The delusion of omnicompetence

In the context of the failure of the failure of the Affordable Care Act exchanges, Megan McArdle relates a fun anecdote about a user who expected too much from his speech recognition software:

“Hold on, please,” I said. “Can you show me exactly what’s not working?”

“It’s not doing what I want,” he said.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“I want it to be,” he replied, “like the computer on `Star Trek: The Next Generation.’”

“Sir, that’s an actor,” I replied evenly, despite being on the sleepless verge of hysteria. With even more heroic self-restraint, I did not add “We can get you an actor to sit under your desk. But we’d have to pay SAG rates.”

I’m sure we’ve all been there. But there’s a wider point made by the article, and you should read the whole thing. McArdle argues that there’s a more systematic problem with people who are smart in one domain assuming that they are equally able to handle any topic, “the delusion of omnicompetence”, as she puts it:

The technocratic idea is that you put a bunch of smart, competent people in government — folks who really want the thing to work — and they’ll make it happen. But “smart, competent people” are not a generic quantity; they’re incredibly domain-specific. Most academics couldn’t run a lemonade stand. Most successful entrepreneurs wouldn’t be able to muster the monomaniacal devotion needed to get a Ph.D. […]

Yet in my experience, the majority of people in these domains think that they could do everyone else’s job better, if they weren’t so busy with whatever it is they’re doing so well.

This is definitely consistent with my experience of software engineers, who often seem to feel that they are the most important people in the company. And I’ve certainly met academics who look down on anyone without a PhD.

An interesting thing to me is that in my experience (and I may be biased), the type of intelligence that good engineers have actually does transfer to other topics. I’ve had many a conversation about business strategy or marketing or history or politics with my fellow engineers, and I believe they are generally highly perceptive and rational.

What engineers often are, though, is ignorant. I believe one issue is that understanding of computers comes so easily to people like us that we tend to view with suspicion disciplines that require more study. It may seem like people who study history, say, are taking refuge in a subject where hours of grind can make up for lack of incisive brilliance. And that gives rise to a naive faith in perfectly logical solutions that somehow omit to deal with the real world. In other words, thinking we’re good gets in the way of being the best we can be.

This is a wild generalisation of course. But probably nearly all of us can stand to make some improvement in the degree of respect we accord to other professions, and absolutely everyone can improve themselves in some way or other. We shouldn’t let a (correct) sense of satisfaction in our achievements hold us back.

Is remote work dystopian?


Microsoft has a new advert out, and David Heinemeier Hansson thinks it’s deplorable. He argues that Microsoft are pushing a dystopian idea of work that never stops, and busywork expands to fill the time wherever we are.

I’m not sure I agree, though I’ll definitely admit that Microsoft’s advertising people have done a poor job with the wording. One of the reasons I’m inclined to take their side is that I’ve suffered from the other extreme, when I’ve had to miss out on activities because I have to wait around in the office doing busywork just in case I’m needed while an important demo takes place or deal is signed.

The question is whether you work in a job that requires a high volume of routine work or one that intermittently requires skilled judgement for brief periods. Automation and outsourcing are killing off the former (aside from customer service, which can’t be done from a bar during happy hour anyway). Maybe I’m giving Microsoft too much credit, but it seems to me that they were aiming their pitch at the latter sort of work, in which case working (i.e. providing brief high-value responses) from your children’s sports match is liberating.

Ultimately it’s not Microsoft’s job to set boundaries in our work, we have to do it for ourselves. Technology isn’t the solution to managers who demand too much of us, but it isn’t the cause either.

Working a room

This week there was a good post about how to “work the room” at networking events, aimed at people who find this kind of thing unpleasant. You should read the whole thing, but here’s a spoiler of the main point:

Then one of my colleagues told me the trick he uses: When he walks into a room alone, he looks for pairs of people who are talking, and introduces himself to each person in the pair.

So if you see a pair of people, the chances are that they arrived together and know they should be mingling. Or else they’ve just met and are, in the back of their minds, worried that they’re going to end up talking to this one person all night.

I appreciated this post because introducing myself at networking events is something that I still don’t like doing, even though I’ve improved substantially over the years. I particularly like two things about the article: firstly, that it acknowledges that networking is a learnable skill that anyone can improve on, and secondly the point that other people hate introducing themselves too and you can use this to your advantage.

The only thing I’d add to this is to make a conscious effort to read body language. Pairs of people who are interested in meeting new people don’t face each other head-on but stand at an angle. This means they form a V shape, typically facing into the room. They’ll be giving each other less eye contact and looking at other people in the room. If you join such a group there’s a natural space for you to do it and you’re likely to be well received. If you see a pair of people squarely facing each other and not looking elsewhere in the room, the chances are greater that they aren’t ready to meet anyone new just yet.