“Yeah, I know That” …a rant

April 10th, 2012 By randy Categories: Rants

I remember taking an undergraduate, management science, class where in an effort to gauge how much of the class needed an Excel review, the professor asked the question, “How many of you consider yourselves Excel experts?” I couldn’t help but think about the subjective nature of the question. Nearly half the class considered themselves experts; yet, as the class progressed, it became evident that overall, the so-called “experts” were struggling. I’m sure they all thought, with their limited understanding of the breadth of the software, “I know Windows;” “I’ve used Excel;” “yeah I know that…”

I’ve experienced the same phenomenon when interviewing and working with programmers and ‘nix admins. Almost always, the biggest technical dim-wits are those who are quick to say something like, “oh, I know PHP!” or “yeah, I know Linux.” Perhaps they have done a little coding or have worked with Linux before, but their limited exposure to the depth of the field and other competent people, have led them to believe that they are in some way good at what they do.

A serious programmer or sys-admin understands that there is a philosophy driving what they do and how they set things up. Anyone can code and anyone can Google their way through a Linux configuration, but not everyone understands good programming methodology and not everyone can think through a complicated algorithm to solve a difficult problem. Good programmers are confident, but they are also humble because they are aware of the breadth and depth of their field.

The same is true of non-technical managers and small business owners in the position of hiring technical staff. I later discovered that my management science professor was a dim-wit too; the early questions asked to gauge the competency level of the class revealed the fact that he himself didn’t understand the breadth and depth of the topic either. For the entirety of the semester, the class degraded into an Excel tutorial (this was an accredited institution). It wasn’t the first semester-long, waste of time I experienced throughout my academic career. Bored out of my mind, I even tried importing the class material into MySQL and writing Perl scripts to perform the same functions Excel did. I thought my professor would be impressed, but he insisted I use Excel; that’s what he wanted students to walk away from the class knowing. He did not recognize the value in actually understanding the algorithms, or being able to implement the formulas used under the hood.

This is why managers who don’t understand technology go from one bad hire to another. This is why managers and small business owners make the mistake of outsourcing their project to India; it’s cheap, and after-all “a coder is a coder is a programmer,” right? This is why the information security field is in shambles, basic web applications keel under the slightest load- requiring a dozen application servers, and script-kiddie hacker groups are empowered. It’s because for the past decade, our industry has made their killing by writing tools and software that enable dim-wits to say, “yeah, I know that…”

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