Information Technology Dark Side

Struggles of a Self-Taught Coder

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Five Measures of Competency

January 22nd, 2008 · 2 Comments

There are times when we walk away from an interaction feeling either super-impressed with someone’s competence without knowing exactly why the person seemed so competent to us. Other times, we get a distinct sense that someone is incompetent, though we might not be able to nail down exactly why. Last night as I observed an animated discussion between two friends, it suddenly occurred to me that there are five intuitive ways we evaluate the competency of others. Here is a dump of that brainwave:
1) Fluency – a person who can correctly use the taxonomy of a particular context comfortably seems competent to us. For instance, yesterday I used the term “functional testing” inappropriately with Mike Kelly. The result – a little well earned disdain for my inadequate understanding of the craft of testing.
2) Comprehension – not only can a competent person use the words of his trade easily, she also understands them. When I tell a coder that a particular class in my cascading style sheet isn’t rendering the way I expect it to, she knows what that means if she is competent. She might need more information about the bug I’m reporting, but she won’t ask “what’s a cascading style sheet” or think I’m referring to a course at the local community college.
3) Implication and Nuance – Understanding what the words mean is one thing, knowing where they lead is another. Competent people start to understand our meaning before we finish sharing (this doesn’t mean they complete our sentences for us, a frustrating and condescending behavior). For example, the developer in #2 above might say something like “was it the button style?” in our conversation before I get there, because she understands the space and is making a leap based on the input she’s received.
4) Engagement – Competent people dig in and get they’re hands dirty. They don’t talk in abstractions – instead they get involved in the actual problem at hand, avoiding seagullery. A person who avoids dealing with problems by appealing to higher authority, delegating, or abdicating responsibility to the process create an impression of incompetence.
5) Expression – Competent people are able to express the meaning of a problem in a broader context, to make qualitative statements about a situation. A developer who looks at a bug and says “man, this really sucks – this bug is going to wreck our schedule,” has just made a qualitative judgment about a situation that our intuition frequently interprets as competence.

I would not suggest trying to “cheat” your way to competence by parroting these behaviors without the skills to back them up. Faking it won’t work. I would suggest you take an honest look at yourself and evaluate whether you have mastered these aspects of the skills in which you are allegedly “competent.”

No matter how lacking you may be in other areas, you can always engage (#4). Engaging has the nice effect of rapidly building your abilities in the other four areas, plus it puts your learning curve on display for others to appreciate. If it is steep, they will see you as an asset even though you have not developed full competence in that particular area.

Dave

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Allen // Jan 24, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    Excellent post! This one is going in the palm pilot for future reference and getting passed on.

  • 2 julieB // Jan 25, 2008 at 1:09 pm

    Now I want to understand how you knew the other person in the conversation was incompetent! 😉

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