ICYMI: Everything I Needed to Know About A Career in IT (I Learned From “Doctor Strange”) part 3

(This originally appeared on THWACK.com and continues from part 1 and part 2)

Withhold judgment and give respect when seeking answers

Standing outside the door to Kamar Taj, having just been saved from muggers, Strange is still glib and sarcastic about the nature of the environment he is in. Mordo stops him and says,

“I was in your place, once. I, too, was disrespectful. So might I offer you some advice? Forget everything that you think you know.”

Recently, I was involved in a discussion about monitoring containers. I said,  “Maybe I’m being naive, but it seems like we already solved this problem. Only it was 2001 and we called it LPARs running on AIX.” There was some nervous laughter, a few old-timers got the joke, and the rest of the group explained how containers were completely different, and all that old stuff wouldn’t apply.

I wrote about this a year ago (“Respect Your Elders“) and that sentiment still holds true. If you are not willing to give respect and credence to older ideas (if not older IT pros), then you are going to insult a lot of people, miss a lot of solutions, and spend a lot of extra time fixing old problems all over again.

Redundancy is your friend

In the movie, we discovered that the world is protected from mystical threats by three Sanctum Sanctorums, located in London, Hong Kong, and New York. When London falls, the world is still protected by the other two. Only after Hong Kong falls can the world be overwhelmed by hostile forces.

The message to us in IT is clear: failover systems, disaster recovery plans, high availability solutions, and the rest are all good things.

To say any more about this would be redundant.

Find a teacher and trust them to lead you

Stephen Strange travels to Kathmandu, to the mystical school of Kamar Taj, and meets the Ancient One. His mind is opened to the existence of magic in the world, and he begs to be accepted as a student. The Ancient One then guides Strange in his journey to master the mystical arts, monitoring his progress and helping him avoid pitfalls along the way. Later, she rebukes him by saying, “When you came here you begged me to teach you. Now I’m told you question every lesson and prefer to study on your own.”

The correlating lesson for us in IT is that many of us tend to fall into the trap of solitary study. We find our education in the form of online blog posts, web-based tutorials, and PDFs. But there is something to be said for having a teacher, a mentor who understands you; where you started, where you’d like to go, how you learn best, and what your shortcomings are. If you are learning a single skill, self-directed learning is a great way to go. But when you are thinking about your career, it’s worth taking the time to find a trusted advisor and stick with them. They will often see things in you that you cannot see in yourself.

Be comfortable with confusion

At one point in the story, Strange complains, “This doesn’t make any sense!” The Ancient One replies, “Not everything does. Not everything has to.” The point in the movie is that Strange has to let go of his need for things to make sense before he engages with them. Sometimes it needs to be enough to know that something simply is, regardless of how. Or that something works a particular way, irrespective of why.

“Yes, but now I know how it works,” is what I say after I’ve burned hours de-constructing a perfectly working system. It’s not that the education wasn’t important, it’s that it may not have been important at that moment. When our need for things to make sense impedes our ability to get on with our daily work, that’s when we need to take a step back and remember that not everything has to make sense to us now, and that inevitably, some things in IT will never make sense to us.

When events pull you a certain direction, take a moment and listen

In the middle of a fight, Strange reaches for an axe hanging on the wall, only to have his semi-sentient cloak pull him toward a different wall. Despite repeated attempts to get the weapon, the cloak insistently pulls him away, until Strange finally realizes that the cloak is trying to tell him about an artifact that would restrain, rather than harm, his opponent. (For comic book geeks, those were a more down-to-earth version of the Crimson Bands of Cytorrak).

Despite our best laid plans and deepest desires, sometimes life pushes us in a different direction. This isn’t strictly relegated to our career plans. Sometimes you believe the best solution lies with a particular coding technique, or even a specific language. Or with your chosen hardware platform, a trusted vendor, or even a specific software package.

And yet, despite your rock-solid belief that this is the best and truest way to achieve your goal, you can’t seem to get it done.

In those moments, it’s useful to look around and see where events are pushing you. What is over there? Is it something useful?

Even if others label it useless, be proud of the knowledge you have

During surgery, the anesthesiologist quizzes Doctor Strange on his musical knowledge, asking him to identify Chuck Mangione’s hit, “Feels So Good.” Later on, in an aside that goes by too fast for many in the audience, Strange tells his colleague that he traveled to Kathmandu. She asks “Like the Bob Seger song?” He responds, “Beautiful Loser album, 1975, A-side, third cut? Yes. In Nepal.”

No, having this knowledge didn’t help our hero save the day, but it was still a tangible part of who he was. Strange is a gifted doctor, an unapologetically arrogant ass, a talented sorcerer… and an unashamed music geek.

We in IT have to remember that we are also whole people. We’re not just storage engineers or SysAdmins or pen testers or white hat hackers. We have other aspects of our lives that are important to us, even if they aren’t central or even relevant to the plot of our story. They provide richness and depth of character. We shouldn’t lose sight of that, and we shouldn’t ignore our need for hobbies, interests, and non-IT outlets in our life.

Did you find your own lesson when watching the movie? Discuss it with me in the comments below. And keep an eye out for parts 4, coming next week.

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