Years ago Mrs. Hanamoku took a few series of watercolor classes from the late Roland Roycraft. He was in his 80s at the time, still very much active. He was an excellent teacher and very open with teaching his wonderfully distinct style. Mrs. Hanamoku asked him about any concern he may have in divulging his hard-won techniques. He said, “I stay a mile ahead.”
That lesson made a big impact on both Mrs. Hanamoku and I in how we approach our careers. I spend a consistently significant percentage of my time “staying a mile ahead”. This is not for “competitive” reasons, but to stay in the light, out of the shadowy ruins of what is no longer there.
This is especially important in a field that changes so rapidly. However, “change” isn’t quite the right way to put it. New technologies (hardware and software) do come to market at a rapid pace – the buzzword flavors of the month. But for most enterprises out there, change is actually not really that fast.
New technologies quickly become the core of innovative startups incubating the industries of the future. But it can take years, sometimes decades, for established enterprises to adopt the new technologies to a noticeable extent. For example, neural networks and functional programming are older than my almost sixty years! We think change is faster than it really is because the media (journals, bloggers, online classes, professional conventions) place more emphasis the glamorous latest and greatest stuff.
Change is constantly around us, but it is variably fast and slow from one place to another.
I thought about this over this weekend, having completed my fourth week at a new job. It’s a job that has so far been limited to pretty much SQL – and that looks to be the case for the foreseeable future. There is indeed no room there for the fluency of the cutting-edge skills I’ve diligently and mindfully built over the past few years; particularly machine learning, functional programming, abstract algebra, Databricks (Spark/Pyspark).
All the other programmers at my new job are as good at SQL as I am! And they should be – they’ve been doing it long enough. Every tool has a limited scope, whether it’s SQL, watercolor, or a bulldozer. There’s only so much you can do with it, only so much expertise to build. That means, no matter how good you become, because such tools have limited scope, everyone is capable of eventually catching up to you.
If you took to SQL back in 1995 like a duck to water, back when its “declarative, set-based paradigm” was a bit mind-boggling to programmers used to procedural languages like COBOL, you had a golden skill. But by 2019 everyone will be as good as you are. The SQL language itself really hasn’t changed all that much in the past 25 years. The vast majority of SQL authored by business analysts, ETL developers, data scientists, and application programmers is the same stuff.
I mis-stepped my way back to 1995, caught in the past when SQL was a shiny thing. It’s reminiscent of life for me as a teenager, trapped in the past of a once booming pineapple industry of Hawaii, destined to work on the same plantations that attracted some of my first ancestors to Hawaii 80 years earlier. For them, it was a boon at that time, but for me, someone much too late to the party.
Almost 40 years ago, I found my way out of that ghost town of the once thriving pineapple industry of Hawaii. Three months out of high school the Universe presented an opportunity. I diligently fully assimilated, within a few weeks, a 4-foot stack of 3-ring binder manuals on the AlphaMicro system. My diligence and mindfulness transported me to a different place, with a different brand of boom time – a place where I can grow instead of spending precious life treading in the zero-sum games of an industrial ghost town.
This mis-step is perfectly OK. It isn’t the first nor will it be the last. Today, I have to again escape a metaphorical dying pineapple plantation town. Every day at lunch, I go downstairs from the 10th floor offices and sit under this nice tree, sort of meditating, unnoticed by the bustling crowds of a downtown. I meditate through a set of advanced books on functional programming, domain-driven design, and abstract algebra. Why? It’s the samurai ethic of diligently perfecting your skills so that when opportunity comes calling on you, you are ready for it.
To be certain, of course there are much worse things than falling behind in one’s career at an advanced age. There will always be someone with worse problems – and conversely, someone smarter, stronger, faster, more beautiful, more likable. The point of this post has nothing to do with winning. It has to do with being more aware and diligent than the frog in the proverbial pot moving slowly towards boiling – independent of what others are doing or where they are at.
Mind you, I’m not concerned about being the best – in this case being one of many interchangeable SQL programmer resources. Chasing such a thing is dukkha. Rather, I avoid the stasis of being a commodity. What do I mean by that?
We’ve seen those “cellular automata” computer programs where many things move around a screen, one thing eats another, others starve to death. Eventually, the movement on the screen slows down and stops in a static pattern. Every now and then, something has to shake it up to keep it going.
I sense that this mis-step is really a wonderful thing. As the theoretical 11th dan in Aikido is a white belt (a double-wide white belt), perhaps at almost sixty years of life and forty years of hard work, this deja vu sequel (SQL – get it – hahaha) is my 11th dan life test.
Faith and Patience to You!!