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Competence trumps a good cultural fit Expand / Collapse
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Posted Monday, September 30, 2013 7:52 AM
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The greats you are talking about were either working alone or in very small groups in garages and basements. As software organizations grew it was inevitable that politics would enter the the framework of the company and eventually the job. Anytime there are more than 2 people in the room politics pokes in it's ugly head.
Post #1500013
Posted Monday, September 30, 2013 8:15 AM
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Outstanding! I am happy to see someone else recognize that there are skills other than being a social butterfly! I am intimately aware of a workplace where social skills are valued over technical skills. Frequent issues arise due to what I view as a complete lack of understanding of what is required to complete the job! But everybody has fun talking about the Bears, Bulls and Black Hawks!

ENOUGH ALREADY!

Phew, if I seem passionate, it is because I am.

Let me say that social skills are important. There are people on this forum who have better social skills than I do. There are people who are more technical than I am as well. I would bet that there is some small percentage that are very good at both.

What I doubt is that there is more than a handful that are at the top of their game technically, who are also among the best when it comes to social skills at work. The two skills are contrarian, and uncommon to see together. Nobody is going to convince me of anything different because I have worked with hundreds of people, possibly thousands over the years, and can count on one hand those who excelled at both. They exist, for sure, they simply are the exception rather than the rule.

What will the industry look like? We are probably going to see a few companies excel, much like Apple and Google, while the rest of them compete in the courtroom rather than in the back room doing research.




Dave
Post #1500023
Posted Monday, September 30, 2013 8:24 AM
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Julie Breutzmann (9/28/2013)
I agree up to a point. A minimum level of social skills are necessary. When a colleague of mine told the wife of a vice president that she was stupid, did it in front of her subordinates, and couldn't understand why that was a problem, he just did not have acceptable social skills to remain employed there.


I disagree completely. Social skills are required in some positions, but certainly not all. I don't care whether some brainiac at Intel who is desgining a chip that functions at the quantam physics level is able to make nice with a VP's wife!

Why was that person put into a place where they were expected to deal with the wife of a VP? The point Phil is making is that there are those who need to be able to talk to the C-Suite, and those who don't. They are not the same people. One reason I am where I am today is because I am able to talk to anyone from an hourly person sweeping floors to the CEO, and take what I learn and turn it into true requirements. I can code, but I know people who can take what I give them and make it beautiful. Those people don't want to talk to the top level. They want to do their job.

Also, I didn't see you argue that the wife was not stupid, just that it was inappropriate to point it out.


Dave
Post #1500028
Posted Monday, September 30, 2013 8:31 AM
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bmcgirr (9/29/2013)
Nice to be challenged with an opinion I can't agree with :)

I think you've put forward a bit of a straw man argument here. As a minimum, an interviewee must have the technical skills required to do the job. Nobody would hire a nice guy just because they are nice. The thing that gets people hired above that is whether or not they can apply those skills to produce what the customer wants. This requires the softer skills and a company would be silly to ignore them.


Let's consider the real world. I would say the majority of people are hired because the person interviewing them likes them, not because of skills. When it comes to programming, I have rarely met someone conducting an interview and having 100% responsibility for the hiring decision, that could code more than a couple lines of code. In almost every interview I have been part of, on either side of the fence, the people applying have been screened by HR first, and almost always are far less qualified than those who "got away".

We all know a lot of people who have been hired, and promoted. because they were nice people. They are incapable of performing beyond the absolute minimum requirements, and frequently can't perform that well. We ALL know people who are paid far more than they are worth.


Dave
Post #1500029
Posted Monday, September 30, 2013 8:41 AM
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Jeff Moden (9/29/2013)
bmcgirr (9/29/2013)
Nice to be challenged with an opinion I can't agree with :)

I think you've put forward a bit of a straw man argument here. As a minimum, an interviewee must have the technical skills required to do the job. Nobody would hire a nice guy just because they are nice. The thing that gets people hired above that is whether or not they can apply those skills to produce what the customer wants. This requires the softer skills and a company would be silly to ignore them.


Amen to that.

I'll also tell you that I've had to work with some real jerks that some bosses put up with because the bosses thought the person was somehow smart enough to be indispensible. That's just wrong. Someone who can't get along with other people on the job is bad for moral and can drag a whole team down. There's no need for anyone to have to tolerate a jerk just because he's smart. There are enough smart people in the world that can work with others that you don't have to hire or keep a jerk.


I guess it depends on how you define jerk.

A person who is consistently causing issues is a problem, but a person who isn't social is not a problem unless you try to force them to be something they aren't.

Example 1 - a highly technical guy or gal that gets lost in their work, thinking deeply, researching, unwilling to be disturbed with inane talk about what clothese someone else is wearing, or what team won this weekend. This person is better described as focused and capable.

Example 2 - a person, technical or not, that spends their entire day talking about what team one this weekend, what clothes someone is wearing, and not producing anything. A social butterfly!

Example 3 - a person, technical or not, who seems to enjoy destroying others any way they can, fights to cause unrest and destroy teams, spends their entire life focused on how "we always did it this way", "we tried that before", et cetera.

Of those three people, example 1 is the person I want to work with because I know I am paid to do a job, not socialize. I see nothing wrong with someone else wanting to do their job. I think you are referring to example 3, which of course is someone that shouldn't be there. I submit, though, that example 2 is just as bad if not worse, because management tends to think these people are great, and the rest of us end up picking up the slack.


Dave
Post #1500038
Posted Monday, September 30, 2013 8:45 AM
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Phil Factor (9/30/2013)
@Jeff
I once wrote
'the best development teams I’ve worked on embraced the whole gamut of humanity – a wild mix of cultures, sexuality, motivation, age and beliefs, spiced with maverick spirits and eccentrics. The result being that everyone was jolted out of their complacency, both professionally and personally, and learned to challenge assumptions rather than accept them.'
I still stand by that opinion.
https://www.simple-talk.com/opinion/opinion-pieces/two-stops-short-of-dagenham/


I couldn't have said it better, and I couldn't have said it nearly as well either! I have attempted to make that point before, but probably failed. Our differences is what makes us strong as a people, race, species, whatever you want to call it. The people who fight to tear us apart are of course unwelcome, but just being different is no reason to be excluded.


Dave
Post #1500043
Posted Monday, September 30, 2013 9:10 AM


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Jeff Moden (9/30/2013)
The phrase "maverick spirit" sometimes bothers me depending, of course, on how one defines the word "maverick". I absolutely love the "mavericks" that come up with different and, many times, better ways to do something. "Best practices" many times come about by some "maverick" testing for oolies. On the flip side of the coin, I absolutely hate "mavericks" that implement those things without discussion with the rest of the team or any practicle testing because they don't necessarily know the ramifications of their "improvement" as they also don't necessarily know the big picture.

You are using "maverick" there to describe two completely different things: someone willing to propose a different way of doing things rather than succumb to the herd's "knowledge" is a maverick; someone who goes ahead and does something different without first discussing it with the team because he knows he always knows best is also a maverick. That causes a problem with using that term as a guide to recruiting: you have one word that can mean either "the sort of person that we neeed on the team" or "an unemployable incompetent". Then there's the social fit issue, which is even more worrying when misused. I can imagine someone "educated" in the new social fit ideas describing the first person, who is willing to rock the boat when that's what is needed to recover from its being grounded, being labelled a misfit and not employable, while the second person is employable (according to HR guidlelines) because will never rock the boateven whether the reason for that is that he doesn't have the imagination to realise that it could go aground that he wouldn'be able to rock it though being too dim to pour piss out of a boot even given a detailed instruction manual including pictures. And it can be used to "justify" a sexist, racisist, homophobic, or religionist recruitment policy, which is not a pleasant thing.

Don't think that I'm saying social skills don't matter; some whose lack of social skills would disrupt the team is not suitable for the job.But what we are seeing is more and more misuse of the social fit concept to exclude people who do have the necessary social skills because they are not going to refrain from pointing out problems, or will want to have a reasonable amount of time to work and think without distraction, or will want to have someone they can talk problems through with, or will refuse to trim their resource estimates unless the task's functionality and quality characteristics are trimmed enough to justify the trimmed estimates, or because their skin is the wrong color, or because they are the wrong sex.


Tom
Post #1500060
Posted Monday, September 30, 2013 10:40 AM


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paul.chancey (9/30/2013)
The greats you are talking about were either working alone or in very small groups in garages and basements. As software organizations grew it was inevitable that politics would enter the the framework of the company and eventually the job. Anytime there are more than 2 people in the room politics pokes in it's ugly head.

Oddly enough the greats like Turing, Flowers, and Codd didn't work in isolation or in garages and basements.

Turing was socially unskilled but worked as part of a pretty large team when he was employed by SCCS (1939 to 45) and in close collaboration with large teams at Dollis Hill and at Letchworth at he same time. He packed enough punch when 29 years old to get Churchill to appoint Travis deputy director of SCCS because he reckoned Deniston wasn't up to the job; a couple of years later he worked successfully with US Navy people and enabled them to reduce the number of Bombes they would need for naval decryption by a factor of 4, as well as pointing out tht not allowing for various mechanical effects in the machines they were attacking would have rendered their machines useless. His social ineptness ensured that he didn't wrap that up politely; but his US associates thought either that it was probably a good thing to arrange that fewer US ships would be sunk through lack of intelligence or (more likely) that it would be politically dangerous to make too much fuss so didn't complain very much.

Flowers was so socially unskilled that he ended up spending his own savings on the evelopment of Colossus and only got a tiny fraction of it back in compenation after the end of the war; but as he and his team at Dollis Hill was delivering one Mark 2 Colossus per month from June 1944 until the Japanese surrendered, he obviously wasn't a one man band or operating in a garage or basement.

Codd was sufficiently socially inept to upset his employer (IBM) thoroughly by telling their customers about his new Relational Model for databases (which IBM had refused to develop because it was too new and different and any way would divert revenue from their star DB product, IMD/DB), producing a customer reaction that forced IBM to develop it; this generated sufficient pique that Codd was effectively cut off from the development, and that resulted in Sytem R having the rather messy SQL language instead using Codd's Alpha (Codd's exclusion was porbably one of the reasons that Larry Ellison beat them to the market with the first commercial RDBMS). But he worked with quite a few people when he was at IBM research, San Jose (not exactly a garage or basement) including some other rather big names (Chis Date, Ron Fagin) and some of teh System R team (Ray Boyce obviously - they would hardly have a normal form named after the pair of them is they hadn't worked to gthere, would they) as well as with colleagues in distant parts of IBM (eg Heath at IBM Hursley).

I think 3 counter-examples is enough, don't you?


Tom
Post #1500113
Posted Monday, September 30, 2013 11:14 AM
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Personally I think there's room for both the genius jerk and the uninspired socialite, but each is only suitable in the right place.

If I want a highly technical engine developed and I'm convinced the workload is manageable I'd be happy enough hiring Ted Bundy if I could lock him in a broom cupboard and leave him to get on with it. If I want a work-a-day front end developed for a straightforward DB app then I'll take the uninspired socialite. If the former's got more social skill than they need or the latter has more technical then that's a bonus, but it's not the requirement. What I don't want is the genius jerk destroying my team if I don't need to leverage his genius or the uninspired socialite delivering me a second class engine if I could have locked him in a cupboard and not cared whether everyone think's he's a thoroughly smashing chap.

One thing I wall say, in my experience mavericks are rarely the genii they think they are. Usually they're just people who haven't spent time interacting with and learning from their peers to realise how fundamentally dumb the latest idea they're floating (and the word "floating" is particularly apt there) to the world actually is. If you think you know better than everyone else you're probably wrong. You might not be... but you probably are and you ought to at least entertain the possibility.

As a female developer over 40 it looks like my job prospects are minimal - depressing message on a Monday morning :-(
Hey, Pat, I hope that doesn't mean what I think it might. I just thought I'd say that I thought you were one of the better DBA's I've worked with. Pragmatic enough to get stuff done and tough enough to curb my worst excesses. I'd definitely work with you again
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Posted Monday, September 30, 2013 1:15 PM


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I read this as slightly unfocused, noting that we seem to hire for cultural fit instead of competence, but also noting that the design of open spaces makes it hard for people to get work done if they aren't social.

To me this conflates a few things that I'm not sure are necessarily true. In some sense we deal more with cultural fit because we have so many more people to work with, and the work spans more than performing our own task. However it's also because we want to ensure that we keep people for a long time since hiring is expensive and arduous.

On the other hand, the sheer growth in numbers of people in this business, or any other, means that some skills will water down. It's the chef problem on a massive scale. In some sense, this means we get lots of people in the business with few skills, other than perhaps selling themselves. I'm not sure this is different than any other business that pays well. Everyone will try to sneak in. The key is trying to keep those out that have no desire to learn or improve.

I value social skills and cultural fit over competence. However that doesn't mean, or imply, that it's one or the other. Competence is important, and anyone doing the work needs to have some talent and desire to do so. However if they are lacking slightly in places, I can teach them the technical skills. Much harder to teach them a personality.

However that's guidance, not an iron-clad rule. There are some incredible developers that have very poor social skills. They can still be used, but in appropriate ways. These are people you often don't place in front of clients, or vice-presidents, precisely because of their skills.








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