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Passion Or Vocation? August 5, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Technology.
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8 comments

In a recent issue of Technology & Invention magazine, Mara Vatz wrote about discovering her grandfather’s engineering textbooks from the 1930s.  Herself a recent engineering graduate, she was struck by the difference between those old books and those she recently used.  Her grandfather’s books were filled with the passion of engineering, of being consumed with the excitement of building and creating, of bending the natural world to the will of man for the betterment of society.

Her books, in contrast, were dry and methodical.  They taught engineering as a sequence of steps that could be applied to solve a problem.  They presented engineering as a vocation, just a job, just some rote sequence of steps far removed from the real world of problems to be solved.  The contrast made her sad, longing for a time when her chosen profession seemed more alive to its practitioners.

I have the same worry for the world of IT.  At the risk of cementing my geezer status, I learned computing in a time when everyone wrote assembly code.  I punched cards and booted machines by toggling switches on the front panel.  I learned how to build computers from the transistors up, wire-wrapping individual logic gates to decode address lines.  It was fascinating, consuming, and instilled a passion for technology that I carry with me even today.

Are we instilling the same passion today?  Or has computing become a vocation, a series of steps that you use to solve the problem at hand?  I am certainly not advocating a return to assembly code, but I want to make sure that our newest computing professionals have that same gleam in their eye as I did so many years ago.  The layers of abstraction we’ve built in our systems enable us to create systems that were inconceivable back then, but those same layers remove us from the nuts and bolts of computing.  As those nuts and bolts fade away, our true understanding of computers fades.

Some of today’s IT people have that passion.  You can see it in your best people, the ones who dig in and never let go of a issue, who wake up at 3 AM with the answer to a problem, who run into the office with the next great idea.  But does everyone have that passion?  And if they don’t, should they?

I want everyone to have that passion.  Passion is infectious, and passionate people in IT create passionate people outside of IT.  If people didn’t find that passion in school, we need to pass it to them ourselves.

Much is made of leadership and mentoring, teaching important skills to our teams.  Beyond leadership skills, we need to convey the passion of our field to our people.  We have to constantly demonstrate our love of this stuff, the wonder of a problem solved, the satisfaction of a user helped.  If we aren’t going to get excited about a new tool, and our people don’t get excited, how will we engage our users?

My passion is for computing, of course, but this applies to every discipline.  Do you have a true passion for what you do?  Do you demonstrate it every day?  Do you infect your people with that passion and enable them to carry it to others?  Or is your job just a vocation? If so, I’ll bet your people feel exactly the same way.

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