Prince Philip, me, and the midlife crisis

Some time ago I watched Netflix series The Crown. In season 3 episode 7 “Moondust” Philips struggles with his midlife crisis after Apollo 11 space shuttle has landed on the moon. This scene hit me hard because there was something to strongly relate to on a personal level.

In this episode, one Sunday Philips is tired of his life and he’s going to challenge the church to find more productive doing than sitting and discussing with priests. In the discussion session, priests tell that now we know what is on the moon: nothing but dust and silence. Philip gets angry and condemns their views as nonsense. He preaches to the priest that action is what defines our lives, desire to achieve something.

Later Philip gets a chance to meet his idols, the astronauts. He thinks that the offered 15 minutes discussion is a too short time to cover the biggest achievement of mankind. He prepares thorough technical questions for astronauts. When the meeting starts, Philip thinks that these questions are not the ones he wants to get answered. He reflects on the disappointment of his life and wants to hear what astronauts thought on the moon. Astronauts behave like kids, are astonished, and don’t understand the question. They tell that they had a protocol to follow and there was no time to think.

Afterward, Philip talks to Elisabeth that he “expected astronauts to be giants, gods. In reality, they were just three little men, pale-faced, with colds. They were the right ones to do the job. But they totally lacked flair or imagination, originality or spontaneity. They were totally anticlimactic in person.”

Indeed! This immediately linked to my experience in the IT and networking industry. Like astronauts, many engineers are enthusiastic about hard technology and implementation details. Engineers like to configure the wildest configurations, try every nerd knob, and build the most complex setups, just to prove to themselves that you can. Action is the driving force. I have been there too, and I think this is a mandatory transient development phase for all engineers to grow. People also study and certify for vendor’s products and are usually very attached to their pet-vendor. But the more you have played in the networking field, you start to realize that every vendor and their products are eventually pretty much the same. If you understand principles and know what you are trying to achieve, a senior engineer should be doing well with any vendor’s products.

Many engineers are operators who follow predefined orders and protocols, be that company processes, rules, vendor design, best practices, old habits, or something else. They need instructions to start working, implementing the protocol, but they lack the vision of the whole system. This might be a safe, comfortable, and easy way to do the job without bothering the brain too much. We need operators and executors, and protocol is absolutely crucial in many industries and jobs. The problem with operator persons is that they do only what they are told to. In the IT industry management, business, and leaders can make use of that. Tasking engineers with various micro jobs and ever-changing priorities and goals lead to hustling around without any focus on bigger outcomes. 

Some people find it comfortable to work only when told what to do. Some people are very self-driving and can form their own plans and targets supporting a common goal. Self-driven work needs a good vision of what you should achieve. And this comes to architecture. The architect is the person who understands the bigger picture, how components make a system, but also combines business and other perspectives to technical solutions. Forming architecture needs creativity and a larger understanding of different aspects. And I would like to emphasize the business side because that’s what really matters. Technology only gets meaning when it is used for something, it fulfills the user’s needs. Technology is a servant and needs a master. When you grow to senior, you should become a master. In networking, and especially in security, we still need to convert the paradigm far more to business terms to succeed.

Now, in my midlife and mid-career point, it’s obvious that the meaning of professional life comes into question. I’m not disappointed with my career like Philip, but after decades in the networking industry, finding my place has been churning in my mind for recent years. Technology has lost some of its glory and I need more than just hard tech. I have tried to ask what to do in the future, where’s the meaning of work, and how can I find it. Soft skills, creativity, anticipation, and seeing the bigger picture are what I like to utilize. I have found that the understanding larger context of things is an attractive and interesting thing. I like to dig deeper into technology, business, and operational culture, their context, backgrounds, and stakes. Because, if you can understand technology, you can apply it to your use case and purposes in a proper way. Vendors and specific technologies become more and more irrelevant. Other things around count more, and they are also harder to harness.

Like Philip’s thoughts on astronauts, I regularly bump into similar shallow and straightforward executor people in the IT scene. People are narrow-sighted and push forward without seeing what happens around their bubble. People have no time to stop, slow down, and think. The action seems to drive the current world. I really enjoy it when I find someone open-minded to discuss larger perspectives and backgrounds in IT. Sometimes it’s just chitchatting, sometimes it gives new ideas and context to things. You start to see nothing is black and white but more grey. The more you know, the more you also know that you don’t know. There are always two sides to the story and choices to make. Understanding why things are the way they are gives me satisfaction because I’m curious by nature and want to find out the reasons. If you understand the bigger plan, it’s usually easier to move forward to design or implement things without limiting choices to one specific solution. Also understanding the rationale behind mindless decisions makes them somehow easier to accept. At the best, you can have a chance to influence the right place and the right stakeholders.

I think many senior engineers face this mid-career question, especially after working in the same workplace for a decade. Some don’t change and stay as they were, some need more radical changes and improvements. Today’s IT industry means the harder the pace, the crazier the work-life. It might be hard to find a place where interesting, meaningful, and well-organized work meet. For those who look for change, I can only suggest finding a wider view of network engineering outside the traditional scope. That could include tasks in business, marketing, service development, operational, project, or other roles. There also exists a lot of internal teamwork where senior engineers can have great influence to help an organization succeed. Eyvonne Sharp’s The work we want and Nick Scialli’s 10x engineering for the rest of us are excellent posts about that.

Back to Philip’s disappointments. They are mine too. Technology wasn’t everything, former heroes and idols collapsed, uncertainty stresses, work-life is in crisis, and expectations don’t fill up. What to do? I don’t have exact answers. Clear yourself what you really want and what makes you happy. Keep chasing that new role and also remember to be satisfied with what you already have. The perfect place is not going to find. I still have the desire to achieve something, but it’s now more on the personal life level. In my career, I want to do smart and useful things, not dumb. I’ll try to utilize my strengths, and find versatile tasks that I enjoy. These may be little, sometimes silly, things that give me satisfaction and hopefully something to other people too. That’s the best that I can have now.

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