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Posted by gustav at 07:01AM, Wednesday, December 06th, 2000

In search of competence

Why is it that incompetence flourishes? I live in what many people would term the intellectual capital of the U.S., yet everywhere I turn I encounter people who appear to be basically incapable of doing their jobs.

This has, of course, been most apparent lately while I'm at work.

I come into work at 9:30 this morning. All the developers have shut
down their machines over the weekend, because the power has been rewired.
So, after booting up my machines and checking my email, I try to do
some jsp work. Unfortunately, my beans talk to some ejbs that are
supposed to be on one of the other developer's machines. That machine
isn't on yet. It's still not on at 10:20, twenty minutes after
everyone's supposed to be in the office.

What do you know, at 10:59, I can finally run my jsp pages. The
Oracle server apparently didn't come up after it was shut down.
Our DBA thinks it was because of some boneheaded move on the part
of our sysadmorons (shocking.) Once that was up, the java data
engineer could start the bean server. Of course, no one thought to
inform me of any of this until I went over and pestered them.

I can do my work, when I have the right tools. If I need to rely on
other people doing their jobs in order to have access to the tools I
need, things start to get tricky. I hate being forced to rely on other
people, particularly when those other people are unreliable. This
is the myth of teamwork. It's always better if you can do it all
yourself. Sure, in a mythical workplace where everyone did her job
quickly and effectively, drawing on every team-member's expertise might
be great. But I've never worked at that place.

One can almost forgive this sort of thing in a young, local business.
But my experience has been that it's not specific to such businesses.
Witness Microsoft, the most successful business in the world, which
a monopoly on the operating system industry, even though the company
has demonstrated again and again that it has no idea or concern for
usability, arguably the most important aspect of an operating system,
and the one that started the company's path to glory with the launch
of Windows. Witness also all the Java-based web scripting tools I've
used at work -- tools designed specifically for web site
scripting, apparently by people who've never developed and maintained
a large web site in their lives. Sure, I can do my job with these tools,
but I could do it a lot easier if their designers had just taken a
moment to think about how they would be used, and what their users
would like and need.

So, I go to look at new cars. I'm somewhat surprised to find that
salesmen get shocked when I'm not terribly willing to spend 20 grand
on a car in a color I don't want, and even more shocked when I expect
them to find me one in the color I do want.

Next, I go to listen to CD players. I get turned off when,
pondering a couple of four-figure players, I ask to hear them with
the speakers of my choice (which the shop carries), and am refused.
When, disappointed, I announce that I'm not going to buy a player,
the salesman and business owner (granted, this was on Long Island,
where, presumably, treating customers well has nothing to do with
business success, but...) quite rudely accuses me of wasting his time.

These aren't good ways to induce customers to spend money.
Anyone who deals with the public obviously has to put up with a lot,
but I don't think I was being an asshole, and I honestly would have
bought from both these guys if they'd only been more accomodating.
The best salesmen I've met understood that -- I never had to work
hard to have my requests fulfilled with them, and I gave them my
business again.

I go to the neighborhood CVS after work and try to pick up some
prescriptions. Now, Boston has this intriguing sort of scenario when
it comes to menial jobs. Granted, these employees are poorly-paid,
and it can't be any fun dealing with the general public. But I've been
in other, equally large, cities where these sorts of employees weren't
even remotely as rude or inept. One would expect someone who works all
day in a pharmacy to be able to spell the names of common drugs. One
would expect someone who works all day in a pharmacy to be able to tell
the difference between an expired prescription and a denial of payment
from an HMO. One would expect someone who works all day with an
almost-entirely-English-speaking clientelle to, well, speak English
(not the fault of the employee, necessarily, but rather the employer,
who's equally to blame for all these issues.) One would be expecting
too much.

Defenders would argue that one simply cannot expect competent workers
in menial jobs in this job market. That argument has only two flaws:
first, that the average menial worker in some even tighter job markets
is much more competent; and second, that "this job market" is the same
excuse given when expertly-qualified people are turned away from jobs
in the same neighborhood.

Which brings up another point. I've been at several companies that
have hired complete morons for some positions, over my objections or
over my recommendations for other, better-qualified applicants.
Companies constantly moan about the dearth of qualified job-applicants,
and then blithely reject the qualified applicants that do come along,
because they're incapable of identifying them. Several places I've
worked have comfortably put much more faith in meaningless tests and
certificates for evaluating potential employees, than in actually having
people who know how to hire sit down and talk with people who know
how to do their jobs. The result is that every company I've ever worked at
has been completely clueless when it came to hiring the right people
for the job.

And I guess that explains why competence is so rare these days. You
have companies that don't know how to hire hiring people who don't know
how to do their jobs, and those people make relationships with other
people who don't know how to do their jobs at other companies that don't
know how to make their products. When sales are driven by marketing to
people who don't know what they want and who wouldn't know how to
identify it if they did,
and golf outings between inept and clueless managers, the wonder
isn't that what gets sold is so bad, but that anything useable is
ever produced at all.

This is something for which I was entirely unprepared when I
entered the work-force. It's still difficult for me to acknowledge.
But it seems, based on all of my experience, working for five different
software companies, talking to others, and buying products from still
more, to be the way things work. Naively, I entered the world, fresh
from reading Atlas Shrugged, expecting people to take pride and care
in their jobs, and business to flourish based on that.

Thinking back to prep school and college and grad school, it seems
like I new a fair number of people who really seemed very sharp and
competent. Hell, my friends are all pretty intelligent people. I imagine they
must be at least marginally competent at work. Is there just
some sort of horrible vicious cycle in American business that makes such
people feel insane for always expecting more, and eventually forces
them out of the business world altogether? Or is it that, like some of the
smart but incompetent people I know at my job, intelligence just doesn't
guarantee you have your brain turned on at work?

I don't think I was expecting too much, back when I thought people
would know how to do their jobs. Why do other people?

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