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Good teams come clean about their IT competence

How is your company culture going to stay up to date on IT trends? Don't let that question linger, since, sooner or later, you'll work with a technology you don't understand at all.

At some point, every one of us is incompetent at something. It's not a bad thing. It's just the way it is. We start out as a dummy, and then, over time, we get smarter. Except for the gifted few, the road to mastery starts in a state of not knowing.

That's the good news. The bad news is that, when it comes to business, incompetence is unacceptable. As an IT professional, knowing every skill your company expects you to have 100% of the time is challenging, as the demands for IT competence are always changing. The rule of thumb is that, in tech, the stack changes every five years -- if not more frequently. Back in 2014, for example, there weren't a whole lot of Kubernetes experts in the world.

What to do when you're stumped

Today's resident container, automation or Agile experts didn't get there by magic. For a good chunk of that time, they didn't know what they were doing. And during that time, more than a few people depended on them, regardless of their expertise.

When it comes to IT competence, it's OK to admit that you don't know what you're doing, as long as you understand why. Was it the natural result of trying to learn something new? Or was it due to an unyielding pressure from the business -- or your boss -- to learn something because nobody else was available?

Kubernetes is one IT competence that's seen growth over time
Interest in Kubernetes has grown dramatically over the last five years, according to Google Trends.

There's a difference between arriving at incompetence and being driven to it. It's a difference that matters, according to Beth Power and Logan Daigle at CollabNet. They help teams improve Agile and DevOps effectiveness and emphasize company culture. In a supportive environment -- sometimes referred to as a generative culture -- employees are likely to speak freely about IT competence and incompetence. At these workplaces, workers feel free to admit what they don't know and ask for help.

In pathological and bureaucratic cultures, workers tend to be too fearful to admit their shortcomings. That makes it much harder to overcome incompetence. Sociologist Ron Westrum detailed the characteristics of generative, pathological and bureaucratic types of workplaces in a 2004 paper, "A Typology of Organizational Cultures."

westrum model
Westrum argues that organization culture shapes many aspects of performance.

What corporate culture means

The rule of thumb is that, in tech, the stack changes every five years -- if not more frequently.

When your workplace is generative in nature, you can speak up about what you don't know. The organization might provide time and training to fill in a particular gap in IT competence. Or work might be reassigned to someone better suited for the task at hand.

In less supportive workplace cultures, odds are you're not going to get crucial external support. Some people do well in this type of circumstance, where it's either sink or swim. If you can prevail and demonstrate IT competence even under the most dire of conditions, you have my admiration. If you need a more supportive environment, you have some serious decisions to make.

Incompetence is an amazing opportunity to grow. If you work in an environment where you've been driven to incompetence and then left on your own to make things better, you might do well to ask if your current workplace is indeed where you want to spend a third of your waking hours.

Remember, the road to IT competence starts where you don't know what you're doing. A supportive company understands this and will help you to help yourself.

This was last published in October 2018

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