The Myth of the Modern Knowledge Worker, Part 2: Working vs. Learning

I just wrapped up a major four-position hiring consult with a client who wanted one quality software architect (high-level strategic thinkers who can design large software systems) and three knowledge-worker-grade software engineers (the people who work with the aforementioned architect to produce product) who would oversee the existing sixteen-person software development staff. They were willing to pay more than the going rate for all of those positions- money was not an issue- and had applicant pools of 280 and 416 respectively: Two good engineers. That’s all they got. Not because the people didn’t look good on paper, it was because they couldn’t withstand the vetting questions: The architects couldn’t answer fundamental framework modeling questions. The engineers couldn’t answer object inheritance questions. While this may be over the heads of some people reading this, it damn well shouldn’t be for the people my client was attempting to hire. They didn’t know how to do their jobs. To my chagrin, some of the questions asked in the in-person finalist interviews were identical to those asked in the phone interviews: They “knew” the answer on the phone (with a laptop in front of them) but not in person.

I’m a big fan of a number of buzzphrases like “on the job training” and “never stop learning” and “professional development”. I believe in all career paths, especially in technology, there is always room for improvement, for optimization, and to learn the newest ways to do what you’re doing. To a point, you’ll never – I hope – know everything you need to do a job forever. The concept of the knowledge worker is that you at least have a foundational ability to go into work today and do your job today without costing your employer money today with your need to learn something new.

Every time a wheel has to stop turning so a cog can go ask the Internet how to do their job, the flow of money goes from positive to negative instantly. The wheel is not turning. The employer is now losing money and productivity, because the wheel isn’t turning. This, of course, assumes that the cog hasn’t gotten distracted during their HOWTO session and is off checking unjobrelated headlines, their stock portfolio, or chatting with the cute administrative assistant a couple floors up. The wheel is not turning. The value of this cog to the employer is dropping fast. They’re paying for ineptitude and slacking, all under the guise of “well I had to check the Internet to see how to do something”. The wheel is not turning.

The line between knowing how to do your job, and being completely unable to get by without thousands of other people telling you how to do it, is very blurry in modern times.

The starkest reason for this is that in modern times, the knowledge worker is unobtainable. They’re either making 6-digits at a powerhouses like Google, HP, or Xerox; or they’re making hundreds of dollars an hour as consultants to everyone else who can’t afford a knowledge worker: Because we’ve stopped making new ones.

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