Cross-skilling, Tooling, and Lockdown Bread

As I knead the dough in front of me, I realise two things. Firstly, I probably haven’t had enough exercise during Lockdown as this dough is beating me. Secondly, the automatic process of kneading allows for a clear mind in order to think.

I’m almost finishing the sixteen kilogram bag of bread flour I purchased as lockdown began. This was bought through a local supplier which I knew it would only arrive when it was practical and sustainable. Bread is a great food to have available whilst isolating, requiring just a few ingredients, which can mostly be stored at ambient temperatures.

I previously worked in a bakery making bread, the skills and experience of which I wasn’t planning to recall any time soon. It was a period of my life, a year to be exact, between finishing my IT studies at College and starting my new career in IT. I was working full time in the bakery, whilst extending my College work experience that I continued on days off.

The decision to become a baker was motivated by two decisions. My team in the store was over budget by exactly my hours, meaning someone would have to leave. The bakery, which I walked through every morning to complete legal and compliance checks, was the most inhospitable and terrifying place in the store. They also had a vacancy and I accepted the challenge.

As I continue to knead this dough, I am thinking about cross-skilling and the importance of gaining and applying knowledge and experience from other areas of life and adjacent roles in IT. There are many disciplines that can complement and improve our work in IT, but we need to consciously recognise this and have a desire to learn outside the boundaries we have created for ourselves in our role.

At 3am in the morning, you’re pretty much on your own in the bakery. Another baker made bread and I managed the ovens. If you had a problem, you didn’t disturb their well choreographed process for anything less than complete mechanical failure. You had to use your own judgement and pull from your growing experience. Any products that could not be sold would be recorded as waste. Although it was tough, it provided many opportunities to learn important soft skills and about yourself.

Measurements in a bakery have to be precise and exact. A few minutes too long in the oven will spoil the product, as will an additional litre of water. Products have to legally meet their advertised weights, which is a responsibility of the baker all through the process. Keeping things simple and documenting the procedures is a critical step to providing quality products, uniform in their size, shape, taste, and appearance.

The skill of identifying and developing simplicity also translates into our work in IT. If something is overly complex, it will be more difficult to maintain and problem solve. The documentation will also be more complicated to write, incomplete, or not written at all. This then leads a team to rely on tribal knowledge. The problem with tribal knowledge is that everyone has a different version, it can become out of date or completely lost, and it is non-transferable without lots of specific questions whilst on-boarding new members.

The tooling we use to complete our activities, like baking, will all have different properties and tolerances. Two ovens are never the same, they will all have their own characteristics. In IT, every discipline has their own tooling, and there are many overlaps between these tools. By cross-skilling into other roles in IT, we can evolve our own use of tooling and understand the reasons why some tools can be better than others.

A developer who uses Chrome does so because they understand modern web technologies and religiously inspects page load times as part of their role. JavaScript is rife in modern websites with many frameworks demanding execution in a modern high performance client side JavaScript engine. This technology is accelerating at great speed, especially in the Cloud, therefore we need to keep advancing our tooling with it. Internet Explorer has not been developed for many years and has a severely inferior JavaScript engine, yet so many people still use it as their everyday web browser.

The Cloud, and our use of it, will continue to nudge us towards cross-skilling, as the lines between IT disciplines become ever more blurred and overlapping. Many IT provisions are becoming self-service with merely a credit card required, allowing more people to complete tasks previously reserved for experts. It is our responsibility to stay up to date and relevant. Our tool sets will need to expand in order to consume and manage these new technologies, and in doing so we may find some new tricks to improve existing technology.

“If you think we’ve seen massive technology advances in the last 10 years, the next 10 will be like 1,000 years” — Jason Bradbury.

A similar amount of human advancement over the past 1,000 years is predicted to occur within the next ten years. As one technological advancement unlocks the next, this exponential rate will bring a serious increase to the pace of development in IT technology. This advancement will touch on all our lives, jobs will be created that have never previously existed, and jobs that have been around for decades will simply disappear.

With all this change and new technology, writing documentation is a skill that needs to be prioritised in order to reduce our dependency on tribal knowledge within our teams. Tribal knowledge is not practical, efficient, scaleable, or fit for purpose in an ever changing world, especially once embracing Cloud technology. The life cycle of our services and configuration items will be becoming shorter than ever before. Change is the new constant, and the Cloud will drive this change.

We don’t need to be experts in every field of IT, but we should have some familiarisation and exposure to areas of IT that are not our own. In doing so we will extend our own abilities, complement our skills and knowledge, improve our own tool sets, and provide a more level playing field for communications between teams. Learning is a skill in itself and putting yourself in a position to learn something new, whether in IT or not, is a worthwhile, rewarding, and revealing experience regardless of the subject matter.

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