Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Caring Vs Competent

There are a couple of interview adages that I've come to believe:

Adage 1: Many many people are simply not competent.
Adage 2: Never mistake interest for competence.

One of the things I've noticed is that there is often an inverse proportion between competence and explicit preparedness. This gets more likely the more senior the candidate I'm interviewing. Let's define some terms here:

  • Competence: The ability to do the job we require. This expects a facility with common tasks and underlying principles to the level required by the position. With a more senior position, competence indicates the possession of good habits and skills - scripting ability, test design techniques and skills, a bug-finding toolkit. With more junior people, competence is about ability to learn, underlying talent and having successfully avoided bad habits.
  • Explicit Preparedness: This is the thing that a lot of job interview sites will tell job seekers to do. Find out about the company and ask about market conditions, competitors, how they can help with market trends and recent company announcements.
I've been interviewing for senior-level QA engineers lately. The really competent ones have known some about the company but not a lot; I suspect they've spent about 5 minutes on the website. The ones who have lots of questions about the company and want to talk about what they can bring to the table based on our latest patent, etc...... have totally bombed the competence area.

I suspect they know their technical and testing skills are a bit weak and are trying to look "well rounded". Well-rounded is good, but that means the candidate should have both. Good candidates, ultimately, are about balance. Show me you care, but show me you can do the job. 

* You can always tell when I'm interviewing because this blog fills right up with interview posts!


  1. Adage 1: Many many people are simply not competent.

    This is something that it took me forever to accept. I grew up an environment with the "liberal" mindset of, "anything can achieve their dreams if they set their mind to it."

    Given that, by and large, that's worked for me, and it seems like a really nice thing to hope for in the world, I believed it.

    Of course, this just set me up to be disappointed in people, and even worse, to believe the problem with people who weren't good at things to be that "they aren't trying hard enough." That's a good way to reach mutual frustration....

    There's another maxim, "Never try to teach a pig to fly. You won't succeed, and you'll just annoy the pig." There certainly are people out there who can be incredible, but haven't been given the opportunity -- but the leading cause of incompetence does actually seem to be lack of ability.

    The challenge is in finding the mud-caked swans that are hiding in the sty.

  2. I love the mud-caked swans idea - it's a great mental image!

    It should also be noted the competence is really in certain areas. I'm a competent QA engineer. I'm definitely NOT a competent race car driver. Similarly, a completely competent surgeon could be a truly incompetent QA engineer.