking care of their needs.
This is why I like to say that our objective isn’t technology but solving business needs. Because in a very generic sense, the technology isn’t what’s important. What’s important is how we get there and that we get there in a way that’s beneficial to the people that work at the organization, and the organization as a whole.
There’s a clearly a lot to consider. Speaking of which, what are your go-to resources to remain up-to-date on the latest information and tactics in this industry?
I have multiple industry news feeds and articles that I follow. So, there’s publication systems and news feeds, as well as multiple vendors, that I source through. And, weirdly enough, it’s the only thing I really use Twitter for. I don’t actually post on Twitter, but I lurk because there’s a lot of things that get thrown out there pretty rapidly. That said, from a news feeds perspective, details that come from the big guys, right? Cisco, Microsoft, Dell, HP, those guys, those are typically posted out on blog articles, marketing channels and their websites. I have feed set up to actually let me know when changes happen on those sites.
Then, outside of that, I specifically monitor security vendors and vendors that do certifications within this space to watch where they’re moving certification-wise. There’s a lot of information out there, and a lot that you have to track. It’s frankly easier when you only have to track a few technologies, but we do a lot of different things, so we have to watch a lot of different directions, areas, markets, and verticals.
Right. How do you create motivation for yourself and for your team here Tigunia?
I think motivation comes from vision and passion and that anybody that leads an organization or a group will lead with vision and a passion that’s contagious so you can be part of something greater than an individual. A vision that’s only sized to a person isn’t really a vision. That’s just something somebody does. And if you want to drive something forward, you have to be able to give somebody a direction that’s beneficial to them in a personal sense, but also to something greater in the community that they are around. So, at Tigunia, part of our core identity is that we would like to treat our people like family, because you spend half your life at whatever job you’re in. For us, if you’re going to give us half your life, we make sure that half of your life is enjoyable. And so we look for things someone might be passionate about and give them an opportunity to explore that passion.
A vision that’s only sized to a person isn’t really a vision.
I look to hire people that have a passion for the things that we would have them do, and as they grow, and their passions evolve, we want to make sure the organization’s growing to provide them a direction for that passion.
Okay, that’s very empowering. That opportunity can be vital for team members. So, let’s say you have a brand new client. Why should that client be confident in the work that you and your team are going to do for them?
The confidence comes from trust and the trust typically starts with experience and intellect. Before you can experience something, you have to intellectually think it’s a good idea. This is with anybody and with anything. Before you’re going to trust that your safety nets are going to work, you’re going to intellectually know that it’s engineered correctly and you’re going to think that it’s going to work. So, we start by making sure we have a good plan and that we communicate clearly. One of the biggest challenges I face on a daily basis, one of my primary roles, is to help make sure that there is a confidence in translating highly technical and complex things into something that is simple for a business unit to understand.
You should not have to be a doctor in order to have a medical treatment, you should not have to be an IT person in order to have technology in your business. If we do our jobs correctly at the start of our relationship, we are helping you solve a business need, not provide technology. And then, as a result of that, because we’re meeting the business need while also answering as deeply and technically as somebody would like to explore, we’re equipping them. And that’s what starts the relationship. The experience that you have after that beginning is what makes it a relationship, because you then have an experience of seeing us deliver on what we promise, and that’s what allows us to maintain it.
Excellent, I think you provide a lot of insight there. So, we’re going to transition into a few more personal questions. What’s your favorite book or movie and why did it speak to you so much?
I have read a lot of self-improvement, motivation, and leadership content. But, you know, there’s not a single book in that space that I would ever consider a favorite. The things I enjoy most are typically fantasy or sci-fi stories that are metaphorical or allegorical in nature, especially when the metaphor or allegory is subtle. I don’t really like it when the story is too obtuse. Complex stories that are easy to digest are fun to read.
So, I would say, regarding books, currently The Name of the Wind is going to be my favorite book. It’s part of The Kingkiller Chronicles. It is the first in the trilogy. The author is Pat Rothfuss. Fascinating individual, a really generous guy. And he writes a fun story. There’s plenty of minor tropes that he leverages in the book, but the tropes don’t become offensive the way he does that, at least to me. As he tells the story, he creates cultures in the story using other-world elements or magic system elements that are unique and not just a boiled-down version of appropriation of some culture that we already have here on Earth. And that’s pretty fascinating, plus very hard to do.
Regarding movies, I’d say The Princess Bride. It’s an old one, but I will admit it has to be my favorite given how much I can quote it. I’m at the point where I’ve seen it enough that I can quote any scene, once you start a scene. That’s probably indicative that you like it a lot. Ironically, the book for that movie is terrible to read.
Why is that?
It’s so dry. It’s roughly written. The story itself is good. The prose within the book, outside of the portions where they’re the quotable dialogue, the actual prose for the action and progression of the story is just rough to get through.
That’s a pretty hot take, and surely a contested one. What is the most significant event of your life so far?
Most significant event of my life?
As defined by you.
I think everybody’s life has a lot of turning points. There’s a lot of points in life where you either have something happen to you or something that you caused to happen to the world around you that makes a big impact on you. I’ve probably had hundreds that I could think of that are popping in my mind right now that made a big impact on who I am and where I am. I wouldn’t give up any one of them, even the bad ones, because they all contribute to who I am today. You think about loved ones you’ve lost, you can think about the traumas and the tragedies that have happened. Whether that’s injury, loss, or otherwise.
You can think of the positive things that have happened, you know, maybe occupationally, spiritually, relationally. All of them make a big difference. If I had to pick a single most significant change in my life, it was probably my wife. She makes the biggest change in who I am and where I go with my life. I’m pretty excited about that. Now, whether or not I would say that was – when I met her, when we started dating or got married or anything in between, I’m not sure I could be so specific. I have to probably attribute her to being the most significant impact on my life.
Alright, and what is your life motto?
I have a lot of those, actually. There’s a number of quips that I like to pull out, depending on the situation. I think if I had to choose a single life motto (as much as I enjoy the ability to come up with a phrase or quip, cheekily say, “A wise man once said…” and then say the phrase or quip I just made up) the life motto I’ll mention here is not one I created. It’s something I learned a long time ago, early on in my life. And that is that your integrity will keep you where your character takes you.
Of the so many things in life, your character defines so much about who you are. And there’s a lot about your person, who you are biologically, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, but your character is the important piece which contributes to all of those, and your character will take you wherever you’re going to go. It’s your integrity that’s going to keep you there. And that motto, I think, can encompass most others.
My purpose is to be the person that drives others forward and can make something bigger out of something that was already started.
Alright, and the in that spirit, the last question I have for you, what do you do to make life count?
Making life count is an interesting statement because to me it harkens towards what your purpose is in life. And I would define my purpose as attempting to be a positive impact on others. My purpose is to be the person that drives others forward and can make something bigger out of something that was already started. That’s in all areas. Being able to grow is important. There’s a phrase that I think is very true: living things grow. Anything that’s not growing is probably dead. And personal growth, social growth, company growth, whatever it is, I like to see and help things grow.
Oddly enough, I’m not super into plants, but my wife is so we got plant growth in my house around me without me having to be very involved. But yeah, I would say my purpose in life is to see that direction and growth, and I like to work with people professionally and help them. It’s not about what I can do, it’s about seeing people go through that journey and just being able to be a part of it.
To further connect with James: