Knowledge Transfer.

For quite some time I’ve said I hate people calling me an expert in something just because I know more than they may. It makes me uncomfortable. It’s not that I don’t like to talk about things with great passion; anyone who knows me is aware of my penchant to drive on at lengths about a topic. But an expert? No. I feel that’s a label that should only be bestowed upon someone who’s spent a considerable part of their life dedicated to a topic, likely accredited in the matter from somewhere other than YouTube.

Remember when people such as doctors, scientists, and mathematicians were not only listened to, but respected? It baffles me when I run across people who believe the world is flat, vaccines cause autism, or whatever half-cooked conspiracy theory is popular today. It’s as if peer reviewed science means absolutely nothing anymore. That concept is completely lost on so many, facts are meaningless unless they validate your beliefs, and people are cherry picking and manipulating what they do find. It’s backwards. You should be looking for facts that disprove or challenge your position, and it’s only when you can’t is when you have the foundation of a theory you can present to be peer reviewed.

That doesn’t mean your friend.

Let’s say you do some thinking and come up with this idea that rubbing aloe on your head will be an effective method to stop, or at least slow down hair loss. Well, aloe is known to have a lot of soothing qualities. It’s hydrating, it contains a lot of nutrients, and this seems plausible, right?

I could tell you that the vitamins in the aloe moisturize the hair follicles, which prevents them from drying out, shriveling up and dying. I could present you research that shows aloe being a moisturizing agent for skin. I could show you before and after photos of people who have rubbed aloe on their scalp for months. I could scour the Internet for videos lending validity to my belief. But I’d be doing it wrong.

Instead I should be finding ways to show there’s no consistent link between the two. Sure, some people have rapid hair growth in areas in which aloe is applied, but that’s hit and miss. I can’t take the wins and claim them to be fact when I’m actively ignoring the places it didn’t work. And that’s exactly what so many “woke” theories are. Nothing more than utter BS that’s rooted in questionable “science”. None of it has been unequivocally proven by a panel of accredited experts in the subject matter who have vigorously challenged it’s validity. That’s peer reviewed in a nutshell.

The thing is, I’m far from accredited expert. In anything. My thoughts are ones which I stand firm on, and ones I try and challenge myself on to the best of my ability, knowing I’m going to naturally be biased. I want others to challenge me, it’s how I learn. I hold these small pieces of information that could be a baseline for a more complex and complete theory, but they’re not complete. So, I like to pass that information on, hope those people run with it, and improve upon what I already know.

If you can learn one new thing everyday, you’re doing better than most people.

That’s why knowledge transfer is important. When you can help someone, shouldn’t you? If you can pass along some sort of useful information, wouldn’t that be considered an act to better society as a whole? And we’d hope that other people would do the same for us? I try and subscribe to that theory and pass along the things I know which may help others.

The problem is, communicating that isn’t always easy. Communication styles between people can widely vary, and bridging that gap is a skill all in of itself. Over the years, finding ways to build those bridges is a skill I’ve been working hard on. While I’ve gotten considerably better, I also recognize that I’m far from perfect. It’s easy to get caught in a trap of talking at people who don’t understand something in the way that I do (or vice versa) – and that’s useless. As soon as communication is lost, people will naturally shut down. That’s not a learning environment, and that’s not helping. It’s hurting. Plus, it’s an ineffective way to interact with people.

Identifying teaching opportunities.

There’s no point in trying to talk to an audience that isn’t captive. You can’t force information upon people, so when trying to transfer knowledge it’s a matter of finding opportunities to teach.

Case in point for me was last week. I was on the phone with Rogers (my cellular carrier). After 2 weeks of people absolutely butchering my support tickets, I had to stand my ground to get what I wanted; an explanation as to why it was happening. I’m talking to the department manager (2 more levels above ‘supervisor’ in this case) who’s this lovely 55 year old woman from Quebec somewhere. She started out with the same old “I’m terribly sorry for your problems, what can I do to help?”. I knew she wouldn’t be able to answer my questions, but I needed her to get what I wanted. I don’t have a way to speak to the people who do have the information I need, so people like this woman are necessary stepping stones.

I explain to her that my concerns are not being addressed in the correct manner, and she proceeds to repeat back to me what she sees in my support case.
“Oh, you’re upset you’re getting SPAM calls, right?”.
“No, I’m getting calls from malformed numbers, there’s a difference, and it’s a critical one”.
“I don’t understand. I’ve never heard of that before”
“That’s OK, it would be unrealistic to expect most people would have, can I try and explain it?”

That’s where the teaching opportunity arises, and addressing it correctly allows us to open doors together. Now I have a captive audience. She seems interested. I go on…

“We all know what SPAM calls are. They’re annoying, and while a SPAM call may be the end result of a malformed number terminating to my phone, it’s not the cause – and that’s what I’m referring to. You know how when you receive a phone call, it’ll come in from a number format that’s familiar, like 416-555-1234 if you’re in North America?”
“Yes, I get that, I think”
“Great! So, if it’s an overseas call from the UK, it could be +044 0870 776 7777, per say right?”
“OK, I think I see what you’re saying”
“Awesome. So, all of those follow proper number formats. A malformed number is when it’s a phone number that doesn’t adhere to proper number formats. Like a call from 292 8 99 99 00 1010. That’s garbage.”

I explain the CRTC ruling from December 2018. The gist is, all Canadian carriers need to block this crap as of Dec 2019. It’s a bunch of boring legalese from the Telecom world, but you can read more here if you wish : https://crtc.gc.ca/eng/archive/2018/2018-484.htm

This woman was really following along. She told me she’d never heard of these things and felt bad that she didn’t know better. But nobody in their right mind could blame her. Knowing telecom law is hardly part of her job, and in all fairness I was hardly your average caller. In my 20’s I’d take this as an opportunity to unleash my inner asshole, but that’s immature. The reality was she was doing more than most people; she was not only actually listening, but she truly cared.

I’ll save you the rest of the conversation, but we chatted about a bunch of different things, including but certainly not limited to different things to do with the telecom world and specifically my problems at hand. She asked me questions that mattered, such as where she could learn more about this, and by the end of the call she was thanking me for teaching her something new. Knowledge transfer. Fucking eh. The thing was, I learned something too….

Being A Manager Is A Skill

Many years ago I was a team lead of a tech support department, and then promoted to “senior team lead”. The thing was, I was a really good tech. I have excellent problem solving skills rooted in critical thinking. I try and find creative ways to solve complex problems, which usually make everyday things a snap for me as they’re already easily solved with basic logic and process.

But, a good manager isn’t just savvy with how to do things their subordinates are assigned to do. They’re good with people. At the time, I wasn’t. I could tell you how to solve basically any problem we could run into (and if I didn’t know, I’d damn well find out – you can bet your ass), but if you wanted me to sit down and explain a rudimentary subject to one of the techs? Oh god.

Sure, I had lots of information rattling around in my brain, but transferring it to people who needed it was anything but a skill I possessed in abundance. And for that reason, the knowledge I had was effectively useless. Unless it moves from my brain to the brain of another, that info dies the moment my body decides it’s had enough and self destructs. That helps absolutely nobody.

It was my Achilles heel. It’s something I’ve been acutely aware of and have been working on for years – which is why speaking to that woman helped. She reminded me how to interact with people and pass on information in a way that helps, not hinders. Something in that conversation just clicked, and looking back on it, I truly feel we could easily sit around with a bottle of whatever our choosing and just shoot the breeze trading stories and knowledge for hours. She is in her mid 50’s with an 18 year old daughter and lives in Quebec. I’m a 37 year old non-married, childless man from Toronto. We are more or less polar opposites [ya, stereo-type], yet we found common ground.

That for me is the key. It’s my door to being able to communicate with people and that holds true in almost any situation I get myself into. If you can’t find a way to relate to a person, you’re far more prone to shutting them out, then it’s game over.

Even hard-noses can be taught.

So, who made me a senior team lead? His name is Lanny, and he was the director of technical services. I’ll note that Lanny is one of the smartest and more calculated people I’ve come across in my professional career – and most certainly someone I look up to in a lot of ways. Lanny cut his teeth in the tech world managing a team at Primus Canada and had left the company just a few short months before I started there. His legend lived long after his departure as I’d hear his name get thrown around often, always coupled with things such as “I wish he was still here”, “he was amazing”, and “things haven’t been the same without him”. When he joined the company I was working for at the time, I was still a tech and was managed by a guy named Chris.

Chris and I, as much as we’re both great people in our own rights, certainly didn’t see things eye to eye from time to time. It wasn’t that we didn’t want the same result, we just had very different ideas on how to get there. Lanny was working as a client relations specialist from a technical side, and then soon became the director of the technical department. To this day I’m fairly certain he got put there to ensure Chris and I didn’t kill one another with spare ethernet cables.

As time went on that’s when I became a team lead, and ultimately senior team lead – all at Lanny’s encouragement. He’d coach me on how to be a better people person (as he was certainly a great one himself), but let me make my own mistakes. He was firm when he needed to be, yet lenient and fun, always maintaining a professional attitude. There’s a lot to be learned from him. But I was blind to that for far too long.

One day I began an initiative to start a new project I’d concocted. I was more or less giving some of our internal tools a revamp, making them a lot more useful, and building a ton of new features into it. I wasn’t too far in when Lanny got word of this and we had a little talk. He told me to cease work on it immediately and I was the utmost confused. Of course, I began to question his logic, explaining why this was a great idea, and all the reasoning I could think of. He simply said “sometimes you just need to trust there’s a good reason, even if it doesn’t make sense to you in the moment”. I reluctantly agreed and walked away feeling quite disheartened.

It wasn’t more than a few days later I was offered a very considerable promotion internally, one that would pull me far away from what I was doing and would effectively kill that project I so badly wanted to do. This was bigger. It was arguably the biggest promotion I’d been offered at this point in my life and I can vividly remember walking home that day thinking about proud of myself I was for reaching this milestone in my career. As I began to reflect on my journey that evening it came to me – Lanny knew, but couldn’t tell me. He was prepping me, for the better good of everyone.

Cue feeling like a complete ass for even questioning him; a man who had never steered me wrong, was always more than fair, and had fought for me at every turn. I went into the office the next day, tail between my legs and apologized for my short-sighted attitude earlier in that week. He had just taught me perhaps the most important thing he could have – on the very last day I reported to him. To listen, and have faith. Even when you think you know it all, there’s always something bigger going on that you’re blind to. I’ve taken that lesson with me in the years since and it’s helped me immensely. I think about that moment often and it helps keep me (at least a bit) humble.

I’ll Forever Be A Manager In Training

With the help of Lanny’s continual efforts, I’ve grown to better understand my my strengths and weaknesses. I work well with logic, putting process in place, and especially finding solutions to interesting problems. I’m a wealth of knowledge when I want to be, but sometimes that can be a difficult thing for me to “transfer” to others. It’s something I’ll likely be working on for the rest of my life, but if it wasn’t for Lanny, I wouldn’t be half as good at it as I am today.

I could likely go on about some of the other Lanny brilliance I’ve witnessed over the years but I’ll save those for other posts. I’ve since worked in a variety of roles, but none as close to managing people as I did as a senior team lead. While I continued my tenure with ACI – the company that Lanny and I worked together at – I’d continually find myself back in his office, asking questions and sucking in knowledge.

When the company dissolved due to a buyout from a major American firm, and as almost all of my peers (including myself) were let go in the aftermath, Lanny and I met for a coffee. He reminded me of all my strengths, but also gave me a stark reminder of the places I really needed to improve. He may not know how to write code, or flesh out routing issues in a Cisco IOS config, but he knows people. And most importantly he knows how to transfer his brain into that of others.

Needless to say, part of his knowledge was transferred to my brain and I’m forever grateful for that. I was a stubborn guy at many times, but he was smart enough to get past that barrier. I got head faked. When I didn’t even realize it, I was being taught some of the most important lessons, and it was because someone took the time to want to teach me.

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