“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.
If you look around the internet, you will come across this famous quote. Often cited by arm chair philosophers (myself included), these simple sentences speak on being flexible and adaptable within your life and how being too rigid can limit us. These limits will make it difficult to truly grow and improve ourselves, whether it is our professional or personal lives.
We can break this quote down in many ways, but I’d like to focus on how it impacts technology professionals. One thing I love about working in technology is how often things change. The joy comes from the constant learning we must do to keep pace. If we’re not pushing ourselves to explore and discover, we risk falling behind and losing our way.
Empty Your Mind
If we look at the IT career path through the lens of Lee’s quote, the idea of flexibility becomes obvious. Through my time in the IT industry, I’ve seen the rise of the Internet, the cloud, concepts like Agile development and DevOps, and other changes that range between large and subtle. If I’ve learned anything, it is that defining myself as a DBA, sysadmin, or developer limits what I am willing to do and narrows the opportunities available to me.
When someone asks you to take on a new task, how do you approach it? Do you look at it through the lens of your job role? Or, instead, consider how it relates to your career path? Do you determine what you want to work on based on what you know and are comfortable with, or do you let the opportunities shape your growth?
As technology professionals, it’s important not to limit ourselves. Today’s experiment might be tomorrow’s trend. A hobby we tinker with could easily become our driving passion. We need to be receptive to what’s around us, be formless and fill the demands that are presented to us. Do not close yourself off to challenges because you haven’t done them, but be prepared to know what it takes to fill those vessels.
H Two O
This probably sounds daunting because there’s so much going on in the technology world. Should we be able to do anything? Be ready to build networks, write applications, design databases, and so on? How do we keep up with the overwhelming number of disciplines and developing technologies in our world?
I’ve long held that the “full stack developer” is a myth. We live in a world of specialization and trying to have deep knowledge of all disciplines is impossible. Sure, we can understand something of everything (being a jack of all trades, master of none), but it becomes difficult to bring the full weight of our expertise to bear if we only know a little bit of a lot of things.
At some point in our careers we need to understand what makes up our “water”. This brings me to another long held view of mine: technologies change, but concepts remain the same. The example I like to use is relational databases. Over the years we’ve had platforms like Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle, MySQL, PostGREs…the list goes on and on. Each of these platforms introduces new features every few years, trying to one up each other.
At the core, though, each of these platforms is a relational database. The relational model was codified by E.F. Codd back in 1969. Think about that for a moment. While Microsoft SQL Server is adding new features every few years, the foundational concepts that we all work with are forty seven years old. Almost half a decade of a technological principle that we build our careers on.
I don’t consider myself a SQL Server professional. My skill set is not limited to just SQL Server as a platform, but relational database design and data management. I am strongest with Microsoft’s offering, but I can adapt to another platform because I understand and own the foundation. The core concepts are what I build upon, which is what makes me stronger and more prepared.
Be Like Water
Becoming like water is more than just being adaptable, it’s about understanding what defines you. Job roles and requirements are just vessels we fill with the knowledge and experience we have. If we choose to be like water, we remain fluid and can, at once, fill the needs of a role as well as be more than that.
Be the sum of the things you have learned, not the tasks you can accomplish. My challenge to you for the new year is to build a deeper, more fulfilling career. Flow and adapt, learn and absorb. Empty your mind and be open to the numerous possibilities in front of you.
Be like water, my friend.