Zen and the Art of Unlearning Expertise
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
— Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, 1971
We are now at the very beginning of a new era for the SAP Community Network. SCN is not in itself new, but on several past occasions it has been made anew, always with some teething issues, but ultimately to a better result. We are on the cusp of just such a change once again.
There will be teething issues. It will not go smoothly. There will be learning curves. Not everyone will be happy.
Some old-timers and experts will pine for the way things used to be, blithely overlooking the many issues of the old platform. Newcomers will embrace the new paradigm and wonder what all the fuss is about. They will see it with fresh eyes, unjaded from all our past experience.
But among those old-timers and experts, there will also be those who approach the new SCN as if coming to it for the first time, seeing not roadblocks but possibilities. They will see challenges as opportunities, and instead of trying to wrangle the platform into behaving as of old, they will reformulate themselves to a new way of working. They will work with the new ideas instead of against them.
“Be willing to not be an expert. Be willing to not know.”
— Blanche Hartman, 2001
It is not just SCN that is starting a new paradigm; it is much of the SAP ecosystem. Anyone who has seen any marketing material of the past few years, or attended any conference or event, or read any of the many blogs and articles published here and in other spaces, cannot fail to have noticed SAP’s massive effort to remake themselves and to remake their software, their platform, into something new. HANA, we are told, is a new way of housing and serving up the data that lies at the center of all our operations. Fiori, we are given to understand, is a new way to access that data, throwing off the old mainframe approach of SAPGUI and embracing a simpler, more task-centric experience.
Many of us with a couple decades of traditional SAP experience find ourselves wondering just what our place is in this new ecosystem. Do we even have a place? Will we be made obsolete? Or can we adapt with the times, reshape and remake our careers to remain relevant?
What does it even mean, to remain relevant? Should that be our goal?
“Experience is merely the name men gave to their mistakes.”
— Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890
We attained our experience, our expertise, through our willingness to take some risks, to make mistakes, to fall down and then get back up, to learn and try again, and again, and again, until we succeeded. And when we succeeded, we either sat back and coasted on the result of that success, or we took new risks, made new mistakes, and then succeeded again.
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
— Michael Jordan, 1998
It is not our goal just to remain relevant. I can achieve that simply by telling my employer there is no need to upgrade, no need to change anything, we can go on as we always have. That is something, I should add, that some in my organization’s leadership would no doubt love to hear. Then I could continue comfortably on, until retirement, doing exactly what I have been doing, never challenged by having to learn something new.
I would be doing my employer, and myself, a great disservice, of course. It might work for a while, but before too long we would both find ourselves left behind, poorly positioned to respond to the demands of new realities that await us.
I can bravely attempt to learn the new technologies, and apply my decades of experience to them, shoehorning them into old processes, encumbering them with old mindsets. This might work, but at the end of the day, after much time, effort, and expense, it’s not clear that we would be much better off. If a transport approval, or a purchase order, still takes twenty steps to complete, a pretty user interface doesn’t make it more efficient.
“As an expert, you’ve already got it figured out, so you don’t need to pay attention to what’s happening. Pity.”
— Blanche Hartman, 2001
The reason companies implement SAP, or at least the reason they should do so, is to embrace more efficient and effective operational practices that are embodied in the software. All too often, of course, that isn’t what actually happens. The new software is in place, heavily customized to operate in the old way, perhaps even to look just like the old software. This is the result of the application of too much expert’s mind.
We should approach changes in our careers the way companies should approach changes in ERP software: not just to put a pretty new interface on an old way of doing business, but instead to radically change the way we do business. We should approach change without the preconceptions of our past experience. We should approach change as beginners.
“In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, ‘I have attained something….’ When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something.”
— Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, 1971
In the early days of Amazon, Jeff Bezos spent a lot of time driving packages to the post office. He quickly realized that they needed to become a logistics company, but they knew nothing about logistics, so they hired experts to tutor them in logistics. Then ten years later, when Amazon was preparing to launch the Kindle, they had to learn the hardware business, which was completely new to them. Today, Bezos is a new pioneer in the space industry, with long-range plans for the colonization of Mars. That’s a long way from the upstart online retailer of books from twenty years ago.
This is the embodiment of a willingness to take risks, to venture into new territory, to accept that one can be an expert and a beginner at the same time. It applies equally to Fortune 500 corporations and to individuals like you and me.
You are an expert. You are a beginner. Success is learning how to be both.
“Why a four year old child could understand this. Run out and get me a four year old child, I can’t make head or tail out of it.”
— Groucho Marx, Duck Soup, 1933
Well put, Matt. Poking around and I'm going to need that 4 year old's help when you're done! 🙂
I like this flow of writing and your thoughts are easy to follow.
A few ones of my own crossed my mind while reading:
Let’s say you take that step and leave your expertise behind you, facing the new challenges with a free mind – why would anyone go and employ you for that new task?
If the position is: well, it’s all completely new and we’ll have to figure it out, then my guess would be that most organisations rather have the person who sells him/herself as the top notch expert in whatever is currently needed.
That is of course, by assuming that there’s really nothing to be taken over from the years of experience. Which I personally don’t believe.
There are many lessons that don’t seize to be valid in any new computer-trend. These shouldn’t be forgotten and these lessons might be what gets one hired for an”innovation” gig.
The other thought was this: generally speaking, I think it’s fair to say that most people aren’t really a huge fan of permanent change. It’s uncomfortable, risky, even frightening.
The stories of facing the new and overcoming the challenge of the status quo fill our cultural narrative.
Yet, we live and work in an industry that relentlessly pushes forward for change sake, making it a deeply uncomfortable industry for most people.
Indeed most people I personally know are not at the very bleeding edge of innovation and new technology.
Many of them are doing what I believe nearly everyone does: trying to catch up and, well, stay relevant in their domain, as this is the fundament of their livelihood.
I don’t believe that this is a mistake on their side. I’d rather see this as an effect of the immaturity of our industry. As “Uncle Bob” Martin puts it (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ecIWPzGEbFc): we keep reinventing new programming languages with diminishing returns on efficiency.
Compared to other innovative industries the IT industry seems to be a lot more volatile and unstable and pushed forward by its self-made promise to be important and relevant. And this self-made promise is applied to every new fancy toy that comes along, kicking off smaller or bigger “gold rushes” (Data Science and Machine Learning anyone?).
And yet, for most scenarios, IT is still a supporting industry, enabling value creation in other industries.
Maybe this is inherent and IT always has to flicker in order to always be attachable to real life.
But if IT wants to mature as an industry and eventually leave the level of advanced amateurism behind (the whole software-craftmanship movement (http://manifesto.softwarecraftsmanship.org/) is founded on the notion that most IT workers are not doing a very good job and that the common IT culture is fundamentally flawed) then volatility cannot be it’s only or dominant property.
For that, people with experience are necessary. People that have been around and who are still around. People who work with new ideas and the people that have them.
IT industry’s, our game cannot be to wrench down everything and rebuild fundamental capabilities with every new toy/tool. It’s difficult to bring together “legacy” systems and the “new world” (sure, bi-modal-IT… right, that’ll solve it…) and it surely is uncomfortable and messy, but this is what IT nowadays looks like.
With that. I agree with your last sentence
You are an expert. You are a beginner. Success is learning how to be both
Good morning Lars,
I see you wrote this a week ago, and I remember a notification at the time, but back then I couldn't see your comment. Only now is it visible to me, for some reason. Either that, or I simply missed it -- entirely possible. Either way, my apologies for the lateness of my response.
You raise several very good points, a few of which have often been on my own mind. First, I do not mean, of course, that having any experience or being an expert in one's field is literally a bad thing. It's a very good thing! I was writing more about a particular mindset, the mindset of the beginner, eager to learn new things, and coming at new experiences without an encumbrance of past experiences dictating how everything should go.
Does that mean that having those past experiences is a bad thing? Of course not! However, if we allow our past experience, our expertise, to cloud our vision and obscure any possibilities of embracing something truly new -- if we say to ourselves, "I've seen it all before, I already know how this works, I already know the best way to do this" -- then we are missing out on the fullness of what is before us.
On the other hand, if we can take our long history of constantly learning new things, an expertise in its own right, and apply that to this new, new thing in front of us, then indeed that past experience is going to help us. In short, we are experts at being beginners; we are experts at allowing new techniques to have our full consideration before being dismissed or reshaped.
When we are hiring to fill vacancies on my team, we do look for expertise, of course. But we look for something else first. We look for life-long learners. We look for people with attitude and aptitude, with a proven history of embracing new ideas. Perhaps more important, we look for those who can help others to embrace new ideas. We can always teach them the technical aspects of the job; it's the mindset that is harder to come by.
You wrote about many people, nearly everyone, as "trying to catch up and, well, stay relevant in their domain." Absolutely. Indeed, this is often where I find myself. This is why I keep reminding myself of the precepts that I wrote about here. I don't work with bleeding-edge technologies. In fact, it really wasn't the constant change in technology that I was thinking of when I wrote this piece.
Technology is not the only aspect of modern business, or modern life, that is in constant flux. Businesses are constantly reinventing themselves, as my example of the many faces of Amazon illustrated (I could have gone on much further with that example; I didn't even mention AWS, for instance). However, perhaps Amazon was a poor example, because they are seen as a technology company.
No, scratch that, they are a good example. They are seen as a technology company, but that is missing the point of what they do. In the same vein, Google and Facebook are not technology companies. All three are experts at using technology in their fields, and all three have shown themselves not to be averse to inventing new technologies along the way. The real secret, however, is none of these three are limiting themselves with any sort of statement like, "We are in the business of x." At any given time, they are busy thinking of new things to do.
But still, technology wasn't my point. My point was our approach to life. When Suzuki gave his lectures in the 1960s, which were eventually collected into his 1971 book, he certainly wasn't talking about technology. He wasn't talking about careers or jobs. He was talking about the essence of how one lives one's life. He wasn't even talking about the usual Zen concept of enlightenment, satori; he doesn't mention it once in his book. He was talking about everyday practice: the practice of Zen, certainly, but also the practice of living. When Suzuki came to America in 1958 to talk about being a beginner, he was no beginner. He was already a recognized master in his field with decades behind him. Yet that was not how he described himself, and he admonished his students not to think of him, nor of themselves, that way.
We who participate in this community, one way or another, do depend upon technology for our livelihood. And, like it or not, technology is constantly changing. Furthermore, the technology we are focused upon is fundamentally oriented toward business, and we live in a time when the nature of business is in some flux. This is not the case for all of us, but it is the case for many of us. We can resist that change, we can begrudgingly adapt to it, or we can enthusiastically embrace it. Or some combination thereof. If we've been embracing change all along the way, then we will be experts at being beginners.
Lars, you raised another point, an important one for many of us, and one I've thought about a great deal for a number of years. You wrote, "IT is still a supporting industry, enabling value creation in other industries."
This is a huge point. Unless we work for a company creating IT technologies (like SAP or Microsoft), then what we do is not the core line of business for most of our employers. Even if we do work for one of these IT companies, if we work in IT, then we still are in a supporting role, not a line of business role. And, where I think you were going (since you do, in fact, work for SAP), is that even if you do work in the line of business, that business is all about supporting other businesses in their line of business.
This can have many psychological impacts upon us, affecting our mindset about the importance of what we do. There is so much I could say around this point, so much discussion we could have, that I think it should be the subject of its own blog post.
Thank you for this thoughtful and insightful comment.
Ok, I swear I put line spaces between paragraphs when I wrote that, as I'm sure everyone else did in their comments, but the editor stripped them out upon hitting "submit." This is very annoying!
Matt - there's NO reason for apologies on your side here!
The comment had been stuck in the glorious new moderation queue until I found it (by accident) and released it myself - so much for the moderation feature right now.
Same goes with the linebreaks. Just like you, I didn't try to be frugal with whitespace and linebreaks. Instead, our brave new platform did that for us...
Nice read Matt, thanks for sharing your thoughts, I agree on what you're saying in terms of how to approach the new platform
Fascinating post indeed and I agree that we can all learn more by having open minds and being willing to take risks.
As Tom wrote, I appreciate your tying this into how the community can approach our new home.
What a beautiful read, Matt. Thank you!
I'm bookmarking this for future reminders. And sharing across social. Definitely the sunshine I needed this morning 😉 It's gloomy here in Oregon today.
Glad to introduce a little sunshine! Starting to see a few sunbreaks in the clouds up here in Washington now, after a gloomy morning.
Moving up the west coast of North America to Vancouver, British Columbia, I'm glad to report blue skies and plenty of sunshine...just like your post brings to my day as well, Matt!
Apologies about the formatting mistakes, especially around the quotes. With the new blogging platform, I am indeed a beginner!
Really beautiful read !
Thanks Matt for this amazing text and their references (I’ll search these books)
I really enjoyed reading your blog Matt. Thanks. Of course you are totally right about having to be open to learn new things.
Oh no, not again a new community setup.
No better post to start off my first "like" in this new platform. 😉
Eng Swee, I am honored! Thank you.
How refreshing to be mentored by those who embrace change in such a thoughtful manner. Enjoyed this read. Good luck to all on the journey.
Marilyn, it is so good to see your name pop up here again. We have missed you! And thank you for your very kind words.
I admit that I struggle with change, including the change in SCN, as much as anyone else. I haven't found my way with it yet. Of course, I want it to work just like it did, because I had figured out how to work with the old way, warts and all. But I am determined to apply my own words to myself, to look at everything with fresh eyes rather than through the mist of nostalgia. Not everything works perfectly yet, not all features are yet implemented, but we will get there, together.
And this is true of everything else we do, as well. It's not just about SCN. Indeed, this post wasn't about SCN at all, really -- the timing of the change was simply convenient as a great example of the larger point I wished to make. You're right, this is a journey, and like any good journey, it's not about the destination -- it's about the journey, and those who are on it.
I love the mindset you convey in this blog post. What a refreshing, motivating and inspiring read. It does open ones eyes to a very different perspective that one can take to change. Change is always hard, but with an open mind and the willingness to learn, and to support each other along the way, great things can happen. Thank you for posting this. I love it.
Such an awesome post!!! Great job!!!
OK, now I REALLY miss @mentions (on the roadmap for later), because I think @bill.mcdermott himself would find this a great piece. #embracechange
Very nice post, Matt !! Thanks for sharing! 😉
Interesting read 🙂 Hope we all can quickly get accustomed to the SCN's new Avatar.
Brilliant. Inspiration! More, Matt!
A couple of years ago, someone asked me about a rather obscure database language. I had to think, but did remember enough to help them (DBase II?) and then we started comparing DB experiences and software languages and even word processing applications. It was rather an enlightening experience to realize that for databases, I had done some level of programming in something like 18 different ones (anyone remember M?). Software language count was almost double, starting with Basic in 1973. Assembler, C (with or without the + or ++ or #), Fortran 4 & 77, Pascal, Cobol and Cobol II, EasyTrieve, PLC coding (three different vendors), phone switches (Definity), Xerox document printer batch merges, Lotus123 macros, and so on. Yeah, I am a little on the mature side (well, I'm old at least). The odd thing that made much of it simply a matter of learning syntax, is that the logic is generally straightforward. Variables, For or Do, While loops, If, Then, Else statements, etc. Mostly a matter of syntax rather than logic. The basic logic I learned long before college. But during the latter stages of a rather long, discontinuous college career, I had a Philosopy course named Logic. Not a single bit of programming in it, but it contained all the basic functions of programming. It had its own syntax, which was really shorthand for presenting the processing steps and looked remarkably like a flow diagram. So now everyone is wondering where Mike's train of thought got derailed, right?
Well, we are learning a new syntax for the logic of how we accomplished things in old SCN. Four weeks ago we knew how to do all the things we did without really thinking about it. How do we see those items which have been updated or created since we last looked for new or updated stuff? How do we do Moderator Alerts? How do I make sure that Matt Fraser sees my new blog or question? Where are my points and badges? How do I see what I worked on in the past two weeks? How can I have a private discussion with Moya Watson or Ervin Szolke? What happened to that Discussion I remembered from three years ago which solved that IDoc Listener problem in NW 7.31 and how can I find it easily? Where did the landing pages go? And so on... For almost all of these, the functionality exists and is available (though usually not very obvious!)
In old SCN, we used the Track in Communications to do that. Now, we have either Activity Stream or Notifications, but don't have the selectivity to only view that which we are interested in. So we come up with workarounds. Check the content lists for specific tags and do it the same time every day so we can see the new stuff. Cumbersome, but workable. Need some additional functionality (whether you call it a bug as I do, or an enhancement as others would choose) to get back to working efficiently. Notice that there is no language, just a logical function view. There are many other items involving tags, search, profiles, chat, wiki, archive, questions, blogs, for which the previous SCN iteration had already solved or came up with workarounds. And progress is being made, albeit much more slowly than any of us would like. Chat, for one, has greatly improved.
Community Topic Page for specific tags is a workaround for the lack of Communities bringing people together on highly visible topics. Not enough of them and we do miss being able to make changes which are immediately visible rather than going through an approval process. Yes, we need about 400 more of them and yes, they are inefficiently laid out with way too much scrolling and an inflexible design. But for those which exist, they do bridge the gap of not having a specific starting point. With the first item of Featured Content pointing to a flexible and directly editable landing page in the Wiki, it kind of provides what we miss from old SCN. Search has now been updated to show CTPs at the top so people can find them more easily.
Do I like the new environment? Bluntly, no. It was released with far too many bugs and missing pieces. Will I live with it, yes, because it still holds the value of the already answered Discussions in the Archive (over a million or so) and the pre-existing & slowly increasing pool of new blogs provide a lot of help for SAP users. We can still help people who come to us looking for help without opening a ticket. Will I continue to criticize the misplaced focus on gamification and blogs to the detriment of Quesions and solutions? Of course! Did you really think otherwise? I see the greatest value of SCN as its collaborative nature and voluntary contributors to finding solutions to (ultimately) our customer's problems. Should we continue to help others navigate this sometimes incomprehensible new tool! Absolutely. One at a time, teach them how to get around and find their way to the help they need. Continue to point out what needs fixing. Spend time in UserEcho, IdeaPlace, Coffee Corner (and Twitter, Facebook, etc.) to show people the new Zen of SCN. How do you eat the elephant? One bite at a time, of course. Sharpen your knives and start with that first mouthful!
Okay, time to get off the soap box. 😀
SAP Technology RIG
And yes, I hate not seeing my paragraphs properly spaced. #yetanotherbug
Mike, I just wrote a brilliant, Nobel-worthy, and Steinbeck-length response to this, only to have it disappear into the ether with an error when I clicked on "submit reply." Ok, maybe not Nobel-worthy nor Steinbeck-length, but it sure is frustrating to lose everything and have to dredge it up from memory again. 🙁
I dabbled very briefly with DBase III+ back in the day. I recall at the time many people thinking it was the 80s answer to business "apps" to run on PCs. And, in college I took a course in Linguistics that was recommended to all CS majors (which I wasn't, I was an EE major, but I was fascinated with computers). There was no coding, as such, and not a computer in sight, but like your Logic course, it was brilliant in helping to think structurally about how a language of any kind, spoken or programming, is put together. It was part of the English department, not the Philosophy department, but probably they would be highly complementary.
Just yesterday I had a hallway conversation with a colleague about the dangers of falling into routine, and how companies with low employee turnover don't experience much in change. He saw this as a major reason why we, in my organization, are still paper-driven and depend upon meetings in conference rooms with whiteboards instead of using collaborative tools like Skype, etc. We still think of laptops as status symbols, giving them only to managers who don't really need them, and not to IT workers who do. So who has the laptop in the meeting? Only the manager, who probably left it locked up at their cubicle anyway. So what happens in the meeting? We "discuss" but we don't "do." As a 16-year veteran of this organization, I can see the easy trap of getting stuck in a rut myself.
Thank you for your Tolstoy-worthy comment. 🙂
(p.s. I'm saving the reply in Notepad this time!)
Enjoyed reading this Matt. Thanks for taking the time to capture what I hope everyone else is thinking re: embracing all the great stuff this new platform has to offer. As a primary tag moderator, I am trying to enlighten the army of stakeholders on my end that are wondering where all their page views went, etc. This blog will definitely help as I plan on sharing it with them. There's a lot of unlearning to be done! 🙂
Just re-read this, as we had a topic like this (approach things without having your prior experience act as prejudices/barriers) in a discussion.
Still a good (re-)read!
Thanks, Joachim! Glad to hear it's withstanding the test of (a little) time.
Love this blog! Thanks for pointing me to it. Two years ago. Wow!