Dr. Neil's Notes
General > People
Value Diverse Experiences
Over thirty years ago, the dream was coming true, computers were going to be everywhere. No more of the old green screen terminals, I had grown up with. These modern computers had colour screens! Most computers now had mice! Lotus 123 and WordPerfect let everyone be in control of numbers and words on their computers.
Most of the 1980's were a blur, excesses of many kinds. One of these excesses was rescued old computers and parts, recycled, to build out my home 'control room', Multiple huge screens (14" and one 17"), among the 286, and 386 computers was a trusty old C64, and a PET. Also several dot matrix printers, one usually working, the rest in various states of repair.
I had a few customers that needed help with using their computers, not only were computers going into workplaces, also into many schools and homes. One of my customers was a school, they had a little computer lab full of BBC Micro's and a couple of new PCs. The school admin staff had 386 PCs running WordPerfect and a dBASE school system. It was pretty advanced for the time. On one occasion I got asked to look at a printer that was printing weird text characters. They had tried all the normal tricks, switch it off and on again, both printer and PC, reinstall the printer drivers, pull out the parallel port cable (yes that old) from both sides, blow the dust out, etc... Nothing changed.
I went to the admin office to investigate the misbehaving printer. The printer was located in an office that had two desks, each with a computer, each computer had a parallel port cable running to the printer. When someone wanted to print they would make sure the cable from their computer was plugged into the printer, then click print.
I had an idea what the problem was as soon as I saw the set up. I disconnected the printer, put it on a cart and wheeled over to the school computer lab. I opened up the printer, and saw the issue immediately, the soldering iron came out. An hour later the printer was back in the admin office and working fine. The issue was the port connecter on the printer had broken a couple of the solder connections, and so while the signal it was being sent was fine, what was received by the printer was missing data, leading to the garbled output.
I was hailed as a magician, a wizard, a saviour. I knew none of this was true, I had a powerful gift, I had seen this exact situation before, and knew the fix. I had spent hours frustrated with countless broken printers, I had experience.
The above story provides a great example of the value of experience. The more you experience, the more likely you are to encounter situations you have seen before, and have ideas how to handle those scenarios, to get the best outcome. Everyone has different experiences, and perceptions of how to handle similar situations again.
Experience is under valued
In the printer scenario, I got paid by the hour. I could charge for an hour of work to fix the printer, however to get to that point had taken hundreds of hours of experience. Since I was eight years old I had been 'playing' with computers, and building little electrical circuits and experiments. I remember the cardboard space ship I built for a school project that had flashing lights. I knew how to solder circuits. Yet I could not charge for over a decade of experience, I could only charge an hourly rate. If I cared more about money I should have taken longer to fix the printer. I have more interesting things to do, than over-charge a customer for something I consider a simple fix.
If you do the same thing you have always done, you will get the same results you have always got. Ok, this is somewhat cliché, however the truth behind it is that if you spend a long time doing the same thing, you will get good at that one thing, however your experience is limited to that one thing. There is a form of the 80/20 rule to consider here. When you start doing something you will quickly learn the fundamentals, and progress in your ability to do that thing. Going from no experience to some experience, feels good. As your skill set increases, the rate of progress will decrease. It takes a great deal of dedication to be in the top ten percent of the population in any single skill, yet to be proficient is generally not that difficult, yes it still requires effort, just no where near as much time as it takes to be among the worlds best.
It is for this reason that it is good to move around in your career every few years. In a big company this can be done by changing departments, and roles. This is far harder in a smaller company, and small companies need to watch out for people that do not move on, there is a healthy amount of staff turnover, leading to new people coming into the company and bringing their different experiences to the work being done.
Diversity has more value
Each person in your team has different experiences. This should be embraced. If you put together a team that never changes what it does, and does that same thing for ten years, the chances are everyone will stagnate. It is constructive to bring other experiences, and therefore ideas, into a team. For this reason be careful about your hiring process not getting stuck in a mode of "we are hiring people like X". If you hire a team of people like X you will only get the sort of ideas that X provides, instead if you already have an X (or two) in your team, your should be hiring people not like X. Of course there might be some basic skills you require, however the value of anything you produce, be it a product or service, will increase if you bring a diverse range of experiences into the team.
Wisdom is worth as much as enthusiasm
It is likely I have reached the point where my temporal horizon has flipped, I probably have more of my working life behind me than ahead of me. I now have the weird experience of being regarded as the old guy in the room (and mostly the room is virtual now). I love working with young people, the enthusiasm they bring to the team is wonderful. I also love working with experienced people, the wisdom they bring to the team is invaluable.
A great team needs enthusiasm and wisdom. This is not to say older people are not enthusiastic, I am insanely passionate about a number of things I work on. Also, do not always rely on the wisdom of the elders, the world changes, especially in the technology space. I have seen things I knew to be impossible (I had tried them 15 years ago) be accomplished by younger people who are not carrying that baggage of previous lessons with them.
One of the advantages of broader experiences is the way it prepares you to cope with high pressure situations. The military train people by making them run obstacle course while simulated (or live) fire is happening around them. Sports players train by playing the game again, and again. These activities prepare people to cope better when things get real.
If you have worked at different companies, with different managers, you will hopefully experience good management, average management, and, if you are lucky, bad management. Why do I say if you are lucky ? Experiencing bad management shows you how people fail to cope when under pressure, bad management will teach you what not to do. However, to understand what not to do, you do need to have experienced good management.
The more management experiences you have to model from, the wider your range of options to pull from. To be clear this is not directly about the manager themselves. Over my career I am sure at times I have been a bad manager, I hope those times are fewer now, however everyone is human, and bad days happen. This is about how overall things get managed in a team, a group, and a company. Over a period of time is the management good, bad, or downright ugly. Experience is worth more than natural talent in times of high pressure. How well a crisis is handled by people seems to be directly related to how many crisis situations they have experienced before, and how those situations were managed. People who have founded companies are going to have experienced high pressure situations, and those experiences will make people better at handling future scenarios. This is even more true when the company has not succeeded, getting a failure or two under your belt teaches you humility, and how to handle worst case situations (the worst case for any company is failing and shutting down).
Listen to experience
A common trait in all people is to have sense of being right, knowing the correct direction. However it is extremely unlikely that what you are doing, or the path you are taking has not been taken by other people before.
At this point a certain percentage of readers will be thinking, 'ah you are wrong Neil, what I am doing is unique'. The percentage of people that are correct is so small as to statistically be zero. Yet many people will still think they are on a unique journey, even at this point.
If other people have trodden a path before, and failed, or succeeded, it would be fantastic to talk to them and understand what they learned from the journey. Seek out those people so you can learn what might make the journey smoother, faster, more fruitful. The more you value the experience of other people to help you achieve your goals, the higher your chance of success. This is why people have coaches, and mentors. Consider the value of getting advice from someone that could save you hundreds of hours to achieve a goal.
Created: October 9, 2022 00:34:55