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Everything I need to know about teamwork I learned in the woods

Lessons learned on a 2200 mile hike up the Appalachian Trail.
apalachian mountains

Image by Mickey Estes @ Pixabay

Hiking the Appalachian Trail is no easy stroll in the woods; it's a quite rugged hiking trail through the mountains in the United States. It spans 3,500 kilometers, or 2,200 miles, and it's completely in the woods—no restaurants, no hotels, no rolling luggage; you carry everything you plan to use, including your tent, clothing, and food. Every year, about 20% of the people who start the hike complete it.

It's a significant undertaking of time and effort, and it's something I had wanted to do for a very long time. People have different reasons for embarking on that journey, but I was primarily looking to challenge myself. On April 4, 2017, I got the opportunity to realize my dream of hiking the trail. I was one of the 20% to complete it, and that took me four-and-a-half months to do.

tim at the top of a mountain

As you might imagine, an experience like that offered ample opportunity for self-reflection, and I often found myself relating some of the lessons I was learning to my work at Red Hat. There were many themes that emerged, but a common one was how much there was to be learned about teamwork from how I and others navigated the trail together.

As my time at Red Hat begins to come to a close, I'd like to share some of those lessons learned with you, in the hopes that they can be of use as you challenge yourself in your own career journey.

You may go faster alone, but you'll go farther together

tims group

It's an old proverb, and like many old proverbs, it bears a lot of truth. On the trail, there were some solo hikers, but many of us found ways to work together, stopping to have meals and camp for the night in groups, or simply loaning and borrowing supplies when needed. It not only got me through some of the tougher parts of the journey, but it made it more fun. We became a community.

In your personal and professional spheres, you're part of many communities. As engineers and developers, you're part of that community. You're part of the Red Hat community. What that means is you get to benefit from the wisdom, assistance, and support of others, and they get to benefit from you. So take advantage of the assistance of your community, and be sure to give back to it yourself. It not only better sets you up for success, but the process is more enjoyable.

Communicate and engage

Tim Burke riding in a truck

Don't hike alone. Sure, there are a few who do hike alone, but even the most expert hikers can end up feeling isolated on the long hike or get stuck in sticky situations with no one to help them out. As I already mentioned, the trail community became very important to helping me not just complete, but enjoy the trip.

In your own community, don't code alone. One of the great things about this work is how we share knowledge and build on the work of others. That open communication and engagement makes for a better product for customers and a better experience for you. So, build relationships, encourage and support each other.

Remember, you're not the first to hike this path.

You may be facing a daunting challenge or particularly troubling work issue, but a good thing to remember is that this path has already been carved out for you by others. Very few things out there, even in emerging technology, haven't been covered before. Don't waste efforts recreating things unnecessarily; do your homework and take advantage of lessons learned by others before you.

Trail magic

One of my favorite things about taking this journey was something called "trail magic," which is essentials and other helpful items left along the trail by those who have come before you. Most of the time, it was food and drinks, which was amazingly helpful because water, in particular, is heavy to carry in your pack the whole way, but obviously required pretty frequently. It's not mandated, there's no formal program in place, it relies entirely on the kindness of others who know they are unlikely to be known or thanked by the recipient.

Trail magic to me is now shorthand for any kind of help or kindness you can offer to those who come behind you, even if you won't get recognition for it. You do it because it helps more people finish and because it was done for you, even if you don't realize it.

Your goals and journeys aren't just about you.

Tim at the end of the trail

As you probably have noticed by now, the clearest lesson here is that successful journeys don't happen in a vacuum; they involve a lot of people, seen and unseen. In addition to encouraging and supporting me in this endeavor, my friends, family, and colleagues also did work to make it happen. My team and family took over responsibilities while I was gone and helped prepare me to go, so the least I could do is give them all of the information and preparation I could to help them in my months-long absence.

There are people you will meet in your life and your career who will help you along the journey, in ways you may not recognize. Be aware of these people and treat them with the same kind of respect and consideration you'd like to receive in their place.

This little walk in the woods was one of the most significant experiences of my life, but you don't have to hike 2200 miles through the mountains to learn these lessons. Have you had any personal or professional experiences that taught you important lessons about teamwork? Let us know!

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Tim Burke

Tim Burke is a founder of RHEL and lead its engineering for over 18 years.  He also lead OpenStack, RHV and Red Hat Storage for many years. Tim loves building teams and leaders. And is most proud that we together at RH have shown the world the power of open source development. More about me

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