Expertise and the people component

Key takeaway: Consider thinking about how the personalities of your colleagues and their inter-personal relations influence the work you do.

I had been a chess addict for most of my life. A few years ago, I decided to give up playing chess altogether. Chain smokers looking to break the smoking addiction often take refuge in nicotine patches. Poker became my nicotine patch. I wrote my own (Python) poker simulator. I became obsessed with numbers and probabilities. I became fairly proficient with the statistical aspects of poker. But my game was lacking. Sitting at the table felt like a chore. Like all novice players looking to improve, I read poker’s bible – Doyle Brunson‘s Super System. The improvements in my game were rapid and refreshing. My game and analysis had an extra dimension to it. Each hand seemed new and fresh. I began viewing the action at the table at so many different levels. Poker became interesting again. Brunson wrote a sentence that has stuck with me and grown on me:

Poker is a game of people. That’s the most important lesson you should learn from my book. ~ Doyle Brunson

I think Brunson’s quote applies to most fields. A key component of expertise in any field seems to be understanding the people involved. I think this point has special significance to software engineering. Me and most engineers I have worked with, seem to have a strong bias to look at things through the lens of technology. We sometimes forget to examine situations through the lens of people too. To overcome this bias, I have compiled a list of quotes from experts in software, testing and chess (fields that I know sort of well) that seem to suggest that understanding people is an important component of expertise in any field.

1. Gerald Weinberg in Secrets of Consulting
No matter how it looks at first, it’s always a people problem.

2. Bruce Eckel in the Mythical 5%
It’s even harder when you come from the world of ones and zeros where we really, really want to believe that everything can be deterministic. It’s harder than that when you understand that adding people into the mix and scaling up a system changes the dominant factors, while everyone around you still believes it should all be deterministic.

3. Keith KlainSoftware Testing is a People Problem

4. World champion Alexander Alekhine on beating the great Capablanca
For my victory over Capablanca I am indebted primarily to my superiority in the field of psychology. Capablanca played, relying almost exclusively on his rich intuitive talent. But for the chess struggle nowadays one needs a subtle knowledge of human nature, an understanding of the opponent’s psychology.

5. Grandmaster David Bronstein way back in the 1950s
Nowadays grandmasters no longer study their opponent’s games so much, but they study his character, his behaviour and his temperament in the most thorough fashion.

6. World champion Garry Kasparov
You can’t overestimate the importance of psychology in chess, and as much as some players try to downplay it, I believe that winning requires a constant and strong psychology not just at the board but in every aspect of your life.

PS: To be clear, I’m not suggesting the extreme ‘It’s all about the people’ idea. I’m suggesting ‘It’s about people too.’

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