Learning and Starting Projects, with Brendan Burns

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Brendan Burns is a Co-Founder of the open source Kubernetes project and a Distinguished Engineer at Microsoft. He works on various technologies like: DevOps, containers, and open source.


ES: This is 5 Minute Mentor, a podcast where you’ll get advice from prominent engineers, authors, artists, and more in 5 minutes or less.

BB: Hi, I’m Brendan Burns I’m a Co-Founder of the open source Kubernetes project, and a Distinguished Engineer in Microsoft Azure focusing on DevOps, containers and open source, and, my advice today has to do with getting started on a project.

BB: When I look back across all of the various things that I have done in my career, I think that one of the things that I have been fortunate enough to be able to do is, start a number of different teams. Beyond Kubernetes, I have pitched a number of different projects, and built a number of different teams. And that’s sort of been a recurring theme throughout my career. And I think that it’s something that came pretty naturally to me. But, for many people I know that, starting is, in many respects, the hardest part, and I think that there’s a couple different reasons for this that I’ve seen over time, and some strategies that I’ve developed, or things that I’ve felt, helped me along those lines.

BB: One of the first that I think that holds a lot of people back is the immensity of a task. I mean, when you’re thinking about starting something, you sometimes want to figure out the entirety of all of the questions that you might have to answer along the way, and have resolved all of the ambiguities that may come, and be certain that you’ll be able to, sort of, answer all the questions, and solve all the problems before you even get started. That’s just never true. Even if you think you’ve answered all the questions new questions will come up, and so, I think one of the first parts of getting started is that you have to have a willingness to assume that you’ll find solutions to the problems as they arise. And in many cases I call this promise-driven engineering, where you say to yourself you know, if only I knew how to do x, y, z then I could build a really great system. If only I could make containers popular around the world, we could do all these amazing things, and rather than worrying about how you’re going to solve that particular problem, you start with a promise in place of a solution, an assumption that you’ve already solved the hard problem, and then what could you build on top of it? and then it turns out that if you build all the pieces around that promise, around that assumption I have found that figuring out how to do it becomes easier. Like, where the answers to the things that you didn’t know, the answers, make themselves available to you in the act of building the other pieces around it. And so, I think one of the most important pieces of getting started is a willingness to set certain problems aside with a faith, that you’ll find a solution at a later date, and not be too worried about having all the solutions up front.

BB: I think that the other real challenge that people see when they’re starting out is the, sort of, motivation to be uncomfortable and to be in a place where you know less tomorrow than you do today. Every new thing that you start to do whether it’s a new instrument to learn, or a new programming language, or anything else, you’re inherently going to be worse at it than you are at whatever you’re doing right now. And, I the only answer to that, is effectively to sort of, constantly be practicing learning. And, you become well-versed not in any particular subject, but you become well-versed in the act of learning any subject. Because, if you focused your life around learning a particular thing and you’ve become the absolute expert in that subject, and you spent 10 years as the expert in that subject, where everyone looks up to you and you have an answer to every question, it can be very disconcerting to step into a world where you know nothing and you don’t know, you have nothing but questions, and no answers. But, if every week, or every day, you’re putting yourself into that situation where you’re learning something new, where you’re going through the uncomfortableness of not knowing anything, and having to discover, Where can I find the right answers? How do I learn these skills? You are actually more practiced in the act of learning. And that in turn makes learning anything that much easier, that much less intimidating. because you understand that yes, tomorrow, I’ll be uncomfortable, and uncertain. But the day after that it will get a little bit better as I learn more, and the day after that it will get a little bit better, and pretty soon I’ll be back up to that place of comfort, and you’ll have that confidence that comes with having done it a number of different times, rather than the fear of the unknown. So hopefully that helps, and it helps you get started on whatever you’re thinking about doing.

Brendan Burns, Distinguished Engineer at Microsoft

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