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Leon Adato for New Relic

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Everything I needed to know about a career in tech, I learned from Tolkien (part 2)

“And you’re with me. And the journey’s finished. But after coming all that way I don’t want to give up yet. It’s not like me, somehow, if you understand.”
. -Samwise Gamgee

Here we are at the end of a journey that was in turns rambling, and thrilling, and introspective, and adventurous. It’s taken us across the sundering sea and back, up to the very crack of doom, and into the heart of the Shire. Tolkien’s words and works have carried enough depth of meaning and spark of inspiration to ignite the imaginations of generations of folks across the world and from every corner.

You can find part 1 of our journey here

But here are just a few more thoughts for IT practitioners that are to be found within the pages of his epic saga.

Of management styles and Maiar

Of all the parallels I've observed between tech and Tolkien, this is the one which makes me most proud, but it requires a quick recap of the history of the world. Consider this "The Silmarillion in Sixty Seconds:" The universe was first envisioned by Eru, the supreme being. Eru then sent the Ainur, effectively a pantheon of gods, down into the world to oversee the actual building of what was envisioned. And helping the Ainur were Maiar, or demi-gods. While the narrative keeps these divine beings somewhat at arms-length, from a storytelling perspective, there are seven Maiar that we get to know on a more personal level.

But my insight is that each of the Maiar represent the different management styles IT practitioners might encounter during their career. We'll start with the two most obvious: Gandalf and Sauron.

Gandalf represents the best type of manager. The one who empowers his team to achieve goals by giving clear instructions, adding context and history, conveying an appropriate sense of urgency, collecting and communicating necessary information, clearing obstructions, providing air cover, and rolling up their sleeves to help with the work. Gandalf-managers understand that none of us win unless everyone wins, and that the best indicator of their personal success is when everyone around them is recognized for their contributions.

Perhaps most importantly, leaders who model after Gandalf don't try to do all the work (or all the "important" work; or all the work that will be most visible) themselves. They'll share responsibility, accountability, and authority in such a way that the rest of the team is empowered to act, even in the manager's absence.

At the other end of the spectrum, as one might expect, is Sauron. By all accounts, Sauron was a totalitarian dictator long before his master Melkor was banished from the world. Managers cast in Sauron's mold expect (and indeed, demand) an explicitly do-as-I-say mindset from everyone around them. They insist on knowing and having direct control over every aspect and detail of their organization. Like Gandalf-managers, they are extremely goal-oriented. The difference is that the goals are entirely selfish, and often at odds with what the company wants. It's implicit that if goals are achieved, all credit will go to them. Conversely, the blame for failures are always ascribed to others. The challenge, as we read in LOTR, is that managers like Sauron never have enough eyes (or a big enough eye) to see in all directions at once, and so something is inevitably going to fall through the cracks (of doom) and bring the entire operation crashing down.

But Gandalf and Sauron are the easiest of the Maiar to categorize. What of the others? Let's talk about the other "wizards'' we meet in Tolkein's lore: Sauraman, Radagast, and the two "blue" wizards we read about only fleetingly in snippets of Tolkien's letters or unfinished tales.

Saruman, who figures prominently in LOTR, is the embodiment of the self-aggrandizing and morally gray manager. These folks will happily pick up the latest management fad—if it serves their purposes. They are more collaborative than managers who follow the Sauron model, but only insofar as there's an obvious benefit to them. Saruman-managers tend to be more manipulative than flat-out dictatorial.

Radagast is, to my mind, like the manager who becomes so caught up in the tools they lose sight of the team, let alone the goal. They become a champion of technology—either generally or one solution specifically. IT professionals working for this type of manager have to be (or quickly become) depth experts in their chosen toolset in order to gain credibility or support from the manager. And often these managers consider derogatory comments about the tech as a personal insult. They were, after all, the ones who chose and championed that tool, and it becomes synonymous (at least in their mind) with their identity.

The Blue Wizards, who exist only in the periphery of the body of Tolkien's work (let alone the primary storylines), exemplify the absentee managers one runs into in a career in tech. They confidently tell their staff "you got this," only to disappear for days or weeks at a time. They not only fail to pursue the goals of the organization, they are barely present enough to provide even basic direction, information, or the yearly performance review.

And finally, we come to the one member of the Maiar who doesn't appear in LOTR at all, but figures prominently in the Silmarillion: Melian. The reader meets her as she teaches the birds of Middle-Earth how to sing. The elven prince Elwë comes upon her and immediately smitten. The two marry and spend the rest of the Silmarillion story in that same forest. First in complete solitude (so much that Elwë is believed to be dead for many years), and later as part of a kingdom protected from discovery by Melian's divine powers. Under Melian's influence, Elwë becomes one of the most knowledgeable, beautiful, and wise elves in Middle Earth.

In the character and behavior of Melian, I found an example of a very particular kind of manager: one who invests their energy in building up their team, department, or division. Within this fiefdom, they make every effort to raise up those who work for them. They aggressively defend their staff from any and all attacks or aspersions cast from outside the group. And they carefully cultivate their domain so that it not only grows larger, but also remains impervious to outside influence.

The problem is that if someone leaves that protective circle—expresses an interest that falls outside of the manager's sphere of influence, or tries to move to a different group—the manager's support, protection, and often respect immediately cease. Melian-like managers are singularly focused on their own influence. Unlike Sauron or Saruman, they will reward those who help them. But the goals of the company overall (and those who might sacrifice the work of the team in favor of more cross-departmental efforts) are almost utterly unimportant.

Powerful objects carry unseen risks that simpler tools don't

Yes, this is about the One Ring, but also about all of the Rings. These artifacts of incredible power take the natural abilities of the wearer and amplify them to unthinkable levels. In the hands of the good and great, they are tools which can build, defend, elevate, and enhance. When possessed by individuals of power and malice, they become the means to achieve even greater evil. And in a parallel that should feel familiar to those of us in tech, in the hands of the humble and less ambitious, they're nothing more than curiosities.

After all, giving root to someone who knows little more than the 'ls' command isn't likely to bring the entire application to a halt. It's a risk, of course, but no more of a surety than it is the same user would use their access to automate system updates and perform a security hardening exercise.

Give them root access, however, and the risk of damage—often accidental or out of a misguided sense of what is “right”—is extremely likely.

It’s important to realize that even within the context of the books, the hobbits of Tolkien’s story are notable for their nobility, courage, and strength of character. It’s strongly implied that some hobbits wouldn’t have borne the burden of the Ring as well or as faithfully.

What's important to recognize is that in tech, there are far more hobbits than there are wizards. Plain, honest, hardworking folks who want nothing more than to do a good job. Giving these folks their own Ring of Power will achieve nothing—and certainly nothing good. It would be far more effective to "give" (by which I mean teach, enable, and empower them with) the regular tools of the trade. Because, after all, two hobbits traveling on foot, even if it's through difficult terrain, are sometimes enough to do what wizards and elvish princess can't.

Keep in mind that unlike Middle Earth, in our world “hobbits” who’ve been mentored and given the opportunity to grow will often become wizards in their own right.

See yourself in the story

One of the beautiful and romantic aspects of Tolkien's work was his projection of his and his wife's love into the story of Beren and Lúthien. This story is seen by many as a keystone around which many others orbit. Everyone from Galadriel to Elrond to Aragorn and Arwen can trace their history back to this first case of love between human and elf. Events that shaped Tolkien's world—from the silmaril that travels the sky; to the founding of the kingdom of Numenor; to the start of the Age of Men all arise from a single moment when a mortal man lost his heart to an immortal woman dancing in a glade. Essentially, it is the story upon which the rest of his works hinge: emotionally if not in terms of the history of Middle Earth.

What many don't understand is the real-world significance of the story: a young Tolkien saw Edith Mary Bratt dancing in a glade in Yorkshire. While the two were already very much in love, it was forever etched into the author's memory, encapsulating a precious moment of peace, tranquility, and hope. The first version of "The Tale of Beren and Lúthien" was written shortly afterward. While he didn’t have to include a direct allusion to his relationship with his wife in a project that ostensibly had nothing to do with real life, it was a way of celebrating and immortalizing his relationship. While Tolkien ultimately shared the story’s origin, nobody needed to know it. It could have remained a private nod that only he and Mary would ever fully understand.

Of all the lessons Tolkien's work may have to teach we IT practitioners, this might be the most nuanced and also the most important: our work can be better when we can feel comfortable weaving our own stories into it - if it brings us joy and allows us to be more fully invested in the process. That's not the same as making work our whole world—and many of us fall into that trap, as I've written before.

Letting your joy, passion, and your full range of life experiences guide you and express itself in your work will enhance you as a human being and contribute toward making our workplaces more inclusive, healthier, and increase feelings of psychological safety amongst your team.

Not the end

If you've read my other essays you can probably guess this isn't the end. It's merely a pause in the narration. There are far more lessons for we IT workers, both in the pages of Tolkien's "legendarium" and elsewhere. It seems our travels are part of one long road after all.

"Bilbo used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary."

  • Frodo Baggins, The Fellowship of the Ring.

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