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How to Handle Incompetence

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We’ve all had incompetent colleagues. People that tend to write bad code, make bad decisions or just can’t understand some of the concepts in the project(s). And it’s never trivial to handle this scenario.

Obviously, the easiest solution is to ignore it. And if you are not a team lead (or something similar), you can probably pretend that the problem doesn’t exist (and occasionally curse and refactor some crappy code).

There are two types of incompetent people: those who know they are not that good, and those who are clueless about their incompetence.

The former are usually junior and mid-level developers, and they are expected to be less experienced. With enough coaching and kindly pointing out their mistakes, they will learn. This is where all of us have gone though.

The latter is the harder breed. They are the “senior” developers that have become senior only due to the amount of years they’ve spent in the industry, and regardless of their actual skills or contribution. They tend to produce crappy code, misunderstand assignments, but on the other hand reject (kindly or more aggressively) any attempt to be educated. Because they’re “senior”, and who are you to argue with them? In extreme cases this may be accompanied with an inferiority complex, which in turn may result in clumsy attempts to prove they are actually worthy. In other cases it may involve pointless discussions on topics they do not want to admit they are wrong about, just because admitting that would mean they are inferior. They will often use truisms and general statements instead of real arguments, in order to show they actually understand the matter and it’s you that’s wrong. E.g. “we must do things the right way”, “we must follow best practices”, “we must do more research before making this decision”, and so on. In a way, it’s not exactly their incompetence that is the problem, it’s their attitude and their skewed self-image. But enough layman psychology. What can be done in such cases?

A solution (depending on the labour laws) is to just lay them off. But in a tight market, approaching deadlines, a company hierarchy and rules, probably that’s not easy. And such people can still be useful. It’s just that “utilizing” them is tricky.

The key is – minimizing the damage they do without wasting the time of other team members. Note that “incompetent” doesn’t mean “can’t do anything at all”. It’s just not up to the desired quality. Here’s an incomplete list of suggestions:

  • code reviews – you should absolutely have these, even if you don’t have incompetent people. If a piece of code is crappy, you can say that in a review.
  • code style rules – you should have something like checkstyle or PMD rule set (or whatever is relevant to your language). And it won’t be offensive when you point out warnings from style checks.
  • pair programming – often simple code-style checks can’t detect bad code, and especially a bad approach to a problem. And it may be “too late” to indicate that in a code review (there is never a “too late” time for fixing technical debt, of course). So do pair programming. If the incompetent person is not the one writing the code, his pair of eyes may be useful to spot mistakes. If writing the code, then the other team member might catch a wrong approach early and discuss that.
  • don’t let them take important decisions or work or important tasks alone; in fact – this should be true even for the best developer out there – having more people involved in a discussion is often productive

Did I just make some obvious engineering process suggestions? Yes. And they would work in most cases, resolving the problem smoothly. Just don’t make a drama out of it and don’t point fingers…

…unless it’s too blatant. If the guy is both incompetent and with an intolerable attitude, and the team agrees on that, inform management. You have a people-problem then, and you can’t solve it using a good process.

Note that the team should agree. But what to do if you are alone in a team of incompetent people, or the competent people too unmotivated to take care of the incompetent ones? Leave. That’s not a place for you.

I probably didn’t say anything useful. But the “moral” is – don’t point fingers; enforce good engineering practices instead.

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