Last week shared some of my early experiences working in non-technical jobs, and the lessons I learned which turned out to be relevant to my IT career as well. If you missed part 1, you can find it here . But as a brief intro, a tweet from security researcher Gabrielle Hempel and a signal boost from my fellow Head Geek Chrystal Taylor (@ChrystalT) got me thinking about the lessons, experiences, and points of view we bring with us into IT from our non-IT work. In the last post I covered two of my past jobs (busboy and pest control tech), and I continue my reminiscences here.
Those who know me... Actually, let’s be honest. Those who have been near me for more than 15 minutes know (because I mention it incessantly) my earliest aspiration was for the stage. From the age of 10 until college graduation, building the skills and experience necessary to become a professional actor was my primary focus. It’s only natural for some of the lessons from this period of my life to find relevance in my work today.
Meaning and importance is often what you bring to the work, rather than what is imposed from outside. In the same way I was taught to put the same effort into being “Butler #3” as I would Mercutio in “Romeo and Juliet” or Pirelli in “Sweeney Todd:” to understand the inner life of the character, where they came from, what they want, and where they’re going when they walk off the stage; I needed the same commitment to imbuing “make sure the Tuesday backups ran clean” and “replicate all the domain accounts to the new BDC” with importance and urgency. That’s not to say I should give it importance it doesn’t actually have. But neither should I neglect it because the work is unimportant or beneath me. After all, there are no small IT jobs. Just small (and small-minded) IT professionals.
Another lesson that’s served me well was to engage with work I’d be happy and fulfilled doing, even if nobody else appreciated or even noticed it. It’s a truth lost on many who are new to performance art—for all the time we may spend in front of a crowd, there’s an order of magnitude more time spent alone, rehearsing lines, researching backgrounds, learning new skills, trying variations of the same basic theme, and more. If you only love the crowds and the applause, you won’t make it far. You don’t have to be passionately in love with every single minute, but without a sense of enjoyment for the process as well as the final product, you’ll be unfulfilled the majority of the time. And I’ve found this to be as true for IT as for theater.
In the months between the realization that acting wasn’t going to be my forever work and landing my first job in tech, I earned money by leveraging my ability to type 60 words a minute and follow simple instructions. But mostly I leveraged my willingness to work for minimal (if not minimum) wage. Like my time as a busboy, it quickly became clear the work was anything but menial, and those who make their career providing secretarial services need to possess a range and depth of skills (never mind a tolerance for general ass-hattery) few of us in the rest of the workforce would be able to handle. Beyond that, however, I take a few other lessons with me:
Speed is nothing without accuracy. Typing 120 words a minute isn’t valuable if you make mistakes on 50% of the words. Especially in the days of electric typewriters. Wite-Out, I discovered, can only cover so much. The same is true in tech. A website loading 30% faster isn’t an improvement if it crashes when more than five people are on it.
Professional secretarial work includes an incredibly wide range of skills. Touch typing. Transcription. Stenography. 10-key. Filing under three different ISO-specified systems. Dictation. Bookkeeping. Translation. Switchboard. “Other duties as required.” And all of it with a pleasant, patient, forbearing, generous, solicitous smile. The secret I quickly learned was very few of my colleagues were “the whole package.” Each of us had a few things we did well and another few skills at which we were mediocre. But for the full range of services, it took the whole team. As much as many of us in IT claim to be the proverbial “army of one,” doing everything in the company from desktop support to coding to WAN optimization, deep down we know the truth: we do what we can to the best of our ability, but there’s a lot our company simply isn’t getting because we only know—and can only do—so much.
Looking back, it’s no surprise I ended up in a technical field, because even as I was waiting for a chance to get onto the stage, I was keeping busy building and lighting the stage itself. The performing arts have always pushed the boundaries of what technology could be used to achieve, and the 80s were no different. Lighting, sound, and even stagecraft took advantage of digital signaling, computerized automation, improved optics, and more. Ironically, the lessons I take with me from my time as a “techie” (a term my technical theater professor HATED) were grounded in the mundane.
If you take on a job, you own it. During a month-long production, despite being on the lighting crew, I started showing up early and putting out props and other items (the stage manager’s job). One day I couldn’t make it early, the result being the show started 20 minutes late as everyone scrambled to remember where everything needed to go. Afterward, it was made abundantly clear to me how the crew had come to expect and even rely on my help. I think this isn’t very different from IT. I’ve often joked how, in IT, you’re immediately and irrevocably responsible for any server you walk within three feet of; how it’s a short trip from “I wrote this query” to being the de-facto DBA. Yes, this is a cautionary tale. Sometimes the smartest career choice is to only admit to knowledge you’re comfortable doing in perpetuity. But perhaps a more gracious way is to say people become reliant on our abilities and even simply our presence much more quickly than we might expect.
The other lesson I took from this time was how disparate experiences “stacked” in particular individuals, until their utility and versatility were irreplaceable even with careful training. It was simply impossible to duplicate the series of events that led to the body of knowledge they carried inside their brains. Many of us in tech experience the same thing—the realization we know what we know because we’ve experienced what we experienced, and no training program could bring another to the same set of skills.
Which brings me back to my conversation with fellow Head Geek Kevin Kline. Our high school pursuits and dreams didn’t pan out the way we hoped, planned, or expected. Nevertheless those pursuits have served us at times and in ways we could never have predicted. What we might once have written off as time wasted turned out to be, in the long run, an essential and possibly critical aspect of a successful endeavor.
The final lesson I’ll impart here is to be both generous and kind with regard to supposedly “humble” or “non-traditional” beginnings of colleagues and coworkers (as well as with ourselves). The seeds of our successes are often planted years before we ever imagined a field of opportunity would be standing where we find ourselves today.