Technical Knowledge is Hierarchical (with apologies to A. Maslow)

With the shortage of quality talent in software engineering continuing to worsen, there have sprung up a multitude of programs, both online and classroom-based, that claim to be able to turn a tech novice into a functioning, effective, hire-worthy software developer in as little as 6 months. Granted, these courses generally focus on a very specific technology (PHP, or Ruby on Rails, etc.). But can they really deliver? Can someone who wouldn’t know a for-loop from a Fruit Loop really emerge from a 6-month course ready to set the Rails world on fire?

I root for the underdog (Cubs fan) so I’d like to believe it can happen. And as a hiring manager in a consulting firm, I feel the pinch of the talent shortage as much as anyone. Yet, as much as it kills me to say this my answer is, in the vast majority of cases, no. It just ain’t that easy.

Shifting gears a bit, one of the things that continually amazes me about many IT managers (and, sadly, many accomplished software developers) is widespread underestimation of the ability of professionals in this field to quickly pick up new skills and concepts. Whether it’s new programming languages, new design or architectural patterns, or new communication protocols like Web sockets, far too many people in this field have an inner fear of the new. This fear, more than any real or imagined challenges in learning, is what stagnates far too many people in our field. Be ready for the challenge, my compadres – it just ain’t that hard.

See what I did there? :) Contradicted myself. How can it be both ways? As you, astute reader, have probably guessed, I’m about to use that apparent conflict to make a point.

For probably 15 years or so, I have carried around in my head a visual image representing the various skills and bits of knowledge required to be an effective practitioner of software development. It’s heavily influenced by (okay, almost a carbon copy of) a pyramidal diagram that anyone with a reasonably well-rounded education has seen at least once: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

In that mental model, Maslow places basic, vital human needs – food, water, elimination – at the base of the pyramid. These are fundamental – without them, we quickly expire, and won’t continue to need anything.

In a succession of layers, moving up the pyramid, we see needs that are less critical to survival, but increasingly focused on what most of us consider to be a meaningful, healthy and successful life. Things like love and friendship. Achievement and mastery. Independence. And finally, at the top, this concept he calls self-actualization – the act of becoming all you can, and were meant to, become.

What if we were to start thinking about software engineering skills and knowledge in a similar manner? Are there basic, fundamental skills that we all must have? Of course there are. Language syntax. Compilation and the ability to understand compile errors. Variables, and flow of execution, and loops and conditional statements. If you don’t “get” these things, your career in this field will suffer the same fate as a human being without food and water. Ist kaput.


But once we do master those things, something wonderful and powerful begins to happen. Higher-order skills and concepts – things like object orientation, and effective relational database design – things that would have been nearly impossible to understand absent those fundamentals – are suddenly attainable. Not only attainable, but almost natural. The human brain has a wonderful way of building on one set of knowledge to form broader, more complex forms of knowledge. (This is how we’ve evolved from flint-tipped spears to intercontinental ballistic missiles over the years. The effect is real.)

And once we’ve mastered knowledge at an increased level of complexity and specialization, we’ve enabled ourselves to achieve still more. It’s a bit like starting down a big hill on a bicycle. The farther you’ve traveled, the faster you find yourself moving.

So – back to this earlier bit about learning a new programming language, and how it ain’t that hard. Think about it in the mental model of the hierarchy of skills. Once you’ve learned any programming language, learning a new language is largely something happening within the same hierarchical level – you’re not moving up the pyramid, you’re moving sideways. An if-else block is an if-else block, whether it’s in Java, Ruby, C# or Visual Basic. You don’t have to relearn what conditional logic does – you just have to discover what it looks like in the new language. Granted, there are always a few unique twists and turns in any language – new built-in features and common frameworks, fancy new operators (I’m looking at you, Ruby), etc. But these are relatively small and incremental, and quite easily learned while actively producing quality, useful code. Classroom time not required.

What, then, about the “be a programmer in 6 months” courses? Why don’t I believe in them? Because that bottom layer of the pyramid – the Fundamentals – is huge in our discipline. The amount of knowledge one needs to amass in order to be reasonably productive in this field is quite significant. The diagram I’ve included here is just a start, and in no way all-inclusive.

Courses that rush someone through will, out of necessity, spend far too little time on the fundamentals. If you’re learning Ruby on Rails in six months, the breadth of knowledge you’ll be presented with is staggering. You’re learning at every level of the pyramid. Where in this mental model would you place an ORM like ActiveRecord? Before you answer, remember that ActiveRecord presupposes knowledge of SQL, which presupposes knowledge of relational database theory, and so on, and so on…

So what happens in these courses is that a person emerges with some, but not nearly all of the fundamental skills an effective developer will need to have in the real world. I envision it as a tall, narrow slice of the pyramid. A skyscraper with a very small footprint. And that’s not a model for stability.

That’s why I don’t believe it’s possible to create an effective professional software developer of any ilk in 6 months. It just ain’t that easy.

One last thought before I wrap this one up. When I look at this diagram, and see the names of the various skills sort of suspended in space, I envision the presence of something else – something invisible, but which gives us the fabric on which all this technical stuff can be pinned. Things like passion. Intellect. Determination. Curiosity. Humility. Pride in a job well done. With all those things in place, pinning skills on the board becomes surprisingly easy. Without them, it can all fall like a house of cards.

Well, there it is. I’ve finally published that particular bit of content I’ve been carrying around in my head for so long. It’s a model that has served me well over the years, and one that has helped Redpoint identify, hire, and grow an incredibly talented and powerful team of professionals.

What To Expect When You’re Consulting: Professional Services 101

This post is for those in my field (software development) who have recently gone into consulting, or who are considering making that transition.

As a software engineer, developer, programmer (so many names for what we do…), much of the work you will do as a consultant will be no different that work you did as an employee in a Fortune 1000 company’s IT shop, or the software product development company you worked for. Loops are still loops, unit tests still serve the same purpose, and no, deadlines and the occasional span of crunch time are not gone either.

The differences are in your new set of relationships, and in the way you are perceived by others. The differences are not technical – they are very human.

More Stakeholders

Difference One: Congratulations, you now have two sets of bosses and a split identity. Henceforth, you have two groups to keep happy – your employer (the consulting firm), and the client currently reaping the benefit of your services.

Fortunately, the bulk of the time, what is good for the goose is good for the gander. If you are doing good work, show up to work reliably and on time, are courteous to your colleagues and managers, and have the occasional brilliant idea that saves others a bunch of time and effort, you will please your client – which in turn pleases your firm.

There are, however, differences in the goals of the client and the goals of your firm, which you should be aware of in your role as a consultant.

The goals aren’t that different, really… both have to do with business success and making a profit. But the way that profit is derived can be very different.

Your client, and specifically the client manager you report to, is likely measured (and paid a bonus) based on the success of the project you have been hired to help with. Success, of course, is defined by meeting functional goals, but also in terms of schedule and cost. The faster the project comes in – and the less money spent – the better off your manager will be.

Contrast this with the business goals of your firm, which is more than likely paid by the hour for the services you are providing. (We’ll deal with the special case of fixed-price projects in another post, someday.) In most cases, the more hours you work, the more your firm is paid.

You see the conflict, yes? Given a certain amount of work to do, you benefit your client by getting the work done in as little time as possible. You benefit your employer by getting it done in a reasonable amount of time (you can’t appear to be “dogging it” or incompetent, after all), but certainly not in the minimum amount of time.

Fortunately, your course of action is quite simple. Be diligent, be working when you are “on the clock,” and make smart decisions that eliminate unnecessary effort – but don’t take shortcuts. In particular, don’t take shortcuts that add risk to the project (such as skimping on unit test coverage, or deciding not to undertake that bit of refactoring that really does need to happen).

In other words, be professional. Always be aware of the sometimes-competing business goals swirling around you, but take care not to give in too much to any of them, and you will be fine – and your stakeholders will be happy.

Your Halo

You may not have experienced this yet, but you will at some point. You walk into a new client on the first day, and immediately hear things like “We are so glad you’re here.” “We have really been needing someone with your expertise.” Or one of my favorites: “Please don’t laugh too much at the code base – we’ve been under the gun, and haven’t really had the right team in place.”

Experienced consultants call it the “halo effect.” Before really getting to know you, before understanding just what your strengths and weaknesses are, people will often anoint you a hero – just because you’re an outsider. This is most common in companies where software development is not a core competency – and it mostly comes from managers, who don’t understand the nuances in a technical person’s background and won’t have a clue that, while you are certainly well-prepared for 80% of the work, there’s 20% that will be completely new to you.

My advice to you when you feel the halo effect shining in your direction is simply to let it roll gently off your back. Don’t fall into the deadly trap of growing an oversized ego – that will get you into trouble eventually. In fact, it’s probably best to temper enthusiasm, ever so slightly (I’ve written a lot on managing expectations already). Let them know that you are certainly up to the task, and will do all you can to make the project a success, but remind them that you are, in fact, not superhuman. It will help when you inevitably make some sort of mistake (being human and all).

Your Trident

Oddly enough, while some people in your new client are fitting you for that halo, others are looking over your shoulder for the trident you must be hiding, or for the horns sprouting out of the sides of your head. For to some, you are no angel. You are a threat.

The view of consultant-as-devil most often comes from The Establishment within the technical community at a client. Architects (particularly those whose designs and/or home-grown frameworks are being used on your project). Database administrators. Hot-shot programmers. In short, anyone who is currently seen as “the resident guru” and whose luster could be tarnished if your light shines a little too brightly.

When you encounter a cold shoulder or a glare in your general direction your first few days on a project, try to understand why, and don’t take it personally. You are a short-timer in this client, while many have made it home for their entire careers. You will need these people in order to be successful in your work – they hold significant “tribal knowledge” that will be critical to you – so make an effort to cultivate relationships with them. Take them to lunch. Let them know that you aren’t here to contradict them, or to expose their weaknesses. If anything, you are here to help.

Be humble. You may have wildly differing opinions when it comes to certain aspects of a project (“What? You’re really using a home-grown ORM when there are dozens of perfectly fine open source ORM’s available?”). But remember that your goal – in most cases – is the success of a specific initiative, and not the long-term health of the IT organization. Selection of frameworks and development technologies is often beyond your sphere of influence. Be willing to accept that, and rather than constantly fighting with architects and DBA’s, learn to “save your bullets for fights that matter.”

Certainly, when a particular technical direction causes an increase in effort on the part of you or your team, be firm in calling that out – in private, to your client manager. You can’t be held responsible for project “friction” that you have no control over, and you may be if you don’t raise your concerns diligently. But avoid sparring with the technorati in your client’s IT department. You’ll never win – and if you do, so what? A few months down the road, you’ll be gone, working for another client, and your former client’s staff will still be living in the house they built. If you left that client on good terms – with a project completed successfully and with no lingering ill will with any of the locals – you will have succeeded in pleasing both your client and your firm. Do it consistently, and good things will be coming your way.