The Risk of Sounding Competent

July 26, 2012

It’s a well known fact among software professionals that the moment your friends and family discover your technical competency, you will become their indentured technical support servant for life. Whether it’s re-installing Windows or replacing ink cartridges, no task is too demeaning: if it involves a computer, you’re the first phone call they make. And why not? This is your fault, after all.

The first time you spoke about defragmenting a hard drive you doomed yourself. They have a new printer, and you know what CMYK stands for: their problem is now your problem, and this is the way the world works. This happens all the time in corporations, only with significantly higher risk, and significantly more challenging logistical problems. For instance, if you verbalize to a manager that a team’s iteration retrospectives could be more fruitful if they made actionable items a priority for the things that went poorly, you will have just become the owner of the team’s retrospectives — complete with all the hassle of facilitation, minutes recording, and follow up. Why did you say anything at all? Don’t tell me you were just trying to help — no one’s going to believe that you’re that naïve.

It feels good to sound smart and capable, and it’s nice to be able to answer questions with enthusiasm and helpful contextual back stories. It does not, however, feel good to end up owning a problem that you have no interest in owning merely because you were too cavalier with what you knew and who was within earshot of what you said. And don’t expect to refuse ownership once the cat’s out of the bag — that’s not what a team player would do! In fact, that would be uncooperative! And…and selfish! Seriously, if you don’t want to own the problem, don’t run the risk of sounding competent. And the rest of us — I guess we’re just gluttons for punishment.


John is a serial conversationalist who spends entirely too much time engulfed in problem domains he knows nothing about and has no earthly business trying to learn. He can occasionally be found at your local coffee shop writing algorithms and trying to think deep thoughts.