Is expecting expertise unreasonable?

Here's a snippet from a recent comment on a oldish blog post of mine:
"However, in this post there is one thing that touches a raw nerve. The whole point about whether the person does coding in his free time. Why would you care? In fact, the point of free / spare time is to do activities you don't do at work. Today, I've an MBA and am far removed from the tech world, but I'm involved in recruiting for consulting (the industry I work in), but I'll not hire a person who does cases during his / her spare time. I'd rather hire someone who has a life and some hobbies. Such people can be much more interesting, fun to work with, and actually more versatile at solving business problems than someone who has a unidimensional personality."

Every time someone says something like this, I'm appalled. No, really, that's the only word for it.

First, I don't understand the constant assumption that if you choose to study in your spare time, you have no life. Some of the best programmers, entrepreneurs and managers I know (some are all three) run marathons, are published authors, do underwater photography and more without ever compromising on study. Truly passionate people have several passions - and their greatest passion dictates the area in which they choose to work, but never to the complete exclusion of everything else. The stereotype of the programmer living in a basement doing nothing but write code is just that - a stereotype. People who fit the stereotype are the exception, not the norm, believe me. That said, I do wish that the manager who did nothing but study cases was also a stereotype - most professional managers that I meet last read a book during their MBA (and it was the Nirma washing powder case) and haven't been exposed to a new idea since. But I digress.

I also find the 'if you study, you have no life' argument something of a cop out. It tells me that you aren't passionate about what you do for a living - if you were, studying and getting better at what you do would be something that just happened automatically. Henry Ford created the assembly line because he constantly studied manufacturing. Sam Walton created Walmart because he spent all his time studying retail. Nobody creates anything great without expending considerable effort studying the problem and trying different solutions. We aim to write great code as one of the key parts of solving our customers problems, so yes, I prefer people that are looking to become better programmers. Such people almost always hack on personal projects in their spare time; as far as I can tell, it's the quickest way to identify the best programmers.

Second is the implication that people who are passionate about what they do and express this by working on their skills outside of work hours aren't 'versatile'. I've never figured out what the connection is here. Is it that someone who does not consciously work to improve their skills must perforce be better than someone who does because they become (magically) more versatile? The answer to 'Are you an expert in your field?' isn't 'No, but I have hobbies.'

Are you saying that if you conducted an orchestra, you'd refuse to include a musician who practiced outside of the concerts they played in? Are you saying you wouldn't consult a doctor that studied the latest advancements in medicine? What's special about programmers or managers that they're exempt from others expecting them to improve their skills? As far as I'm concerned, the important thing to remember is that even if you are an expert in your field today, you won't remain one unless you're constantly introspecting and working to improve. Your career will falter, because your peers are improving while you're standing still. This isn't rocket science - everybody wants to work with the more capable person, not the less capable one that has hobbies. In my experience though, the more capable person is usually the one with the hobbies and the less capable one is usually a couch potato in his or her spare time.

Lastly, the whole notion of how people perceive learning at work as being something that must happen during working hours strikes me as being rather odd. When you were in school and college, did you do all your studying in the classroom? No - you studied in what was, technically, your spare time. So what's the deal with expecting to learn everything you need to know during your eight hours at work? Now that's what I call unidimensional - someone whose knowledge of their domain encompasses merely what they see during work hours.

To cut a long story short: To study or not to study - the choice is yours; but don't ever fool yourself into believing that passionate people that study are in any way the poorer choice for any role. That perception is a fallacy.


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Nithin Bekal said...

Learning at work is not an option for everyone. Some of us work at places where there isn't a focus on learning, or else the kind of learning that happens is not what we are interested in.

I enjoy learning about web technologies, and that's not an opportunity I get at work, so I do it in my spare time. If learning in my spare time makes me a loser, so be it. At least I'm a loser who's having fun.

I also don't see how the so-called "versatile" people could do well at a programming job if they were lousy programmers. I would rather work with someone who cares about the thing s/he does for a living.

I once asked a colleague how he had set up his home computer for development and his response was, "I don't install work related software on my home computer." His attitude gave me the feeling that he thought of programming as this dirty profession that he had to keep away from his family. Would you hire someone who thought that way about the job you were offering him?

Marco Maggi said...

"Such people can be much more interesting, fun to work with, and actually more versatile at solving business problems than someone who has a unidimensional personality."

It boils down to individualism: people who have a "multidimensional personality" are the more convenient to social-network with. It does not matter if they do work with less quality, as long as they provide personal opportunities for recruiters and managers.

Christabel Britto said...

Very nice post. And this is a conclusion I've come to from my own life observations: All this uni-dimensional/multi-dimensional personality stuff is irrelevant. What matters is that you do only what you enjoy doing and for the right reasons. If that holds, you'll always rock at whatever it is you do, and be happy. And that's what matters.

Anonymous said...

The commenter said:
> I'll not hire a person who does cases during his / her spare time

So you would refuse to hire Bill Gates and Linus Torvalds (and me). Nice! Incompetent companies think programmers are stupid because the smart ones refuse to work for them.

This is called the Dead Sea Effect:

Scott said...

Wow, this whole article is so wrong I don't even know where to begin in my comment except: I feel bad for those who work with this guy.

Rams said...

@Scott Seriously, you are kidding right?

@Sidu, as usual a very good post.

Dave Hoover said...

Read this: The Interview Question You Should Always Ask (hint: it has to do with learning on your own time)

Brian Guthrie said...

@Sidu, well said. The point about having hobbies excusing a lack of expertise is well-taken. Also, the line was funny.

@Scott: I've worked with this guy. I feel sorry for you that you won't get that chance.

Unknown said...

in general, i agree with this article. you have to put in effort & energy to continually improve. however, the people i've met that hack a lot in their spare time are often socially intolerable. these people make lousy team mates, and often dont communicate well with stakeholders. so, what i believe in is balance. some effort to learn outside of your primary job, some effort to do other good things like learn to play piano, art, civic volunteer, and spend quality time with your family. you live once. do you want to miss out on the breath of life and family? i argue you can have both.