A note before I start, this is the second article I’m writing based on votes from http://helpmewrite.co/
In Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis I came across the concept of having a rabbi in your life. Not a religious leader, nor necessarily a man, but somebody who is your trail blazer in the company. A quasi father figure, mentor, and set of shirt tails you can ride.
When I read the passage about Michael’s first rabbi something rang true, and I ended up looking back over people I’ve worked with and realised I’d had two in the past and not recognised them for what they were.
As time has gone on it gets harder to have a rabbi within a business because you’ve got older, and hopefully more senior, finding somebody a few years ahead of you gets harder and harder.
My small business rabbi
Before university I spend a year going through Year in Industry, working for a small glass technology firm. It was a great year, and really shaped a lot of my future, but one of the things I got out of it but only saw in retrospect was I met a man who guided me through a turbulent year.
He wasn’t much older than me (I was 18, he must have been 27 or so), but had graduated in Computer Science (the course I was set to start in a year), had a girlfriend (a job and a sex life!) and drove up bus lanes to get home faster (I still didn’t drive yet).
He was the first person to explain how to chmod files on our Unix webserver, and explained by sysadmins got paid serious amounts. He let me loose talking to clients (we built websites for the glass industry) and helped me deal with what they wanted. He took me out for a beer one night and explained why the man I shared an office with disliked me, and finally he quit to go onto bigger better things after 9 months leaving me to deal with the office mate and moving on myself.
For those 9 months he was the person who guided me into the world of working in an office, and we stayed loosely in touch since. I went to his wedding a few years later and we still stay in touch vicariously via Facebook. I’ll bet I could knock spots off his command line skills these days through.
My consulting rabbi
After university I joined a large consultancy firm and got pulled out of training half way through to join a project which was in trouble. A very senior chap met me on my first day, explained everything was a mess, but we were going to fix it, and what he needed was somebody who could knuckle down and deliver deliver deliver. He’d be sorting the system but in the short term it was all hand to the grind stone. Then he then dropped me into a room and walked off, because if I wasn’t able to swim quickly I wasn’t going to be the right person in this job.
I ended up surrounded by experienced Oracle DBAs and Sysadmins, as a fresh graduate, with bugger all skills except those I picked up 5 years before (see above - I solved a problem with chmod on the first day!), trying to get a controlled deployments to 18 development environments under control. I’ve never felt more out of my depth than right then.
Over the next 6 months or so I watched him fight running battles with other teams, defend us to the hilt publicly only to slam and even dismiss members of his own team privately. Whilst we were shovelling shit as fast and hard as possible, he was working at both a technical level and a managerial one to design and implement the only good version control and deployment mechanism for Oracle I have ever seen.
Despite having meetings with members of Parliament and senior clients he still took the time out (about 9pm one night) to explain the principle database constructors in an Oracle RDBMS to me, then called a taxi and dropped me off home. When I asked about coming in a little late the next morning he pointed out that my contract said 9am, and he’d be in from 7am, so I could bloody well be in at 9.
The day that I had another senior manager on the phone yelling at me to deploy something, something I knew should not be deployed, my rabbi had instilled in me the confidence to say no, stop, please ring my boss and if he tells me to deploy it, I’ll deploy it.
Then, just like my previous rabbi, he buggered off, engineering his way out of the project and replacing himself with two excellent managers, choose two amazingly talented women to lead a couple of teams of grumpy Northern men (a genius maneuver which I will forever remember). I worked for the pair of them for several years after on one project or another.
I eventually moved on from that role too, to another project doing something else, but I found that project because I got inn touch to say I needed to move on and did he know what I should stick my nose into. He got me into another nightmare project where there were endless chances to shine.
Of course there came a time when it was my time to leave too. I could have stayed with that company for the rest of my working life I’m sure, but eventually I realised it was not the life or the company for me. My rabbi was the first person I emailed after resigning. He was the first person I spoke to when I started thinking about it, and he was one of the few people who told me what I needed to hear, I could go far here, but there was no point if I was going to end up hating the work and there for the sake of the pay cheque. He and his family are the only things I miss.
More than a manager
A rabbi is more than just a good manager or leader. They’re inspirational, motivating, a great shit shield and the person who will make you listen to the harder things you don’t want to hear (but need to).
A rabbi is not a lone figure however, around them evolve a group of like minded disciples. Around my consulting rabbi were a group of geek managers, super techies who’d risen in the company beyond where the paygrade would pay them to code/develop. Around them there were practicing geeks, coding and specing, delivering and shoveling shite. We weren’t always the happiest family, the nature of our skills being that we were often involved in projects that weren’t running smoothly, but we were a family, headed by a chap who we all recognised a bit of ourselves in, and who was smashing it.
Becoming a rabbi
Much like “guru” and “expert”, rabbi is probably something you shouldn’t try to become, but if you’ve got the opportunity to help nurture somebody in your working life, or to do the right thing even through it’s hard because it will help set the tone of a job, then you probably should, because if it weren’t for my rabbis I doubt I’d be doing what I’m doing now.