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Bill Nicolich

A big fan of SQLServerCentral, I hope to add good posts for the general enjoyment of other readers at SQLServer Central. Also check my personal blog for additional comments, recommendations and such at SQLFave.blogspot.com.

Handicapped by Choice

The picture I got from public school about evolutionary processes - and the view that I think most people share - has some big pieces missing. One of these pieces has been spotlighted by a nice married couple who are naturalists/scientists. Meet Amtoz and Avishag Zahavi. They developed the "Handicap Principle" in which animals signal their fitness and indicate the quality of their signals through handicapping themselves.

A classic example is the male peacock's tail. The colorful tail is wasteful and because it hinders movement, it endangers the animal - and it's used to signal male quality to the females. I'll leave you to explore the book for additional examples. The main thing about it for me is how counter-intuitive it is.

Evolutionary processes are usually employed as metaphors for adaptive change - for talking about things getting better. The Handicap Principle is about waste, escallating rounds of potentially zero-sum or negative-sum outcomes - and even of the threat of extinction.

The other reason I find the Handicap Principle compelling is because I see these processes play out in "our" technology labor market and elsewhere. I think a hint of it shows up around some of the discussions that take place about burnout. There are prizes out there to be won. Posts to fill. Statuses to acquire. There's the latest round of tools and technologies to master. They all involve the person taking on a certain extra load - which they may or may not be well-suited for at the time - much like a bird who eats dung takes a load on its immune system of diseases and parasites - in order to extract the yellow compound that makes its feathers pretty.

The point is that we talk about competition and we commonly bring up the notion that we're tempted to do too much. But the Handicap Principle suggests that there's more going on than mere temptation. There's really more of an inter-connectedness about it that is kind of troubling but it's there nonetheless.

The economist Robert Frank covers some of these themes and he says through my paraphrase that we get into these mutually-offsetting, escallating competitive games with other people with little to no coordination and we end up with situations like what we have with the glut of film students. Kick over a rock and a dozen film students scurry out - and there's far too many of them. Only a hand-full will become successful. They're in a very "winner-take-all" market. The rest will have to go learn how to code XHTML.

They're given freedom to choose a career. They wonder what they could do day-in and day-out and stay motivated. They think, "hey - I like watching movies. Great. That's the thing for me. I'll go to film school." The school accepts their money and off they go on the same adventure as thousands of others. They kind of expect something to materialize for all the effort. They run into a coordination problem.

Something similar can be said of going after and keeping a Microsoft MVP status. You might be doing great things, but you're not coordinated with other people who are also free to go after that goal. So maybe you expend tons of effort, you make trade-offs that hinder other areas of your life - and in the end, you were out-done by some other people. Now what?

I jest a little. but mainly, it's the basic awareness that I'm after. What to do with that awareness is still an area that I'm not sure about. And, since I don't really hear many influtential people talking about it, I gather that nobody else really has a good idea on what to do about it or with it either.

One thing to note is that our profession is not exactly like movie-making. Our profession isn't nearly as winner-take-all in nature. That's nice. That makes cooperation easier. However, there are some of these processes going on. If you care about things like sustainability - like setting a pace where people can operate indefinitely and be happy and successful, then this is an area that can't be overlooked.

Comments

Posted by chuckboycejr on 6 April 2010

As someone who's won three MVP awards in two different technology areas and THEN decided to attend film school (New York Film Academy) - I could not resist commenting on this outstanding post.

The only thing that comes to my mind was this quote that was on a poster in my public high school. Years later I discovered it was a verse from the Bible:

"I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all."

Posted by dbajonm on 6 April 2010

On the surface the principle makes sense, but there are some missing pieces.  Perhaps because you glossed over the details.

Peacocks: the males have succeeded in spite of the apparent disadvantage of having a large tail plume.  Perhaps the tail bloom confers some additional benefit.  Attracting a mate is a big perk in the animal kingdom so I'm a bit confused as to why the large tail is a disadvantage.  The colors of the tail could even indicate that the male is healthy and therefore virile.  Perhaps by being able to survive to an age where the male peacock can have a large tail indicates that the peacock has survived some life challenges that lesser males did not.  Again, I'm a sql dev (but i do have a zoology bend) so perhaps it's just the glossing over that makes me miss the disadvantage.

Film Students: The chances of success are slim, but if you do win, WOW!  Life is good (or at least I hope it is).  The chances are sure stacked against their success though.

But... have you ever bought a ticket for the lottery?  Might as well throw that buck right out the window.  You just gave up that dollar you earned for the last ten minutes of coding.  But if you _do_ win...

MVPs: I am not an MVP and have no real desire to become one.  Why?  You have to give up a lot of time and resources to become an MVP.  There are definitely perks associated with the title.  However, the perks have never been attractive enough for me to want to jump through those hoops.  My opinion is that it is not a worthwhile trade off.  However, I'm certainly glad that some people have become MVPs.  They've saved my butt on an occassion or two.

I really think that the trade-off is the key.  What is the trade off and are you willing to make it?  Go to college or find a job?  Research .Net 4.0 or Sql2k8 storage engine?  Play with your kids or try to uncover the next trend is software development?

The trade offs are made by each of us every day.  Sometimes we make good trade offs (I'm so glad I studied Sql Server 6.0 instead of PowerBuilder 6.0! :)) and sometimes they're not so good (why didn't I do VB _then_ VC++?).  C'est la vie.

Posted by Seth Phelabaum on 8 April 2010

@Jon on MVP's

I would offer the counter argument here that most MVP's aren't involved in the community just so they can be MVP's.  It might make some step it up a notch, but I would wager that most of them do it because they legitimately enjoy it.  

They're not doing work 'in exchange' for benefits, they're doing what they'd be doing anyways and happen to get recognized for it.  It's not entirely selfless.  Helping others / being active in the community is extremely useful for continuing knowledge.

Posted by Anonymous on 13 April 2010

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Posted by Bill Nicolich on 18 April 2010

chuckboycejr: Great quote ...time and chance happen to them all. I'd be interested to hear what sort of film projects you're doing.

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