Manufacturing the Talent Shortage

How our assumptions about the skill and capability of our technical workforce keeps us from building more diverse -- and more successful -- organizations.

by Dimas Guardado on July 21st, 2014

MRI scan of a head and brain.

CC-BY John M, filtered.

This essay would not be the first to criticize the mantra of Joel Spolsky’s blog post, “The Guerilla Guide to Interviewing”. Critics rightly point out that criteria like “Smart, and Gets Things Done” are vague and uninformative enough to be susceptible to bias. What’s questioned less often is that the language used in this post, and across the industry, relies on the premise that applicants have inherent mental capacities that can be revealed in an interview. In “The Guerilla Guide,” Spolsky writes:

Now, ordinarily, I wouldn’t reject a candidate just because he lacked a particular skill. However, I’ve discovered that understanding pointers in C is not a skill, it’s an aptitude … For some reason most people seem to be born without the part of the brain that understands pointers. This is an aptitude thing, not a skill thing – it requires a complex form of doubly-indirected thinking that some people just can’t do.

It is difficult to read such a statement as rhetorical flourish. Though couched in an exaggerated style, the insistence that certain levels of computational understanding are inherently inaccessible to certain people is unmistakable. Of course, given the vague criteria expressed in the blog, the reader is essentially left to their own devices to determine which people are inherently capable. From the demographic information recently revealed by Silicon Valley’s software giants, it seems that the industry has determined the capable to be largely white and male.

Spolsky, unfortunately, is not alone in this stance. Circulation of a draft paper by Saeed Dehnadi and Richard Bornat of Middlesex University, The camel has two humps, brought the weight of academia to bear on this belief:

It has long been suspected that some people have a natural aptitude for programming, but until now there has been no psychological test which could detect it. Programming ability is not known to be correlated with age, with sex, or with educational attainment; nor has it been found to be correlated with any of the aptitudes measured in conventional ‘intelligence’ or ‘problem-solving-ability’ tests.

Despite the enormous changes which have taken place since electronic computing was invented in the 1950s, some things remain stubbornly the same. In particular, most people can’t learn to program: between 30% and 60% of every university computer science department’s intake fail the first programming course. Experienced teachers are weary but never oblivious of this fact; bright-eyed beginners who believe that the old ones must have been doing it wrong learn the truth from bitter experience; and so it has been for almost two generations, ever since the subject began in the 1960s.

The paper never provided sufficient evidence to substantiate any claims of natural aptitude, and as was recently reported, Bornat has since gone on to publish an official retraction. Nonetheless, readers and fans were more than willing to use this thought framework to reinforce their beliefs and draw broader conclusions. On his blog, Jeff Atwood says of the paper:

… it’s still a little disturbing that the act of programming seems literally unteachable to a sizable subset of incoming computer science students. Evidently not everyone is as fascinated by meaningless rules and meaningless conclusions as we are; I can’t imagine why not.

This belief in the inherent capacity for skill in computing is problematic for several reasons, the least of which being that it is simply not borne out by the study and practice of learning and pedagogy, the volumes of research on brain plasticity, nor by our own experience developing our own skills and those of our present and future colleagues. Further, the historical and ongoing use of manufactured differences of “intelligence” as justification for racist, sexist, ablist, homophobic and other bigoted perspectives should always cause us to be extremely cautious with such lines of reasoning.

Deconstructing “Smartness”

To be extremely clear, there is no reason to believe Spolsky, Atwood, Dehnadi, or Bornat are actively advocating any such bigoted ideology, or that they subscribe to such an ideology themselves. Nevertheless, when such a perspective is applied within the industry or to the population at large, it is individuals from marginalized communities that will bear the unequal burden of its effects. It is not difficult to see how such reasoning can reinforce existing biases, justify a damaging sense of superiority, and contribute to phenomena like Impostor Syndrome and Stereotype Threat.

Such beliefs ignore the fact that the presence of a particular quality or skillset, or the appearance of natural aptitude, can have much more to do with subtle social signals and access to the resources and opportunities necessary to prove their capability. Often, “smartness” is used as a proxy for the ability to signal prestige and social status, and when used as a criterion for hiring, will effectively filter out individuals without access to such prestige, or who do not value such performances of status. Many who have had to make do with fewer resources have learned their skills in a context of greater constraint, though such resourcefulness may fail to stand out in an environment which offers little room for filling gaps in experience. In reality, people who arrive at mastery will do so by incredibly diverse means, with very different starting points, leveraging different strengths, and overcoming different weaknesses.

Image of math equations drawn on a chalkboard.

CC-BY Antonio Zugaldia, filtered.

Visionary computer scientist Alan Kay commented in response to Dehnadi and Bornat’s original paper:

I found Tim Gallwey, who could teach anyone (literally) how to play a workable game of tennis in 20 minutes, and observed him do this with many dozens of learners over several years. I found Betty Edwards who could teach (again literally) anyone to draw like a 2nd year art student in one intense week.

And so forth, because what the exceptional teaching is doing is actually allowing assessment of what general human beings from a typical bell curve can learn from crafted instruction.

I think every musician who is reading this will know what I’m driving at here. Music is a lot of skills and types of thinking and few musicians are naturally good at all of them. The desire to be a musician plus decent music instructors will find the things each learner will need to work on to get fluent. The result is that most skilled musicians can play advanced stuff, but they are all rather different on their outlook, how they practice, what they practice, etc.

Unfortunately, reasoning in terms of inherent aptitude often only serves to justify individual and organizational underinvestment in the very resources and experience that can develop a worker’s skills. The conclusion drawn from such notions of aptitude is that, at least in the field of computing, some people are not worth an investment at all — after all, you either have the talent, or you don’t.

The Pipeline and The Workforce

It is concerning that as we put energy, effort, and money into pipeline programs intended to bring people from underrepresented communities into the field, the industry refuses to examine how it develops its current workforce. Many of our future colleagues may find that, depending on how they are perceived, the resources that supported their entry into the field have gone strangely missing once they actually start working.

A series of 3 tweets from user ashedryden, reading: We should talk about how we, as a community, support young girls programming until they actually get into the industry. 'Oh! They’re so inspiring!' And then once they go to get jobs, they’re suddenly deemed not 'real' programmers. And somehow we still are surprised when women are leaving tech in record numbers. It’s a bait and switch.

Tweets via @ashedryden

In order to fully realize the vision of a technical workforce that serves the needs of our diverse populations, we will need to ensure that all workers, regardless of their background, experience level, or motivation for entering the field, have access to the resources they need to achieve mastery in their profession.

We need not wait for future generations to pass through Computer Science programs and coding bootcamps to construct the environments in which our current and future colleagues will find success. Organizations can take on practices that encourage mutual instruction, facilitate knowledge sharing, and produce safety mechanisms for problems that might arise from knowledge gaps. Code review, pair programming, coding standards, practice fields, retrospectives, testing, and monitoring are all practices that are well known to support these aims, and many can be used specifically with an eye towards developing and growing emerging talent. Many organizations will find that the tools required for these outcomes are not very different from the tools that already aid in their success.

An organization need not look very far for new workers that can take on technical roles. Many women and people of color are nudged into positions in customer support, quality assurance, and technical writing with promises, implied or explicit, of support to transition into a software development role. Other functions within the organization, like marketing, PR, operations, or administration may have better representation among marginalized groups. Technical training events and programs that are accessible to the entire organization may identify capable and interested candidates who already have the advantage of being familiar with their organization’s domain, mission, and values. Organizations will find that mimicking and extending the efforts they expend to better support young people in underrepresented communities will better support their current employees as well.

Before any organization is to make progress toward this vision, they will need to admit and understand that skills and talent are made through continuous cultivation, not born from the skull of Zeus. In his VelocityConf lecture “There Is No Talent Shortage,” Andrew Clay Shafer argues that an organization can achieve a competitive advantage not by hiring talent, but by creating an environment in which talent and skill for an organization’s goals are grown. With respect to the quality of our workforce he says:

I don’t think talent is primarily a search problem. I think that’s the wrong way to frame it. I think the talent is there. I think there is a ton of underutilized talent that is right there in front of us … Success is not about finding the right people. Success is about being the right people.

Organizations must embrace the fact that the best way to learn to be an excellent worker in their environment is to actually do work there. Much like organizational process and automation goals that envision a new hire pushing change into production on their first day, organizations should strive to create an environment in which a hire with little direct experience with an organization’s specific needs can safely and productively gain them with the resources, support, and encouragement of their colleagues. In such a context, any organization which chooses to cast a learnable skillset as an inherent aptitude, in word or in deed, will have truly earned its talent shortage.

The Interview Process

How does the hiring process change when we’re no longer interviewing to determine some mythical, inherent aptitude?

Assuming effort has been put into bringing diverse candidates into the interview room in the first place, interviewers should be prepared to evaluate candidates in a way that is respectful of their time and experience. This means interviewers and organizations cannot primarily seek to filter out candidates based on vague mantras or intrinsic capabilities. Instead, we should state, examine, and discuss the qualities we have found in successful candidates, different qualities we might desire of new candidates, and how those qualities make our organizations more successful.

We should be respectful of a candidate’s prior experience and be able to treat them in a collegial fashion whether they are a novice or a master. Furthermore, interviewers should be able to provide well-considered and specific feedback when accepting or rejecting a candidate. This is all, of course, in addition to basic training in the legal and ethical expectations of interviewer conduct. Carlos Bueno’s recent article “Refactoring the Mirrortocracy” is a source of extensive, excellent advice for improving hiring practices and perspectives.

Image of a Turning machine on a wooden table, with a few tools nearby.

CC-BY Maria Keays, filtered.

It’s telling that we continue to look for answers to the manufactured “talent shortage” in children, rather than in communities of adults around us. There is much that has yet to be discussed about how we as practitioners can identify and reach more of our colleagues that current professional events do not reach. Conferences and meetups, blogs and books, academic theory and the folk knowledge of professional networks often tend to reach people already tapped into those networks. For this reason, it is important to encourage these networks and events to continue to expand their reach with more accessible pricing structures, more inclusive social practices, and more protective behavior policies. We are right to be excited about outreach programs that are designed to bring new entrants into the field, but it is certainly worth considering whether dedicating some resources to extra-organizational professional outreach and development can bring more of our existing colleagues into the fold.

Investing in Our Colleagues Today

Within a hiring process fraught with implicit bias, blind acceptance of the inherent qualities of workers’ capabilities leaves individuals, organizations, and the field of practice unable to meaningfully develop the talent sources currently available, and risk the same outcomes for new entrants to the field. In such an environment, people of under-represented and marginalized communities are disproportionately affected. In order to effectively construct diverse workplaces in technological fields, we will need to dismantle our skewed perception of the skill of our present and incoming workforce, and replace it with both honest and respectful assessments of the experience of our colleagues, and the construction of accessible opportunities for the growth and development of workers of all skill levels within and around the workplace.

The space of possibility for who we as a profession can bring in and bring up is so small, at least in part, because many in our field continue to insist on the inherent inaccessibility of the skillset. As skilled workers who have ourselves learned the skills we have through mentorship, practice, and reflection, we should know better.