Tapping the Skills of a Hobbyist Programmer


This is a real story of getting extra-ordinary performance from ordinary people. Managers traditionally try to recruit very skilled and qualified persons. In this experiment, I chose to engage not a trained computer programmer with attractive degrees or proven experience, but a boy who was programming for fun as a hobby and working in a non-IT department (he had obviously not got a job in his area of interest due to lack of IT degrees).

In my department, he had to be handled with care to ensure that the seasoned professionals did not put him in the rut and kill his creativity. With little care, trust and freedom to experiment, he developed into a very creative solution provider and provided unique solutions for my company which none of the traditional experts could have done.

The Background

I had a team of hardcore, qualified, trained and experienced programmers and team leaders. I found a young boy working in some other department who had no qualifications in IT and programming, but was passionate about programming and was developing small applications as a hobby for his father's business. He could not get a job in the IT departments in any company because he had no qualification or certification in IT. He had been giving creative solutions using macro programming in Excel and Access in the department he was working. I wanted to tap his creativity and bring a fresh breath of life in my department.

Typically most managers like to beat the trodden path - take people with experience and qualifications, test them for their knowledge, interview them and see how sharp they are.

I hardly ever test a person’s knowledge. I normally test their enthusiasm, eagerness to learn, how sincerely they did their previous work and how sincerely they learnt from their past assignments. I look at their inquisitiveness and most importantly, their willingness to say “I don’t know, I will read the manual and find out”. I wanted to bring in some fresh air by getting a person who had programmed out of pure interest and as a hobby.

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Most of the other members in my department, including my team leaders and project managers did not think much of his passion. After all they were die hard programmers with fancy qualifications in computers and had come up the hard way. They did not think great about a guy with no formal education who had been "fooling around" with computers at home. I felt that probably their ego was getting hurt.

I was afraid that his creativity may be trampled by the hard headed programmers and team leaders. They may even make him feel inferior as he did not have adequate qualifications.

My challenge was to protect him from the die-hard programmers and team leaders (who could put him into the rut), to sustain his creativity and confidence in himself and to get something new from him which would convince the other team mates of his capabilities.

Plan of Action

Since I was afraid the existing team will nip his creativity in the bud, I thought of insulating him from the heat of the seasoned professionals. I called him to my room and had a detailed discussion with him to find out his interests, his capabilities and try to identify a suitable project for him which would bring out his creativity and skill, and also be useful for my company. I requested his project leader to spare him from any other project and decided to assign an independent project under my supervision and under the overall guidance of the project manager. This was not a run-of-the-mill project. It was a special project which I knew none of my existing team members – the so called seasoned professionals - could have done.

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Plan Execution

I let him work under me. I allowed him to experiment, try out new techniques, make mistakes and learn by reading and interacting with others. I gave him full freedom to try out his own methods and techniques which were not those which were taught in schools and colleges. I protected him from the seasoned professionals because I was afraid they would get him into the rut. I wanted him not to be constrained by the tradition, and not walk the beaten path.

He was soon able to show his special skills. The project manager was also convinced that he could deliver something special which others could not.

The project manager and I soon assigned him a special project to create a unique software product which we would have never planned with our traditional team. He lived up to our expectations and created a great product which was unique for our industry. He named the product "Clockwork" for its clockwork precision!

People who saw the product couldn't believe that it was the creation of a raw programmer with absolutely no formal training and no relevant work experience.

For the technically inclined readers, let me explain the product. Typically, in a BPO, the executive enters caller and problem details in a CRM (Customer Relations Management) or incident reporting software provided by the client. This data is typically saved in the client's computer and is not available to the BPO. If the BPO wants to capture some of this data (of course, with the client's permission) as it helps in operational monitoring and efficiency, the executive has to do double entry in two forms - one for the client and one for the BPO. Clockwork saved the double entry and transferred data from third party screens running on some other computer miles away (of which you do not even have the source code or executable with you) to your own forms which you could save locally on your computer to provide full reporting and analysis.

Lessons Learnt

  1. Sometimes beating the untrodden path helps.
  2. Sometimes traditional education and experience puts you into a groove preventing you from thinking out of the box.
  3. A completely new look at the problem helps find innovative solutions.
  4. Creative people who think outside the box need to be treated with care. Others who cannot think outside the box tend to push them into the rut and kill their creativity.
  5. When you give responsibility to new creative people who think differently, you need to trust them, give them freedom to work, let them experiment and make mistakes.
  6. You need to show a lot of patience and give them time to learn.
  7. Never interfere unnecessarily into the affairs of creative people. Never show mistrust and start nitpicking on their activities. Let them execute their plan in their own way, not necessarily your way. Your ways may not necessarily be the best ways.
  8. More than the knowledge, the attitudes of learning are important. If a person is sincere, inquisitive and eager to learn, trust that he/she may do a better job than a person who has knowledge and experience but may not be keen to learn.
  9. Sometimes it is better to take the untrodden path, sail the uncharted waters. Sometimes it is better to create one’s own rules and not go by the rules.

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