Why do some individuals outperform others with such ease?


Over the past few weeks we have been looking for new developers to bring on board and spent some time defining what we are looking for, then putting together the job description and advertising the position to candidates. This week was spent going through the interview process. Here is what I learned as I noticed one individual that unexpectedly stood out way more than anyone. I least expected his skill and capability to stand out, yet it did.

I am sure when one reads the question in the headline of this article, the assumption is that a story will follow about a candidate that is just way ahead of the others that we interviewed. Quite the opposite. I realised that my business partner, Thabiso, is far ahead of the candidates that I expected to match or surpass him in their software development capabilities. Writing this baffles me because the last person I expected to be impressed by was him; after all, I know him so well and I know his capabilities. He proves it when we work together on projects and I know our customers are always happy with his work. So, what was it that caused this to happen? Well, it’s actually not a strange phenomenon and it occurs all around us on a daily basis. In fact, they happen around us all the time. He is just one of many high-performance individuals we all work with. Sometimes it just takes a bit of a shift in perspective to realise this. I mean, I’ve always known he is a high-performance individual, but it was never as clear as this week.

So, being one of the ‘bosses’ at our humble organisation, it may seem strange to some that I say Thabiso surprised me in how far ahead he is of all the candidates we interviewed. Yes, he has development skills. Yes, he has been doing it for a number of years. However, he has also been doing a lot of other ‘stuff’ over the years. He has worked as a functional consultant, a data services consultant, he produces music, he does woodwork and on top of that, the past few years have been spent running the business with me. Software development is merely a slice in his pizza box of skills and duties.

I have close to zero skills when it comes to software development – if we are using the analogy of a pizza, software development is a topping that got on my pizza by accident. But, I know enough to hold a conversation and can keep up when listening to others…most of the time. So, I know enough to know that someone who is being hired as a developer should be on par with or exceed someone who does it now and then.

One of the key traits we look for in an employee is the ability to learn fast. And this seems like quite a cliché, except we look at it differently. We look for someone who learns quickly how to search for answers. The world we operate in is shifting dramatically in a sense that it is becoming easier to shorten the learning curve in almost any skill that would have taken months or years to develop previously. In my experience, there are 3 ways for individuals to achieve this ‘high performance’ on any project:

  1. Search for and use the tools that are making it easier. For e.g. I know there are already and will be even better tools in future that will allow someone like me to write code without breaking away from ‘natural language’ English into a coding language. The same applies in other industries.
  2. Learn where to search and what to search for. In other words, you can ask people in your tiny network or you can find the right forums and groups online and become a member, giving you access to a worldwide network of experienced professionals. Also, know what terminology to use when Googling something, what phrases to search for and pick out in results that will lead you to an answer faster.
  3. Learn hands-on, practice, gain practical experience

Being able to combine these 3 means you are now in a space where you will leapfrog your peers. This is where Thabiso is. I remember doing a training session with him at a customer and he started off by telling them that the outcome of the session would not be for them to remember everything he taught them but to remember enough to know what to Google when they left at the end of the day. The rest was up to them – practical experience and networks/forums.

So, coming back to why I see him as a high-performer – Thabiso is able to shorten his learning curve dramatically and achieve high performance outcomes as a result of putting to use the tools he has around him. He knows what to search for, he knows when to stop searching and what questions to ask within his network and he knows to put it into practice once he has enough answers so that the skill will stick. This has given him the ability to hold his own amongst full-time developers when he spends less than 50% of his working time doing this. These same principles apply across the board for any professional. If you can master the art of the search, network correctly and then practice what you learn (even if it is in your spare time), then you will achieve high performance. This is not something we are born with or something reserved for special individuals. We can all do this. Sometimes we just need to be in a room where someone leads by example.

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