What makes someone great at what they do? Think about the people you work with and who stands out as a top performer. What makes them great? To look at job postings, you would think it’s their skills with relevant technologies, like Java, Hibernate, or Git. Let’s call these extrinsic abilities. These are skills and knowledge that are specific to a particular domain, like knowledge of specific languages, frameworks, or tools. Contrast these with intrinsic abilities,skills that are often innate and apply to many domains. This includes things like ability to learn, problem solving, work ethic, persistence, communication skills, etc.
Extrinsic abilities can be readily learned and taught. It’s a matter of knowledge acquisition and internalization. This is a process we have been using since we entered school. Intrinsic abilities are harder to learn. Often, they are thought of as our talents or gifts. These abilities can be coached over a period of time, but they are often a matter of personal development, not just knowledge or skill acquisition.
While extrinsic abilities are definitely needed to get the job done, I think it’s a person’s intrinsic abilities that make the biggest difference in their performance. I’d like to illustrate this difference with a story about one of the best employees I’ve ever known, my wife Theresa.
In 2000, I took a new job as the Development Manager for Canopy Systems. We had a deadline in one month to demo the product at a conference with 20 simultaneous users. The product was in the very early stages of development, and it hadn’t been tested on 20 users–it hadn’t been tested much at all. The team didn’t even have someone in the QA role. I still had to work 2 weeks at my previous job to fulfill my fair notice obligation, so there was really no time for an effective job search. I needed someone, and I needed them now. So, I brought in my wife, Theresa, on a contract basis to help us hit this milestone.
This may not seem that surprising, except that my wife had no background or experience in QA or in software development at all! Her previous work was as a microbial geneticist. She had left that work a few years earlier when we moved to Germany for one of my contracts, so she was available immediately. But it wasn’t her immediate availability that made her a great choice.
Though she lacked experience in QA, she had all of the intrinsic abilities to be a great QA person. If you look at what she did in the lab and what people do in QA, the jobs are very similar: you get up each day and perform detailed testing, following documented procedures, and record the results. You analyze test results to troubleshoot issues and devise new tests to be done. The difference was the tools used and the specific procedures. Instead of running an electrophoresis gel to compare DNA fragments, she would be typing things into a computer screen to see how things are working.
The cognitive skills needed for both jobs are very similar:
- Attention to detail
- Ability to learn
- Problem solving
Beyond that, I knew that she was a very hard worker, cared about doing things right, and was very self-directing. Theresa did a great job and was soon offered a permanent position with the company. Through her conscientious work, she became the QA Manager. After several merges and acquisitions, she is still working on that product and others. Now, she works in Technical Support (yet another career change facilitated by her intrinsic abilities) and is one of the top performers in her division and the company.
Theresa was an outstanding employee when she worked in laboratories. Those same qualities made her great at QA and later at providing technical support. She didn’t succeed because she knew more about QA processes and techniques. She succeeded because of those qualities that would make her great at many jobs. She worked harder, followed processes more diligently, and doggedly pursued issues that stood between us and success.
It’s ironic, but the very things that are easiest to learn are the ones we emphasize in the hiring process. Instead, shouldn’t we focus on the intrinsic abilities that are so much harder to cultivate? I think so.The problem is, it’s much harder to get the measure of someone’s intrinsic abilities. You may be able to assess someone’s knowledge of a technology like Hibernate in 10 or 20 questions. How do you assess someone’s ability to learn?
While stock companies will tell you that past performance is no guarantee of future results, when it comes to people it’s a pretty safe bet. If you want to find out if someone has the ability to learn, look for examples in their past where they had to. I did a contract for IBM in 1997 where I was brought in to help rewrite a call center application in C++. When we determined that the system must run on OS2 as well as Windows NT, we decided that it needed be rewritten in Java. I had never written Java before, but I got a few books and was quickly proficient in the new language. The team learned Java, and delivered the new system on time. What made is strong C++ programmers also made us strong Java programmers, once we learned the new language.
If you want to find out if someone has the ability to learn new things, ask them to tell you a story about a time when they did.
Can you tell me about a time when you had to learn a new language or framework? Why was that needed? How did you go about learning it?
I call these “War Stories”. This approach is also called Situation, Task, Approach, Result (STAR) or Behavioral Interviewing. When asking these questions, you are looking for specific instances in a candidate’s past, not a hypothetical example of what they might do if they faced that situation. If they can’t think of an example, then they either haven’t faced that situation or they don’t have that ability. Either way, you can’t say whether they truly have that ability. It’s fine to talk about hypotheticals after you get them to recount specific examples. But get the examples first!
The same goes with other intrinsic abilities.
Can you tell me about a time when you caught a problem that no one else had spotted?
Can you give me an example of an innovative solution you came up with? Can you list some others?
Can you tell me about a time when you had to work a very long week? What caused it? What did you do? How could it have been avoided?
Can you give me an example of a conflict you had with another employee? How did you resolve it?
Can you tell me about a time when you were responsible for mentoring a new employee or a junior team member?
Can you describe how you have shared knowledge with other team members on previous teams?
Using these kinds of questions, you will learn more about the candidate as a person and have a better ability to determine how they will perform on your team.
I’m not saying that you never need to look for people with matching extrinsic abilities. I certainly think you need the majority of your team to be very familiar with the languages and frameworks you are using. What I’m saying is that for candidates with similar extrinsic abilities, their intrinsic abilities will make a much bigger difference in their performance. And in many cases, a candidate with far less extrinsic knowledge will outperform a person with more based on their intrinsic abilities. Don’t overlook a possible standout performer because their extrinsic abilities aren’t a great match.