Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Right Learning for the Job

I was one of those only semi-mythical teenagers who could fix your computer for you no matter what went wrong. When I started working in hospitals the total number of people in the computer department could be counted on one hand. And the total included the manager (not director... manager), the secretary, and the one fix-everything techie. That techie was me.

It was obvious that computers were the next big thing. Soon almost everyone in the hospital would have one. It would take a while of course. There are only so many computers one person can install in a week. People weren't as comfortable around computers as they are now. This was before smart phones, before facebook, and even long before email was widespread.

During those years I kept getting asked one question over and over. How did you learn about computers? Usually someone was asking because they wanted to push a son or daughter into learning about computers so they'd have a guaranteed career in the apparently exciting field of computers.

I'd patiently say that I didn't learn in any particular school. That, at the time, there were no places to learn how to be an all around PC support person. I'd mention community college or the like but since I'd never gone for those computer courses I'd have to tell them I didn't know if the courses were any good. To those people I really liked I then told them the real secret. The secret was that even if there was a really good technical school that could teach you those technical skills that was just half the battle. No one taught me the real skills required to fix computers.

The real skills were people skills. How do you tell someone that you can't retrieve or fix the only copy of a document they've been working on? How do you tell them when it's something they've literally worked on for months?

Back in the days before ubiquitous backups and networks it was amazing how often disks and drives lost files. (By the way... you do backup your important files right?)

How do you tell someone that they've been doing something on the computer incorrectly? Do you tell them that they're stupid? That they should have known better and that they deserve the problems they're having? Or do you tell them that computer programmers don't think like 'the rest of us' and that if they learned a few things about computers and how those programmers make computers work they'd save themselves lots of trouble?

Do you have any idea how many times I told people something wasn't their fault and that it was the fault of the computer and the programmers who thought about working on computers in another way? I learned how to make sure people felt superior to the computer and I made sure they decided to learn how to work down to the level of the computer in order to get their work done with as few problems as possible.

A large part of my success as a techie was due to the fact that I didn't make people feel stupid around their computer. I made them feel like smart people who had to learn to deal with a dumb machine.

Over the years I found that the best techies were not just the ones with incredible computer skills. Techies (not programmers) need interpersonal skills of the highest order. We are the elite psychological ninjas of the technological world. You'll never realize that we politely told you that you didn't know how computers worked and you've been doing things wrong. You'll think that we told you that computers aren't as smart as you and that you have to, sadly, start changing your behaviour in order to accomodate the stupid machine.

We manipulate, teach, instruct, and correct while making people think it's not their fault.

Which, of course, is why I'm linking to an article on how to be a successful management consultant without having an M.B.A. The Management Myth by Matthew Stuart tells of how he became a successful founder of a consulting firm with a doctoral degree in nineteenth century German philosophy. His look at the history of management theories and approaches is worth reading the article for. His look at how management theory and business degrees can actually limit how you think about problems is eye opening.

It turns out that the right skills for many jobs are not the obvious ones. Yes... you have to know about computers to be a techie. Yes... you have to know about business to be a management consultant. But too much specific knowledge in one specific area may be a bad thing.

Which leaves me with one very big question. How do you find and hire those perfect candidates that don't have the exact educational and technical skills you require but would be unexpectedly perfect in a job?

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