An Ex To-be

I graduated from Computer Science in my mid-twenties. As a 35-year-old programmer I was already a senior. Hitting forty I was a has-been in waiting, an ex to-be1. At fifty plus nobody believes I can program anymore. My conclusion; straight out from school we got to learn again …and again. But it’s not doom and gloom — on the contrary.

If it was possible to create a diagram of the competence over a life span, it would look something like this:

Figure: The life’s competence curve. Yellow curve: We go through education, work hard and then wait to die. Red curve: You’re promoted. Ouch.

Time is on the horisontal axis and vertical is the level of proficiency we master in our day to day job. The yellow line is the competence curve of the old good days. You spent a quarter of a century in education2 and then used that knowledge for the rest of your professional life. After that – from a professional competence point of view – you wait to die.3

Suddenly, one day you’re promoted. It could be that you’re called on the lead the team or department. There is one major problem though. You haven’t taken a single course in “Management 101” or “Leading by example”. Let alone regulations, benefits of diversity or …well, you see the problem. As you can imagine, your competence curves takes a major hit. After all, you spent all those years learning how to build bridges and whatnot.

Except this curve is not true any more. We don’t get to spend 40 years honing our skill set (or just one single role transition as described above).

Thomas Jones, an American professor at MIT, tried to estimate the “half-life” of an engineer. Or more correctly, he described the time it takes for half of your knowledge to be out of date and in dire need of an update4. He arrived at the figure of ten years. But yet, his estimate stems from 1966… Today some believe this knowledge decomposition to be less than five years. A software engineer comes in even lower — below three years5. This is all the more jarring since it usually takes half a decade for studies at university.

Principles of career

The Peter Principle6 states that “managers rise to the level of their incompetence”. They stay at this level that they cannot handle. He argues that we promote people on the basis of their performance in their current role, not the new one. This applies to us all. Whatever worked before, we will try again until we no longer can perform adequately for a given higher position. This is when our careers stop. This does sound bad, but it still was the “golden” days of working. At least we hade some time to prepare for that new level of responsibility.

Enter the Dilbert Principle7. The cartoonist and author Scott Adams believes that corporations tend to promote the least competent people to management. The intent would be a way of minimising the damage that they might inflict on the organisation. It is a good dark joke, but with a grain of truth to it. A friend of mine described how she and a group of friends decided to start a company directly after graduation. They went around the table and dispensed the responsibilities. At the end they still had one role to fill and no takers.
– Oh, I can be the CEO then! If no one else wants it, she exclaimed.

We have entered an age where not even prior experience is needed. This of course has its upsides, opportunities come quicker than ever before. But still, it can be hurtful to learn on the job with real people as guinea pigs. My friend? She worked for five years as the CEO making the company grow. She learnt a lot.

The linear progression that was the norm during the Peter era, is now more akin to jumping stones. Back and forth, it can be hard to make out a pattern on certain people’s CV’s, but it usually is there. It could be a wish to change the world somehow somewhere. Or that you follow your friends as you evolve through different companies. The more extreme will end up with roles as plentiful as badges on a scout’s uniform.

Where does this leaves us?

Our knowledge that we built up in school will deteriorate — no matter what. We shift roles a lot more during our career.

We need, and are being forced, to make this the new default. Life long learning is a must. Schools must teach the art of learning — not just the various subjects. Organisations must search for new career paths that allows us to try out different roles. It can be done in a more safe way than the current drive-by-appoint-and-forget our new managers. Why not “CEO for a week” apprentice? Or “Undercover Janitor”?

Most importantly we need to incorporate learning as an ever ongoing — and fun — part of our jobs. It has to be a joy to evolve, otherwise we can’t keep doing it. It will just be too hard.

Thomas Jones also estimated how much time we need to invest to keep up. Over an engineer’s professional life span (s)he would need the equal of two extra engineer degrees beyond graduation8. That’s a lot and hard to comprehend. Translated into a work week, you would need to spend around half a day. Let us adjust to present half-life and to software engineering. We are looking at a day’s worth of learning — each working week of the year. Tough, but also some serious fun in my eyes.

That much learning on the job is tough to come by. Chances are that you toil away in a company that is not ready or willing to spend that much “not working”. I’ll dive deeper into what you can do about this in future blogs.

All doom and gloom for the “old”?

At the start of this blog I was a bit harsh about the life expectance of old developers. Are we obsolete by the time of 45? Absolutely not!

A survey looked into the effectiveness of different generations9. Turns out that the older generation (40-50 year olds) came in slightly better than the youngest generation (20-30) by a couple of per cent. The biggest differentiator was the ability to avoid making serious mistakes. So keep learning, keep harnessing those experiences. It will make you better as we all grow older.

  1. Swedish: blivande f.d.
  2. Assuming university level studies and, yup, I am counting parents as well.
  3. My apologies for being rude in making my point, of course old people learn 😉
  4. “Technical Obsolescence”, IEEE Spectrum
  5. “Lifelong Learning for Engineers: Riding the Whirlwind”, National Academy of Engineering
  6. The Peter Principle of promotion, Wikipedia
  7. The Dilbert Principle, Wikipedia
  8. “An Engineering Career: Only a Young Person’s Game?”, IEEE Spectrum
  9. Darn, I know I have that article somewhere!While I’m looking, please enjoy “A Sharper Mind, Middle Age and Beyond”, NY Times


One Response to “An Ex To-be”

  1. KFika – the smallest start to learning with coffee, bun and sharing experiences | Tumblelight Says:

    […] and other strands of thought by Björn Granvik « An Ex To-be […]

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