Let no man despise thy youth

March 30, 2010

I have in recent times noticed significant discussion around expertise and the role of the expert as a deeply experienced individual. I understand that it takes a long time to become an expert in any field. Gary Klein in “Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions” provides some excellent examples. In this book he also debunks the traditional decision making cycle, where decisions are made (ideally) on the basis of highly structured and rational processes. This is understandable if expertise is an embedded skill (something that is true even of a logician or mathematician).

But I have also experienced situations in which the “youth” can teach the experienced – that of the talented novice. I remember my involvement in some tricky designs for a job management system. The challenge related to an entity relationship model design and some logic involving transitive navigation through several entities on the model. The business situation was to do with allocating people to jobs and the concomitant job task workflow based on a set of rules relating to geographical location of the job and the particular type of job. The standard relational languages are not very good at this type of navigation and we were trying to find a natural way to solve it. While we were working on this back at base we sent a young analyst called Chris to the client site to interview the engineers. It was his first venture into the world of clients. He had recently graduated, had some programming experience and wanted to get involved with analysis and design. On the surface it was rather a cruel assignment. He was a young Geordie with a strong accent being sent to a client in an east London borough to interview blue collar engineers, who were all east-end Londoners aged between 40 and 60. His task was to understand the intermit relationship between the locations, job types and the tasks. What we had discovered was that about a year earlier the client senior management had issued an edict stating that all jobs were to be allocated by geographical area and that each engineer would be given all job types within their allocated area. But when Chris started interviewing the engineers asking them about a particular type of job the response was always “ask x, he deals with that”. All the efforts in the world could not progress past the “I work on this type of job – he works on that type of job” even though they were suppose to work on all types of jobs. Evidently they had completely ignored the new rule about how they were to work. This seemed to be quite a disaster for our new system, which was to be used the the call centre and have engineers and tasks allocated according to company policy.

While we were busy back in the office scratching our heads over an acceptable design Chris came across a wonderful solution. If we decided to forgo the automatic allocations and provide the call centre staff (who were in obvious cohorts with the engineers) with engineer and task drop-down lists then we can solve the political problem and the technical one is one clean swoop. Designing a few lookup tables relating tasks to job types and a list of engineers is trivial and the call centre staff knew who to allocate the jobs based on the person (and not the geographical area) – but the client bosses didn’t need to worry about how they did the allocation – the were happy that allocations could be made and the system database would be simpler to maintain.

It was a wonderful experience to be trumped by one of the young new stars and his lateral thinking was an act of simple genius – and example of how young people can deliver outstanding thinking in real-world practical situations. If I remember rightly, the engineers got to really like their Geordie comrade. Everyone was happy. This is also a nice illustration of how very complex tasks are so easily handled by humans. The call centre staff with complete freedom were able to do a considerable job of re-allocations and assignments based on what was happening on the field. Programming that would have been a nightmare.

Now of course, this experience and others I’ve had like it do not at all knock the truth and importance of hard-gained experience, but it does remind and humble one to consider St Paul’s advice to the young Timothy “Let no man despise thy youth” 1 Timothy 2:12.

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