The other day I was listening to an excellent episode of The Art of Network Engineering talking about technical marketing engineers (TME). The discussion was excellent and there was one line from Pete Lumbis in the episode that stuck with me. He said that one of the things that makes you good as a TME is being an “expert beginner”. That phrase resonates at lot with me.
Fresh Eyes on the Problem
I talked a bit about this last year when I talked about being a beginner and how exciting that it was to start over with something. As I compared that post to the AONE episode I realized that what Pete was talking about was a shift in mindset that gives you the energy and focus to pick things up quickly.
You may have heard the phrase “familiarity breeds contempt”. It’s a common phrase used to describe how we feel less impressed with things the more we learn about then. Our brains are wired to enjoy new things. We love new experiences, going to new places, or even meeting new people. The excitement and rush that we get from something unfamiliar causes our brain to devour things. It’s only once we become familiar with them that we feel the contempt set in.
It’s not always possible to avoid the contempt part of things. Think about something as dreary as your morning commute to work, whether it’s walking down the stairs or driving to the office. I used to joke that my car was practically on auto-pilot most mornings because I knew every bump in the road and every turn by heart. When I would go somewhere new I would have to focus more on road signs or directions.
Back to Basics
The beginner aspect of things is easier to deal with. That’s because we can trick ourselves into seeing something with fresh eyes. On a number of occasions I’ve mentioned my friend and mentor John Pross and his assertion that every upgrade or deployment that happened was like the first time doing it. He never took anything for granted. He always took things step-by-step. While this had the affect of him making sure everything was followed to the letter it also gave him the beginner aspect of looking for ways to improve or discovering new solutions to problems along the way.
Once the contempt or apathy sets in you’re going to get very good at just clicking through the steps to get to the end as fast as possible. If you don’t believe me think about how many times you’ve given directions that involve something like “Just click Next, Next, Next, Next and then you’re done”. Trust me, it sounds funnier when you say it out loud. But it speaks to the fact that we know the dialog boxes so well that we know they aren’t important. But what if they are?
If you want to understand what it feels like to be a beginner again and you’re having a hard time getting yourself in that mindset you should find a beginner and coach them through a task like a setup. Don’t just tell them what to do. Let them figure it out. Answer questions as they come up. Make them explain why they’re doing something. I bet you’ll learn a lot more as you have to help them understand why that configuration line is in there or why you always choose twice the amount of RAM in an instance. Once you see the process through the eyes of a beginner you have to learn it more completely in order to help them understand it.
In some roles, like a TME or a VAR engineer, the ability to be an expert beginner is critical to your job. You have to see a technology for the first time and pick up the basics quickly. I used to tell people that the excitement of being an engineer at a VAR was the variety of problems I’d be called on to solve. One day might be wireless clients. The next could be iSCSI storage arrays. Whatever the case may be I could count on finding myself in a new situation pretty regularly. It kept things exciting and made me realize I had to stay on my toes.
For those that work as product managers or on more specialized teams you need to make sure you’re taking time to approach things as a beginner. The “same old, same old” may not actually be the same any more. That kind of contempt and familiarity leads to the phrase “the way we’ve always done it” and doesn’t force you to challenge the process to understand how to improve it. Sometimes you need to step back and remember that you have to see everything for the first time.
Beginners shouldn’t feel like they’re a nuisance. In fact they should be celebrated for the energy and focus they bring to a task or project. For roles like a TME it’s important to bring the same kind of energy to new things. You can learn a lot when you allow your brain to soak up knowledge like a fresh sponge. More importantly, the ability to be a beginner helps you refine your knowledge base more and will ensure that you can explain a concept or process to someone with absolute certainty.