I get a brief appearance at 0:16 with the single line: “I get to learn something new every day.”
In this blog post, I want to talk about what it means to learn something new every day, why it is often difficult to keep learning, and how we should approach that difficulty.
And I want to start by telling a story which begins back in the mid-1990s, when I was questioning a learning choice I had made.
An apparent mistake
What had I done?
After turning down the chance to study at university full time (entirely my choice - my family would have supported me if I had wanted to go), I chose to study for a Bachelors’ degree with the Open University. My first year of study introduced me to philosophy, a subject I had never properly encountered before. I fell in love with it, and resolved to take every philosophy course the OU offered.
That led me to sign up for a year-long course in aesthetics, and prompted that question - what had I done?
What in the world was aesthetics?! I knew that it was the philosophy of art, but what did that even mean? All my courses up until now had focused on ethics; they addressed questions of right and wrong, of good and bad, and what it meant to live a flourishing life. These were all questions about which I had opinions, even if I had learnt to think differently about them.
With aesthetics, however, I couldn’t even begin to guess what the questions were. It felt as if the entire subject stretched above me like a dark, towering mountain, with no place to get a handhold. Where would I even start?
Eventually, as they did every year, parcels of course material arrived. Books, timetables, pictures and cassettes (this was the 90s). As I flicked through these materials, I began to realise that this topic was accessible after all. The outline of a path up the mountain began to appear, laid out by teachers and smoothed by the students who had been before me.
Studying aesthetics did not turn out to be easy: it was a long climb, and the subject did not resonate with me as much as ethics, to which I returned and with which I have stayed. But, as with almost all learning, the climb was worth it.
Lessons learnt about learning
More importantly, my experience in learning aesthetics showed me that, even when faced with a subject which is apparently impossible to get to grips with, it can be mastered with the right support. It taught me not to be scared of that feeling of vertigo, of facing the towering mountain of ignorance.
And that lesson has been important in my professional life because, as a technology architect, that mountain seems to grow steeper every day.
For some of us, it can be difficult to admit this, because we are supposed to be experts, and it can often seem that our professional identities (and our livelihoods) depend on this expertise. If people discover that there are whole areas of technology we don’t understand, will they still respect us (and will they still pay us)?
The truth, as anyone working in enterprise technology has known for years, is that it is impossible to know everything. There is simply too much to learn, and it moves too fast; even if it was possible to know everything today, we would be out of date by tomorrow.
And, because there is so much to learn, because it changes so quickly, and because it is so inter-connected, it can feel as if the mountain of ignorance is particularly steep and smooth, and that there is always a new peak to climb.
If you work in technology, I expect that you regularly find yourself in a room where everybody is talking knowledgeably about some new term or acronym which you have never heard of; I know that this happens to me almost every day.
It can be tempting to give up. There is a well-trodden path from technical roles into management roles, and many technology managers have, for many years, delegated technical understanding to their teams, focusing on operational management. Is that so bad? Wouldn’t it just be easier to accept the inevitable, to let the industry pass us by, and to start saying, along with many others, “I’m not that technical”?
It is possible to do this and to survive as a technology manager. However, I think it is a mistake.
First, it is good to be humble and, as a manager, seek to have stronger, deeper experts in your team than you. But you won’t be able to build or lead that team effectively if you don’t understand what your team do all day.
Second, your job as a technology manager is not just to do what you’re told, it’s to understand and promote the potential of technology to your company. Business leaders in your company should be looking to you for guidance and, if they don’t, maybe that says something about you rather than them.
Third, learning is part of our continuous development as professionals. If we worked in one of the longer-established professions such as medicine or law (or real-world architecture), it would not be acceptable for us not to keep current with development in our profession. The status of technology as a young and less-formalised profession should not allow us to hold ourselves to lower standards.
Finally, we should feel privileged and excited to work in a field which is constantly changing, in which making sense of the frontier is part of the job. If we close ourselves to that challenge, we are denying ourselves one of the most rewarding parts of what we do.
Help on the path
And there is good news. While the mountain of ignorance does grow steeper every day, we are not alone on the mountain.
If you are trying to learn a new technical skill, you know that the Internet is your best friend, and it’s rare to find a question that has not already been asked and answered; not always asked clearly or answered with patience, but addressed through a global community of people taking the trouble to help each other. It can be heartening to see that plenty of people have made the same mistakes that you are making, and that other people share what they learnt from those mistakes. There are handholds and ropes on the mountain, and some people have even cut stairs and installed escalators.
At HSBC Technology, we try to play our part through our Technology Academy, an organisation which helps colleagues in HSBC find learning resources, provides opportunities for our people to teach, helps our people find each other, and tries to create a culture of continuous learning.
But resources such as the Academy can’t do everything; they can mark the path up the mountain, and provide guides and guide ropes. It is up to us to become mountaineers, to view vertical cliffs with relish and to welcome each new peak.