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S1E4: Failing With Style

In this episode, Leon and Josh discuss failures big and small, and how our religious/moral/ethical traditions inform the “opportunities” for failure that life in IT presents us with almost daily. Listen or read the transcript below:


Leon: 00:00 Welcome to our podcast where we talk about the interesting, frustrating and inspiring experiences we have as people with strongly held religious views working in corporate it. We’re not here to preach or teach you our religion. We’re here to explore ways we make our career as IT professionals mesh, or at least not conflict with our religious life. This is technically religious.

Josh: 00:21 Hey Leon, did I ever tell you about the time I was wrong?

Josh: 00:24 No

Josh: 00:26 It’s okay. I was only mistaken.

Leon: 00:29 Oh, seriously?!?

Josh: 00:32 You know, dad jokes are a fantastic thing, Leon. And uh, sometimes my delivery is great and sometimes it’s an epic fail, which is good. It’s okay. Because I think today I want to talk about failures in it.

Leon: 00:47 Like when the SAN fails?

Josh: 00:50 No. How about when we fail the SAN, Not when the SAN fails us.

Leon: 00:54 Oh, you mean like the time I took the entire backup path down, but I forgot about it. And later on I did a fail over and the entire storage array went down because there was nothing to backup to.

Josh: 01:03 Uh, yeah, exactly that.

Leon: 01:05 Oh God. Okay. All right. Once again, our religious, moral, ethical outlook I think helps us with those failures. First of all, I should say that the opportunity to fail presents itself almost every nanosecond in IT. I think there’s lots of things to fail at. Um, but uh, as, as some people say, failure isn’t an option, it’s actually built into the primary features of the product a lot of times. So I think our religious outlook helps us to either adapt to failure or fail better. What do you think?

Josh: 01:40 Well, um, so I, you know, I don’t have a great answer for that yet. I’m going to flip back to my ideas of, of religion based on scripture. Okay. So, in the scripture, in the New Testament says, “be ye therefore perfect even as your father in heaven is perfect.” And to me that’s always been a very weighty thing because I view God as perfect. You know, he’s all knowing, all loving. He’s, he’s the perfect father and holy cow, how do I ever live up to that? And I, I’ve spent a lot of time in my religious life and even my post-Mormon life thinking about this mandate we’ve been given of being perfect. And you know in IT I’m, I’m nowhere near perfect. I am so far from it, but man, uh, I spent a lot of time in my religious upbringing trying to look, sound, act, be perfect. And I didn’t do a very good job to be frank.

Leon: 02:50 So it’s interesting because, uh, at least in in Judaism, yes, God is perfect, omnipotent, you know, uh, infinite, all of those things. But, but the mandate to be perfect is… That’s, that’s a hard pill to swallow. Um, the, the language that I’ve always heard is that you should, you should try to perfect yourself. So it’s more a message of constant self improvement. Knowing that, that there’s always something about yourself that you can improve upon rather than say that you’re trying to attain this goal of perfection. I think that that’s, to be very honest, you know, impossible. But I also think that that idea pairs nicely with IT life because in IT, I think that we, the, the people who are most successful in IT typically are committed to being lifelong learners and to knowing that they’re going to spend their whole life perfecting a set of skills – whether it’s networking skills or their knowledge of IOS commands or, their ability to create good, useful powershell scripts or whatever it is – that nobody sits back on their laurels and says that “I’m the everything about active directory. I’ve got it all down.” I mean, they may be comfortable with it, but there’s always a recognition that you could do more with it. Um, so yeah, I think that’s an easier thing to, to get to then perfection.

Josh: 04:22 Agreed. Agreed. Yeah. And you know, some may argue that you’ve arrived at a state of perfection when you realize that you have to be constantly learning. And it was that old adage. The more I know, the more I realized how much I don’t actually know. And I think that that’s very true both in life as well as an it an interesting story to share real quick. I’ve got younger brothers, and my youngest brother, uh, I usually introduce him to people when I’m, when I’m telling a story like this, I say “my little brother is an overachiever” and they look at me like, “oh, I see.” Yeah, he dropped out of high school twice. And people that they kind of give me this odd look like, “are you just being snarky?” And then I go on to tell them about how my youngest brother is the most magnificent carpenter I’ve ever met. Although he is a high school dropout, twice, because he went back and decided, nope, this definitely is not for me, which is okay, right? He then went on to work for another master carpenter, worked like a dog. Fortunately he lives out here kind of near me. He is head-hunted on the regular by some of the top architects in the region. He builds the most insanely complex things. And he just SEES them. And I think to myself, “wow, he would have totally wasted away sitting in a classroom some place.” In fact, I had that exact discussion with my son today who’s trying to figure out where he wants to go to. And I asked him, I said, “Noah, would you be happy sitting in a classroom for the next four years?” And he said, “I would be miserable.” And it’s true. He would be absolutely miserable. And so, you know, this idea that, that perfection requires you to go sit in a classroom, or for my youngest brother to, you know, graduate from High School is, you know, that’s, it’s null and void in those cases, that is not their idea of perfection, you know. So sometimes when we talk about learning, we look and we say, “hey, you know, um, Leon, you only learned, uh, you know, these skills. And Leon is the perfect it engineer because he knows x, y, and Z.”

Leon: 06:43 Okay. Getting a little deep here!

Josh: 06:46 Hold on, hold on. Okay. But then we look at other people who have a completely different skillset that is very relevant to what they need to accomplish. And for them, they are that perfect engineer, right? It’s the whole idea of, you know, hey, I can script in powershell or I could script in python, but if you are an AIX admin, perl’s gonna help you, but you probably need to have some other skills, and that powershell isn’t going to be very useful for you. Cause I don’t think AIX runs powershell.

Leon: 07:18 Right? Not, not presently, but you never know in the future, or powershell may run in AIX anyway. Um, we can dream can’t we? So, um, yeah, I think, I think what are the things you’re getting at is, is that self improvement and perfecting ourself is actually a process of repeated failure.

Josh: 07:42 Amen

Leon: 07:42 As, as hard as it is to sometimes accept that on a daily basis. It’s hard to live that experience. I often,

Josh: 07:53 You only fail once a day?

Leon: 07:54 No, no. A constant state of failure. I like to tell people that, that working in IT sometimes feels like a huge stretches of soul crushing depression, punctuated by brief moments of insane euphoria, before returning back to the long stretch of soul crushing depression again. You know, like, I’m working on this problem. “I don’t know what it is. I can’t figure it out. I’ve tried everything. Let me try this one. Yeah. OH MY GOSH IT WORKS THIS IS BRILLIANT!! This is incredible. I love it… Okay, next problem.” All right.

Josh: 08:31 That’s accurate, isn’t it? I, I, that’s my life. I don’t know how I didn’t know any different.

Leon: 08:37 So the, so the idea of failure, really is just, I think framing an experience incorrectly because it’s just, you know, working, you know? It’s finding out all the things that don’t work. And I think that our religious, moral, ethical outlook, those of us who, who feel strongly about those, I think that it allows us to embrace that experience, to be more flexible about failure. Then somebody who, who may not have that outlook. Not that people who, you know, don’t, you know, who aren’t religious CAN’T do that obviously. But I think that that a religious framework helps us to see it in a particular light. Um…

Josh: 09:26 Why do you think that is? What, what is it about having a view of yourself, not as isolated from the world, but having, uh, an understanding that you are relative to, you know – whether it’s God, whether it’s, you know, the universe, whether, you know, whether it’s the… what is it about that view that allows us to embrace both failure and an evolution toward perfection?

Leon: 09:54 I think part of it is that in, in many religions, there is actually a habituation of repentance. And what I mean by that is that there is a period of time or a day or even a moment during daily prayers when you ask for forgiveness. When you recognize that you’ve somehow fallen short of a goal that you could have reached but didn’t, and you apologize for that. Now at least in the Jewish tradition that is, you know, failures, things that you have missed between you and God. So, you know, “I’m expected to do certain things and I fell short and I’m so sorry and I’m going to work on that…” And so on and so forth. That’s sort of the subtext of the prayer. But I think that asking for forgivenes, apologizing is a habit, is a technique, and you have to practice it before it feels natural. And I also think that knowing that you can apologize and be forgiven is something that you have to practice a few times before you can become comfortable with it. And because religions tend to have that built in – that repentance, apology, forgiveness cycle – that we and IT who make mistakes that do affect other people are perhaps finding an easier time saying, like, I joked earlier in this talk, you know, “I took the backup circuit down, I forgot to bring it back up again. I did a fail over a week later. I am so sorry. I know that caused an outage. I will, you know, here are the things I’m going to do to make sure that doesn’t happen again.” I’m not, quote-unquote “a failure” for having allowed that to happen. I failed, I made a mistake. But my, my Jewish experience with the repentance cycle allows me to admit that without feeling like I have to give up some part of my soul in order to do so. I, you know, I apologize all the time. I apologize, honestly, every day during prayers, There’s a particular times of year when apology figures prominently. And the act of showing up and doing that allows me to turn to my coworkers and apologize and know that forgiveness can be given without fear. And I think, and I think that’s it. I think that fear really gets in the way of a lot of people, you know, in that case, I don’t know what you think about that.

Josh: 12:37 Yeah. You know what, I 100% agree. I, I saw, I can’t tell you how many times in my life I’ve been afraid. Um, funny story growing up, we lived in a small house that had one of those dirt basements. You know the kind I’m talking about. And I was horrified of that basement. Absolutely horrified. And so when you turn the lights on in the main basement, there was a back basement that was like completely, uh, didn’t have any lights. And every so often my parents would say, “hey, can you go down to the cellar and get something?” And I would just start panicking

Leon: 13:17 That is nightmare fuel!

Josh: 13:19 Right? It is totally nightmare fuel. And I can remember like just screaming up the stairs as fast as I could because I was so afraid of the thing I could not see. So yeah, I am not Kevin McCallister. I cannot stand with, you know, a triumph in front of my furnace, in my basement and you know, you know, you know, scream from my front step, you know, “I am not afraid anymore.” I also don’t have a next door neighbor who I think is an ax murderer. Um, that’s another thing too.

Leon: 13:51 That’s a plus.

Josh: 13:51 That’s definitely a plus. Every tell you about my first, my very first fail? Actually, did I ever tell you about how I got started in IT? That’s probably better.

Leon: 14:00 Tell everyone.

Josh: 14:01 Okay. So let me tell you and everyone who’s listening. Um, thanks mom. Uh, I want it to be a lawyer. I remember the exact moment in my life when I decided I want it to be a lawyer. I was in seventh grade and we were doing a mock trial in seventh grade and the smartest girl in class, um, and I were head to head and I eviscerated her. It was hands down the… the entire class was the jury. And it was, it was, it was epic, “Of epic proportions.” Wonderful. That moment I realized I actually want to be a lawyer. Yeah, no, no. I’m not a lawyer.

Leon: 14:44 As a parent, I can tell you every child is a lawyer.

Josh: 14:47 That it, that is very true. That is very true. That’s all that. And so I battled for a very long time about whether or not I should embrace this whole idea of being in IT. I also remember the exact moment that my wife and I decided that I should pursue a career in IT. Um, it was mostly out of desperation. I was young, I was married, I had a family and needed to, um, you know, make money. Here I am 20 odd years in and I realized that I did not fail by not becoming a lawyer. In fact, I succeeded by recognizing that being a lawyer was not the path I should walk.

Leon: 15:21 Right. So, you know, when I was little, I wanted he marine biologist.

Josh: 15:27 You and George Constanza. By that way,

Leon: 15:28 I really, you know, Jacques Cousteau, like the whole thing I really wanted… So naturally I went into university to study theater. That makes perfect sense. Then I discovered the universe did not need another short Jewish nebbishy looking actor. Uh, and so of course I went into IT. I mean, that’s true. Yeah, it was. Yeah. And now I’ll do the same thing. “You know, I was young, I did it for the money.” Um, so yeah, it’s, you know, there, there’s several inventors who said that, “I might have failed a thousand times, but you know, that taught me a thousand things that didn’t work.”

Josh: 16:06 Absolutely. Also also known as a week in the life of Josh.

Leon: 16:10 Right, right. That’s, you know, and, and I, again, I think that IT really is… So we’re talking about two different things though: When you try something and it doesn’t work, that’s a personal, that’s, that’s a failure on a very personal level. I tried this, I tried that, and I tried that. And I think that most of us who work in IT are used to that. You know, you’ve got to try a few things before it’s going to work. But then there’s the other failures, like the one we joked about at the top of the episode where I took the backup circuit down or I accidentally shut off the VAX because I thought it was a mini fridge. Um, I did that.

Josh: 16:43 I do want to know that story someday.

Leon: 16:45 Yeah. You know, or whatever. Those are failures that impact other people. Those are the ones that go back to that repentance, apology, forgiveness cycle where you have to go outside of yourself and say “I did fail. I did fall short of the mark and I need to do better.” And I think that both of those experiences, those personal ones of trying things and it not working, and the big ones where you have to go in front of other people and apologize and ask for forgiveness. I think both of those things our religious lives prepare us for, because they, it inculcates in us the fact that this is part of life, this is part of the normal experience. And therefore I think our frustration level with that as a normal part of our day is lessened. Because we don’t feel like “This is incredible. How do people live like this, with things breaking all the time, and things not working?!? I can’t stand it!” Like, no, that’s, this is life. This is the way it works.

Josh: 17:49 I often said, and I still say, and one of my maybe crowning moments was when someone quoted me saying, this is, “it doesn’t matter how close or how far along number…” Sorry, let me say my famous quote one more time. “It does not matter how far along the road to perfection you are when you die. It only matters the direction you’re facing.” And I think that that’s a very important principle. Whether you’re talking about your life and your pursuit of this ideal of perfection, or you’re talking about your career, we’re all going to fail. But when you fail, fail forward, and we’ve heard that from business leaders, “Hey, if you’re going to fail, fail forward, don’t feel backwards.” But that is, if we embrace that, we recognize that, you know, some people may fail faster and get up and move forward, but every single one of us needs to, when we fail, fail in the direction of progress. And when we do that, we, when we look up, we still realize that we’re on the path. It’s when we fail and we fail completely off, or, you know, maybe there’s no trust and support in our lives or in our business. You know, there, there are cases where I failed and I became the immediate butt of blame. Uh, you know, people, yeah, “Josh screwed up,” and that those are really hard to recover from. One of my managers, well actually our common manager for a very brief period of time… Um, yeah, it’s a story for another day, right?

Leon: 19:23 Apology, forgiveness. We’re back in that cycle again.

Josh: 19:27 So Andy said, “Nobody will be faulted for trying and failing, only for failing to try.”

Leon: 19:35 I liked it every time he said it. Just going back to what you said about your famous quote, your, you’re remarkably close to a beloved ancient rabbi, Rabbi Tarfon, who, in Pirkei Avot, said, “It’s not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you’re not free to desist from it either.”

Josh: 19:55 Oh, I liked that one.

Leon: 19:56 Yeah. So you, you are standing on solid ground with your famous quote. So just to wrap up the episode, I think something that Andy and I both saw and you were just a little bit short before you got there to see it, was that idea of “you won’t be blamed for failing” is, it also depends so much on what you do about the failure. When I was back at where you’re working, where I used to work, I saw something within a period of a week: two major outages that were caused by somebody making a change outside of change control. In the first case the person immediately called folks and said, “hey, the system down. I really didn’t think that what I was changing was going to have this kind of impact. I thought it was a minor configuration file. I didn’t know it had this sort of wide ranging impact. What can I do to fix it?” And they were told “there’s nothing you can do to fix it. It’s beyond your skill set.” But that person stayed on the phone for hours while the repairs, the backups and restores and everything went, you know, and said, “I just want to be here to see what I need to know for next time.” And nothing more was said about it. And if I hadn’t known this person, I probably wouldn’t have known that much of it. A week later there was another major outage. Not with the same system, a similar system, similar magnitude. This person tried to cover their tracks. They actually tried to bury it under the rug. “What, what? It’s down? I had no idea!” And as we all know, there’s log files for everything. And so it came out pretty quickly that, you know, what had happened. This person had made a change without a change control. Nobody knew it was happening. This person tried to bury it under the rug and, without another comment, that person was simply escorted to the door. That was it, it was over. It wasn’t about the failure, it was about how they handled it. It was about how they owned or didn’t own up to it. And I think that’s when we think about failure in IT. And also what does a religion, religious, moral, ethical outlook give us? I think it’s, it’s that it gives us the ability to recognize that failure is a normal, natural part of our experience as people moving around the world. And that, you know, it’s not some sort of huge character flaw to have failed and, and how to have the moral fortitude to own up to it and to say, you know, uh, to apologize and to say, what can I do to make restitution and to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. I think that’s really more than anything else. What, what our outlook, our religious outlook on life gives us.

Speaker 1: 22:56 Yeah. And that’s really interesting. I love the the Pixar movies. My family loves to Pixar movies. My son, my oldest son, really loves the Pixar movies. And in Toy Story, Buzz attempts to fly, you remember the scene right? And so to paraphrase Buzz, “When you fail, fail with style.” And of course, that’s what Buzz says. He thinks he’s flying and it takes him the entire story. And then, you know, uh, what he’s looking up and he’s like, “Oh my goodness, you know, Buzz, you’re flying”. And the Buzz acknowledges, “No, you know, we’re, this is falling with style.” And I think that, right? I think that’s really the essence of it, right? If you’re going to fail, fail with style, fail with purpose and intent, recognize that as you move forward, that’s, that is the essence of life. That is the essence of life in IT, life at home, life as an individual, life with your relationship with God. You’re going to make mistakes, as you’ve so wonderfully said, you’re going to make mistakes. When you make those mistakes, recognize them, admit to them, and try really hard not to make them again. That that is the evolution of humanity.

Roddie: 24:15 Thank you for making time for us this week to hear more of technically religious. Visit our website at where you can find our other episodes, leave us ideas for future discussions or connect with us on social media.

Leon: 24:28 So as we learned from Alfred and Christopher Nolan’s “Batman begins.”

Alfred: 24:31 Why do we fall, sir? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.

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