Self-Correcting Organizations: Fall of the Expert Beginner
Today, I’m going to make what will be, for now, the last post in the Expert Beginner series. I edited the first post in the series to add a blurb about this, but I’ve actually been working on compiling these posts into an e-book that will sell for a few dollars. More specifics on the availability and timeframe of that to follow.
Also, I’m going to be traveling for a couple of weeks with very limited access to internet, so I doubt that there will be any posts to this blog before Memorial Day (May 27th). I plan to resume a normal posting cadence then. Thanks for your patience.
The Human Cost
If you’ve followed this series of posts, it’s pretty likely that you empathize with observing and dealing with Expert Beginners. That is, you’ve most likely encountered someone like this in your travels and been stymied, belittled, annoyed, exasperated, etc. by this Expert Beginner. So you’re probably rooting for the outcome in the title of the post. This is the post in which the cosmic scales are rebalanced and the arrogant Expert Beginner finally gets his comeuppance: The Fall of the Expert Beginner. But not so fast–there’s some ground to cover first, and if you’re looking for a nice resolution where the bad guy is brought to justice, you might be disappointed.
I mean, it’s nice to read the Daily WTF and see the occasional story about a bungling but nasty manager or architect being dressed down or laid off, but in your life, the players involved are actual people and everyone suffers real consequences. If you hire on with an organization dominated by an Expert Beginner and then leave in frustration, you’re investing time that you’ll never get back and incurring the hassle of a job search sooner than expected. You also probably came on board because you liked the company and its goals and mission, and you leave knowing that its interests are being sabotaged by incompetence and that your friends and everyone else still working there are not doing as well as they could be if the company were enjoying more success. And even if the Expert Beginner does wind up being disgraced somehow, via demotion or termination, that’s a person who now must explain to a family that they’re going to have to batten down the hatches financially until he figures something out.
In the last post in this series, I left off with a teaser for this post where I said that Expert Beginners generally enjoy high odds for short term success which drop to zero on a long enough timeline. Here, I’d like to talk about the means by which some Expert Beginners tend to escape that fate before describing it in detail.
The secret to success in the Expert Beginner world is to understand that programming (or really any line-level expertise) has to be a means to an end only. It’s not a skill that you’re going to master, but one of which you’ll fake mastery for just long enough to profit (literally and figuratively) and bail out. This requires some ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance and swallow pride, albeit in a way that allows for ample spinning of the truth. And really, there’s only one category of Expert Beginner from the three that I defined in the previous post that can get out of the game as a success: the Company Man.
Let’s consider casino poker as a metaphor for explaining the fate of Expert Beginners. Expert Beginners are essentially poker novices who sit down at a low stakes table, catch a run of incredible cards, and wind up with a big fat stack through the vagaries of chance. From there, the paths diverge depending on the archetype.
Xenophobe stays at the low stakes table because on some level he knows that he’ll get slaughtered by good players at the high stakes tables. He doesn’t tell himself this, naturally, but rather insists that he likes the down-to-earth vibe of the table or something. He also doesn’t cash out because being good at poker is important to him. So he rides his initial luck as far as it will go, but, sooner or later, that luck runs out. Slowly he loses control of his modest fortune, one bad bet and wrong play at a time until he’s chip-less. He eventually leaves with nothing in his pocket, unable to understand why repeating the exact behaviors that earned him success didn’t continue to work.
Master Beginner takes his initial luck and interprets it brazenly as utter poker mastery. He sits at the tables that have the highest stakes and goes all in all the time, perhaps without even looking at his hand. His beginners’ luck allows him to parlay a larger stack into an intensely successful (but brief) series of bluffs which catch the sharks and good players completely off guard, feeding back into the cycle and making him feel invincible. Once people figure out his game, they quickly and decisively dismantle him no matter at which table he’s seated, but his brief, intensely bright and meteoric rise is as memorable as the explosion and flameout.
It’s the Company Man approach that winds up with a chance for escape. Company Man has neither Xenophobe’s neurotic need to believe himself a poker expert nor Master Beginner’s complete faith in his delusion, so he is the one that might actually cash out and go do something else with the money before it’s all gone. There’s no guarantee, but at least he has a fighting chance.
Tragicomic Explosion: Fall of the Master Beginner
The Master Beginner’s fate is really the least interesting because it’s so entirely predictable. In the poker analogy, he blows into the high stakes table like a hurricane, creating massive disruption before blowing out just as quickly. In the real world, Master Beginners don’t last, either. Their timeline is highly accelerated.
A Master Beginner that is new to a company will come in and proclaim that everything is wrong and loudly bang his own drum as some kind of Messianic figure sent in to save the masses from themselves. Everyone believes him at first–even Experts. The reason is partially what I mentioned in the previous post: people assume someone this brazen must be right. But it’s also partially that people in the Competent to Expert range are aware that they’re not all-knowing and are inclined to accept initially at face value that someone knows things they don’t.
It isn’t long before the Competents, Proficients, and Experts figure out that Master Beginner is a bag of hot air. The only remaining questions then are (1) how long until management starts listening and acts on the words of their good developers; and (2) how many hilarious things happen before it does.
Some Master Beginners mount an impressive enough initial assault to be promoted quickly or named to a position of authority, but this just buys them a few more months or, in extreme cases, years, once the jig is up. The Master Beginner rockets through the atmosphere like a meteorite: blazingly fast, with blinding light, and ending in a spectacular conflagration.
Master Beginners are probably the least pitiable not only because they’re usually insufferable, personally, but also because they tend to land on their feet. If one’s shtick is being able to pull off a ridiculous skill bluff for a little while, securing interviews and getting job offers tends not to be a problem. Most people who know Master Beginners tend to shake their heads and say, “I can’t believe people keep hiring that guy!” Master Beginner inevitably fails at his goal because his goal is to receive the recognition he deserves as a consummate expert, and that never lasts for any length of time, wherever he goes.
Slow, Agonizing Defeat: Fall of the Xenophobe
Xenophobe’s arc is a longer-playing one by far than Master Beginner, and there is actually some remote chance for limited success. The goal of Xenophobe is to freeze the world in its current state, within the cocoon of his comfort zone. He wants to keep the same members on the same team using the same technologies to do the same work, in perpetuity. If you’re a bettor, you probably wouldn’t take those odds on a long timeline. Nevertheless that’s what he aims for.
If he happens to work for some remote outfit, nestled snugly within some byzantine bureaucracy, he might be able to keep the dream alive as he runs out the clock toward retirement. But situations where nothing about the work environment changes are rare, especially in software, and are only becoming rarer. There aren’t that many opportunities to lead a team that cranks out maintenance updates to some COBOL system and plans to keep doing so until 2034.
The far more common case is that things do change. People come and go. New frameworks must be learned. New ideas sneak in through various channels, and all of it chips away at the credibility of Xenophobe’s qualifications. He can manage at first, but eventually management overhears whispers from other developers of ways of doing things that could save tons of time and money. People from other departments hear about tech buzz words and Xenophobe doesn’t even know what they are. Day after day, month after month, his credibility erodes until something happens.
That something can vary. Perhaps it’s the appointment of a “co-architect” or a reorganization of the group. Perhaps he’s shuffled onto a different project or asked to continue to maintain the old version while an up-and-comer is tasked with architecting the rewrite. It could be outside consultants brought in as “staff augs” or farming off of whole projects elsewhere.
Interestingly, end for Xenophobe is rarely a termination. Unlike Master Beginner, Xenophobe doesn’t squirt gasoline on bridges and gleefully ignite them. He’s more pitiable and shrewd. So what happens is that he’s effectively put out to pasture in all but name. He might even get a better title or an office or something, but his responsibilities are divvied up and portioned out to others until he just collects a handsome wage to sit in his office and do very little.
While Xenophobe’s capacity for self-delusion is high, as is generally the case with Expert Beginners, his tolerance for cognitive dissonance is extremely low. This makes this “reorg” too much for him to take lying down. He may rage-quit–a sad option since he’s probably going to need to take a massive pay-cut to get hired anywhere else. He may simply rage, at which point his management is likely to show him a starker view of reality than he’s accustomed to seeing, which is a sad sight. Or he may do neither of those things and bitterly accept the new situation.
The fate of Xenophobe is actually intensely depressing. If you’ve worked with him directly, you probably don’t find it such during the short term since he’s often pretty hard to work with, but he’s not a pathological grand-stander like Master Beginner. He’s just a guy that lucked out, believed his own hype and got out of his depth. In a way, he’s like a lottery winner that squanders his fortune and winds up broke. Almost invariably, Xenophobes drift bitterly toward retirement, stripped of all real responsibility and collecting paychecks at the mercy of mid-level managers that continue to bolster (fake) the business case for keeping him on staff. When he’s not so lucky, he winds up in the same boat as the rage-quitter–taking a huge pay and responsibility cut, or crawling back to his former employer and then taking a huge pay and responsibility cut.
A Glimmer of Hope: The Company Man
Company Man lacks the neurotic pride of Xenophobe and the pathological cockiness of Master Beginner, and that has the potential to provide a way out. But let’s consider what happens to Company Men who don’t escape first. These are the ones who find their way into project management or line management and squander the false capital of their ‘technical expertise.’
At the core of the Expert Beginner experience is a quest for status and recognition. It’s not about money or even organizational power (beyond the software group, anyway). Truly. If it were, the Expert Beginner would never become Expert Beginner. He’d recognize that the path to a corner office usually doesn’t wind its way through the land of “knowing the Java compiler inside and out.” Someone interested primarily in being a C-level executive would recognize that programming is something you do for a few years and put up with until you can make the jump to project management, then line management, then VP-hood, etc. Expert Beginners relish being the best bowler in the alley and are willing to chase better bowlers away with baseball bats to protect their status if it comes down to it (or simply claim they won in spite of having a lower score, in the case of wildly delusional Master Beginner).
Company Men who don’t make it fail to recognize a life raft being floated to them. Once put into a managerial position of authority, they rule like technical Expert Beginners (architects or tech leads or whatever they used to be). To put it another way, they micromanage. In their previous role, they likely had some actual programming to do or else their control wasn’t absolute, so others could defy them, pick up the slack, or do what needed to be done to keep the wheels on the machine as it flew down the tracks. But a micromanaging Expert Beginner has nothing to do but meddle, bark orders, and chew people out for thinking for themselves. The wheels start to come off pretty quickly under his (mis-) management.
This Company Man unwittingly sabotages himself by finally having and exerting total technical control. Ironically, he sinks the ship by totally assuming the helm. Work stops getting done, morale plummets, projects fail, and HR issues abound as employees choose between defying the Expert Beginner and getting things right or obeying and having the project fail. Attrition mounts in these circumstances, and the Dead Sea Effect cycle time is radically accelerated with developers jumping ship like rats. Clearly, this is unsustainable, and the Company Man is demoted or let go. This is a tough spot for Company Man because he’s bad at tech but has a good track record for it on paper. He could theoretically be less incompetent at managing, but he’s crashed and burned in his only stab at that role. So he likely winds up hiring on as some senior developer elsewhere and trying to repeat the cycle. He isn’t quite as nimble as Master Beginner, but he’s not utterly trapped like Xenophobe, either. He’ll move on and probably have a chance to get management right the second time around by ceasing to play at technical acumen: a face-saving strategy.
And that brings us to the successful escapee of Expert Beginnerism: the (subconsciously) self-aware Company Man. He’ll never admit it, even to himself, but the successful Expert Beginner can feel the wolves closing in as the world changes and his policies are increasingly not successful. As he contemplates where to go from “Architect That Frequently Squabbles with Some of his Senior Developers,” this is the guy who hears a little, nagging voice in the back of his head that says, “You know, times are changing here faster than you want to, so perhaps its time to hang up your obviously quite impressive spurs and ‘retire’ to management.”
When he makes the jump, he also makes a clean break with his former life. He’s content to be known as the guy who used to be the architect but is now in management. There will be some amount of shared, mutual fiction between him and his formerly restless techie underlings as they’re grateful for his departure and wish him the best, in earnest, so that he stays where he’s at. They’ll agree with him that he was truly an awesome architect whose incredible skill set is just needed elsewhere. Everyone wins here, so why not?
And from here, there’s a new period of acquisition and the slate is wiped clean. The former technical Expert Beginner reaps the benefits of being considered an ‘Expert’ as he embarks on a new learning curve. And while certain personality leanings make this possible, there’s no guarantee that he’ll become an Expert Beginner at management. He might excel in it and be receptive to continued learning in a way that he wasn’t as an erstwhile techie. He might also become an Expert Beginner in management, but the odds here aren’t nearly as bad since management is really a lot more subjective–competence versus incompetence is harder to assess concretely. By keeping his hands off of the ship’s helm, sails, and really anything of import, the former Expert Beginner can be a decent captain by relying heavily on his competent crew, even if he was a poor sailor.
A Sad Tale
Following the career arc of Expert Beginners is really quite sad. In the early stages, one feels annoyed and a little indignant while watching advancement by luck instead of competence. As things progress, real damage is caused by poor implementation and wrong-headed approaches, resulting, for a lot of people, in stress, frustration, failure, and at times even lost jobs and failed ventures. In the end, the fate of the one that caused these things is probably poetically just, but it’s hard to find happiness in. A person ill-suited for a role assumed it, caused problems, and then suffered personal hardship. It’s not a great story.
This is my last Expert Beginner post on the blog until after the release of the E-book, when I will eventually publish the conclusion, entitled, “Wasted Talent: The Tragedy of the Expert Beginner.”
But the one thing to take away from this post is a bit of ability to assess what effect Expert Beginners may have on your career. You will usually see them crash and burn on a long enough timeline, if you can outlast them. Occasionally they will be promoted out of your way. Should you stick around and fight them or wait for their demise (or try to help them, if you’re altruistic and masochistic)? That certainly has to be a decision for you to make, but it should help to know that even slow-acting or overly-loyal organizations will self-correct eventually, provided they have a track record for success. So consider the company, its Expert Beginner, the type of Expert Beginner, and the distance along in the process of their fall from power when you make your decision.
Edit: The E-Book is now available. Here is the publisher website which contains links to the different media for which the book is available.