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S1E19: Pivoting Our Career On the Tip of a Torah Scroll, part 3

In Yeshiva – a system of advanced learning in the orthodox Jewish world, there’s a saying: “Shiv’im Panim laTorah” – which means “there are 70 faces of Torah”, but implies that there are many equally valid ways of getting to a certain point. That idea resonates with IT practitioners, because there are many paths that led us into our career in tech. In this episode, Leon wraps up the conversation with guests Corey Adler, Rabbi Ben Greenberg, and returning guest Yechiel Kalmenson about how that made that literal pivot, from yeshiva into the world of IT, and what their experiences – both religious and technical taught them along the way. Listen or read the transcript below.

Leon: 00:00 Hey everyone, it’s Leon. Before we start this episode, I wanted to let you know about a book I wrote. It’s called “The Four Questions Every Monitoring Engineer is Asked”, and if you like this podcast, you’re going to love this book. It combines 30 years of insight into the world of it with wisdom gleaned from Torah, Talmud, and Passover. You can read more about it including where you can get a digital or print copy over on https://adatosystems.com. Thanks!

Roddie: 00:25 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.

Leon: 00:44 This is a continuation of the discussion I started last week with Yechiel Kalmenson, Ben Greenberg and Corey Adler on how they pivoted from a life of Orthodox Jewish studies into a career in IT. Thank you for coming back to join our conversation.

Leon: 00:44 All right, so looking at today, as you’re working today in IT, you are all three established programmers with a career and everything. What, of the lessons that you got from yeshiva, continue to carry over. What other things, I mean we’ve talked about a bunch of stuff, but is there anything else that carries over into your day to day work that when you do it you say, “yeah, that’s cause I went to yeshiva. That’s, that’s what I still get from it.”

Yechiel: 01:24 So essentially I think these days the world of tech is waking up to the realization that you can’t separate the work you’re doing from the moral applications of the things you’re creating. Like for the longest time we would hear news about some big tech company doing something wrong and the engineers are like, “Well, I was just doing my job. You know, I was hired to do this work.” And it’s just not cutting it anymore. People are realizing that there are real world applications to the stuff you’re doing. And these are conversations we have to have. And we have to think about.

Leon: 02:03 You mean like the algorithms on a certain video website that lead criminals to their targets?

Speaker 3: 02:11 Yeah. To quote one recent example. Yes. But you know, these days it seems like every week there are other stories coming up. By the time this podcast is going to air, I’m sure there’s going to be five new stories and people are gonna say, “what website is he talking” about what story was that?” But that kind of thinking is actually wired in throughout the Talmud. You know, people have this misconception about the Talmud that it’s high lofty thinking and philosophical discussions; where most of the Talmud is actually talking about oxen and fields and how to… I remember once getting into a whole… There’s like a whole page discussion in the Talmud about what happens if you go into a room that was previously occupied by three people and you find a coin – who does that coin belong to? And come on, we’re talking about a third of a penny over here. Does this really, really matter? And our teacher told us, “Yes! If you realize the value of a third of a cent that belongs to somebody else, obviously you’ll know the value of $100 that belongs to someone else. You can’t separate the two.” There’s no like, “okay, now I’m doing my job… And now I’m a religious person. Now I’m a rabbi.” There is, I think there’s a famous story about our Aristotle that they once caught him in some morally questionable act and they asked him, “How could that be?” He said, “Now I’m not Aristotle.” But in Torah there’s no such thing. You can’t separate your religious life from your quote-unquote secular life. It is one thing. It’s “Torah Echat” – we say “it’s one Torah and that is your life.”

Corey: 03:49 For me, I get constant reminders as a team lead because of process – that the idea of the process being as important as the result. For example, as I had mentioned about the kosher food: it’s not that the rabbi is the one that’s blessing. It is all about the process. And even if you have one little thing that’s not kosher, it invalidates basically all of it and makes everything not kosher. So the same thing really in tech: if you don’t have the right ingredients, you don’t have the right people and the right processes in place you’re not going to be successful in whatever project you’re trying to accomplish.

Leon: 04:39 Right. It doesn’t matter if individual lines of code execute correctly, the overall goal isn’t going to be met.

Corey: 04:46 Are you testing? Are you making sure that it actually is solving what you think it’s solving? Are you collaborating with customers? Getting back to the agile talk from before. So all kinds of things in that process is important.

Leon: 05:04 Ben, anything to add?

Ben: 05:06 I would just add in addition to that, that, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – who I think has inspired many of us, including me; he’s the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom – often describes a Jewish thought as something around being an aspect of religious humanism. Meaning that all people are invested with the divine image, that all people have intrinsic, unlimited value, a value that can’t have any limit to them. There is no way to describe the value of an individual person. And I think that when you work in large corporations or large companies and you’re working in tech, which is often data that’s been in the aggregate; that we’re working on, processes can feel anonymous, the values from yeshiva – that every single person is created and invested with that spark of godliness – I think it allows you to come to work with a sense of a real appreciation of your colleagues. With a sense of understanding that they are important and, not for only for the work they produce, but because they just are. Because they’re human beings. And I think that some of that can be missing from tech sometimes. That sense that we all are valued as human beings. And bringing that into the discourse of the daily work life can be really powerful.

Leon: 06:32 So in the same way that, the things that we learned in yeshiva sometimes we bring with us into the day and they’re positives, are there any things that we carry with us from our yeshiva days or from our yeshiva learning that end up creating obstacles for us? That we find that we have to find a way around or work through or get over.? And how do you get past them?

Yechiel: 06:55 So I guess just being “religious” or being visibly religious. In the world of tech there’s this stereotype about tech that it’s very young, very liberal. So just not seeing people like you being an invisible minority. I mean I’m obviously not going to deny the fact that as a white male, of course I enjoy plenty of privilege, but still, for myself, at least not seeing people like me, like really makes you doubt – especially in the beginning, when I was getting into it, and I’m thinking “CAN I make it in this world, is this as a viable option?” So that was kind of tough. And seeing a few people who are visibly religious actually made it a lot easier for me – conceptually, at least – which is actually the reason why, these days, I make it a point to be visible about being religious and visible about being in tech to help others coming after me. And then of course there’s just the usual… Corey touched upon earlier. You know, being different in the workplace. Knowing that you can’t just join a team lunch. You have to order a kosher meal. Knowing that I have to leave early on Friday in the winter for Shabbat. Though I did find that if you’re upfront about it from the beginning, you’re not trying to push things off for the last minute, hoping that they’ll go away, (which of course they won’t because these are things that are immutable and you’re NOT going to be staying late on Friday, on Shabbat), if you’re up front about things and open, proud of it, people will actually respect it and they’ll work with you. When I joined pivotal, my team used to have their Friday retros on Friday afternoon, and they moved it to Friday morning because right in the beginning, I told them, “Oh, Friday afternoon, I’m not gonna be able to make it.” So they worked things around and they made it work for me. Keeping kosher: Pivotal every Tuesday has a tech lunch, which obviously is not kosher, but they are order for me and a few other kosher keeping coworkers, they cater out of kosher meal. Just for us. So if you’re upfront, when you’re proud about it, when you show you’re not embarrassed, people respect that and people will work with you.

Leon: 09:11 How about you Ben?

Ben: 09:12 Yeah, I would echo a lot of what Yechiel said. I mean there’s a reason why we we’re friends. I really respect a lot of what he says and agree with so much of it. And I would also just say that I’ve noticed…

Yechiel: 09:21 I will say that it goes both ways.

Everyone: 09:23 <awwwwww>

Ben: 09:27 I can feel the love. There’s an emerging awareness in our tech community for what it means to have inclusivity around religious issues. And yet there is still some resistance to that idea that there should be. Just the very notion there should be inclusivity for religious diversity is still facing to some resistance in our community. And I do what I can to try and move the needle on that. But I’m only one person. And not only that, I’m also invested in, I’m an interested party. And what actually is really meaningful and touching is when people who are not personally invested, but who are allies who stand up for you and raise the issue first. It happened recently, somebody raised the issue of Shabbat for me, around a particular thing and I felt really cared for and it felt really included in that moment because I didn’t have to be the one raising it for myself. And there’s something powerful about that. I felt seen. And that was a really wonderful thing. I do remember my pre Israel days when I did need to worry about Shabbat and kosher in the day to day workplace and finding a minyan, and things like that. But we now have a synagogue in our office and our kitchen is kosher and there is a “Minyon” What’sApp group in the building to organize and get everyone into the afternoon prayer service on time.

Leon: 11:00 For those listening, this is just one giant Humblebrag.

Ben: 11:03 It is really, but you know, Leon, it’s not very humble. I’m just bragging. It’s a straight up brag. It’s one of the perks of making this move when you’re on the observant spectrum. The Jewish community… you have to advocate for the needs of your non-observant colleagues. “They TOO should be able to eat!”

Leon: 11:25 They have a right t treif!,

Ben: 11:29 They have a right to their non kosher food. Maybe a non kosher section in the kitchen for them. Make sure there’s non kosher microwave there so they can eat as well. It’s a total flip of the situation.

Corey: 11:43 It feels like a Jackie Mason joke.

Yechiel: 11:47 And actually I would like to second what Ben spoke about, having allies. I feel like standing up for yourself could get exhausting. At our first job – mine and Ben’s – I remember like every Friday was a struggle, leaving early. And I actually remember one specific week where Ben told me that he had had a run in with our manager earlier that day and he said that he just can’t handle the Friday afternoon conversation if I could take it for him. And I did take the bullet that week. And I said, “Okay, it’s time for us to leave.” And my manager made his usual face, and we both got up and left. But now at Pivotal, I actually have a team member who’s an Israeli, who’s not religious, and she is actually very good about it. She will always raise Shabbat or kashrut, or other religious issues on my behalf, even though she doesn’t keep kosher. She doesn’t keep Shabbat. But she always raises it on, on my behalf and it goes a very long way towards making me feel like a welcome part of the team.

Leon: 12:46 Corey.

Corey: 12:47 What Yechiel touched upon before – the invisible minority comment – that just really hits home for me.

Leon: 12:55 I do need to point out that Corey and I both work from home the majority of the time. So when we say that we are an invisible minority, we are invisible in many ways. But as much as, again, that’s sort of a humble brag: “I get to work from home,” it’s much harder to recognize when there’s a religious issue, when you don’t even see us in the office on a daily basis to know that this is a pressure or a thing or whatever it is. Keep going. Sorry.

Corey: 13:23 Oh, no problem. But even when I was working in an office on a daily basis, there was still the idea that I need to make sure that I’m seen and that I’m out there. I remember one instance in particular and I’ve subsequently utilized this line that originally I heard from Mel Brooks, when Mel Brooks was starting rehearsals for The Producers musical. And so there was once where, my first job, where a new vice president of software development was introduced to us and we had to go all around the room and introduce who we were, what our job titles were. And so when he came to me, I said, “Hi, my name is Corey Adler. I’m the software engineer and Jew Extra-ordinaire!” And got a good laugh from the people and I’ve utilized that since then. You know, to be out there and to show that I’m here and that I’m Jewish and that I’m religious and I do all of these things. And for me, I’ve always found it important that, you need to draw the line and stand your ground. If you end up wavering, then nobody’s going to take you seriously as to what you say your beliefs are. If I say, “No, I’m, I’m really leaving on this Friday, and I’m really not going to be there for sprint planning” and all of this, people tend to respect you a lot more than you say, “Well maybe just this once…” You know, stuff like that.

Leon: 15:01 And I will say also that the first episode of Technically Religious was me and Josh and we were talking about the idea of religious synergy. Again, back to the comments around the table with being seen and not having to advocate for yourself, other people advocating for you. I know that as we record this, Ramadan has just ended. And one of the things I didn’t realize until Ramadan had begun was that one of my coworkers is Muslim and no one had actually even wished her Eid Mubarack, like nobody had wished her anything because it just hadn’t been noticed. And so I made a point of, every day asking her how things were going and wishing her, like I said, Eid Mubarack when things were over. And I think it makes a difference when we see each other and we say things like, “Hey, it’s four o’clock, but I know that it’s been a long day for you. Do you want to go home now so you’re ready for the break fast?” So she doesn’t have to be the one to say that. And the same thing, Ben, your comment about someone else commenting on, “Oh, it’s Shabbat.” So you don’t have to be the one, and things like that. So that idea of synergy, of being inclusive, not just with your own particular complexities but also with other people’s just makes everything that much better. Corey?

Corey: 16:22 it’s funny you bring that up because it reminds me of a coworker I had at my last job, named Kamran, who I was originally Pakistani. He got his American citizenship and we were working together. And I remember we would end up advocating actually for each other. I remember when the company switched buildings, that one of the things that we both asked for was a place where we could just go into a small room and have a prayer space, whether that would be okay. And we got, “Oh, sure, absolutely.” And I still remember a couple of times where – because, one of the Muslim prayers and one of the Jewish prayers ended up being roughly around the same time – where I would go to the room to go pray afternoon service. And I find the door locked. I was like, “Oh, okay. Well Kamran’s in there right now.” We always said to each other that if one more religious person comes in, we’re going to have to have a signup sheet for prayer services.

Leon: 17:30 Right. It’salmost like the nursing room, “Please wait, religious expression in progress.” Or something like that. I like it. Okay. Any closing thoughts, anything that anybody wants to finish up with? This has been an amazing conversation.

Yechiel: 17:47 So Leon, you mentioned, that you were working with some Kollel people, which are married yeshiva students, and getting them into the workforce. I Actually feel that IT is a great option for people who are making a career switch, be it from yeshiva or from any… From theater or any background really. I feel like tech is actually a great option in that there is a relatively low barrier to entry. Like Ben said, when you’re making career switch, when you’re ready, have a family and you’re ready, have responsibilities, you can’t afford four years to go to get a degree in tech. Within a few months, you can gain enough skills to get an entry level position and a year later go beyond that and even the entry level positions pay a lot better than other positions in other fields.

Leon: 18:36 A Ph.d in political science for example,

Yechiel: 18:39 Or history, you know,

Corey: 18:42 Love you, Will!

Speaker 3: 18:42 I’m actually a fairly big advocate in my community for this. I have people reaching out to me all the time to figure out if a transition to tech is right for them. And I enjoy helping people. Like I said before, I enjoy helping. I enjoy teaching. If there’s anyone who’s listening who is considering a career switch, my contact info will be in the show notes and please feel free to reach out. I would love to help you figure out for yourself if the… Obviously it’s not the right move for everyone. I would love to help you figure out if this is right for you and what would be the best way to go about it, etc.

Ben: 19:15 Ditto. Exactly what Yechiel said. He said it beautifully and eloquently.

Corey: 19:21 Amen, my brother.

Leon: 19:23 And on that, I thank all three of you for joining me for this episode. This has been fantastic and I look forward to having you back.

Ben: 19:30 Thanks for having us. Thanks for having me.

Corey: 19:32 This was awesome, man.

Josh: 19:34 Thanks for making time for us this week. To hear more of Technically Religious, visit our website, https://technicallyreligious.com, where you can find our other episodes, leave us ideas for future discussions, and connect to us on social media.

Yechiel: 19:48 Well, I think you should be careful before inviting me back. There’s a concept in Talmud called hazakah, where – when you do something three times – it’s established and then you won’t be able to get rid of me. Ben learned that lesson the hard way.

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