Monthly Archives: July 2010

The Five Levels of Incompetence

In my “Learning and Teaching” post last week, I talked about the different stages of learning, from “unconscious incompetence” up to “unconscious competence.” It occurred to me today, though, that there really are different levels within those levels and, in particular, there are some very distinct levels of incompetence that I’ve encountered in my nearly (yikes!) two decades of working in the industry. The reason why the levels of incompetence are somewhat more important than the various levels of competence, it seems to me, is that incompetent people are often a very real threat to the stability of teams that they work in, while competent people usually aren’t.

The five levels of incompetence are, in increasing order of danger:


Level 1: The N00b.

There’s not much to say about the n00b since, let’s face it, we’ve all been there. Hiring n00bs is unavoidable in most situations. Being a n00b is a basic fact of life.

Danger: Low, assuming that they are properly sandboxed or are experienced enough to sandbox themselves. (Otherwise, they’re likely to hit “launch” instead of “lunch” and then you’re really in trouble.)


Level 2: Out of their depth.

Typically, this is someone who’s not really incompetent in general but who’s just been pushed up to a level of responsibility beyond their capabilities (a.k.a. a victim of the Peter Principle.). I’ve seen this happen most often in situations where a senior, experienced person leaves the team and the leadership decides that they have to put someone equally senior in their place regardless of whether that person can, you know, actually do the job. So they pluck someone who’s senior but not as experienced and plops them into the departing person’s chair.

Danger: Moderate. Because the person isn’t completely incompetent, they tend to be able to give the appearance of competence and avoid leading the team totally off the rails but usually end up leading the team in circles. So the team doesn’t make any forward progress and people eventually wise up and leave.


Level 3: Dumb and Dumber.

Now we start getting into the fun levels. This person is just plain incompetent, someone placed into a totally inappropriate position for them (which, for the most part, is going to be any position). I’ve actually encountered very few instances of this in my career, and it usually happens when someone transfers between two wildly different kinds of jobs. That tends to mask, for a little while anyway, their completely lack of ability to actually do anything under the guise of just being a n00b.

Danger: High to moderate. It really depends on how fast everyone figures out just how incompetent the person is-usually, truly incompetent people get shunted aside as soon as everyone figures out what’s going on. If that takes too long, competent people tend to get pissed off and leave.


Level 4: Bozo.

The difference between a Bozo and a Dumb and Dumber is that a Bozo is Dumb and Dumber who thinks he is competent. Bozo’s tend to believe that they are as good or better than everyone else, deserve special treatment, and that their genius is being under-rewarded. And they ignore the fact that they have absolutely no idea what they are doing.

My best Bozo story is a Program Manager that I worked with a long time ago. I implemented a feature he specified. He entered a bug saying that the feature didn’t work correctly. I resolved the bug “by design” after I verified that the feature worked exactly the way he specified it. He then came to my office and started to argue with me that I shouldn’t have resolved the bug “by design,” because the feature didn’t work correctly. Finally, I pulled out a copy of his specification and pointed at the paragraph that said exactly how the feature should work. He then got totally exasperated with me and started ranting that I was supposed to implement the feature “the way he wanted the feature to work, not the way he specified it!”

Danger: High. Bozos are always on the lookout to get ahead (in line with their great abilities), so they often manage to worm their way in to management positions. They then tend to lead the team the way Mr. Toad drives motorcars: careening all over the road until they finally end up in the ditch. Bozo’s are adept at bringing down even the most experienced team in a surprisingly short amount of time.


Level 5: Evil Genius.

I was debating whether this is even a level of incompetence at all, because in many ways Evil Geniuses are not incompetent people. Quite the contrary, they are often quite adept at many things, including manipulation, spin, intimidation, self-aggrandizement, and sucking up. But I think in a deep sense, Evil Geniuses are just a more highly evolved form of Bozos because the end result tends to be the same: the team blows up in a very spectacular way. However, while a Bozo usually does this in a totally oblivious way (“What happened?”), it’s often all part of an Evil Genius’s plan to use the force of the explosion to propel them ever higher. These are the kind of guys who end up running major corporations and then running them totally into the ground. And then jumping ship to run an even bigger corporation. But, at the core, I think that Evil Geniuses act this way because they couldn’t actually figure out h
ow to do things in an above-board manner. Thankfully, I’ve met very few Evil Geniuses in my day. And those I have met, I’ve been able to largely avoid.

T-SQL Tuesday #8: Learning and Teaching

T-SQL Tuesday

Since I’m joining the T-SQL community, I thought I’d try my hand at a “T-SQL Tuesday” that I could actually have an opinion about. This week’s question (hosted by Robert Davis, a.k.a. @SQLSoldier on Twitter) is “How do you learn? How do you teach? What are you learning or teaching?” and is very relevant for me because, of course, I just joined the T-SQL team a short while ago and am doing a whole lot of learning at the moment.

How I learn

I was going to say “by doing,” but I don’t think that’s accurate enough because there are lots of kinds of “doing.” I’m reminded of something they said when I was learning to ballroom dance for my wedding reception. They said that when learning anything new, people tend to go through four distinct stages: “unconscious incompetence” (i.e. you don’t know how bad you are), “conscious incompetence” (i.e. you know exactly how bad you are), “conscious competence” (i.e. you’re good but you have to pay attention), and “unconscious competence” (i.e. you’re good and it seems effortless). So when I’m starting something new, I’m doing a lot things but most of what I’m doing is learning just how little I actually know. That’s helpful and necessary, but it’s not exactly what I call “real” learning. The real learning seems to come between the second and third stages-when I’ve discovered just how bad I am and am now working on figuring out how to be less bad. When I get to the fourth stage, the learning starts to taper down and that’s when I really get to enjoy the state of knowing (which I think is also called the state of “flow”) and I get to have a lot of fun.

The interesting implication of this is that when I’m entering a new area, my first attempts are necessarily going to not be that great because I don’t know what I don’t know yet. So the initial doing isn’t really very helpful in learning the area, nor is it likely to look much like what I’m going to end up with if I keep on learning. But it’s only when I’ve got something and I know, at least at some level, how bad it is that I can start learning the area. Ironically, when the true learning starts it mostly looks like anal-retentiveness and neat-freakishness-going over and over and over something I’ve done, trying to make it better and suck less. In other words, to start really learning something I have to take something I’ve already done and go back and start pulling at the loose threads, seeing how it unravels and then figuring out how to reweave it properly. That’s when I really get to figure out how the things are supposed to work.

(I’ll note here that this is the number one mistake that I’ve seen most new programmers make. They’re like the verse from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

They write their code once and then abandon it, never returning, always moving on to the next thing. Thus, they never actually get the chance to learn how to do things properly and always stay in that state of unconscious incompetence.)

Ironically, the situation I’m stepping into in SQL Server is perfect for “real” learning because I get to largely shortcut through the first stage of unconscious incompetence. That is to say, there’s already this large, mature artifact (i.e. the SQL Server codebase), so I don’t need to go through the trouble of creating something imperfect-someone’s already done that for me. I can spend just a few short weeks realizing just how little I actually know about anything and then jump straight to pulling threads and seeing what starts coming apart. Metaphorically, of course. I’m not gunning to have SQL Server fall apart on me or anything.

I actually think this can be more fun than starting something brand new and blazing the path, which isn’t the way the world sees it, oftentimes.

How I teach

I think I’m actually going to touch on this in more detail soon, but the short answer is: “by writing.” I’m pretty consciously incompetent when it comes to standing up in front of people and teaching them things, but I’ve been practicing writing for a whole lot longer and am better at it than speaking. And writing is just another form of what I was talking about in the previous section-first, I sit down and try to write down an explanation of whatever it is I’m trying to say. Then I realize how pathetically inadequate it is (most of the time) at saying what I want it to say. Or how little I understand what I’m trying to talk about. So I start pulling on the threads again and seeing what I can unravel and rework. And I find myself learning more not only about the process and practice of writing, but also more about whatever it is I’m trying to explain.

I think writing can be a wonderful way to teach people things, but I think it only really works-even technical writing!-if you follow the dictum of “writing what you know (and love).” In the end, I guess any teaching medium works if the teacher is interested enough in the subject, knowledgeable enough about it, and has a real passion for teaching (as opposed to a passion for having people listen to them, which is something entirely different).

Well, that’s about it. Hope this was interesting!