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Preface:
Seeing many hints of this question buried within other questions here and have experienced it myself.

Scenario:

For example, take employee X and the different technical domain levels of work at his/her company - for example, technical concept levels A -> B -> C each building on each other.

X is well versed in technical concept A, can train others and explain it well, has a large in-depth command of the technology and can expand on it. While working at this level, employee X is very confident, feels good, is verbally expressive, can joke around and even talk about other things while working, etc - you get the picture.

X works competently most of the time in technical concept level B with help from others, and can figure some things out on his own too - confidence and feeling towards it are average.

Then, employee X gets to work with others in technical concept C world (for an very good example of this, see this question). Employee X looses all confidence, doesn't have much to say, has to pay very detailed attention to just hang in there, becomes more serious, etc etc...

Supporting Info:

Now the catch here is that confidence alone - can increase capability. (I'll look for a reference to that later but most people in the scientific community agree here).

Question:

Nevertheless, what are strategies employee X can use while working in technical concept world C to increase his confidence, capabilities, and competence.... most importantly become proficient at it while doing it, without the experience?

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Self-awareness, devoid of hubris is key to overcoming obstacles generally. Over-awareness is a killer in overcoming obstacles. X should avoid constantly reminding (him/her)self of how incapable and in-way-over-his/her-head (s)he is in this new domain. Building confidence starts with can-do,mustn't-fail even in the face of staggering odds. Divide and conquer C. Take it in as smaller manageable chunks of trouble and not a giant catastrophe. X wasn't a pro @ A as a foetus. Yet X is king @ it now. X needs to remind himself of that –  kolossus Nov 17 '12 at 18:50
    
This question (workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/6223/…) is not an example of one thing 'building on another'. It's an example of a pile of WTF. It naturally takes time to learn to work in a pile of crap. Pay being equal, the best strategy is to avoid those jobs. To me, an example of one thing 'building on another' would be moving from a typical OO application to an application built in the same language, but making heavy use of functional programming techniques. –  kevin cline Nov 19 '12 at 22:42
    
@kolossus: thank you, I think the self-awareness is a great tool as well and perhaps forget it during these times. what do you mean by "Over-awareness is a killer in overcoming obstacles." and what is over-awareness? –  Greg McNulty Nov 20 '12 at 21:18
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Over awareness is being too aware I.e. you know your weaknesses but you don't have to wear them on your sleeves and rub them in your own face 24/7, having your shortcomings define your every thought and action. If all one can see is the shortcoming/ obstacle, one will never surmount it –  kolossus Nov 20 '12 at 22:34
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3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

To take a line from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Don't panic! I get into the situation you've described a lot, and I always remind myself that it's almost impossible for me to learn anything new when I panic. So I step back and give myself permission to take all the time I need to figure it out.

How do I do that? I know I'll probably get slammed for this, but here goes: I take the attitude that no one deadline (and even no one job) is more important than my long-term career growth, which takes knowledge.

To explain this, I'm going to cut away to my very first Graphic Design job. Fresh out of University, I knew how to paint pretty pictures and do some decent design work, but I had no idea about productivity. So I would spend inordinant amounts of time finding clip art (I wasn't familiar with the multiple volumes used in the print shop), choosing fonts (this was back in the days where the OS and software didn't show you the available fonts--you had to make a font book), and even figuring out how to use the software to do what I saw in my head.

Long story short, I almost got fired. But I knew what my boss didn't know, which was that, after my first few months, I was finally familiar with the clip art, I'd made a font book, and I'd read most of the software manuals. I asked the boss to let me work out the serverance pay he offered me, and if he still felt I was too slow I would leave. Ultimately, I got so fast at that job that I wasn't getting the hours to make ends meet, and I had to leave for something where I could make more money.

Your (sorry, X's) goal should not be to learn skill C, but to become really good at learning new skills. Once you know you can do this when you need to, it only takes a few minutes/hours (depending on the panic level) to back yourself down and get stuck in. Yes, this can feel like a gamble--and it's one I almost lost in the example above, but over the long haul, it will make you a "find" that employers will value. Maybe not this current employer, but someone eventually. And if you lose with this employer, you've picked up valuable knowledge that will stand you in good stead at the next one.

One thing to realize is that nobody is good at things without putting the time in, so you should plan a certain amount of time in your day that you're just learning stuff. I'm pretty frank with my boss that I spend about 30% of my time researching. This doesn't make me less productive than my coworkers, because the things I learn allow me to be fast enough in the other 70% of my time that I am approximately the same speed or faster than my coworkers.

Also, realize that everyone's expertise is where it is: as you get more knowledgeable, you'll start to notice that everyone has holes in their understanding, even experts. One of my pet peeves is going to a post about design patterns and finding out that the example was of a different pattern (or no pattern). So give yourself permission to evolve your understanding and speak at the level where you currently are. (Sorry, X should give herself permission, of course.)

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thank you, I really like the part about focusing on being able to learn new skill rather than just that specific skill. Looks like confidence in our ability to learn anything new, is key here. –  Greg McNulty Nov 16 '12 at 0:48
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I like reading this one everyone and a while, thanks. –  Greg McNulty Jun 6 '13 at 18:13
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X could remember the time (s)he was not yet so well versed in technical concept A, and the way how (s)he got to the current level. This would help him/her

  • realize that (s)he already made it (at least) once from apprentice to expert on one area, so it can be accomplished again,
  • recall the feeling of joy and satisfaction received from the little and bigger victories along the path, which help him/her recharge internal reserves and regain confidence,
  • analyse the specific techniques, tools and methods used to acquire new skills, most of which is probably reusable / adaptable to the current circumstances.

Also, X could ask coworkers how they gained their expertise on domain C and relate his/her current woes and issues - most likely (s)he may get sympathetic responses (provided (s)he raises the topic at the right time, e.g. at lunch time, not in the middle of a team design session :-), and useful advice.

In general, most nontrivial domains take considerable time to master, even if they are nontechnical. In a previous project, it took me close to a year to get productive due to the mathematical complexity of the subject. At my current employer, I have been working on one of our project for over 3 years and there are still things I don't understand about the business domain. I can see what a specific piece of code in our legacy app is doing, but have no clear idea why.

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@PererTorok: those are good points, thanks! –  Greg McNulty Nov 15 '12 at 21:44
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It's a Team Sport

For both employees and managers, it's important to realize that it's a team sport. If the employee can (and does) teach and work competently with A, do pretty well, most of the time with B and is only struggling with C, then it's important for everyone to realize that this is pretty much normal. The employee should work on striking a balance between helping others with A and learning C - that gives the whole team a feeling of shared contribution, and it helps tremendously with confidence when struggling with learning C.

Case in point - my The Workplace participation skyrocketed a while back, when I'd found a new job - feeling incompetent starting out in a new field, I was thrilled to be able to provide advice on what I'd just done pretty competently - find a new job!

So, also - realize a "team" is more than just the people you work with - and use forums like these as a place to both find and offer answers.

A good manager will realize this, too, and work out a plan where the idea of a "good" employee is one who can both ask and answer questions - who is great at some things and still learning others. So a person isn't rated on never failing, but on both his ability to try new things (and fail sometimes) and help others as they do the same.

There is a Learning Curve

Ponder previous learning curves and realize that the current one will have some striking similarities. My favorite is the Four Stages of Competence. Having a sense that there is a way to go through a learning curve, and that you can measure your own progress from week to week, and set mini-goals for yourself can be extremely encouraging. Some of my mini-goals have been:

  • Know what all the words mean when someone answers my question?

  • Be able to rephrase an answer in my own words

  • Understand why what I did didn't work, and why the actual fix did.

Little things like that lead to the bigger things like having a mental model for the technology, or being able to work out a simple problem unattended.

Often, when school was the only place a person's learned that first learning curve in the working world is hellish - it's a different process, and the lack of feedback will make you crazy.

Last Resort - ask for Feedback

I don't mean to imply that you shouldn't ask for feedback ever. But getting a hard new assignment and asking "how am I doing?" one week in is too soon. Asking 6 months later is too late. As a rule of thumb, give yourself 3 failures and 3 successes and then check in with a senior member of the staff or your boss. That works well for the technique - 3 up/3 down feedback giving - you and the reviewer each say 3 things you did well, 3 you could do better. I haven't tried this yet, but I like the idea quite a bit, as it's takes the review away from a judgement call on "you were good/bad" and into the point of view that everyone has things they can work on and things they do well.

Change is Good

I call it that, because "grow or die" sounded too harsh. Realize that if your job currently seems impossible, it may just be that it's because you were doing the last one so well. Being trusted to take on hard stuff is a mark of distinction - being able to do so is what distinguishes you further.

If all you do is all you've ever done, then your career in technology will be short-lived. Every area of technology is changing and innovating too fast for anyone to stay still and not learn new things. So, my last advice would be that learning how to learn is never going to become obsolete!

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nice answer and very helpful, thank you........ –  Greg McNulty Nov 20 '12 at 21:14
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