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Highly Skilled People Versus The Markets

01.04.2011
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Dan Ariely writes about a meeting with a locksmith:

this locksmith was penalized for getting better at his profession. He was tipped better when he was an apprentice and it took him longer to pick a lock, even though he would oftentimes break the lock! Now that it takes him only a moment, his customers complain that he is overcharging and they don’t tip him. [...] Now imagine how much more people would pay if they knew the effort that goes into all kinds of products and services?

Software consultants will probably relate to this. Many “challenging” projects are, in reality, only complicated for less experienced developers. The highly skilled programmer can solve the problem very quickly, but they have to then charge high rates to make up, which many customers may not be willing to pay. Or think of plumbers – they charge a lot for tightening a nut, but because of that, people call them only as a last resort.

The principle here is that beyond a point, the market stops rewarding you for being better at your profession, and if you want to make more money, you need to think of expanding horizontally. This may not even be related to actual skills. For example, I have read that saying that you are a Mensa on your resume (except when you are fresh out of college) has a non-trivial likelihood of getting you rejected because people think you are over-qualified. I am not really sure about the research, but it definitely seems plausible.

So here is a possibility. Maybe the locksmith, instead of being a faster locksmith, uses his fast lock-breaking skills to become a “home security evaluator” who certifies whether the locks in a home can be easily broken. Some rich customers and companies (even lock-making companies) may be willing to pay the big bucks for that.

Many people try to make themselves very skilled in a particular profession. This is okay to some extent as long as the demand in that profession keeps growing. But once supply catches up to demand, or there are low-cost workers who can do the same task with only slight reduction in quality, then having only vertical skills is a big disadvantage.

 

From http://www.thoughtclusters.com/2011/01/highly-skilled-people-versus-the-markets/

Published at DZone with permission of Krishna Kumar, author and DZone MVB.

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)

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Wong Qil replied on Tue, 2011/01/04 - 4:30am

IT depends on what kind of your BOSS is.

Nick Brown replied on Tue, 2011/01/04 - 6:52am

"The highly skilled programmer can solve the problem very quickly, but they have to then charge high rates to make up, which many customers may not be willing to pay."

Make up for what? Being good at your job doesn't cost you money, in fact it saves you money by allowing you to finish the job quickly and get more contracts. And by "many customers may not be willing to pay", that's not a problem with the market, thats a failure by the programmer to differentiate himself from his less skilled competition.

"Or think of plumbers – they charge a lot for tightening a nut, but because of that, people call them only as a last resort."

That's like saying programmers charge a lot for typing on a keyboard. Most plumbing jobs require more than simply tightening a nut.

Nick Brown replied on Tue, 2011/01/04 - 7:34am in response to: Nick Brown

Also, plumbers don't just get called for emergencies because they charge a lot, they charge a lot because they only get called for emergencies.

vyasa kumar replied on Tue, 2011/01/04 - 12:05pm

If we eliminate the middle vendors between client  and employee, we will get good pay and good experience ppl.

Jilles Van Gurp replied on Tue, 2011/01/04 - 3:15pm

There's a difference between thinking you are good at something, actually being good at something, and being recognized as being good at something by others.

The latter is the only thing that you can convert into money. It's very simple, once you are that good, you will have no trouble finding employment through your social network or getting promotions. You'll be declining offers in fact and be able to cherry pick the fun jobs.

Actually being good is helpful of course but won't mean much until you demonstrate to others just how good you are.

Merely believing you are good may help you bluff your way through an interview and I've seen complete idiots being hired in jobs beyond their skill levels who thought they were quite good. It's quite common actually. In fact our industry is full of self proclaimed 'professionals' that are collectively responsible for those 9 out of 10 projects that deliver the wrong stuff past the dead line with questionable levels of quality. Just because the customer paid doesn't mean you did a good job. Just because you survived a few years in the industry doesn't make you a professional.

Now the key thing for an IT professional is knowing what to specialize in since as you point out, it doesn't matter how good you are if the skill is actually becoming irrelevant. Not recognizing the declining importance of your skill set is a good indication you are probably not that good to begin with. Or put differently, the ability to continuously and incrementally adapt to the changing world we live in is an essential skill you need to be good at. I'd rather hire somebody who is capable of learning something new in a hurry than somebody who has done the same things over and over again for 10 years without ever even questioning whether there was a better way of doing things.

It's the very nature of our work to automate repetive, stupid tasks. That's what IT does. Doing the same thing for ten years means you haven't figured out how to do your job properly (i.e. solve it such that it stops generating more work). You can bet that somebody else will do it for you though.

Mary-joy Thornberry replied on Wed, 2011/01/05 - 10:33am

Mensa in a resume does not say "overqualified" - there are plenty of extremely intelligent people who are not good software developers.  It could be seen as "arrogant" or "name dropper" though as it is really irrelevant.  What a person actually has done and the environment that they did it in are what is important.

Venkateswara Ra... replied on Wed, 2011/01/05 - 6:58pm

Nice topic to discuss ... :)

Alex(JAlexoid) ... replied on Wed, 2011/01/05 - 8:23pm

Well it's not about markets, it's about marketing. And a good professional needs to market himself.

Any professional, should concisely explain why (s)he is worth the $$$ (s)he's paid and where value lies.

Jonathan Berkowitz replied on Tue, 2011/08/30 - 3:44pm

Many people try to make themselves very skilled in a particular profession. This is okay to some extent as long as the demand in that profession keeps growing. -Jonathan Berkowitz

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