Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The intriguing theory of Expert Beginners

I've been enjoying Erik Dietrich's series of articles on the Daedtech blog about a phenomenon he calls the "Expert Beginner".

Dietrich's observation is that, while learning a new skill (such as computer programming, say), you might accidentally think that you had become an expert when in fact you were actually doing it all wrong. You just hadn't noticed that you were doing it wrong, and nobody was around to point that out to you.

For whatever reason, software appears to be a field that is particularly prone to this sort of Expert Beginner situation, perhaps because we software types are often learning things on our own, rather than having the opportunity to be taught from an established body of knowledge.

Not only is the Expert Beginner full of bad habits, but even worse: should he at some point encounter somebody who has greater expertise, and can help educate the Expert Beginner toward improvement, this assistance is likely to be met by resistance, as the Expert Beginner will have to start by un-learning all of his bad habits, which he is naturally reluctant to do (since they have served him well so far).

Dietrich is an entertaining writer and I recommend the essays:

  • How Developers Stop Learning: Rise of the Expert Beginner
    The Expert Beginner has nowhere to go because progression requires an understanding that he has a lot of work to do, and that is not a readily available conclusion. You’ll notice that the Expert Beginner is positioned slightly above Advanced Beginner but not on the level of Competence. This is because he is not competent enough to grasp the big picture and recognize the irony of his situation, but he is slightly more competent than the Advanced Beginner due mainly to, well, extensive practice being a Beginner.
  • How Software Groups Rot: Legacy of the Expert Beginner
    Perhaps it’s a lack of automated testing. Giant methods/classes. Lots of copy and paste coding. Use of outdated or poor tooling. Process. It can be any number of things, but the common thread is that you have a person or people in positions of authority that have the culturally lethal combination of not knowing much, not knowing what they don’t know, and assuming that, due to their own expertise, anything they don’t know isn’t worth knowing. This is a toxic professional culture in that it will force talented or ambitious people either to leave or to conform to mediocrity.
  • How Stagnation is Justified: Language of the Expert Beginner
    The Expert Beginner believes that he and his ‘fellow’ Expert have a simple difference of opinion among ‘peers.’ While it may be true that one Expert speaks at conferences about source control best practices and the other one runs the IT for Bill’s Bait Shop and has never used source control, either opinion is just as valid.
  • Up or Not: Ambition of the Expert Beginner
    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.
  • Self-Correcting Organizations: Fall of the Expert Beginner
    Following the career arc of Expert Beginners is really quite sad. In the early stages, one feels annoyed and a little indignant at 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. And, in the end, the fate of the one that caused these things is probably poetically just, but 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.

To my mind, what this boils down to, for a person who's concerned with continuing to develop their own skills indefinitely, is: in order to improve my skills, I need to find somebody who can coach me.

You can always get better; you can always learn more. It's just a matter of finding somebody who can help you improve, and putting in the effort to learn from that person.

Just don't get stuck being an Expert Beginner.

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