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Catch Up: Fixing the World, One Error Message At a Time

Acts of hatred in our most sacred spaces. Curable diseases going untreated. War tearing countries and families apart. Global climate change threatening our very species. It’s enough to make anyone feel that this world is broken beyond repair. As people with a strong religious, moral, or ethical point of view, we are sensitized to inequality and injustice, but these problems leave many of us feeling both frustrated and hopeless. However, our work as IT professionals has conditioned us to look at problems, breakdowns, and error messages in a very particular way. In this episode of our podcast, Leon, Josh, and special guest Yechiel Kalmenson will look at ways in which our IT mindset helps us approach secular, existential, and religious challenges in ways that non-IT folks (“civilians” or “muggles”) typically don’t.

Listen or read the transcript below:

Doug: 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: 00:25 Today is May 6, 2019, and while we try to keep our podcasts as timeless as possible, in this case, current events matter.

Leon: 00:35 It hasn’t been a good week, and that’s putting it lightly. The US political system continues to be a slow motion train wreck. Measles cases in the US are at levels unseen since the disease was eradicated in the year 2000. A report on climate change shows over 1 million species are now at risk of extinction. And just over a week ago, a gunman stormed into a synagogue in Poway, California. This is the second attack in a synagogue in the last six months. and part of a horrifically growing list of attacks in sacred spaces nationwide.

Josh: 01:03 News like that leaves most people feeling hopeless and adrift. And even folks who are part of a strong religious, ethical, or moral tradition who are sensitive to injustice and seek to repair the world – we’re also left uncertain on how to proceed.

Leon: 01:18 Which is why an article in the “Torah & Tech” newsletter caught my eye. In it, the author presented the idea that we as IT professionals may be predisposed to view these kinds of problems differently, and to address them the same way we deal with blue screens of death and abend messages. I’m Leon Adato and the voices you’re going to hear on this episode are the always-effervescent Josh Biggley

Josh: 01:40 Hello.

Leon: 01:42 And also our special guest and the author of Torah & Tech, Yechiel Kalmenson, who provided the inspiration for this episode. Welcome to the show Yechiel.

Yechiel: 01:49 Hi. Thanks for having me.

Leon: 01:51 So before we go any further Yechiel, I want you to have a chance to tell all of the listeners about Torah & Tech. I think it’s perfect for the Technically Religious crowd because it merges those two things – tech and religion. So where can we find it? How did it start? Just give us a little bit of background.

Yechiel: 02:09 Torah & Tech was an idea of a friend of mine, Rabbi Ben Greenberg, who’s also like me, an Orthodox Jew now working as a developer in Israel. We came up with the idea to merge, you know like you spoke about in the first episode to have the synergy between these two worlds, which mean a lot to both of us. So we started this weekly newsletter, which features a Torah thought every single week that relates to tech and also tech news that relate to Judaism or to Torah values in general. You can find it, you can subscribe to it in the link which will be provided in the show notes. I also cross post a few weeks – those that I write – I cross post them on my blog, which you can find at http://rabbionrails.io

Leon: 02:51 Fantastic. I guess we’ll dive into this. What is it about IT and working in IT that makes us think differently about these types of world breaking world, you know, horrific events that that just shouldn’t be?

Josh: 03:08 You know, I think what makes me think about those things, and I have an interesting story that I’ll share, but it’s that desire to fix things, to see them resolved and in order to do that, you have to understand where they came from. I remember quite distinctly when I had this first realization that I was a “fixer”. I was in 10th grade. I was in a class and we had a presenter from the community – or who I thought was from the community – who came in, and she talked about the genocide and that had happened in East Timor. She was East Timorese and she had talked about how the Indonesian had invaded East Timor and killed off a third of the population. And I thought, “Man, I’ve never heard of this before. How can it possibly be that such a tragedy has happened? And no one’s talked about it.” And it was in that moment that I realized I wanted to do something. And it’s only been with 25 or 30 years of retrospect that I realize that that was that transitional moment where I knew I wanted to be a fixer. So I dunno, I, maybe it’s something that happens to us by nature, by nurture. I don’t know if I want to fall down on either one of those sides, but for me it felt very natural.

Speaker 2: 04:28 Excellent. Now Yechiel in the newsletter, you actually mentioned something about the fact that, you know, we as IT professionals – and certainly as programmers and developers – error messages… We don’t respond to error messages the same way that I’m going to say “normal people” (Muggles) do. Can you, can you elaborate on that?

Speaker 3: 04:46 Uh, sure. It’s actually, I noticed that it’s one of the first things, one of the first like switches I had to go through in order to learn development. Before I was a programmer, I did tech support and I can’t tell you how many times I got a phone call where someone calls up and says, “Yeah, there’s something wrong. The machine is broken.” I’m like, “what’s wrong?” “Like I don’t know, it has an error message on it and like…”, “Well what does it say?” “I don’t know” And I was like, “I can’t really, you know… Can we go through the transaction again and see which error we got?” “I Dunno, it’s just broken and it got an error message.” As, I mean, ever since I was a kid, I always had this curiosity where I would, you know, try to figure things out. We know when something broke to try to take it apart. And when I learned to program, so that was one of the first lessons I had to learn because error messages pop up all the time. You make a small typo, I make a small, you know, you add an extra semi colon or you’re missing a semicolon and the whole thing blows up at you. And as a “muggle”, as you put it, whenever our computer throws an error message at you, it’s always this scary thing. You know, it almost feels like the computer is, like, shouting at you and you know you probably did something wrong. And now everything is broken and nothing is working. But as programmers and in general people in IT, error messages are actually, that’s what we’re here for. That’s what we do. We fix error messages. Error messages show us where the code is broken. What has to be fixed. Some are easier and more helpful than others of course. But that’s basically what we do. Our whole approach to broken systems is different. You know, I mentioned the quote from Steve Klabnik in the newsletter he said that “…programming is a moving from a broken state to a working state. That means you spend the majority of your time with things being broken. Hell, if it worked, you’d be done programming!” I mean nobody’s hiring programmers to take care of working stuff. So that’s what we do as, that’s our job description.

Leon: 06:43 How many of us have said, as you’re sort of struggling with a problem or you know, “how can you keep working on this? Hour after hour?” (and we respond) “that’s why I get paid the big bucks.”

Josh: 06:55 I just want to call out that the blue screen of death. I think that that was invented to BE scary. Like really, you know, suddenly everything fails and you get this dump of data like that (gasps), I don’t know, when I see the blue screen of death on the server and I haven’t… knock on wood, I haven’t seen one in a long time. I’m always afraid,

Leon: 07:18 Right. But of course you have to remember that the blue screen of death came after a long string of operating systems that gave you nothing more than like the “sad mac”. Like that was all you got. You didn’t get any other error messages. So perhaps the pendulum swung a little too far in the other direction of giving more information than you wanted, versus just, you know, “I’m not happy now,” but even that is, to Yechiel’s point, is a way of of trying to fix things by error message, I mean, you know, this error message is actually not useful. And so I’m going to fix the error message by giving more information, but they just went perhaps a little further in that direction.

Josh: 08:01 So I learned last week, or two weeks ago about this great Easter egg in an error message. So you know when you’re in chrome and there’s no network connectivity and you get that pop up that says that there’s no network connectivity? There’s a video game in that popup message!

Leon: 08:21 Trying to make it less scary by looking for firewall things in the middle,

Yechiel: 08:25 I will not admit out loud how many hours I wasted with that dinosaur.

Leon: 08:32 But it is some number greater than zero. Good. All right. So I like this mindset. I like the fact that as IT people, we are, as Josh said “solvers” and that we approach brokenness in a very different way. We see brokenness not as simply, like a broken pot, a Ming vase on the floor that is broken and will never be the same, but more as IT folks we’re, “Oh, that’s just, that’s how everything starts,” And now, now we have the work of the work. I’m curious about whether being people from a religious, moral, ethical point of view. Are we predisposed maybe to see these errors or these patterns differently than folks who are from a more secular point of view?

Josh: 09:27 I’m pretty convinced that the answer to that question is yes. I think about the… in case you haven’t been paying attention, I was raised Mormon and I’m now post Mormon or ex Mormon or no longer Mormon, whatever. You wanna do this, do you want to call it

Leon: 09:46 The artist formerly known as Mormon?

Josh: 09:48 The artist formerly known as Mormon – I think actually, that is every Mormon because the church doesn’t call themselves Mormons anymore. Anyway, that’s a, that’s an entirely different episode. But the entire premise of Christianity at large is this realignment or uh, yes, realignment is the best way to describe it, of ourselves with God. So God being perfect, the idea of there being an atonement means that we have to, that there’s something wrong with us. And so there’s, you know, scripture is full of indicators when someone goes wrong. So one of the great indicators in the book of Mormon, which is the, the book of scripture that is unique from the rest of Christianity inside of Mormonism is when Jesus is crucified and when he dies on the cross, and while there’s been people who’ve said, “Hey, you know, things are, things are not going well. You know, this is going to happen.” Suddenly the, you know, the earth shakes and the ground breaks and there’s darkness and there’s, you know, cities fall and they burn. These are all these warning signs that something has gone wrong. And those people who are astute to that, they recognize that something has gone wrong and they’re the ones who, you know, who raised their voices up and, um, you know, then there’s goodness that rises. Yes. I know it’s a bit of a stretch to say that in that mindset, we also become good engineers – so that when we see the warning signs, we know we’re looking for them, we start to see, “Oh my goodness, there’s error messages popping up. Like that’s, that’s kind of weird.” And then when the thing ultimately fails, we’re the ones who are there to say, “Okay, all right, it’s failed. We got this, we can bring this back.” I don’t know that that’s necessarily how people perceive it, but I certainly, I’m certainly a big pattern person, and in patterns, you know, whether you’re talking about the book of Revelation or you’re talking about Nostradamus, or whatever it is you’re talking about, those patterns all exists and I think they’re powerful for us. Um, both personally. Um, but also from a technical perspective.

Leon: 11:57 So I think that Judaism approaches things differently. Obviously, you know,

Josh: 12:02 yes…

Leon: 12:03 it approaches things very differently for a lot of things. That’s a true statement. The brokenness of the world is sort of built into it and I don’t know that it’s worth going into the, the whys and wherefores, but there’s this concept in Judaism of Tikun Olam, which translates to “repairing the world.” And because that’s a thing like the fact that that phrase exists, tells you that the world needs repair and that’s built into the system. Otherwise that phrase wouldn’t be a thing. Now there’s two ways of looking at Tikun Olam, the, the sort of, bubblegum pop way of looking at it. And I probably just offended to thousands of people and I apologize. The first level view, or the easier view of Tikun Olam is just doing good deeds to make the world a better place. Donating money and helping people out if they need help and things like that. But there’s a deeper, slightly deeper level of it, which is that there are these hidden sparks of holiness and it’s almost like a scavenger hunt. And that our job is to reveal these sparks of holiness to collect them up. And the way that you do that is by doing these good deeds. Yechiel, I don’t know if you have a take on that.

Yechiel: 13:18 You did pretty well. It’s stressed a lot stronger and Chasidic philosophy, which, which I’m trained in. But yeah, when God created the world, He created it with His goodness, with His kindness. And that kindness is everywhere. Everywhere in the world. Even in the darkness. When we find the spark of goodness in the darkness, we’re actually revealing the purpose of creation of that part of the world and bringing the world closer to its ultimate reason for creation, which was to become a place where godliness and goodness, out in the open rather than hiding in dark corners the way it is now.

Leon: 13:57 One of the parts of Judaism that I like so much is that certain… these good deeds, these acts, are labeled as Mitzvot, which, you know, a lot of people say, “Oh, that’s a good deed, right?” No, no, no, no, no, that’s, that’s a commandment. That’s an obligation. Why are you giving charity or tzedakah is what it’s called in Hebrew. Why are you giving that? You know, because it makes you feel good? No. Because it’s a good deed? No. Because I’m obligated to, I am commanded to. The commander in chief gave me an order and I’m just being a good soldier. I’m just doing it. And I think that that also, as somebody with a religious point of view, lets us look at these these broken moments, these broken times as, “Nope, that’s part of the job.” This is a hurdle that was placed here so we could try to overcome it. Moving forward just a little bit. I think that because we see these errors, do we, do we feel compelled to address them? I mean, like, do we have to?

Josh: 15:07 Something that I’m I’m told very often is “Josh, stay in your lane,” and I’m not good that at all.

Leon: 15:14 “Keep your nose out of it. Just deal with your stuff!” Yeah. Yeah.

Josh: 15:17 I mean, I’m really, really bad at it, so I’m going to say that yes, I feel very compelled to fix problems, much to my own detriment though, sometimes. Solving my own problems is challenging, but solving my own problems and other people’s problems? That’s, that’s a weighty thing. Sometimes I feel like I’m better at solving other people’s problems than my own.

Yechiel: 15:42 So yeah, do we feel compelled to justice? I feel like that’s part of what we spoke about our different approach error messages in tech. You know, when a nontechnical person sees an error message, yeah, he’s compelled not to do anything about it. And it just shut the whole thing down and turn it on and hope for the best. But as a developer, if I see an error message and figure, “Okay, it’s broken. That’s it. That’s how that, you know, that’s how it is.” Then I’ll pretty much find myself without a job very soon.

Speaker 2: 16:13 Well there’s one phrase that I think I’ve quoted on the show before, but it’s so good, I can’t let it go. Do we feel obligated to address these? And in one of the books of Mishnah, a section called Pirkeh Avot, there’s a phrase that gets quoted a lot. “You’re not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” And I think that’s a big part of the mindset. Yechiel of the three of us, you are the most “a programmer”. I’m more of a systems guy. Josh is more of a systems guy. And I know that when you’re looking at one of these big problems, like you said, you can’t walk away from it, but at the same time, I don’t think you go into it thinking, “Well it’s me and it’s only on me and there no one else who’s ever going to do this”, I think, you know, going into it that there’s a team behind you, there’s people that you can rely on, there’s people you can go to or who will pick up the work if you have to take a break or put it down.

Yechiel: 17:20 Very true. The stuff I’m working on now, you know, it’s problems that were around for a lot longer than I’ve been on them. And they will still be problems way after I’m off the team already. And yeah, it’s, you know, you’re part of IT, you’re part of a much bigger picture. You are not the be all and end all the project will go on without you, but at the same time, you have an awesome opportunity to improve it and to move it one step forward and another step and another step.

Leon: 17:51 And, and I, I have to put this in here because I said I’m a systems guy. Really, you know, my great love in IT is monitoring, and I consider myself to be a monitoring engineer more than anything else. And I think that I feel compelled to address things because usually I’m the one who sets up a monitor to watch for that condition – to check and, you know, is it healthy? No. Alright. Why? And once you have that, once you have that error message, that alert, “Hey, this is no longer within the boundary of what we would consider healthy or good or up or okay.” At that point, if you haven’t put in something to try to fix that problem, that alert that you’ve just triggered, then you haven’t done the full job of monitoring. You know, monitor, collect the data, alert when it goes out of your specification, and then act. And if you’re not acting, then you haven’t done a full job. That’s from a monitoring standpoint. But again, I feel that it translates into the real world. So now that we sort of identified it, I wonder as IT folks, do we have anything to offer non IT people (again, muggles) to approach these problems. Is there a mindset that that non IT folks can adopt that would make it easier when they see these big problems in their community, in the world to not feel so overwhelmed?

Josh: 19:20 Oh, me, me! I’ve got one. I’ve got one! There’s this great, there’s this great idea in Mormonism, about having one foot and Zion and one foot in Babylon. And I don’t know if it’s strictly from Mormonism, but I feel like I’m one of those people, because I was afraid of error messages in my early IT career, I was absolutely horrified. To me when they broke it felt like I had done something wrong. Like, “Did, did I, did I make it do that?” To quote Steve Urkel, “Did I do that?”

Leon: 19:56 Another great voice in Geekdom

Josh: 20:00 The great geek of all Geeks, right? Steve Urkel. So I think that I would love for people to take this: Don’t be afraid of, of of error messages. When you see them, first decompress a little because you’re freaking out because things just broke. But then read what the error message says. You know, this is not like the Twitter fail whale. It’s not like the spinning pinwheel of death on your brand new Mac book. Like these things are generally helpful. And if not, shame on you coders for not putting in helpful error. Messages.

Leon: 20:37 Uh oh, he’s throwing shade at you. Yechiel

Josh: 20:39 I maybe.. I mean a little..

Yechiel: 20:40 No, that’s actually a very valid point. And our last tech conference I was by, it was a Ruby conference, but almost every talk I was at was trying to discuss how to make our error messages better. And I think in general, just teaching people that it’s okay when things are broken, it’s not okay when they stay broken for us, but it’s okay when they are broken. And that just shows that there’s room for us to get in here and help things out.

Josh: 21:12 And I love that idea of making our error messages better. Going back to Leon, your love of monitoring, my love of monitoring, the big push now in the monitoring space is that everything is telemetry. It’s not just time series data, like everything, your error messages, the strings that get vomited out of your code. That’s all telemetry. So, yeah, please, if you’re a developer and you’re listening make your error messages something that we on the monitoring and event management side, that we can take in as telemetry and use it to help people to go and do things to bring the systems back.

Leon: 21:53 Right now I’m not about to go in and approach God and say, “I’m not sure your error messages are comprehensive enough. I’d like things a little clearer.” Partially because it’s a little egotistical to think that I have anything to tell God about how to run the world. And second of all, when I’ve asked for clear messages, I’ve gotten them and they’re usually very sort of blunt and brutal. So I don’t do that. But as far as having non IT folks approach these world issues, these sort of error messages around, one of the things – and we hit on it earlier is remember that you’re working in teams that very rarely in IT are you an army of one. That there’s people that you can fall back on. There should be people that you can fall back on. Find your tribe. If you have… there’s an area of the world that really bothers you, that you’re sensitized to, then find your tribe that’s addressing that. Whether it’s the #metoo movement or you’re fighting climate change, or you’re looking for creating lasting peace in your neighborhood or anywhere else, find that group and work within it so that you can pick up your piece, but you don’t have to try to pick up the whole piece. So that’s one thing that I think IT folks sort of intuitively understand.

Josh: 23:16 So I love that, and I want to build on that. My son today, who’s in high school, he came home and he said “Hey, just so you guys know, today’s the first day of Ramadan and I’m going to be participating in Ramadan with my friends.” And I thought, “Whoa, like, whoa.” We’re like, “Where did that come from? That so awesome.” He’s feeling very connected. And so I love that idea of finding your people and working in teams. I have this wonderful old lady who lives next to me. She’s been around forever. And whenever her computer breaks she calls me and says “Josh, can you come fix my computer?” She knows how to do the things that she knows how to do, but she also was very willing to admit that “I can’t do this. I can’t fix this thing.” And to me they’re very rudimentary. Like, okay, yeah, I’ll help you with that. But to her, it’s something foreign. And don’t be afraid of foreign things. Admitting that you don’t know something is just as good, if not better than faking that you know something when you don’t, I mean, our last episode talked about that, that fake it til you make it. You don’t have to fake this and it’s okay to say, I don’t know.

Destiny: 24:26 Thanks for making time for us this week. To hear more of Technically Religious, visit our website, http://technicallyreligious.com, where you can find our other episodes, leave us ideas for future discussions and connect to us on social media.

Josh: 24:40 To quote Five Man Electrical Band from their 1971 classic, “Thank you lord for thinking about me. I’m alive and doing fine.”

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