A Developer's Guide to Life on Earth

This post was derived from a book I read many years ago called “An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything” by Chris Hadfield. This actually started as a talk I gave while working at Nansen, and it was meant for more than just the developers. I really enjoyed this book because it's more than just an autobiography of Chris Hadfield's life, and it provides some great thoughts and takeaways that be applied to your professional career.

About Chris Hadfield

A little about Chris Hadfield:

  • He’s Canadian, and was born in Ontario.
  • He started his career as a test pilot for the Canadian Armed Forces. In total, he flew over 70 different types of aircraft.
  • In 1992, he was selected to become one of four new Canadian astronauts from a field of over 5,000 applicants. He joined the Canadian Space Agency, and was assigned to the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston.
  • Hadfield was NASA's Chief CAPCOM, the voice of mission control to astronauts in orbit, for 25 space shuttle missions. He was the Director of Operations for NASA at the Cosmonauts Training Center in Russia. He also was the Chief of Robotics at one point.
  • In May of 2013, he became the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station, and he stayed on the Space Station for 5 months.

Most notably, though, is what happened to his social media status while at the Space Station. Forbes described him as "perhaps the most social media savvy astronaut ever to leave Earth". He created videos about life in space and posted them on YouTube. He had a popular Tumblr blog. He created one of the top Reddit AMA threads of all time. And by June of 2013, he had over 1 million Twitter followers.

On top of that, he recorded the first song in space, called “Jewel in the Night”. And he released a music video that was recorded in space, which was a cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity".

Ok... On to a couple thoughts and takeaways from the book, and how you might be able to apply it to your professional career.

Thoughts and Takeaways

Be competent

If there’s one core piece of advice in the book, it’s to be competent.

“Competence means keeping your head in a crisis, sticking with a task even when it seems hopeless, and improvising good solutions to tough problems when every second counts. It encompasses ingenuity, determination and being prepared for anything.”

What this means during your career could be different for different people. Developers may seek to gain competency in aspects of programming or software architecture. Designers may look to gain competency in best practices for user experience. Project managers in project management methodologies... The administration in business and sales... And over the course of your career, which competency you strive for may change.

Control attitude

Whatever competency you seek, the correct attitude is important. In space flight, “attitude” refers to orientation: which direction your vehicle is pointing relative to the Sun, Earth, and other spacecraft. If you lose control of your attitude, two things happen: the vehicle starts to tumble and spin, disorienting everyone on board, and it also strays from its course, which, if you’re short on time or fuel, could mean the difference between life and death.

This can somewhat be equated to life on Earth when striving for competency. Hadfield says:

“Ultimately, I don’t determine whether I arrive at the desired professional destination. Too many variables are out of my control. There’s really just one thing I can control: my attitude during the journey, which is what keeps me feeling steady and stable, and what keeps me headed in the right direction.”

The strive for competency doesn’t happen overnight. It’s something you have to work toward. Astronauts spend an extraordinary amount of their time in simulators, training for various jobs to be done in space, or simulating situations that may happen. He said that, while in a simulator, one of the most common questions they learned to ask themselves is “What’s the next thing that will kill me?"

Be prepared

Much of how you react to situations like that comes from how you prepare.

“...if you’ve got the time, use it to get ready. What else could you possibly have to do that’s more important? Yes, maybe you’ll learn how to do a few things you’ll never wind up actually needing to do, but that’s a much better problem to have than needing to do something and having no clue where to start.”

Hopefully at your job, you are encouraged to continue to learn. Take the time to attend conferences, and share what you learn with your colleagues. Or learn new skills from online training sites.

You should be prepared for what may come... That way when you are presented with a situation, whether it’s a new project or an issue with a client project, you can avoid having no clue where to start. Having no clue where to start is risky.

“Preparation is not only about managing external risks, but about limiting the likelihood that you’ll unwittingly add to them.”

Visualize failure

I think this preparation leads into how you create your solutions. In many cases, you design or develop something, and you assume that it’ll work as intended. It’s only after the fact, after you launch and see actual people using (or exploiting) the site, where you see what’s failing, and at that point, it may be too late.

So I like the idea of visualizing failure.

“A lot of people talk about expecting the best but preparing for the worst, but I think that’s a seductively misleading concept. There’s never just one ‘worst.’ Almost always there’s a whole spectrum of bad possibilities. The only thing that would really qualify as the worst would be not having a plan for how to cope.”

When visualizing failure in web development, there’s two sides to this: before and after the launch of a site. Before launch, you prepare by thoroughly testing: user testing, unit testing, QA testing, etc. Then after launch, you have contingency plans in place. Obviously, each aspect of that takes time and money, so you need to determine what’s best for the situation.

“Anticipating problems and figuring out how to solve them is actually the opposite of worrying: it’s productive. Likewise, coming up with a plan of action isn’t a waste of time if it gives you peace of mind.”

Sweat the small stuff

As you start to visualize failure, you’ll likely start to see that the things that cause the failure can turn out to be small, simple fixes. That could be because you fail to sweat the small stuff during development. Many people gloss over at the minute details that make a project what it is, because there are bigger items and tasks at hand. It’s important to sweat the small stuff, because it could cause bigger problems down the road.

When talking about the “sweat the small stuff” topic, Hadfield described a time where he went blind during a spacewalk, all because he didn’t fully wipe off the antifog solution from his visor. He actually did a TED talk on this particular story.

“This is why, individually and organizationally, we have the patience to sweat the small stuff even when—actually, especially when—pursuing major goals. We’ve learned the hardest way possible just how much little things matter.”

Wrapping Up

I encourage you to check out the book and read through it. There’s actually a lot more little pieces of advice and vignettes in the book, much of which I thought was pretty insightful and more useful when applied to your professional career.