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A Discussion With Derek LaFever On the Rewards of Having a Career you Love

Derek LaFever grew up in the Falls Church area in Northern Virginia. He enrolled at Northern Virginia Community College, but after taking a few classes, he realized it wasn’t the right path for him. Instead, LaFever dove right into the workforce. He worked for a printing company for eight years and worked his way upstairs […]

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Derek LaFever
Derek LaFever

Derek LaFever grew up in the Falls Church area in Northern Virginia. He enrolled at Northern Virginia Community College, but after taking a few classes, he realized it wasn’t the right path for him. Instead, LaFever dove right into the workforce. He worked for a printing company for eight years and worked his way upstairs to the scheduling department. This turned out to be his foot in the door for his future in IT.

From there, LaFever worked in IT for a few different companies before landing a job at MCI WorldCom in 2000 as their senior network security engineer. When 9-11 happened, a team from WorldCom, including LaFever, spent three days straight restoring the infrastructure and getting it back up and running.

In 2004, LaFever was hired as the IT Director at FOX Architects. He developed a private cloud for the company that allows staff to work remotely from anywhere in the world. He also migrated the email system, FTP, and software license management to the cloud, reducing server footprint, saving energy and costs. LaFever oversees the infrastructure of all technical operations at FOX and directly manages a team of IT assistants, consultants, & vendors.

In his free time, this self-proclaimed handyman likes to build things around the house, such as a deck, shed, porch, or even redo the bathroom or kitchen. He says working with his hands helps to give his mind a break from the technology he’s constantly involved with.

What is your current position with FOX Architects, and what do your responsibilities entail?

      I’m an IT director, I manage all aspects of the IT infrastructure for FOX Architects. I started here approximately 15 and a half years ago. FOX has been in business for 16 and a half years, and I came in a year after they opened their doors. When I started, there were only 20 employees here. We now have close to 80 employees. I pretty much built the network from the ground up back then. In addition, I manage a few help desk employees here onsite, and I also manage all of the contractors and vendors that I deal with on a day to day basis on behalf of the company.

How do you utilize technology to make your workday more productive?

      I’ve always been working with remote access, so everything I do with FOX, I set it up so I can access it no matter where I’m at in the world. I have my phone with me 24-7, so it just makes me more efficient. If I’m at lunch or in a meeting, I can quickly access the server or a PC and restart it or fix something relatively quickly. Actually, a few weeks ago, I was actually at my brother’s birthday. During those two hours at the restaurant, while we were all celebrating, I was doing something for work on my phone. Remote technology is the thing that I love the most about technology these days, and how you can access everything from no matter where you are in the world.

What is one trend in the technical operations infrastructure that excites you, and why?

      It would be collaboration. There’s more technical collaboration involved, especially in our industry that I’m in now, which is architecture. We work with engineers and contractors. It used to be that the architects would draw something on a computer — we’ve been using technology for drawings for years, nobody uses paper and pencil anymore — but then you’d have to email it or ship it, or FTP it off to the people you’re working with. Now, with the collaboration tools that we have, everybody’s working on it live, in a sense like Google Docs. The architecture software can have four or five people look at a drawing and actually make live changes at the same time. So, it’s exciting because it speeds up the process and it also makes us more flexible to work with people around the world.

In the 20 years since you started your career, how has infrastructure strategy changed?

      I would say it’s less onsite-driven and more cloud-driven. We have all heard the word cloud. It basically means that almost everything’s off-site now. Not everything, but a lot of things are off-site. When I first started here 15 years ago, every single piece of our infrastructure was onsite, such as our email servers and file servers. Now, very little of it is housed here in the office. It’s either in the cloud or it’s across the country at another partner’s office. This way, we’re not duplicating email servers at every single office. We can have one server, and we can all access it from whatever point. So, I think that’s the thing I’ve seen change the most, the switch from all onsite to mostly off-site.

What is your process for evaluating operations and developing strategic project proposals?

      First, I have to find out what the goal is, what we’re trying to accomplish, and then I look at what technology and tools that we can use to get to that goal, and of course, the cost comes into play. The other thing I think about is what is the longevity of that technology that we’re going to use to accomplish our goal. Often, people will put in place a particular piece of technology and in two or three years it’s either become obsolete or we’ve moved on to something else, and now we have to redo the process again. So, with the knowledge I have from doing this for a while, I try to guess what will stay around much longer than people think or what’s going to fade away quickly because there’s already something right behind it that will leapfrog it and take over.

How do you motivate yourself and others?

      I like puzzles, I like solving things. So, when people come in with a problem, whether there’s an immediate answer for it or not, I want to solve it. I like to find that answer. I like to think of it almost as a game, and then once I’m able to solve it, it just energizes me. It might take a week, it might take a month or even a year, but it just keeps me going.

I have also tried to instill this mindset and behavior into my helpdesk team. I remind them that they’re not just mindlessly fixing keyboards and monitors, but that there are bigger problems that we’re trying to solve. We’re problem solvers. So, I try to keep them motivated, keep them moving and solving more problems, so they’re not just coming in and punching a clock, doing the job, and then going home.

What advice would you give someone trying to start a career in information technology and strategic planning?

      Not to pigeonhole themselves in one area. Nowadays, everyone is looking to network in cybersecurity. That’s all you hear about. And that’s great, but I pride myself on the fact that I’ve dabbled in a bit of everything. For example, I used to fix printers and computers, I have built computers, and I’ve done some programming. I worked at MCI WorldCom, where I was Cisco certified, and I worked on routers, switches and infrastructure. Then I got into management, and I was managing a budget and coming up with strategic goals for the company. I feel like I’ve touched everything in technology.

So, don’t pigeonhole yourself, and be flexible. Of course, go in for your degree and your specialty, but you need to learn how to understand every aspect around technology. Everyone in this generation and before us is growing up with technology in their hands when they’re born, so you need to know it all. You can’t just know one thing, or you may end up eventually in a job field that dries up, and then you won’t have anywhere else to go.

What aspects of your current job do you find most challenging, and why?

      That would be some of the types of people that you have to work with. When I was younger, like 20 years ago, when I was doing this, there wasn’t a lot of pushback. There was a lot more trust when I explained how something worked or how something needed to be done. Nowadays, everybody feels that they understand and know technology, even when it’s not their area of expertise, because they have a smartphone or a computer at home. They assume they know exactly what you’re talking about and what’s best for the company. So it can sometimes be challenging explaining to partners and managers what we need to do, and they say, “Well, at home we do…” or, “So, this is what I’ve seen…” and I have to explain that it’s different for the type of environment that we’re in.

Although, while it is a challenge, it’s also a good thing that they’re questioning me. I don’t want them to just blindly trust and follow me or any other IT person who tells them this is how we’re going to do it and why. However, I do think they question it a little more than they should, and sometimes I don’t get their trust. It takes me longer to convince people to move forward with something, and sometimes we go their route because they have the power to make that decision. Then, later on, they’re apologizing that they should have probably gone the other route that I was suggesting.

Can you explain your proudest professional accomplishment?

      One of the biggest things that I’m proud of was during 9-11. I was actually at MCI World Communications when that went down. We worked on the infrastructure. A lot of people don’t realize that buildings such as the World Trade Center are housed in co-location offices. Basically, the internet would pass through those buildings. Large server rooms are in there. So, when 9-11 happened, and that whole area was destroyed, the infrastructure was in shambles. We came in and worked for three days straight and got everything back up and running. With everything going on in people’s lives and all, at least we were able to help out to keep the communications and everything going.

I always think back at that. I mean, to me, it was simple. It wasn’t as complicated as it sounds because of the magnitude of the situation. I like to know that I was a part of trying to help. I wasn’t there digging people out of the rubble. I was there trying to help fix what we could. I was located here in Northern Virginia when that all happened. It was obviously a very emotional time, so we just did what we had to do, and then they told us to go home for the week. But then they asked if any volunteers wanted to come in and open, and ten of us came in. Later on, our group was awarded plaques for helping out.

What is one piece of advice you have received that you have never forgotten?

      There’s always a way to accomplish something with technology. The technology might not be there yet, but there is a way. It’s just a matter of, are you going to figure it out, or is somebody else going to figure it out? So, when someone asks me, can we do this? The answer is always, yes, you can do it. It’s just a matter of, can we do it now? Can we figure out how to do it, or is it going to be something we’re going to do in ten years or 20 years? I’ve always been told that anything’s possible, especially with technology and I think it’s been proven over just a short period that technology has boomed in the last 30 to 40 years. I think we’ve all noticed that anything can be done and will be done with technology, eventually.

Outside of your career, what defines you as a person?

My resilience. I didn’t go to college, yet I’ve made it this far. It just wasn’t for me at the time. Nowadays, you have to have that piece of paper to get your foot in the door. But I started out bagging groceries and pushed my way through. Now I’m running the network and have been for quite a while. I’m doing what I’ve always loved to do since I was a teenager because I never gave up. That’s one thing everyone always tells me. It doesn’t matter what problem you throw at me; I’m going to keep working on it until I can solve it. My Grandfather always used to say that life is going to knock you down many times, and you need to get yourself up each time and keep moving forward. So that’s what I do. I keep moving forward.

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