Friday, June 19, 2009

The Talent Code

I read an interesting book couple of weeks ago. The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. While the whole book is really good I particularly liked the section explaining the "sudden" appearance of extraordinary talents - like Brazilian football players, Bronte's sisters, Mozart, venetian sculptors and painters and so on. How it's believed that all those people were simply born with great talent and their great work just happened. And how the reality was almost a total opposite. The main idea behind the book is that no matter what you do, in order to achieve a world class skill you need to spend 10,000 hours in practice. The skill is basically "neural connections" in the brain. Those connections are created during practice but what determines the level of the skill is the "quality" of those connections. What increases the quality of the connection is myelin by insulating nerve fibers. The 10,000 hours is necessary to create sufficient myelin. What's interesting is that it's not just any practice - the best results are achieved in "deep practice".

The author goes on to explain how any of the great talents already had their 10,000 hours clocked in by the time they were "discovered". How bronte's sisters had written tens of training books before Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, how Mozart had his 10,000 hours of practice in very early age and how venetian painters and sculptors got their hours of training in apprenticeship. They were not born great but started from scratch and achieved their greatness by increasingly improving their skills. Interesting thing is that the apprenticeship didn't mean that they would simply paint the whole day and after 10 years became masters. No - they had to do all sorts of things - especially all sorts of "low level things" - like setting the canvas, preparing chisels and so on for their masters. Only after they learnt the basics could they move on to more difficult things. And this is what basically constitutes the "deep training" - choose a goal just outside your comfort zone and keep on failing until you achieve it. Then repeat the process. 

To sidetrack a bit to IT - this is where I think today's system breaks down. Software development is hard. And it only starts with the technical skills - you still need to understand the domain (when working on accounting system you have to have a very solid understanding of accounting), you have to be able to work with people and translate their ideas and feelings about something they've never seen to reality. And there is no magic shortcut - you have to have your 10,000 hours clocked in before you can really do something.  Programming is like writing - just like bronte's sisters - you have to write a lot a lot a lot and about everything you can find - only then your writing will start making sense. Unfortunately, I wouldn't really count any hours spent at school. Maybe it's an unfortunate situation around here - but the IT schools here are set to producing CIO's making decisions on a golf course rather than doing programing or any other actual IT work. To their defense that's pretty much what market here wants - most of the fresh grads from IT will find a good shake-leg work in a bank or MNC paying at least $10,000 per month. I meet quite a few of those people in my trainings or recently, as the banks scale down certain areas, in interviews. 

Anyway, my point here was that only very very few people in IT are willing (or forced) to go through the whole journey - from setting up networks, installing computers, moving to servers, maintaining different operating systems, doing backup / recovery, working with databases, optimizing databases, writing SQL, programming in several languages for several years, understanding patterns going through several releases and so on. And none of that means "I used MS Access in 3rd semester".

Another interesting thing was the difference between masters and beginners. The difference was explained on chess players. The difference between chess masters and beginners is that masters can remember the whole board set up on one look. There is a twist, though. They could only remember the set up from an actual game. If the figures were in random order the chess masters photographic memory vanished. The reason why chess masters could remember the board setup from actual games is because they were not seeing the individual pieces - they were seeing the patterns. 

I picked up the book because I wanted to know more about how people learn - I wanted to understand why after a year of training and working some of my employees are not able to do even a simple task, why is it that they spent a week installing a server without any success while somebody else can do the same work in 1 hour. Why some spend months and months programming a piece of functionality creating a total mess and somehow not "seeing" the simple solution that can be finished in a few hours or days. I used to be especially puzzled about the not seeing part. Even after showing them the simple solution they just couldn't understand it and had to go a big round of all possible wrong ways to arrive at the same solution. I guess some of them see patterns while others see thousands of lines of commands. As a result, in the light of the book's 10,000 hours I start to look very differently at this kind of things. The good news is: it's learnable. The bad news is: it may take 10 years for someone to learn it.


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