Do, Learn

Just about a month ago, I asked a colleague–just starting his new job the next day as CIO of a small public university–if he had “that nervous excited feeling that you got as a kid on the first day of school?”

Little did I know that just one month later, I’d be asking that of myself.

Tomorrow, for the first time in six and a half years–and eight and half years prior to that in other roles at NC State University–I’ll be starting the day in a new organization.

I’ve written a number of posts here over the years referencing the Shawshank Redemption–sourced from one seven years ago echoing Morgan Freeman’s character’s words about being institutionalized

These walls are kind of funny. First you hate ‘em, then you get used to ‘em. Enough time passes, gets so you depend on them.

It took a while, and parts of it changed in all three roles that I had at NC State, but like Red, I learned how to become that guy that knew how to get things, how to make things work, how to succeed in my roles there and how to help others do the same.

I started a brand new school across Wake County when I was in second grade. When I got to school, all the other kids were drawing pictures, and I thought we were supposed to draw what we were interested in and wanted to be when we grew up. I sat down and started drawing a picture of the moon and probably the space shuttle—that was the first year the shuttle launched—and a few minutes later I heard the teacher tell a parent that we were all drawing pictures of what we did that summer.

I remember wanting to crawl under the desk just thinking about having to explain how I went to space that summer.

There’s some part of me that still feels like that second grade Jason felt. I’m not sure what the picture is that everyone is drawing. I don’t know the rules. I don’t know the culture. I don’t know my new colleagues, and they don’t know me. I don’t know where anything is yet with my new job.

So, am I nervous? Yes.

I have written before that my goal is to learn by doing meaningful work or more succintly Do, Learn

Sure, it’s amorphous. And I’ve written equally vague hopes I had for the roles I’ve had at NC State – or really any role that I have. Most recently last August where I wrote about my experiences at OSCON and Ariel Waldman’s quote that Doing something changes how we see it.

I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to see that the work that I’ve done have an impact on my local team, and often the division of the University (or recently, Extension) that my team was part of. But for all the passion that I have for the research, teaching, and extension mission of the land-grant university, affecting change within the larger organization is slow, and hard, even more so for a technologist watching the kind of work that they do upend entire industries (including education, though from outside the academy).

I want to do and most importantly, I want to see what I do have a meaningful and positive impact on the organization that I’m part of, and learn enough along the way that to see that work that I do have an even greater impact beyond the organization in concert with my colleagues.

When I started six and half years ago at Extension, I remember having that same second grade nervousness. I had been managing for almost 5 years prior, and while I was leading technical projects, I had given up most of my day to day technical work. In my job in Extension, I had the charge to build from scratch the environment that we would deliver and develop on. At the start, I was it. There wasn’t anyone else–not for the systems work at least. And until I had the opportunity to mentor another systems administrator, the system itself remained mine alone to break and fix and guide.

It’s different now, the last six and half years of doing and learning have given me a confidence again that I can figure anything out.

But it’s also different because I’m not starting alone this time.

I have a lot of experience doing what I do. But the most fundamental lesson that experience teaches me is that I have so much to continue learning.

And I’ve already begun learning things that I didn’t know–just from watching the twitter accounts of my new colleagues. I am greatly looking forward to having the opportunity to continue learning from them and along with them.

And in the few emails and conversations I’ve had we are definitely going to be doing things that will have an impact on the business we’re in.

Like Red, I’m at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain…

But am I excited? Hell yes.

For The Monkeys

I’m recently retired (for four days, more on that soon) – so I’m in the process of making sure I have a backup of all my email. Why? I don’t know, I’ve lived so much of the last 10 years of my working life in email, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

What is fun about it is finding things that long ago I forgot that I said. There’s a whole lot that never should see the light of day, but some of them–with a little tweaking–deserve a public airing, particularly if they involve monkeys.

My (now former) boss, Kevin Gamble has an oft-repeated mantra of what you can do with the organization issues – the metaphorical “monkeys on your back”.

You can:

  • Avoid the monkey/leave it with the current caretaker
  • Starve the monkey
  • Take the monkey and feed and care for it

This came up about four years ago, about some issue or another. It could be just about any issue that an organization would face when there’s a monkey on your back.

In response, I then proceeded to pontificate about the monkey

Well, given my personality is such that when I see a monkey in the room, particularly if the monkey appears to be neglected is to go:

“Hey there’s a monkey in the room.”

Although, I don’t usually stop there, I proceed to describe how the monkey looks, and talk about the monkey’s lineage, and relate stories about all the monkeys that I’ve known before…, but I digress

But I tend to feel that ignoring there’s a monkey in the room, particularly a neglected monkey, is wrong. I especially feel that it is a failure of higher education in general, that when someone, in whatever particular mode of expression that they use, will point out there’s a monkey in room, that leadership tends to collectively ignore not only the monkey, but the person that pointed out the monkey.

That’s not to say that every time that someone says they see a monkey, that it’s really a monkey. Good leadership knows the difference between live monkeys, stuffed monkeys, and mice dressed up as monkeys. But ignoring the person that thought they saw a monkey, by not at least saying “thanks, but it’s really not a monkey, here’s what it is”. But no, the monkey reporter is ignored. Unless the monkey reporter is someone on an advisory board or booster club or whatever. Then all monkeys, stuffed, live, and impersonated are all treated as monkeys.

Others, in their own way, have pointed out that there is a monkey in the room. Admittedly, that expression comes across as “Why isn’t that monkey dancing? Please put a uniform on that monkey and make it dance. Now.” While it isn’t really the best way of expressing that there’s a monkey in the room, my sincere wish is that leaders will go: “You know, that’s a great point, there’s a monkey there, and while it really isn’t a dancing monkey, what is the course of action for the monkey?” Putting a monkey in time-out is fine, but ignoring it is not. At least I don’t think it is.

Maybe there’s no educational organization anywhere that does this. But one could hope that somehow, someway, somewhere they will do this.

If not for us, then for the monkeys.

“If not for us, then for the monkeys” is my new catch phrase. I haven’t had a catch phrase in a long time. And given a catch phrase, there’s no telling how far I’ll take it (well, in that case, I got pretty lazy and stopped there, which is to say “not very far”).