Unperspective: Are We There Yet?
January 20, 2020 Trevor Perry
I recently drove a 26-foot truck – with my car on a trailer behind – more than 1,700 miles across America. The journey took four days and 42 hours on the road, with several stops for fuel for the truck and myself. When you have that much time to focus on one thing – driving, your brain has a lot of time to ponder the world.
While I listened to some branding audiobooks and engaged in the occasional screaming loud sing-alongs, I learned a few lessons. As I was dictating them into my notes app, I realized that many of these lessons apply to our day jobs. I’ve chosen a few to review here.
Lesson: Everybody should drive a truck once in their life
The mania of the highway is an experience that we all have. For the majority of drivers, your perspective is from a sportscar, sedan, SUV, or the like – mostly small cars relative to transport vehicles such as trucks, semi-trailers, and buses. Looking down from a higher vantage point was a huge lesson. Car drivers tend to lack understanding of what it takes for a truck to maneuver or stop. The number of cars who cut me off was uncountable. Nor did I keep count of the number of times I was cut off right before they slammed on their brakes – which caused me to lean hard on mine in semi-panic mode, hoping I could stop in time. Getting out of the truck and into my own car had an impact. I understood the perspective of the truck and bus driver, and my own driving habits changed to respect that.
The best developers I have met in my career came from, without exception, a different job. I claim I was previously an accountant, but did not have the personality, so I became a programmer. The knowledge of the business processes made me a better developer than my peers just out of their college degree. Everyone I have met who came from a position such as customer support, finance, logistics and order taking, warehouse, or purchasing (just to name a few) were better developers than their team members. They understood more about the application and the user experience required to be efficient with the applications, because their perspective was not just limited to driving a sedan.
No matter where you are in your career, find a way to “drive a truck.” Work as/with your boss. Take on the role of your subordinates or direct reports. Join a department for which you will be building an application. This temporary job should be more than just a few days, giving time enough to understand the “truck driving” that is going on in that job. It should be long enough to gain a new perspective and appreciation for someone else’s role, and in turn, your working relationship will be smoother and the applications you build will be more complete, more efficient, and have an improved user experience.
Lesson: It takes all kinds of people to make a world
What an incredible array of vehicles are on the roads in the world. Traveling around the world on regular occasions has afforded me the opportunity to see all kinds of vehicles in all kinds of situations. And the highways of America are no different.
In order for the traffic to flow as smoothly as possible, every one of these vehicles must be considerate of each other. Different vehicles have different capacities and capabilities. Vehicles are used for different purposes and it is important to understand those to know how each vehicle can and will use the road. This should ensure everyone can reach their destination and successfully execute that purpose. When they don’t, the consequences are usually frustration and sometimes dire.
Today’s workforce is multi-generational, multi-cultural, and made up of diverse people working for multiple purposes in the same environment. Certainly, the difference between a company workforce and a highway is that employees must be working towards a common goal. Yet, workforces are often highways where consideration for those on the same ‘road’ is ignored, and consequences are often frustrating or dire.
Watching from the truck driver’s seat, it was easy to see where a little consideration could have gone a long way to smooth traffic flow. This applies to your interaction with your fellow workers. Knowing they have different purposes, different skills, different cultural backgrounds, different education, and different training will help smooth the flow of communication and work while you all have a common goal.
Lesson: Stay in your lane
Driving in the hilly and occasional mountainous parts of the trip presented a challenge in a vehicle that was loaded with furniture and possessions. The slow lane was my home for much of that terrain, and I learned how to lean on the accelerator hard while focusing on the vehicles in front of me and the vehicles behind me. The challenge was amplified when I encountered a slower vehicle. When they stayed in their lane, I could plan ahead and move around them with ease. When they did not, slowing down was required to accommodate them. An additional challenge were vehicles who drove past me, cut me off, and then slowed or braked. Again, slowing down was required, which in turn meant I lost pace and traction and momentum and had to crawl back over to the very slow lane and ultimately annoy other drivers.
A recent project had already taught me this lesson. We were assigned tasks to enable the team to complete the project in the original allotted timeframe. One of the programmers regularly decided to make decisions about the project without considering the other team members and would make decisions and changes that would then have an impact on the project – negatively, for the most part.
On the highway, it’s apparent that the ego of the driver is more important than considering the other vehicles and drivers on the road. In our project, the ego of the individual was more important than the project success or smooth workflow. It’s nice to want to appear to be multi-skilled, however, some times that desire overwhelms our actual skills.
Certainly, evolving as a developer is key to your career and future job prospects. In a project or a team effort, permission to change lanes should be the first thought.
Lesson: Keep your eyes on the road, but don’t forget the scenery
Driving a truck requires concentration. It’s tedious and the same for mile after mile after mile. You can easily nod off or fall asleep if you are not paying attention. And paying attention for ten hours a day requires concentration.
Some friends of mine from the United Kingdom asked me if they could join me for the cross-country trip. It was an interesting fascination with wanting to see parts of America not normally encountered in a work or tourist trip. After a few hours of driving, I noticed that there was a lot of road I had to watch and wondered what they would be looking at. I realized that they would have been watching the scenery without the focus required for driving. So I watched the scenery. I noticed the mountains turn to rolling hills then turn to flat plains. I noticed the green slowly turn to brown. I noticed the trees morph from pine to oak and everything in between. The experience was richer than just driving for 42 hours on what seemed to be the same road.
In our jobs, we must be focused on the actual task at hand for the project or job we have assigned to us. This is the equivalent of being the driver of the vehicle for the trip across the country. And sometimes when we don’t see the big picture, we are lost in the details and mundanity (mundanery? mundaneness?) and our job becomes just that – a job. To appreciate our place in the project and the project’s place in the company, it behooves us to look at the scenery. Find and uncover the purpose of your task in the big picture. Discover where your task fits with the other members of the team. You’ll be better at your appointed role and will contribute to regular project successes.
Final Lesson: Enjoy the drive
Sometimes in life and work, we get caught up inside the bubble of repetitiveness or the sameness of our daily activity. Occasionally, take on something unexpected and different than your daily sameness and humdrum. If you do this in your life and keep watch on how it unfolds, there are lessons that will enrich your adventure and your life.
These lessons will always spill over to your work. You will find richness in your job. You will learn more than you expected. Your projects will be more successful. There is no doubt that you will achieve your career goals by stepping out of your cubicle and adventuring beyond your job.
Soon enough, you will achieve a life/work balance that is the envy of everyone around you.
Trevor Perry is a storyteller in all facets of his job. He is an IBM Champion, award winning speaker, and author of Never Iron When You Are Naked, the best book you can read one page at a time. If you’d like to suggest topics for this column or have something else to say, connect with Trevor at firstname.lastname@example.org.