Why CIOs should value the pursuit of mastery

By Josef Langerman, Professor of Practice at the University of Johannesburg, and Technology Executive at Standard Bank Group.

I was not sure what to expect and felt nervous to my core. This was my first job, a vacation job, at South African Airways. What was I going to do for the next six weeks? A horripilation of dread ran down my spine.

I’d signed in at security and was sitting in an office waiting for the manager to arrive to brief me. A couple of minutes later he arrived and took me for a walk, showing me the department – New Technologies.

A friend had told me that this guy is super clever. Apparently, he was a network engineer and for a lark decided to switch to software development. Impressive.

But that was of little comfort to me. I was a second-year Computer Science student who was still drenched behind the ears.

After the walkabout, he thrust a book into my hand. To my horror, he told me to work through it and produce a working solution for the Towers of Hanoi problem – all within the fortnight.

The book was Kernighan & Ritchie’s “The C Programming language”.

Years later I still remember that induction into the world of work and all it taught me.

When I finally showed him a working program, I felt like he awarded me a PhD, with the D perhaps standing for something else than intelligence.

It was an education money can’t buy and I respect him for that.

Team leader

Five years later, I was handed another book: Hull’s “Options, Futures and other Derivatives”. This is an Honours level Financial Mathematics textbook.

I had just landed a job as a team leader at Standard Corporate and Merchant Bank and was told to study it chapter and verse before I started.

I had the December vacation to master its contents. To be honest, I got no further than the second chapter.

The manager who handed me the book is now a CIO at one of South Africa’s “Big 5” banks.

These events happened at the dawn of my career. It was a time when mastery was valued. Good was simply not good enough, people sought for only the brightest and the best. Nothing less.

Frankly, I am still not sure how I made the cut.

I recently shared these two stories during an Engineering Meetup at Standard Bank. From the conversations afterwards, I could hear that this spoke to people.

I am wondering why mastery is so important to people?

Perhaps the desire to become excellent at something is baked into the human DNA. Not for nothing are we classed “Homo Sapiens” … the “Wise Man”, implying “knowing” and “learning”

We should not just value the pursuit of mastery for the knowledge and skills that it brings, but perhaps more so for what it represents:

  • The discipline to dedicate long hours to study and practice.
  • The humility to sit at another’s feet and learn from them.
  • An attitude of curious wonderment, like a child, to be always open to new experiences and ideas.

It demands of us to not take failure personally, but to seek lessons in failure to improve.

It requires bravery to defend your position, to value different stances to a problem at hand and be willing to admit to being wrong.

It rewards the bold who dare to explore the fringes where true innovation can be discovered

This is why I value mastery.

I thank those exemplars who so early in my career showed me this path.

I encourage every CIO, indeed every leader, to forever walk the path to mastery, to encourage and inspire others to do the same, for there is only upside in this course.

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Why CIOs should value the pursuit of mastery