No one is a 10

Recently I have been asked to assist with interviewing for senior and mid level developer jobs at work.  One of the questions I ask people is, “Rate yourself, 1 through 10, 10 being the greatest 1 being the lowest on your skill level with xyz technology (c#, asp.net, javascript, etc…)”.

When a person responds to my question, I am able to obtain two sets of information and follow up with a series of appropriate questions.  The first set of information is related to a person’s confidence / experience.  The second set of information is obviously related to skill.

Information can be basically categorized into 3 areas.  Things you know, things you are aware you don’t know, and things that you aren’t even aware that you don’t know.  If I was to compare those three, my gut tells me that the things I know are likely the smallest of the categories.  So, with that in mind, I am extremely worried when a person rates them self at a 10.

Anyone who says they are a 10 is not a 10.  That doesn’t mean that 10’s don’t exist… otherwise what would be the point of it?  But my experience with people who are 10’s, and I have met them, is that they would say they were a 9 or maybe an 8.  They are so extremely aware of how much more there is left to learn that they would refuse the title.  But they have earned it anyways.  I have seen this echoed over and over again in my life.

There is a man named Jeff Cooper who by many standards is considered to be the founder of modern rifle and pistol gunmanship.  However in his book “The art of the rifle”, he asserts that as he becomes more experienced, the idea of a master marksman gets further and further away.  In fact, he says that the only way he has found to quantify what a master marksman is, is to describe it by what it’s not.  There are always things left to learn.

A co-worker I talked to about this asked me if the question was fair at all.  If everyone’s assessment was relative, how did the scale have any meaning?  While on the one hand that opens up a longer discussion on skill and the ability to assess it… the short version is that it’s fair because I have been there.

My teacher once mentioned that they used judged judo promotion demos by simply grabbing together a group of master judoka.  They had no sheet of paper, no ruleset to judge by, just their experience.  It was more than enough.  The term “Sensei” basically means “Someone who has gone before”.  Because they have been there, they can tell you what a person looks like pretty much all the way up to where they currently stand.  That is why I can tell you what a programmer looks like pretty much all the way up to a 7.

The only correct answer to the scale question is the one you are packing the gear to justify.  If you have been programming for 1 year and you say you are a 9, you got a lot to prove.  I’d personally rather a solid 5, who understands his or her self, than a “9” who is really a 6 or 7.

-A

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