Up or Not: Ambition of the Expert Beginner
In the last post, I talked about the language employed by Expert Beginners to retain their status at the top of a software development group. That post was a dive into the language mechanics of how Expert Beginners justify decisions that essentially stem from ignorance–and often laziness, to boot. They generally have titles like “Principal Engineer” or “Architect” and thus are in a position to argue policy decisions based on their titles rather than on any kind of knowledge or facts supporting the merits of their approach.
In the series in general, I’ve talked about how Expert Beginners get started, become established, and, most recently, about how they fend off new ideas (read: threats) in order to retain their status with minimal effort. But what I haven’t yet covered and will now talk about is the motivations and goals of the Expert Beginner. Obviously, motivation is a complex subject, and motivations will be as varied as individuals. But I believe that Expert Beginner ambition can be roughly categorized into groups and that these groups are a function of their tolerance for cognitive dissonance.
Wikipedia (and other places) defines cognitive dissonance as mental discomfort that arises from simultaneously holding conflicting beliefs. For instance, someone who really likes the taste of steak but believes that it’s unethical to eat meat will experience this form of unsettling stress as he tries to reconcile these ultimately irreconcilable beliefs. Different people have different levels of discomfort that arise from this state of affairs, and this applies to Expert Beginners as much as anyone else. What makes Expert Beginners unique, however, is how inescapable cognitive dissonance is for them.
An Expert Beginner’s entire career is built on a foundation of cognitive dissonance. Specifically, they believe that they are experts while outside observers (or empirical evidence) demonstrate that they are not. So an Expert Beginner is sentenced to a life of believing himself to be an expert while all evidence points to the contrary, punctuated by frequent and extremely unwelcome intrusions of that reality.
So let’s consider three classes of Expert Beginner, distinguished by their tolerance for cognitive dissonance and their paths through an organization.
Xenophobes (Low Tolerance)
An Expert Beginner with a low tolerance for cognitive dissonance is basically in a state of existential crisis, given that he has a low tolerance for the thing that characterizes his career. To put this more concretely, a marginally competent person, inaccurately dubbed “Expert” by his organization, is going to be generally unhappy if he has little ability to reconcile or accept conflicting beliefs. A more robust Expert Beginner has the ability to dismiss evidence against his ‘Expert’ status as wrong or can simply shrug it off, but not Xenophobe. Xenophobe becomes angry, distressed, or otherwise moody when this sort of thing happens.
But Xenophobe’s long term strategy isn’t simply to get worked up whenever something exposes his knowledge gap. Instead, he minimizes his exposure to such situations. This process of minimizing is where the name Xenophobe originates; he shelters himself from cognitive dissonance by sheltering himself from outsiders and interlopers that expose him to it.
If you’ve been to enough rodeos in the field of software development, you’ve encountered Xenophobe. He generally presides over a small group with an iron fist. He’ll have endless reams of coding standards, procedures, policies, rules, and quirky ways of doing things that are non-negotiable and soul-sucking. This is accompanied by an intense dose of micromanagement and insistence on absolute conformity in all matters. Nothing escapes his watchful eye, and his management generally views this as dedication or even, perversely, mentoring.
This practice of micromanagement serves double duty for Xenophobe. Most immediately, it allows him largely to prevent the group from being infected by any foreign ideas. On the occasion that one does sneak in, it allows him to eliminate it swiftly and ruthlessly to prevent the same perpetrator from doing it again. But on a longer timeline, the oppressive micromanagement systematically drives out talented subordinates in favor of malleable, disinterested ones that are fine with brainlessly banging out code from nine to five, asking no questions, and listening to the radio. Xenophobe’s group is the epitome of what Bruce Webster describes in his Dead Sea Effect post.
All that Xenophobe wants out of life is to preserve this state of affairs. Any meaningful change to the status quo is a threat to his iron-fisted rule over his little kingdom. He doesn’t want anyone to leave because that probably means new hires, which are potential sources of contamination. He will similarly resist external pushes to change the group and its mission. New business ventures will be labeled “unfeasible” or “not what we do.”
Most people working in corporate structures want to move up at some point. This is generally because doing so means higher pay, but it’s also because it comes with additional status perks like offices, parking spaces, and the mandate to boss people around. Xenophobe is not interested in any of this (beyond whatever he already has). He simply wants to come in every day and be regarded as the alpha technical expert. Moving up to management would result in whatever goofy architecture and infrastructure he’s set up being systematically dismantled, and his ego couldn’t handle that. So he demurs in the face of any promotion to project management or real management because even these apparently beneficial changes would poke holes in the Expert delusion. You’ll hear Xenophobe say things like, “I’d never want to take my hands off the keyboard, man,” or, “this company would never survive me moving to management.”
Company Men (Moderate Tolerance)
Company Man does not share Xenophobe’s reluctance to move into a line or middle management role. His comfort with this move results from being somewhat more at peace with cognitive dissonance. He isn’t so consumed with preserving the illusion of expertise at all costs that he’ll pass up potential benefits–he’s a more rational and less pathological kind of Expert Beginner.
Generally speaking, the line to a mid-level management position requires some comfort with cognitive dissonance whether or not the manager came into power from the ranks of technical Expert Beginners. Organizations are generally shaped like pyramids, with executives at the top, a larger layer of management in the middle, and line employees at the bottom. It shares more than just shape with a pyramid scheme–it sells to the rank and file the idea that ascension to the top is inevitable, provided they work hard and serve those above them well.
The source of cognitive dissonance in the middle, however, isn’t simply the numerical impossibility that everyone can work their way up. Rather, the dissonance lies in the belief that working your way up has much to do with merit or talent. In other words, only the most completely daft would believe that everyone will inevitably wind up in the CEO’s office (or even in middle management), so the idea bought into by most is this: each step of the pyramid selects its members from the most worthy of the step below it. The ‘best’ line employees become line managers, the ‘best’ line managers become mid-level managers, and so on up the pyramid. This is a pleasant fiction for members of the company that, when believed, inspires company loyalty and often hard work beyond what makes rational sense for a salaried employee.
But the reality is that mid-level positions tend to be occupied not necessarily by the talented but rather by people who have stuck around the company for a long time, people who are friends with or related to movers and shakers in the company, people who put in long hours, people who simply and randomly got lucky, and people who legitimately get work done effectively. So while there’s a myth perpetuated in corporate American that ascending the corporate ‘ladder’ (pyramid) is a matter of achievement, it’s really more of a matter of age and inevitability, at least until you get high enough into the C-level where there simply aren’t enough positions for token promotions. If you don’t believe me, go look at LinkedIn and tell me that there isn’t a direct and intensely strong correlation between age and impressiveness of title.
So, to occupy a middle management position is almost invariably to drastically overestimate how much talent and achievement it took to get to where you are. That may sound harsh, but “I worked hard and put in long hours and eventually worked my way up to an office next to the corner office” is a much more pleasant narrative than “I stuck with this company, shoveled crap, and got older until enough people left to make this office more or less inevitable.” But what does all of this have to do with Expert Beginners?
Well, Expert Beginners that are moderately tolerant of cognitive dissonance have approximately the same level of tolerance for it as middle management, which is to say, a fair amount. Both sets manage to believe that their positions were earned through merit while empirical evidence points to them getting there by default and managing not to fumble it away. Thus it’s a relatively smooth transition, from a cognitive dissonance perspective, for a technical Expert Beginner to become a manager. They simply trade technical mediocrity for managerial mediocrity and the narrative writes itself: “I was so good at being a software architect that I’ve earned a shot and will be good at being a manager.”
The Xenophobe would never get to that point because asking him to mimic competence at a new skill-set is going to draw him way outside of his comfort zone. He views moving into management as a tacit admission that he was in over his head and needed to be promoted out of danger. Company Man has no such compunction. He’s not comfortable or happy when people in his group bring in outside information or threaten to expose his relative incompetence, but he’s not nearly as vicious and reactionary as Xenophobe, as he can tolerate the odd creeping doubt of his total expertise.
In fact, he’ll often alleviate this doubt by crafting an “up after a while” story for himself vis-a-vis management. You’ll hear him say things like, “I’m getting older and can’t keep slinging code forever–sooner or later, I’ll probably just have to go into management.” It seems affable enough, but he’s really planning a face-saving exit strategy. When you start out not quite competent and insulate yourself from actual competence in a fast-changing field like software, failure is inevitable. Company Man knows this on some subconscious level, so he plans and aspires to a victorious retreat. This continues as high as Company Man is able to rise in the organization (though non-strategic thinkers are unlikely to rise much above line manager, generally). He’s comfortable with enough cognitive dissonance at every level that he doesn’t let not being competent stop him from assuming that he is competent.
Master Beginners (High Tolerance)
If Xenophobes want to stay put and Company Men want to advance, you would think that the class of people who have high tolerance for and thus no problem with cognitive dissonance, Master Beginners, would chomp at the bit to advance. But from an organizational perspective, they really don’t. Their desired trajectory from an org chart perspective is somewhere between Xenophobe and Company Man. Specifically, they prefer to stay put in a technical role but to expand their sphere of influence, breadth-wise, to grow the technical group under their tutelage. Perhaps at some point they’d be satisfied to be CTO or VP of Engineering or something, but only as long as they didn’t get too far away from their domain of ‘expertise.’
Master Beginners are utterly fascinating. I’ve only ever encountered a few of these in my career, but it’s truly a memorable experience. Xenophobes are very much Expert Beginners by nurture rather than nature. They’re normal people who backed their way into a position for which they aren’t fit and thus have to either admit defeat (and, worse, that their main accomplishment in life is being in the right place at the right time) or neurotically preserve their delusion by force. Company Men are also Expert Beginners by nurture over nature, though for them it’s less localized than Xenophobes. Company Men buy into the broader lie that advancement in command-and-control bureaucratic organizations is a function of merit. If a hole is poked in that delusion, they may fall, but a lot of others come with them. It’s a more stable fiction.
But Master Beginners are somehow Expert Beginners by nature. They are the meritocratic equivalent of sociopaths in that their incredible tolerance for cognitive dissonance allows them glibly and with an astonishing lack of shame to feign expertise when doing so is preposterous. It appears on the surface to be completely stunning arrogance. A Master Beginner would stand up in front of a room full of Java programmers, never having written a line of Java code in his life, and proceed to explain to them the finer points of Java, literally making things up as he went. But it’s so brazen–so utterly beyond reason–that arrogance is not a sufficient explanation. It’s like the Master Beginner is a pathological liar of some kind (though he’s certainly also arrogant.) He most likely actually believes that he knows more about subjects he has no understanding of than experts in those fields because he’s just that brilliant.
This makes him an excellent candidate for Expert Beginnerism both from an external, non-technical perspective and from a rookie perspective. To put it bluntly, both rookies and outside managers listen to him and think, “wow, that must be true because nobody would have the balls to talk like that unless they were absolutely certain.” This actually tends to make him better at Expert Beginnerism than his cohorts who are more sensitive to cognitive dissonance, roughly following the psychological phenomenon coined by Walter Langer:
People will believe a big lie sooner than a little one. And if you repeat it frequently enough, people will sooner than later believe it.
So the Master Beginner’s ambition isn’t to slither his way out of situations where he might be called out on his lack–he actually embraces them. The Master Beginner is utterly unflappable in his status as not just an expert, but the expert, completely confident that things he just makes up are more right than things others have studied for years. Thus the Master Beginner seeks to expand aggressively. He wants to grow the department and bring more people under his authority. He’ll back down from no challenge to his authority from any angle, glibly inventing things on the spot to win any argument, pivoting, spinning, shouting, threatening–whatever the situation calls for. And he won’t stop until everyone hails him as the resident expert and does everything his way.
I’ve talked about the ambitions of different kinds of Expert Beginners and what drives them to aspire to these ends. But a worthwhile question to ask is whether or not they tend to succeed and why or why not. I’m going to tackle the fate of Expert Beginners in greater detail in my next post on the subject, but the answer is, of course, that it varies. What tends not to vary, however, is that Expert Beginner success is generally high in the short term and drops to nearly zero on a long enough time line, at least in terms of their ambitions. In other words, success as measured by Expert Beginners themselves tends to be somewhat ephemeral.
It stands to reason that being deluded about one’s own competence isn’t a viable, long-term success strategy. There is a lesson to be learned from the fate of Expert Beginners in general, which is that better outcomes are more likely if you have an honest valuation of your own talents and skills. You can generally have success on your own terms through the right combination of strategy, dedication, and earnest self-improvement, but to improve oneself requires a frank and honest inventory of one’s shortcomings. Anything short of that, and you’re simply advancing via coincidence and living on borrowed time.
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.