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Apprenticeship Patterns by Adewale Oshineye, Dave Hoover

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Concrete Skills

Having knowledge is not the same as having the skill and practical ability to apply that knowledge to create software applications. This is where craftsmanship comes in.

Pete McBreen, Software Craftsmanship

Context

You are seeking a role on a talented team of craftsmen that will provide you with better learning opportunities than you currently have.

Problem

Unfortunately, that team has no incentive to risk hiring someone who may not be able to directly contribute to the team’s workload. The team also faces the possibility that you may not even be able to indirectly contribute, such as by automating some simple manual tasks.

Solution

Acquire and maintain concrete skills. Even though one of the things that an apprentice brings to a team is an ability to learn quickly, the possession of discrete and demonstrable ability with specific tools and technologies increases the likelihood that you will be trusted to contribute indirectly until you start to gain stature.

Some of the concrete skills you should acquire will be little more than mechanisms to get you past crude HR filters and managers who construct teams by playing buzzword bingo. Others will reassure your prospective team members that you can be put to good use and will not require “day care” (Organizational Patterns of Agile Software Development, p. 88). Examples of concrete skills include writing build files in various popular languages, knowledge of various popular open source frameworks like Hibernate and Struts, basic web design, JavaScript, and the standard libraries in your language of choice.

The point is that you will often require hiring managers to take a leap of faith in choosing you. Concrete skills (which are ideally discrete enough that you can bring toy implementations to an interview) allow you to meet them halfway. The concrete skills you possess are your answer to the question: “If we hire you today, what can you do on Monday morning that will benefit us?” A deep understanding of Your First Language will help establish your credibility and should prove to be extremely useful to your team.

As you begin to make the transition to the role of journeyman you will become less dependent on these skills, as you start to be hired on the basis of your reputation, your portfolio of previous work, and the deeper qualities you bring to a team. Until then, your virtues must be a little more overt.

Action

Collect the CVs of people whose skills you respect. You can either ask them for a copy or download the CVs from their websites. For each person, identify five discrete skills noted on the CV, and determine which of these skills would be immediately useful on the kind of team you want to join. Put together a plan and a toy project that will demonstrate that you have acquired these skills. Implement the plan.

Get in the habit of going through your own CV on a regular basis. As you do so, extract the concrete skills into a separate list. Are you comfortable knowing that many hiring managers will only look at the items in this list rather than the sum of your experiences?

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