Stories about Software


The Humanized Expert Beginner

I was going to write a post about my recent fascination with Selenium tonight, but with the current bandwidth I’m getting from my hotel wifi connection, I won’t have successfully installed Firefox until Thursday. Undaunted, I decided to go through my drafts folder and move a card out of that sizeable backlog. The one that I settled on came as a response to Damien’s comment in my first Expert Beginner post. Periodically, people happen across that post and continue to comment, and I continue to find the subject relatively interesting since this theme is one that doesn’t seem to be in danger of going away. The portion of his comment about which I thought I’d muse is as follows:

You’d have to be mind-numbingly ignorant to fall into Expert Beginnerism. All you have to do to illuminate your ignorance is read a blog or book by highly experienced software engineers. If you’re an Expert Beginner in software, you’re likely an Expert Beginner in every area of your life.

I’ve been thinking about this a little bit here and there over the last couple of months. The question essentially boils down to one of whether Expert Beginnerism is a specific, learned approach to one set of problems or whether it’s a general approach or even a personality trait (defect?). Is it possible to be woefully mistaken about your own competence in one area of life while otherwise being a relatively normal, well-adjusted and pleasant individual in other arenas? Operating hypothesis: yes, it is. Tentative evidence: karaoke. I’m serious.


Make your way down to a local place that does karaoke nights and suffer through the whole evening. I can almost promise you that you’ll find a nice, social, well-adjusted person that, to everyone’s listening displeasure, thinks they’re really good at singing. Most likely, they’ve never thought of making a go at it professionally and so no one has ever told them the hard but kind truth about their abilities. People just wince inwardly and say, “oh, sure, that’s GREAT!” And so the would-be Aretha Franklin or Frank Sinatra, through various merciful white lies in the face of unimportance, comes to believe wrongly that she or he is a good singer in spite of easily available evidence to the contrary.

That’s all well and good, however, because no one is paying these room-clearers to sing or, worse still, to teach others to sing. Is it possible to be a professional Expert Beginner without being insufferable across the board? At one time, I created a taxonomy of Expert Beginners (at least those with whom I’ve interacted) and group them according to their tolerance for cognitive dissonance. A poor-man’s interpretation of that might be how red they’d turn when asked, “Sir, have you no shame?”

In the parlance of that taxonomy, we have Master Beginner, Company Man, and Xenophobe. To recap, Master Beginners are consummate blowhards that believe themselves incapable of being wrong (no shame at all). Company Men have a basic, queasily pragmatic operating philosophy of circular reasoning: “if I have it, then I must have earned it by merit.” (They’d bristle some at suggestions to the contrary, turning slightly red). Xenophobes are those who have hissy fits when faced with the prospect that there might be some kind of gap in their knowledge (they turn beet red). I’d argue that the redder you turn, the less holistically defective you are when it comes to realistic self assessment.

We can pretty much set aside Master Beginners; these are seriously demented individuals that will be equally insufferable in all theaters. Company men are probably not far behind since they let their narrative be written as they go, with each instance of them not being taken down a peg bolstering their self confidence, however unjustifiably. So, even if they start out reasonably, after a bunch of years of “moving up by merit” they probably assume that they’re simply becoming awesome at everything. That leaves us with poor Xenophobe, who leads a high stress life, constantly on the brink of being exposed.

And this, I would argue, is the counter-example. Xenophobe is what happens if, while our karaoke singer is ‘performing’ on stage, someone comes along and says, “hey, I’m a musical talent agent and, while I’ve never heard anyone sing before, I’m sure that you’re just what we need, so here’s a few million dollars and some fame!” The stakes are high, the pot is sweet, and the dream is tantalizing, so our singer inks the contract, silences the “this is too good to be true” voice and engages in an odd dance that can only be described as, “make it then fake it.”

If we go away from the singer metaphor and into the more realistic scenario of “amateur techie at small, but growing, company,” you (might) start out with a decent, if naive, person that takes the road less advised when faced with “too good to be true.” And once that decision is made, it gets harder and harder with each passing day to go back, until you’re haggard somewhere, in an office, shrieking at junior developers that you don’t want to hear another word about this functional programming crap!

I’d imagine that this type of Expert Beginner, having arrived at the path described here, could actually be pretty reasonable in other areas of life. Sure, he must have some capacity for self-delusion, but can any of us honestly say that we don’t — that we haven’t indulged in basking in blatant flattery from time to time? I’m not saying that we could all make a lifetime of it, but what I am saying is that I think there’s a narrow cadre of expert beginners out there that might be decent people and even relatively modest in other areas of life.


Wasted Talent: The Tragedy of the Expert Beginner

Back in September, I announced the Expert Beginner e-book. In that same post, I promised to publish the conclusion to the series around year-end, so I’m now going to make good on that promise. If you like these posts, you should definitely give the e-book a look, though. It’s more than just the posts strung together — it shuffles the order, changes the content a touch, and smooths them into one continuous story.

But, without further ado, the conclusion to the series:

The real, deeper sadness of the Expert Beginner’s story lurks beneath the surface. The sinking of the Titanic is sharply sad because hubris and carelessness led to a loss of life, but the sinking is also sad in a deeper, more dull and aching way because human nature will cause that same sort of tragedy over and over again. The sharp sadness in the Expert Beginner saga is that careers stagnate, culminating in miserable life events like dead-end jobs or terminations. The dull ache is endlessly mounting deficit between potential and reality, aggregated over organizations, communities and even nations. We live in a world of “ehhh, that’s probably good enough,” or, perhaps more precisely, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

There is no shortage of literature on the subject of “work-life balance,” nor of people seeking to split the difference between the stereotypical, ruthless executive with no time for family and the “aim low,” committed family type that pushes a mop instead of following his dream, making it so that his children can follow theirs. The juxtaposition of these archetypes is the stuff that awful romantic dramas starring Katherine Heigl or Jennifer Lopez are made of. But that isn’t what I’m talking about here. One can intellectually stagnate just as easily working eighty-hour weeks or intellectually flourish working twenty-five-hour ones.

I’m talking about the very fabric of Expert Beginnerism as I defined it earlier: a voluntary cessation of meaningful improvement. Call it coasting or plateauing if you like, but it’s the idea that the Expert Beginner opts out of improvement and into permanent resting on one’s (often questionable) laurels. And it’s ubiquitous in our society, in large part because it’s encouraged in subtle ways. To understand what I mean, consider institutions like fraternities and sororities, institutions granting tenure, multi-level marketing outfits, and often corporate politics with a bias toward rewarding loyalty. Besides some form of “newbie hazing,” what do these institutions have in common? Well, the idea that you put in some furious and serious effort up front (pay your dues) to reap the benefits later.

This isn’t such a crazy notion. In fact, it looks a lot like investment and saving the best for last. “Work hard now and relax later” sounds an awful lot like “save a dollar today and have two tomorrow,” or “eat all of your carrots and you can enjoy dessert.” For fear of getting too philosophical and prying into religion, this gets to the heart of the notion of Heaven and the Protestant Work Ethic: work hard and sacrifice in the here and now, and reap the benefits in the afterlife. If we aren’t wired for suffering now to earn pleasure later, we certainly embrace and inculcate it as a practice, culturally. Who is more a symbol of decadence than the procrastinator–the grasshopper who enjoys the pleasures of the here and now without preparing for the coming winter? Even as I’m citing this example, you probably summon some involuntary loathing for the grasshopper for his lack of vision and sobriety about possible dangers lurking ahead.

A lot of corporate culture creates a manufactured, distorted version of this with the so-called “corporate ladder.” Line employees get in at 8:30, leave at 5:00, dress in business-casual garb, and usually work pretty hard or else. Managers stroll in at 8:45 and sometimes cut out a little early for this reason or that. They have lunches with the corporate credit card and generally dress smartly, but if they have to rush into the office, they might be in jeans on a Thursday and that’s okay. C-level executives come and go as they please, wear what they want, and have you wear what they want. They play lots of golf.

There’s typically not a lot of illusion that those in the positions of power work harder than line employees in the sense that they’re down operating drill presses, banging out code, doing data entry, crunching numbers, etc. Instead, these types are generally believed to be the ones responsible for making the horrible decisions that no one else would want to make and never being able to sleep because they are responsible for the business 24/7. In reality, they probably whack line employees without a whole lot of worry and don’t really answer that call as often as you think. Life gets sweeter as you make your way up, and not just because you make more money or get to boss people around. The C-level executives…they put in their time working sixty-hour weeks and doing grunt work specifically to get the sweet life. They earned it through hard work and sacrifice. This is the defining narrative of corporate culture.

But there’s a bit of a catch here. When we culturally like the sound of a narrative, we tend to manufacture it even when it might not be totally realistic. For example, do we promote a programmer who pours sixty hours per week into his job for five years to manager because he would be good at managing people or because we like the “work hard, get rewarded” story? Chicken or egg? Do we reward hard work now because it creates value, or do we manufacture value by rewarding it? I’d say, in a lot of cases, it’s fairly ingrained in our culture to be the latter.

In this day and age, it’s easy to claim that my take here is paranoid. After all, the days of fat pensions and massive union graft have fallen by the wayside, and we’re in some market, meritocratic renaissance, right? Well, no, I’d argue. It’s just that the game has gotten more distributed and more subtle. You’ll bounce around between organizations, creating the illusion of general market merit, but in reality, there is a form of subconscious collusion. The main determining factor in your next role is your last role. Your next salary will probably be five to ten percent more than your last one. You’re on the dues-paying train, even as you bounce around and receive nominally different corporate valuations. Barring aberration, you’re working your way, year in and year out, toward an easier job with nicer perks.

But what does all of this have to do with the Expert Beginner? After all, Expert Beginners aren’t CTOs or even line managers. They’re, in a sense, just longer-tenured grunts that get to decide what source control or programming language to use. Well, Expert Beginners have the same approach, but they aim lower in the org chart and have a higher capacity for self-delusion. In a real sense, management and executive types are making an investment of hard work for future Easy Street, whereas Expert Beginners are making a more depressing and less grounded investment in initial learning and growth for future stagnation. They have a spasm of marginal competence early in their careers and coast on the basis of this indefinitely, with the reward of not having to think or learn and having people defer to them exclusively because of corporate politics. As far as rewards go, this is pretty Hotel California. They’ve put in their time, paid their dues, and now they get to reap only the meager rewards of intellectual indolence and ego-fanning.

In terms of money and notoriety, there isn’t much to speak of either. The reward they receive isn’t a Nobel Prize or a world championship in something. It’s not even a luxury yacht or a star on the Walk of Fame. We have to keep getting more modest. It’s not a six bedroom house with a pool and a Lamborghini. It’s probably just a run-of-the-mill upper middle class life with one nice vacation per year and the prospect of retiring and taking that trip they’ve always wanted, a visit to Rome and Paris. They’ve sold their life’s work, their historical legacy, and their very existence for a Cadillac, a nice set of woods and irons, a tasteful ranch-style house somewhere warm, and trans-Atlantic flight or two in retirement. And that–that willingness to have a low ceiling and that short-changing of one’s own potential–is the tragedy of the Expert Beginner.

Expert Beginners are not dumb people, particularly given that they tend to be knowledge workers. They are people who started out with a good bit of potential–sometimes a lot of it. They’re the bowlers who start at 100 and find themselves averaging 150 in a matter of weeks. The future looks pretty bright for them right up until they decide not to bother going any further. It’s as if Michael Jordan had decided that playing some pretty good basketball in high school was better than what most people did, or if Mozart had said, “I just wrote my first symphony, which is more symphonies than most people write, so I’ll call it a career.” Of course, most Expert Beginners don’t have such prodigious talent, but we’ll never hear about the accomplishment of the rare one that does. And we’ll never hear about the more modest potential accomplishments of the rest.

At the beginning of the saga of the Expert Beginner, I detailed how an Expert Beginner can sabotage a group and condemn it to a state of indefinite mediocrity. But writ large across a culture of “good enough,” the Tragedy of the Expert Beginner stifles accomplishments and produces dull tedium interrupted only by midlife crises. En masse in our society, they’ll instead be taking it easy and counting themselves lucky that their days of proving themselves are long past. And a shrinking tide lowers all boats.


Wrapping Up and an E-Book: The Tragedy of the Expert Beginner

It’s been a pretty busy week for me, which is why I haven’t posted in over a week. I’m in the midst of my next Pluralsight course, and I spent the last week getting ready for closing, then actually closing, on a house. On top of that, the Expert Beginner e-book is now available!


Here is the start of the final post in the series and the conclusion of the book:

The real, deeper sadness of the Expert Beginner’s story lurks beneath the surface. The sinking of the Titanic is sharply sad because hubris and carelessness led to a loss of life, but the sinking is also sad in a deeper, more dull and aching way because human nature will cause that same sort of tragedy over and over again. The sharp sadness in the Expert Beginner saga is that careers stagnate, culminating in miserable life events like dead-end jobs or terminations. The dull ache is endlessly mounting deficit between potential and reality, aggregated over organizations, communities and even nations. We live in a world of “ehhh, that’s probably good enough,” or, perhaps more precisely, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

There is no shortage of literature on the subject of “work-life balance,” nor of people seeking to split the difference between the stereotypical, ruthless executive with no time for family and the “aim low,” committed family type that pushes a mop instead of following his dream, making it so that his children can follow theirs. The juxtaposition of these archetypes is the stuff that awful romantic dramas starring Katherine Heigl or Jennifer Lopez are made of. But that isn’t what I’m talking about here. One can intellectually stagnate just as easily working eighty-hour weeks or intellectually flourish working twenty-five-hour ones.

I’m talking about the very fabric of Expert Beginnerism as I defined it earlier: a voluntary cessation of meaningful improvement. Call it coasting or plateauing if you like, but it’s the idea that the Expert Beginner opts out of improvement and into permanent resting on one’s (often questionable) laurels. And it’s ubiquitous in our society, in large part because it’s encouraged in subtle ways. To understand what I mean, consider institutions like fraternities and sororities, institutions granting tenure, multi-level marketing outfits, and often corporate politics with a bias toward rewarding loyalty. Besides some form of “newbie hazing,” what do these institutions have in common? Well, the idea that you put in some furious and serious effort up front (pay your dues) to reap the benefits later.

To read the entire conclusion, or if you like this series in general and want to support it, please consider buying the e-book. It is available right now on Amazon and will be available soon in other e-book stores as well. The price in all stores is $4.99. Here it is on the publisher’s site, where you will be able to find links to everywhere that it’s available. (As an aside, any of you with a blog should take a look at Blog Into Book, an 1871 startup that can help you generate an e-book from a book-worthy string of posts on your blog.)

In the interest of full disclosure, I will publish this last post in its entirety around the end of the year. This series of posts is, well, a series of posts, and I certainly don’t want to penalize regular readers of the blog by withholding content. But the e-book is more than just the posts strung together — it is complete with some additional content, better segues, and a more continuous flow. So I’d encourage you to get it if you want to see my conclusion sooner rather than later or if you’d like to read the series as a single work.

Also, I’d like to thank Amanda Muledy for editing and illustrating the book, as she does with my site.


Self-Correcting Organizations: Fall of the Expert Beginner

Today, I’m going to make what will be, for now, the last post in the Expert Beginner series. I edited the first post in the series to add a blurb about this, but I’ve actually been working on compiling these posts into an e-book that will sell for a few dollars. More specifics on the availability and timeframe of that to follow.

Also, I’m going to be traveling for a couple of weeks with very limited access to internet, so I doubt that there will be any posts to this blog before Memorial Day (May 27th). I plan to resume a normal posting cadence then. Thanks for your patience.

The Human Cost

If you’ve followed this series of posts, it’s pretty likely that you empathize with observing and dealing with Expert Beginners. That is, you’ve most likely encountered someone like this in your travels and been stymied, belittled, annoyed, exasperated, etc. by this Expert Beginner. So you’re probably rooting for the outcome in the title of the post. This is the post in which the cosmic scales are rebalanced and the arrogant Expert Beginner finally gets his comeuppance: The Fall of the Expert Beginner. But not so fast–there’s some ground to cover first, and if you’re looking for a nice resolution where the bad guy is brought to justice, you might be disappointed.

I mean, it’s nice to read the Daily WTF and see the occasional story about a bungling but nasty manager or architect being dressed down or laid off, but in your life, the players involved are actual people and everyone suffers real consequences. If you hire on with an organization dominated by an Expert Beginner and then leave in frustration, you’re investing time that you’ll never get back and incurring the hassle of a job search sooner than expected. You also probably came on board because you liked the company and its goals and mission, and you leave knowing that its interests are being sabotaged by incompetence and that your friends and everyone else still working there are not doing as well as they could be if the company were enjoying more success. And even if the Expert Beginner does wind up being disgraced somehow, via demotion or termination, that’s a person who now must explain to a family that they’re going to have to batten down the hatches financially until he figures something out.

Escaping Intact

In the last post in this series, I left off with a teaser for this post where I said that Expert Beginners generally enjoy high odds for short term success which drop to zero on a long enough timeline. Here, I’d like to talk about the means by which some Expert Beginners tend to escape that fate before describing it in detail.

The secret to success in the Expert Beginner world is to understand that programming (or really any line-level expertise) has to be a means to an end only. It’s not a skill that you’re going to master, but one of which you’ll fake mastery for just long enough to profit (literally and figuratively) and bail out. This requires some ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance and swallow pride, albeit in a way that allows for ample spinning of the truth. And really, there’s only one category of Expert Beginner from the three that I defined in the previous post that can get out of the game as a success: the Company Man.

Let’s consider casino poker as a metaphor for explaining the fate of Expert Beginners. Expert Beginners are essentially poker novices who sit down at a low stakes table, catch a run of incredible cards, and wind up with a big fat stack through the vagaries of chance. From there, the paths diverge depending on the archetype.

Xenophobe stays at the low stakes table because on some level he knows that he’ll get slaughtered by good players at the high stakes tables. He doesn’t tell himself this, naturally, but rather insists that he likes the down-to-earth vibe of the table or something. He also doesn’t cash out because being good at poker is important to him. So he rides his initial luck as far as it will go, but, sooner or later, that luck runs out. Slowly he loses control of his modest fortune, one bad bet and wrong play at a time until he’s chip-less. He eventually leaves with nothing in his pocket, unable to understand why repeating the exact behaviors that earned him success didn’t continue to work.

Master Beginner takes his initial luck and interprets it brazenly as utter poker mastery. He sits at the tables that have the highest stakes and goes all in all the time, perhaps without even looking at his hand. His beginners’ luck allows him to parlay a larger stack into an intensely successful (but brief) series of bluffs which catch the sharks and good players completely off guard, feeding back into the cycle and making him feel invincible. Once people figure out his game, they quickly and decisively dismantle him no matter at which table he’s seated, but his brief, intensely bright and meteoric rise is as memorable as the explosion and flameout.

It’s the Company Man approach that winds up with a chance for escape. Company Man has neither Xenophobe’s neurotic need to believe himself a poker expert nor Master Beginner’s complete faith in his delusion, so he is the one that might actually cash out and go do something else with the money before it’s all gone. There’s no guarantee, but at least he has a fighting chance.

Tragicomic Explosion: Fall of the Master Beginner

The Master Beginner’s fate is really the least interesting because it’s so entirely predictable. In the poker analogy, he blows into the high stakes table like a hurricane, creating massive disruption before blowing out just as quickly. In the real world, Master Beginners don’t last, either. Their timeline is highly accelerated.

A Master Beginner that is new to a company will come in and proclaim that everything is wrong and loudly bang his own drum as some kind of Messianic figure sent in to save the masses from themselves. Everyone believes him at first–even Experts. The reason is partially what I mentioned in the previous post: people assume someone this brazen must be right. But it’s also partially that people in the Competent to Expert range are aware that they’re not all-knowing and are inclined to accept initially at face value that someone knows things they don’t.

It isn’t long before the Competents, Proficients, and Experts figure out that Master Beginner is a bag of hot air. The only remaining questions then are (1) how long until management starts listening and acts on the words of their good developers; and (2) how many hilarious things happen before it does.

Some Master Beginners mount an impressive enough initial assault to be promoted quickly or named to a position of authority, but this just buys them a few more months or, in extreme cases, years, once the jig is up. The Master Beginner rockets through the atmosphere like a meteorite: blazingly fast, with blinding light, and ending in a spectacular conflagration.

Master Beginners are probably the least pitiable not only because they’re usually insufferable, personally, but also because they tend to land on their feet. If one’s shtick is being able to pull off a ridiculous skill bluff for a little while, securing interviews and getting job offers tends not to be a problem. Most people who know Master Beginners tend to shake their heads and say, “I can’t believe people keep hiring that guy!” Master Beginner inevitably fails at his goal because his goal is to receive the recognition he deserves as a consummate expert, and that never lasts for any length of time, wherever he goes.

Slow, Agonizing Defeat: Fall of the Xenophobe

Xenophobe’s arc is a longer-playing one by far than Master Beginner, and there is actually some remote chance for limited success. The goal of Xenophobe is to freeze the world in its current state, within the cocoon of his comfort zone. He wants to keep the same members on the same team using the same technologies to do the same work, in perpetuity. If you’re a bettor, you probably wouldn’t take those odds on a long timeline. Nevertheless that’s what he aims for.

If he happens to work for some remote outfit, nestled snugly within some byzantine bureaucracy, he might be able to keep the dream alive as he runs out the clock toward retirement. But situations where nothing about the work environment changes are rare, especially in software, and are only becoming rarer. There aren’t that many opportunities to lead a team that cranks out maintenance updates to some COBOL system and plans to keep doing so until 2034.

The far more common case is that things do change. People come and go. New frameworks must be learned. New ideas sneak in through various channels, and all of it chips away at the credibility of Xenophobe’s qualifications. He can manage at first, but eventually management overhears whispers from other developers of ways of doing things that could save tons of time and money. People from other departments hear about tech buzz words and Xenophobe doesn’t even know what they are. Day after day, month after month, his credibility erodes until something happens.

That something can vary. Perhaps it’s the appointment of a “co-architect” or a reorganization of the group. Perhaps he’s shuffled onto a different project or asked to continue to maintain the old version while an up-and-comer is tasked with architecting the rewrite. It could be outside consultants brought in as “staff augs” or farming off of whole projects elsewhere.

Interestingly, end for Xenophobe is rarely a termination. Unlike Master Beginner, Xenophobe doesn’t squirt gasoline on bridges and gleefully ignite them. He’s more pitiable and shrewd. So what happens is that he’s effectively put out to pasture in all but name. He might even get a better title or an office or something, but his responsibilities are divvied up and portioned out to others until he just collects a handsome wage to sit in his office and do very little.

While Xenophobe’s capacity for self-delusion is high, as is generally the case with Expert Beginners, his tolerance for cognitive dissonance is extremely low. This makes this “reorg” too much for him to take lying down. He may rage-quit–a sad option since he’s probably going to need to take a massive pay-cut to get hired anywhere else. He may simply rage, at which point his management is likely to show him a starker view of reality than he’s accustomed to seeing, which is a sad sight. Or he may do neither of those things and bitterly accept the new situation.

The fate of Xenophobe is actually intensely depressing. If you’ve worked with him directly, you probably don’t find it such during the short term since he’s often pretty hard to work with, but he’s not a pathological grand-stander like Master Beginner. He’s just a guy that lucked out, believed his own hype and got out of his depth. In a way, he’s like a lottery winner that squanders his fortune and winds up broke. Almost invariably, Xenophobes drift bitterly toward retirement, stripped of all real responsibility and collecting paychecks at the mercy of mid-level managers that continue to bolster (fake) the business case for keeping him on staff. When he’s not so lucky, he winds up in the same boat as the rage-quitter–taking a huge pay and responsibility cut, or crawling back to his former employer and then taking a huge pay and responsibility cut.

A Glimmer of Hope: The Company Man

Company Man lacks the neurotic pride of Xenophobe and the pathological cockiness of Master Beginner, and that has the potential to provide a way out. But let’s consider what happens to Company Men who don’t escape first. These are the ones who find their way into project management or line management and squander the false capital of their ‘technical expertise.’

At the core of the Expert Beginner experience is a quest for status and recognition. It’s not about money or even organizational power (beyond the software group, anyway). Truly. If it were, the Expert Beginner would never become Expert Beginner. He’d recognize that the path to a corner office usually doesn’t wind its way through the land of “knowing the Java compiler inside and out.” Someone interested primarily in being a C-level executive would recognize that programming is something you do for a few years and put up with until you can make the jump to project management, then line management, then VP-hood, etc. Expert Beginners relish being the best bowler in the alley and are willing to chase better bowlers away with baseball bats to protect their status if it comes down to it (or simply claim they won in spite of having a lower score, in the case of wildly delusional Master Beginner).

Company Men who don’t make it fail to recognize a life raft being floated to them. Once put into a managerial position of authority, they rule like technical Expert Beginners (architects or tech leads or whatever they used to be). To put it another way, they micromanage. In their previous role, they likely had some actual programming to do or else their control wasn’t absolute, so others could defy them, pick up the slack, or do what needed to be done to keep the wheels on the machine as it flew down the tracks. But a micromanaging Expert Beginner has nothing to do but meddle, bark orders, and chew people out for thinking for themselves. The wheels start to come off pretty quickly under his (mis-) management.

This Company Man unwittingly sabotages himself by finally having and exerting total technical control. Ironically, he sinks the ship by totally assuming the helm. Work stops getting done, morale plummets, projects fail, and HR issues abound as employees choose between defying the Expert Beginner and getting things right or obeying and having the project fail. Attrition mounts in these circumstances, and the Dead Sea Effect cycle time is radically accelerated with developers jumping ship like rats. Clearly, this is unsustainable, and the Company Man is demoted or let go. This is a tough spot for Company Man because he’s bad at tech but has a good track record for it on paper. He could theoretically be less incompetent at managing, but he’s crashed and burned in his only stab at that role. So he likely winds up hiring on as some senior developer elsewhere and trying to repeat the cycle. He isn’t quite as nimble as Master Beginner, but he’s not utterly trapped like Xenophobe, either. He’ll move on and probably have a chance to get management right the second time around by ceasing to play at technical acumen: a face-saving strategy.

And that brings us to the successful escapee of Expert Beginnerism: the (subconsciously) self-aware Company Man. He’ll never admit it, even to himself, but the successful Expert Beginner can feel the wolves closing in as the world changes and his policies are increasingly not successful. As he contemplates where to go from “Architect That Frequently Squabbles with Some of his Senior Developers,” this is the guy who hears a little, nagging voice in the back of his head that says, “You know, times are changing here faster than you want to, so perhaps its time to hang up your obviously quite impressive spurs and ‘retire’ to management.”

When he makes the jump, he also makes a clean break with his former life. He’s content to be known as the guy who used to be the architect but is now in management. There will be some amount of shared, mutual fiction between him and his formerly restless techie underlings as they’re grateful for his departure and wish him the best, in earnest, so that he stays where he’s at. They’ll agree with him that he was truly an awesome architect whose incredible skill set is just needed elsewhere. Everyone wins here, so why not?

And from here, there’s a new period of acquisition and the slate is wiped clean. The former technical Expert Beginner reaps the benefits of being considered an ‘Expert’ as he embarks on a new learning curve. And while certain personality leanings make this possible, there’s no guarantee that he’ll become an Expert Beginner at management. He might excel in it and be receptive to continued learning in a way that he wasn’t as an erstwhile techie. He might also become an Expert Beginner in management, but the odds here aren’t nearly as bad since management is really a lot more subjective–competence versus incompetence is harder to assess concretely. By keeping his hands off of the ship’s helm, sails, and really anything of import, the former Expert Beginner can be a decent captain by relying heavily on his competent crew, even if he was a poor sailor.

A Sad Tale

Following the career arc of Expert Beginners is really quite sad. In the early stages, one feels annoyed and a little indignant while watching advancement by luck instead of competence. As things progress, real damage is caused by poor implementation and wrong-headed approaches, resulting, for a lot of people, in stress, frustration, failure, and at times even lost jobs and failed ventures. In the end, the fate of the one that caused these things is probably poetically just, but it’s hard to find happiness in. A person ill-suited for a role assumed it, caused problems, and then suffered personal hardship. It’s not a great story.

This is my last Expert Beginner post on the blog until after the release of the E-book, when I will eventually publish the conclusion, entitled, “Wasted Talent: The Tragedy of the Expert Beginner.”

But the one thing to take away from this post is a bit of ability to assess what effect Expert Beginners may have on your career. You will usually see them crash and burn on a long enough timeline, if you can outlast them. Occasionally they will be promoted out of your way. Should you stick around and fight them or wait for their demise (or try to help them, if you’re altruistic and masochistic)? That certainly has to be a decision for you to make, but it should help to know that even slow-acting or overly-loyal organizations will self-correct eventually, provided they have a track record for success. So consider the company, its Expert Beginner, the type of Expert Beginner, and the distance along in the process of their fall from power when you make your decision.

Edit: The E-Book is now available. Here is the publisher website which contains links to the different media for which the book is available.


Up or Not: Ambition of the Expert Beginner

In the last post, I talked about the language employed by Expert Beginners to retain their status at the top of a software development group. That post was a dive into the language mechanics of how Expert Beginners justify decisions that essentially stem from ignorance–and often laziness, to boot. They generally have titles like “Principal Engineer” or “Architect” and thus are in a position to argue policy decisions based on their titles rather than on any kind of knowledge or facts supporting the merits of their approach.

In the series in general, I’ve talked about how Expert Beginners get started, become established, and, most recently, about how they fend off new ideas (read: threats) in order to retain their status with minimal effort. But what I haven’t yet covered and will now talk about is the motivations and goals of the Expert Beginner. Obviously, motivation is a complex subject, and motivations will be as varied as individuals. But I believe that Expert Beginner ambition can be roughly categorized into groups and that these groups are a function of their tolerance for cognitive dissonance.

Wikipedia (and other places) defines cognitive dissonance as mental discomfort that arises from simultaneously holding conflicting beliefs. For instance, someone who really likes the taste of steak but believes that it’s unethical to eat meat will experience this form of unsettling stress as he tries to reconcile these ultimately irreconcilable beliefs. Different people have different levels of discomfort that arise from this state of affairs, and this applies to Expert Beginners as much as anyone else. What makes Expert Beginners unique, however, is how inescapable cognitive dissonance is for them.

An Expert Beginner’s entire career is built on a foundation of cognitive dissonance. Specifically, they believe that they are experts while outside observers (or empirical evidence) demonstrate that they are not. So an Expert Beginner is sentenced to a life of believing himself to be an expert while all evidence points to the contrary, punctuated by frequent and extremely unwelcome intrusions of that reality.

So let’s consider three classes of Expert Beginner, distinguished by their tolerance for cognitive dissonance and their paths through an organization.

Xenophobes (Low Tolerance)

An Expert Beginner with a low tolerance for cognitive dissonance is basically in a state of existential crisis, given that he has a low tolerance for the thing that characterizes his career. To put this more concretely, a marginally competent person, inaccurately dubbed “Expert” by his organization, is going to be generally unhappy if he has little ability to reconcile or accept conflicting beliefs. A more robust Expert Beginner has the ability to dismiss evidence against his ‘Expert’ status as wrong or can simply shrug it off, but not Xenophobe. Xenophobe becomes angry, distressed, or otherwise moody when this sort of thing happens.

But Xenophobe’s long term strategy isn’t simply to get worked up whenever something exposes his knowledge gap. Instead, he minimizes his exposure to such situations. This process of minimizing is where the name Xenophobe originates; he shelters himself from cognitive dissonance by sheltering himself from outsiders and interlopers that expose him to it.

If you’ve been to enough rodeos in the field of software development, you’ve encountered Xenophobe. He generally presides over a small group with an iron fist. He’ll have endless reams of coding standards, procedures, policies, rules, and quirky ways of doing things that are non-negotiable and soul-sucking. This is accompanied by an intense dose of micromanagement and insistence on absolute conformity in all matters. Nothing escapes his watchful eye, and his management generally views this as dedication or even, perversely, mentoring.

This practice of micromanagement serves double duty for Xenophobe. Most immediately, it allows him largely to prevent the group from being infected by any foreign ideas. On the occasion that one does sneak in, it allows him to eliminate it swiftly and ruthlessly to prevent the same perpetrator from doing it again. But on a longer timeline, the oppressive micromanagement systematically drives out talented subordinates in favor of malleable, disinterested ones that are fine with brainlessly banging out code from nine to five, asking no questions, and listening to the radio. Xenophobe’s group is the epitome of what Bruce Webster describes in his Dead Sea Effect post.

All that Xenophobe wants out of life is to preserve this state of affairs. Any meaningful change to the status quo is a threat to his iron-fisted rule over his little kingdom. He doesn’t want anyone to leave because that probably means new hires, which are potential sources of contamination. He will similarly resist external pushes to change the group and its mission. New business ventures will be labeled “unfeasible” or “not what we do.”


Most people working in corporate structures want to move up at some point. This is generally because doing so means higher pay, but it’s also because it comes with additional status perks like offices, parking spaces, and the mandate to boss people around. Xenophobe is not interested in any of this (beyond whatever he already has). He simply wants to come in every day and be regarded as the alpha technical expert. Moving up to management would result in whatever goofy architecture and infrastructure he’s set up being systematically dismantled, and his ego couldn’t handle that. So he demurs in the face of any promotion to project management or real management because even these apparently beneficial changes would poke holes in the Expert delusion. You’ll hear Xenophobe say things like, “I’d never want to take my hands off the keyboard, man,” or, “this company would never survive me moving to management.”

Company Men (Moderate Tolerance)

Company Man does not share Xenophobe’s reluctance to move into a line or middle management role. His comfort with this move results from being somewhat more at peace with cognitive dissonance. He isn’t so consumed with preserving the illusion of expertise at all costs that he’ll pass up potential benefits–he’s a more rational and less pathological kind of Expert Beginner.

Generally speaking, the line to a mid-level management position requires some comfort with cognitive dissonance whether or not the manager came into power from the ranks of technical Expert Beginners. Organizations are generally shaped like pyramids, with executives at the top, a larger layer of management in the middle, and line employees at the bottom. It shares more than just shape with a pyramid scheme–it sells to the rank and file the idea that ascension to the top is inevitable, provided they work hard and serve those above them well.

The source of cognitive dissonance in the middle, however, isn’t simply the numerical impossibility that everyone can work their way up. Rather, the dissonance lies in the belief that working your way up has much to do with merit or talent. In other words, only the most completely daft would believe that everyone will inevitably wind up in the CEO’s office (or even in middle management), so the idea bought into by most is this: each step of the pyramid selects its members from the most worthy of the step below it. The ‘best’ line employees become line managers, the ‘best’ line managers become mid-level managers, and so on up the pyramid. This is a pleasant fiction for members of the company that, when believed, inspires company loyalty and often hard work beyond what makes rational sense for a salaried employee.

But the reality is that mid-level positions tend to be occupied not necessarily by the talented but rather by people who have stuck around the company for a long time, people who are friends with or related to movers and shakers in the company, people who put in long hours, people who simply and randomly got lucky, and people who legitimately get work done effectively. So while there’s a myth perpetuated in corporate American that ascending the corporate ‘ladder’ (pyramid) is a matter of achievement, it’s really more of a matter of age and inevitability, at least until you get high enough into the C-level where there simply aren’t enough positions for token promotions. If you don’t believe me, go look at LinkedIn and tell me that there isn’t a direct and intensely strong correlation between age and impressiveness of title.

So, to occupy a middle management position is almost invariably to drastically overestimate how much talent and achievement it took to get to where you are. That may sound harsh, but “I worked hard and put in long hours and eventually worked my way up to an office next to the corner office” is a much more pleasant narrative than “I stuck with this company, shoveled crap, and got older until enough people left to make this office more or less inevitable.” But what does all of this have to do with Expert Beginners?

Well, Expert Beginners that are moderately tolerant of cognitive dissonance have approximately the same level of tolerance for it as middle management, which is to say, a fair amount. Both sets manage to believe that their positions were earned through merit while empirical evidence points to them getting there by default and managing not to fumble it away. Thus it’s a relatively smooth transition, from a cognitive dissonance perspective, for a technical Expert Beginner to become a manager. They simply trade technical mediocrity for managerial mediocrity and the narrative writes itself: “I was so good at being a software architect that I’ve earned a shot and will be good at being a manager.”

The Xenophobe would never get to that point because asking him to mimic competence at a new skill-set is going to draw him way outside of his comfort zone. He views moving into management as a tacit admission that he was in over his head and needed to be promoted out of danger. Company Man has no such compunction. He’s not comfortable or happy when people in his group bring in outside information or threaten to expose his relative incompetence, but he’s not nearly as vicious and reactionary as Xenophobe, as he can tolerate the odd creeping doubt of his total expertise.

In fact, he’ll often alleviate this doubt by crafting an “up after a while” story for himself vis-a-vis management. You’ll hear him say things like, “I’m getting older and can’t keep slinging code forever–sooner or later, I’ll probably just have to go into management.” It seems affable enough, but he’s really planning a face-saving exit strategy. When you start out not quite competent and insulate yourself from actual competence in a fast-changing field like software, failure is inevitable. Company Man knows this on some subconscious level, so he plans and aspires to a victorious retreat. This continues as high as Company Man is able to rise in the organization (though non-strategic thinkers are unlikely to rise much above line manager, generally). He’s comfortable with enough cognitive dissonance at every level that he doesn’t let not being competent stop him from assuming that he is competent.

Master Beginners (High Tolerance)

If Xenophobes want to stay put and Company Men want to advance, you would think that the class of people who have high tolerance for and thus no problem with cognitive dissonance, Master Beginners, would chomp at the bit to advance. But from an organizational perspective, they really don’t. Their desired trajectory from an org chart perspective is somewhere between Xenophobe and Company Man. Specifically, they prefer to stay put in a technical role but to expand their sphere of influence, breadth-wise, to grow the technical group under their tutelage. Perhaps at some point they’d be satisfied to be CTO or VP of Engineering or something, but only as long as they didn’t get too far away from their domain of ‘expertise.’

Master Beginners are utterly fascinating. I’ve only ever encountered a few of these in my career, but it’s truly a memorable experience. Xenophobes are very much Expert Beginners by nurture rather than nature. They’re normal people who backed their way into a position for which they aren’t fit and thus have to either admit defeat (and, worse, that their main accomplishment in life is being in the right place at the right time) or neurotically preserve their delusion by force. Company Men are also Expert Beginners by nurture over nature, though for them it’s less localized than Xenophobes. Company Men buy into the broader lie that advancement in command-and-control bureaucratic organizations is a function of merit. If a hole is poked in that delusion, they may fall, but a lot of others come with them. It’s a more stable fiction.

But Master Beginners are somehow Expert Beginners by nature. They are the meritocratic equivalent of sociopaths in that their incredible tolerance for cognitive dissonance allows them glibly and with an astonishing lack of shame to feign expertise when doing so is preposterous. It appears on the surface to be completely stunning arrogance. A Master Beginner would stand up in front of a room full of Java programmers, never having written a line of Java code in his life, and proceed to explain to them the finer points of Java, literally making things up as he went. But it’s so brazen–so utterly beyond reason–that arrogance is not a sufficient explanation. It’s like the Master Beginner is a pathological liar of some kind (though he’s certainly also arrogant.) He most likely actually believes that he knows more about subjects he has no understanding of than experts in those fields because he’s just that brilliant.

This makes him an excellent candidate for Expert Beginnerism both from an external, non-technical perspective and from a rookie perspective. To put it bluntly, both rookies and outside managers listen to him and think, “wow, that must be true because nobody would have the balls to talk like that unless they were absolutely certain.” This actually tends to make him better at Expert Beginnerism than his cohorts who are more sensitive to cognitive dissonance, roughly following the psychological phenomenon coined by Walter Langer:

People will believe a big lie sooner than a little one. And if you repeat it frequently enough, people will sooner than later believe it.

So the Master Beginner’s ambition isn’t to slither his way out of situations where he might be called out on his lack–he actually embraces them. The Master Beginner is utterly unflappable in his status as not just an expert, but the expert, completely confident that things he just makes up are more right than things others have studied for years. Thus the Master Beginner seeks to expand aggressively. He wants to grow the department and bring more people under his authority. He’ll back down from no challenge to his authority from any angle, glibly inventing things on the spot to win any argument, pivoting, spinning, shouting, threatening–whatever the situation calls for. And he won’t stop until everyone hails him as the resident expert and does everything his way.


I’ve talked about the ambitions of different kinds of Expert Beginners and what drives them to aspire to these ends. But a worthwhile question to ask is whether or not they tend to succeed and why or why not. I’m going to tackle the fate of Expert Beginners in greater detail in my next post on the subject, but the answer is, of course, that it varies. What tends not to vary, however, is that Expert Beginner success is generally high in the short term and drops to nearly zero on a long enough time line, at least in terms of their ambitions. In other words, success as measured by Expert Beginners themselves tends to be somewhat ephemeral.

It stands to reason that being deluded about one’s own competence isn’t a viable, long-term success strategy. There is a lesson to be learned from the fate of Expert Beginners in general, which is that better outcomes are more likely if you have an honest valuation of your own talents and skills. You can generally have success on your own terms through the right combination of strategy, dedication, and earnest self-improvement, but to improve oneself requires a frank and honest inventory of one’s shortcomings. Anything short of that, and you’re simply advancing via coincidence and living on borrowed time.

Edit: The E-Book is now available. Here is the publisher website which contains links to the different media for which the book is available.