Simple solutions to new problems

This article is an edited version of a keynote speech from Google Cloud Platform Staff Developer Advocate and Kubernetes expert, Kelsey Hightower, at an ANZ-sponsored event.

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I've worked in finance throughout my career. Because it's a highly regulated industry, it can become hard to actually focus on the things that matter.

“You can go fast but you should go fast in the right direction. There is no point in going fast in the wrong direction.”

A while ago, I was working in Atlanta, Georgia for a company called Total Systems. We did a lot of the credit card processing, prepaid and loyalty rewards for most of the local banks.

One day, I was sitting in a meeting and I looked around and morale was super low. So I asked "why is this (processing we do) important?"

Someone who had been at the bank for a very long time said “because there is a person in a checkout line right now trying to buy groceries. And this particular person has food stamps - they have government assistance - and we process the transactions on that card so they can buy groceries”.

“That person is in line right now, they've just swiped their card and it doesn't work. The reason why it doesn't work is because our system is down. This is the person we're trying to repair this system for."

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That changed my whole outlook on why I was in banking and finance. We were trying to make it easy for people to buy the goods and services with the money they worked hard to earn. When people get too far removed from that mission, they might start to get a little bit lazy in their thinking and responsibility.

We have got to get back to a responsible focus. You can go fast but you should go fast in the right direction. There is no point in going fast in the wrong direction. 

There's a movie called Hidden Figures which is very important to me because there are a lot of amazing women leading the narrative and I was raised by a single mother.

People often ask me, "When did you get into tech?"

I used to give people a very simple answer: I got into tech around high school learning to play games. I learnt to fix my computer and that's how my career started. But I wasn’t really thinking deeply about my childhood and how humans interact with technology.

The deeper answer is that when I was about nine years old, my mum was a seamstress - she made clothes for minimum wage. When my mum came home, she was always super tired and she wanted a better life as a single mum with two kids.

At the time, there was a job opening for the border control - U.S. Customs and the Department of Treasury in the United States. The only problem was she had to know how to touch-type to get the job. So she went to the interview and they asked her, "How many words can you type per minute?" And she asked them, "What's fast?"

So she bought a typewriter and a book to teach herself how to touch-type.

As a nine year old, I knew my mum was making progress because sometimes when I would go to sleep I could hear her typing and getting better every night. And one day my mum came home with a real uniform - everything matched and she had a badge. She was a U.S. Customs agent; she had a real job and finally started getting home before the sun went down.

We now had insurance, we had a sense of pride and I began to understand what technology actually does for people. That should be the only goal for most of technology - to enable people to accomplish a goal.

Hidden Figures is also a perfect example of what happens when you keep the goal in mind. In this movie, the whole goal was to get a man to space and safely back again. Or they will die. The belief was this was a complex problem. "Get a person to space? Have we ever done that before? No.”

Everyone in the room believed there should be a new solution to this new problem. But in this case, someone said "maybe this algorithm from 20-30 years ago is the perfect fit for the new problem". It turns out it was. So they went and found the book, opened it up, and realised that was actually the right solution to the problem. 

Sometimes we work so hard to get all this new technology that we forget the fundamentals. There are also some people who don't take the time to learn the new technology and get a bit afraid of it.

Back to NASA. Dorothy Vaughan was leading the human computers - the people who were actually doing the calculations from the algorithm and reporting the data back. Eventually, IBM showed up with the mainframe.

In many cases when you see new technology coming, it's probably in your best interests to learn how it works – so you at least understand what you're saying no to.

Dorothy saw the IBM mainframe come in so she did what any respectable engineer would do - she taught herself FORTRAN. She learnt how to program the mainframe. She became the expert even though she was skeptical about this thing that was replacing all the expertise they had built for NASA and their flight to space. And she began to teach other people too.

You know you're a bad manager if the line outside your door is long because everyone needs to come to you to ask for approval. You haven't enabled anyone in the organisation underneath you to make any decisions and think.

A manager's responsibility is to help improve the people and systems, the way Dorothy Vaughan did. When you can make people around you better, when you take the initiative to make your whole team better, then your team can walk very proud. 

Kelsey Hightower is Staff Developer Advocate at Google Cloud Platform and Kubernetes expert

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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