3 Career Lessons I Learnt From “Hidden Figures”

Reading time: 5 mins

hf-poster

I went to see “Hidden Figures” last week and I absolutely blown away! The hype is real! The film is based on the lives of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, black female mathematicians, engineers and computer scientists that worked for NASA in the early 1960’s under the racist Jim Crow and Segregation Laws. Not only did these helped put Man on The Moon but helped advance the fields of Science, Mathematics and Technology and some of this was before US segregation even ended!

At first, I was going to do a straight-up movie review, but a) that would be too easy and b) that’s why Rotten Tomatoes was created… So I decided to write about 3 career gems that I learnt while watching this great film!


***MAJOR SPOILER WARNING*** This post will be discussing major plot points of the film, so it you haven’t seen it yet and don’t want it to be spoiled, stop here, watch the film and make your way back here. You have been warned…


1) Be So Good That They Can’t Ignore You

Hidden Figures Day 41

In the film, our three heroines were known as ‘computers’, human beings who could work out long and complex calculations with speed and accuracy. Because of the Segregation Laws, whites and ‘coloured’ people had to be separate which meant that coloured had to put up with inferiorĀ utilities, services and be treated as second class citizens. The black computers were segregated in the ‘West Area’ while the white ones in the ‘East Area’. In the movie, the ‘East Area’ needed more talented computers andĀ Katherine Goble (before she got married and changed to Katherine Johnson) was selected as the first black female to cross the barrier and found herself working closely with the Director of the Space Task Group, Al Harrison.



hf-running


However it wasn’t smooth for our dear Katherine. Katherine was treated with suspicion, had much lower pay and her line manager left out key parts of the calculations which meant that she could not do her work accurately. To add further humiliation, in the East Area, there were no coloured toilets, which meant that Katherine had to run to walk 20 minutes to the West Area just to relieve herself. When Al Harrison publicly rebuked her for being away from her desk for long periods of time, she emotionally explained that all the difficulties that she faced being a coloured woman in NASA. Very shortly after Harrison, abolished the toilet segregation rules and Katherine found herself being treated as more as an equal and playing a more pivotal role in the Project.


Although this was heartwarming, there is a very clear fact that emerges: Katherine was brilliant and she was so good at what she did that towards the end of the film, John Glenn refused to fly unless Katherine personally checked the launch calculations. There is an old Bible saying that says that “A man who is good at his work will serve before Kings and not mere men.” Cal Newport in his great book “So Good That They Can’t Ignore You” stated that those who work on critical skills that serve the marketplace can basically write their own life ticket. Work on your skills and they will work for you!


2) If You Are Not Learning, You’re Dying

hf-dorothy-ibm


Dorothy Vaughn, the unofficial supervisor of the West Area, learns that NASA is going to install the IBM 7090 mainframe – a massive room-wide computer that could do thousands of calculations per minute – making the human computers obsolete. Rather than defeated, Dorothy quickly figured out that, although they maybe able to do the calculations, they will need someone to program the machine with correct ones.


hf-dorothy-fortran


Dorothy, after taking a FORTRAN book from the public library, started to teach herself computer programming and also taught her colleagues ready to configure the supercomputer. When the IBM 7090 was fully installed rather than lay off the entire West Area, NASA promoted Dorothy as the supervisor of the Analysis and Computation Division, saving her colleagues’ livelihoods and helping usher in the new Technological Age in Space Travel.



hf-west-area-walking


I love this part of the film! Dorothy created a new opportunity for herself and her peers by leveraging technology rather than being crushed by it and she did this by improving herself. Continuous learning is an absolute must if you want to survive in the Information Age. And this does not apply only to programmer either – with the increasing technological, social and economical changes in our world, your willingness to adapt quickly and evolve your skillsets will be vital to your life success. To adapt 50 Cents famous album cover we now must “Get Skills Or Die Trying.”


3) Nothing You Learn Is Ever Wasted

hf-kath-chalk
In a key part of the film, the Americans were behind in the Space Race – The Soviet Union managed to send a man to Outer Space and complete a full orbit of the planet. They needed to better and fast.


The Americans started the Mercury Program to go beyond and even the odds. The human computers were tasked with coming up with the Math that will allow an astronaut to go into space, stay in circle the planet a coupe of times, then break orbit and return to Earth. The problem was that this hadn’t been done and they needed a new set of Maths to calculate the capsule’s flight – and they have 2 weeks to do this before the launch.


After many long nights, Katherine recalled “Euller’s Formula” an almost 300 year old set of equations to help solve the problem. After a couple of hours adapting the formula, they finally solved the problem and the Astronaut, John Glenn, managed to do 3 orbits around the Earth becoming the first American to do so.


What’s so great about this example is that Katherine’s line manager at NASA described the formula as “ancient.” But this didn’t stop Katherine from using it to get the job done. Before I started to learn coding. I would many jobs from a retail sales assistant, an inventory planner, a music performer/producer and my latest career, a teacher. And as the years go by, I have managed to use most of my skills in my teaching practice. I was intimidated because I didn’t have a Computer Science degree but I soon realised that virtually all my skills in sales, writing, negotiation and organisation have helped me become a better coder.


Take stock of all the jobs and courses that you have studied over the years and see what skills that you use today: you will be very surprised on how these skills give you a unique advantage in your job and can help you get the next one!


I hope you enjoyed this blog! Please go and watch “Hidden Figures”- it’s a very inspirational film. Have you watched “Hidden Figures?” What do you think? Leave your comments below or @karlwebdev.


As always, see you next Thursday


Karlwebdev