Sunday, September 09, 2007

Whattaya Call It

Sometimes a person's knowledge of terminology is indicative of their level of expertise. Sometimes it's not. I once advocated against hiring a person partly because his level of understanding of token ring functionality amounted to the belief that the system would "ring like a telephone" for the intended device. Umm, not quite. The notion of passing the token around to each device in turn was completely beyond him and he didn't have the other skills we were looking for to be able to make up for that lack.

Then there was the owner of Key Largo Airport Marina back in the 80's - where I believe the Port Largo / Marina del Mar / Ocean Cay complex is today. This guy had extensive flying experience and, if I recall correctly, had run a MAC airbase somewhere in the northeast. He knew aviation and therefore understood both charts and airfoils. Everything he knew about sailing, he explained once, came from understanding that sails are just vertical airfoils and from keeping in mind that nautical charts are very similar to aeronautical charts.

That's not to say that sailing with the guy was particularly easy or comfortable. He had almost zero knowledge of nautical terms, so it was pretty common to hear instructions such as, "grab that thing-y and pull it over and tighten it" - which led to a fair amount of confusion at times when the desired results weren't entirely obvious.

On top of that, his knowledge of knots was limited to the two or three most commonly used in flying - a number far short of the half-dozen or more that are most useful in sailing. Still, his knots usually held well enough to do what they really had to do. A bowline is a decent enough all-purpose knot. And he was always able to make the boat do what he wanted it to. In that, I grew to have a great deal of confidence though it helped too that I understood sailing pretty well myself. Overall, his was a case where ignorance does not necessarily translate to incompetence.

When I'm hiring, I have to be careful to take the time to make that distinction. Once or twice (at least - and one of these was even this year) I've been on the other side of that equation and I've noticed that not everyone knows how to assess competence separately from use of the local jargon. When you can't always hire for experience in every single skill you really want for a position, it's imperative to be able to assess the level of competence an individual can bring to the role anyway.

The corollary to this situation is that at least some hiring managers are probably fooled into believing a candidate is competent simply because they seem to know the nomenclature and I'm sure that is not always a valid assumption. Personally, I don't much like to see people get where they do simply through their ability to regurgitate buzz words or mimic language meant to describe underlying principles that they don't really understand. All hat and no cattle, as they say.

Here's what knowledge of the language is good for - when the terminology is tightly defined and broadly agreed upon, it speeds communication and makes the process more accurate as well more efficient. This is, of course, the trouble with buzzwords. More people believe they know what these words mean or are intended to mean than really do. Effective communication is undermined, not enhanced, in such cases.

"Drop the jib" and "Ready about" mean very specific actions that are readily comprehended by anyone in the know. Just as important, these are the kinds of terms a person must know to be of any real help on board a sailboat - though clearly knowing the terms is not a pre-requisite for knowing what you want or how to get it. It just makes it easier to be understood.

On the other hand, "What tools do you use in project management" could refer to software applications and other actual 'tools' used to support the work of managing projects or it also could refer to the cognitive approach or methodology used in the work itself. Actually talking about what it is that you want is an important step in establishing the context and even then, the context isn't the whole story.

Many competent individuals can be reasonably expected to use, or at least readily understand, many of the variously identified project management methodologies without necessarily knowing the specific nomenclature arbitrarily assigned to them. While I'm all for identifying good skills (project management and otherwise), I also like to be able to differentiate between that and marketing hype.

This is just a bias I have and I realize it's not shared by everyone. Feel free to disagree. Either make a comment or send a message to - you wouldn't be the first and I happen to believe it leads to better understanding all the way around.

How do I show my expertise and capabilities?