Monday, 9 June 2014

Winging it and the Peter Principle

This story from the Guardian came at me from multiple people who +1's it or tweeted it or whatever. It's good, feels true etc. Read it now, I'll wait.
http://www.theguardian.com/news/oliver-burkeman-s-blog/2014/may/21/everyone-is-totally-just-winging-it?CMP=twt_gu

Like I said, it feels so true and at one level it certainly is. I was sitting at my laptop struggling with writing some tricky code, trying to figure out why whatever ought to work wasn't and thinking 'yeah, I am totally winging it here' which was true except for the 'totally'.

We work on the edge of our expertise a lot of the time. For many of us that's where the fun is, the challenge. It makes us grow, or it tells us our limits or something. We don't even think about the things we do that are second nature.

This is related to the 'Peter Principle', the notion that we are all promoted to one level beyond our expertise, which is just another way of saying we work on the edge. The Peter Principle is about people being promoted until we find they are in a position they cannot perform in. They've been good up until now, but the latest rise up the corporate ladder was one too many. They stay there because the people who put them there are too gutless (or incompetent) to push them back down again.

Mostly this is rubbish. It assumes there is just one point where people switch from competence to incompetence and that that this cannot be changed. I suggest that every new promotion has its challenges and each one takes time to work through, but what is really true is that we work on the edge of our expertise all the time. And it is true even for those of us who don't work in a corporate environment where 'promotion' is a foreign concept. We take on challenges because they are fun.

But are we totally winging it? Of course not.

Take some basics. I code using a laptop, mouse, second monitor etc. Do I have the slightest difficultly operating the mouse, getting it to point where I want and so on? No. It's not a trivial skill. Try teaching it to someone over 80 who hasn't used a mouse before. The development environment I prefer is Eclipse and I use it to write Java and C++ code. Navigating the file structures in that environment is something I do without hardly a thought. And, of course, those two languages have syntax which is as natural to me as speaking English. This isn't blowing a trumpet. Anyone who programs in this environment works this way.

A little while ago I reorganised my projects to build with maven instead of ant/ivy. I didn't know maven and I hate reading manuals. I generally read a little and try it, fall over, do a little more reading (just enough, I'm lazy) and get past that problem and so on. I was winging it the whole time. Now I use maven every day, and I don't think about it.

So it is true that we wing it all the time, but that is because we like working on the edge, but we're only on that edge because we have a rump of expertise to be on the edge of. So winging it, sure, but not totally winging it.
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