Technical Ability is No Guarantee of Success

I just read Most Likely to Succeed: How do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job? by Malcolm Gladwell. He talks about how a football recruiter agonized over his decisions:

…“This guy threw lasers, he could throw under tight spots, he had the arm strength, he had the size, he had the intelligence.” Shonka got as misty as a two-hundred-and-eighty-pound ex-linebacker in a black tracksuit can get. “He’s a concert pianist, you know? I really—I mean, I really—liked Joey.” And yet Harrington’s career consisted of a failed stint with the Detroit Lions and a slide into obscurity. Shonka looked back at the screen, where the young man he felt might be the best quarterback in the country was marching his team up and down the field. “How will that ability translate to the National Football League?” He shook his head slowly. “Shoot.”This is the quarterback problem. There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired. So how do we know whom to choose in cases like that?”

That's the same problem as in technical teams, which is why we try to use auditions. But even an audition alone in front of one person or with a whiteboard is no guarantee of on-the-job success.

Read the whole article, because Gladwell relates this problem to the teacher problem: how do we detect great teachers: it's not their degrees or strictly technical competence in their field–it's more about how they engage everyone in the room and how they give feedback (and take feedback, although that's just implied in the article).

Does that sound familiar to you? Working in a technical team partly about technical competence, because that's how you get in. But that's not how you stay in or become successful. You become successful in a job because you know how to help a team to evaluate and make a good decisions, to take and give feedback to peers, to use good judgement. These interpersonal skills are key to becoming successful in a technical job.

You can still be successful technically if you're not superb at these interpersonal skills. But you can't manage anything well unless you master enough of these (and other interpersonal) skills. Pay attention to your interpersonal skills in addition to your technical skills.

2 thoughts on “Technical Ability is No Guarantee of Success”

  1. >You can still be successful technically if you’re not superb at these interpersonal skills. But you can’t manage anything well unless you master enough of these (and other interpersonal) skills.

    What about Bill Gates? He seemed to be able to manage some very big things while not having great interpersonal skills. His famous line when I was at Microsoft was “that’s the stupidest f*cking thing I have ever heard.”

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