The escape from the cave, or how Plato told me to quit my job.
It’s common knowledge that it’s healthy for us nerds to venture outside the comfort of the technical bubble. As a member of that club, I also do the best I can to shake my brain up and diversify where I spend my focus.
The more I do it, the more I realize I can find patterns relevant to my interest in nearly any domain.
Often the knowledge from “the outside” can easily be applied to see your “core” in different light.
I found an especially powerful example of this while digging through works of ancient Greek philosophers. The piece I found most stimulating so far, comes from Plato.
It’s a dialogue between the young Plato and his teacher, Sophocles, entitled “the allegory of the cave”. In a sentence, it explores how groups of people form “realities”, value systems and worldviews that make sense internally but are pointless in any other context. I encourage you to read the actual dialogue itself, as it’s a concise and interesting work.
(The value brought on by reading philosophy is in itself a juicy topic — suffice to say that it’s a great exercise in focus and deliberate practice.)
As I was contemplating the work, it appeared to me how valid it still remains today. The narrative describes a group of people living on the bottom of a deep cavern. Next to them is a wall, behind which a fire is lit. Some other people are bustling around the fire, carrying above their heads various items like vases and figurines. The prisoners are chained to the ground in a way that allows them nothing else but to have their backs against the wall.
The shackles don’t let them turn their heads around and look anywhere else than forward.
In effect, they can only see the silhouettes of items being carried near the fire, as they’re being cast on the cave wall.
While reading about the people at the bottom of the cave, I got a sudden feeling of déjà vu. How could that be though? I have never been shackled to a cave floor as far as I can recall. Then my brain dropped a hint.
What do you do everyday?
It started dawning on me. Each day I sat on that very floor, at a desk, tapping away at a keyboard, making software for someone.
“Can it really be that similar?” — I thought at first. It‘s a paying job, to which I applied myself. I was a part of a well-functioning team that consistently delivered good results. In fact, we often heard words of acclaim:
The customer is happy with our work and will buy from us again!
We delivered the milestone under budget and on schedule!
We have reached 90% test coverage! (this one not that often…)
Your long hours of hard work have paid off — you can be proud of yourself!
Among my colleagues — developers, designers, testers — we knew exactly what those words meant, and we celebrated success, and we rejoiced at our good performance.
Yet, we all failed to see the truth behind the praise.
The only difference between us and Plato’s cave people was that we happily put ourselves in that shrunk, shallow reality of voluntary overtime and being patted on the back. We cherished the gratification coming from easy success, informal work environments, achievement points, foosball tournaments, integration trips, funky benefits. They worked their magic and were given to us in abundance. In truth however, all that time we were looking at shadows of real problems being solved, successful products being made and profitable businesses bearing fruit.
The next part of the dialogue discusses one man freeing himself from the shackles.
He turns around, looks over the wall and gets blinded by the fire.
When his eyes adjust, he can see the items being carried around and the fire itself. Yet, having spent his whole life looking at shadows, he cannot comprehend what appeared before him — to his mind the shadows are more real than the objects they represent.
He gets scared of that whole new situation and quickly rushes back to his comrades and their ways.
Once upon a job, I got the opportunity to start working more closely with customers. I got to talk to client representatives and catch a glimpse into what all the tickets, story points, and deliverables actually bring them.
It was an alien landscape, full of people with no idea how their webpage gets to their browser or why we should invest time in paying off technical debt.
I couldn’t make much sense out of that world.
My responsibilities now included trying to bridge the gap between the non-technical and strictly-technical people. I tried to narrow my focus as much as possible. The process wasn’t complex: talk to the customer, listen closely, guide the conversation towards extracting actionable work, bring the work to the team. Then get cracking on what you know and love — the design and implementation.
That was my glimpse over the wall. I did whatever I could to translate each thing I saw on the other side to a language that we on our side could understand and turn into more success.
Back in Plato’s cave, the same man who‘s once been across the wall, now suddenly gets dragged up and outside. He catches his first ever flash of the surface world.
Of course again he can’t see anything — his eyes are filled with the glare of the sun. After some time he starts to notice shadows, water reflections and finally actual shapes of the ground, people and objects as they truly are. At some point he will be able to look into the sun itself and ponder its function in his existence.
If he were to return to the cave now, he wouldn’t fit in with his former companions. What if they decided that an individual’s status in the group would be determined by the ability to most clearly catch sight of specific shadows or predict the order in which they will appear? His eyes have adjusted to sunlight, he wouldn’t be able to truly participate in those activities anymore.
With more and more time spent on customer-focused work, I eventually started connecting the dots and became increasingly interested in “the real world” part of software products and services. I wanted out of the cave.
You should have seen me then — it was a grotesque. A nerd in a tactless dance between trying to get a promotion and struggling with perfectionism on side projects. That resulted in no output whatsoever. I was blinded by the vast gap from where I was to where I wanted to be, without a clear way to close it.
But the dance turned out not to be entirely pointless. Eventually I got an opportunity to help with setting up a new software shop. This was my way out and towards the sky!
Except it wasn’t.
One thing I missed in my confusion was that I had been designated by a higher force to occupy the old front line trench again, once the company is set up and the dust settles. So I was working at full steam, helping a bunch of fantastic people to dig a new, arguably better cave for myself. The grand plan was for some of us to carry the vases near the fire, for some to look at the shadows and some to stay outside, keeping watch over the entrance (and getting a nice tan). In hindsight it seems only natural, as a clear separation of duties and levels of association is crucial for such an undertaking.
It was too late for me however. I already started to see the shapes of the outside world, though still blinded by the light. Now at least I had a clearer view of how much more I need to learn about business, marketing, sales and many other areas. I also knew that I couldn’t go back down.
It quickly turned out I wasn’t alone in my predicament. In my half-blind stumbling across the surface of the real world, I bumped into a few like-minded intrepid souls. We banded together under common goals as Makers’ Den (not a cave though).
The path we’ve taken goes up a steep slope. But with our gaze firmly set on the goal of launching businesses, we’re moving up that hill and away from our caves, leaning on our skills and advice.
Are you in the sunlight too?
P.S.: If you are familiar with the allegory of the cave already, you probably noticed that I took some minor liberties with the message of the narrative. There are two reasons for this: I wanted to keep the story upbeat and, well, the events that would constitute the last part are still yet to unfold.
Sorry, Plato — it’s not you, it’s me.