Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Recent book by Gladwell helps us understand I.T. learning curves

I’ve started (but not yet finished) Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers: The Story of Success” and wanted to report a discussion that me makes about computer programmers early in the book. He is explaining the phenomenal success of Bill Joy (Sun), Bill Gates (Microsoft) and Steven Jobs (Apple). Practically all people who become tremendously successful in information technology (including entrepreneurs who invent services like social networking sites) have “enjoyed” a lot of “practice time” in learning their skills, nearly always rather early in life. It takes about 10000 hours or hands-on work to get really good at something, Gladwell says. Yet, some teenagers do have the opportunity to put in the enormous amount of focused attention that it takes, which helps explain their successes in their early twenties in some cases.

Gladwell’s views ought to be of value to employers as they assess the lack of balance in their need for talent in such a choppy economy. Over the past twenty years, but especially since the 2000 recession, employers have become increasingly demanding of immediate, “job ready’ skills for contract work. They wonder why grizzled employees who had 30 years of mainframe (COBOL, CICS and JCL, etc) and are now in the 60s have trouble with the “learning curve” of the new, object oriented stuff. Gladwell’s answer is that it just takes practice. If you spend a couple years coding and testing a lot of Java yourself to put develop a new application (or something like a Data Access layer in an enterprise) you’ll pick up speed, rather the way a train does. If you jump in and learn it piecemeal in support, it just won’t be possible to develop enough facility, agility and expertise.

Employers should carefully reconsider the learning curve and training issues. The new Obama administration ought to encourage them to do so.

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