Exploring the skills needed for successful solution development
Is it possible to define proficiency levels for technical skills?
Author: Greg Fullard, Published: 2020-04-20
A consistent and very unfortunate aspect of the software engineering profession is that we don't have clearly defined proficiency standards like other professions and trades.
As a result, companies are forced to "roll-their-own" proficiency verification processes. This results in tedious applicant screening processes that frustrate everybody involved. But additionally, and I would argue more importantly, it makes it difficult for practitioners to truly gauge their own proficiency, which, in turn, makes it difficult to accurately plan our improvement and learning journey.
So let's contrast this situation with any other profession, for example, the accounting profession.
The accounting profession relies on a three-pronged approach for proficiency standardisation. In most countries this is managed by an industry body which:
- Provides guidance to universities w.r.t curriculum design
- Administers industry entrance exams
- Administers mandatory annual professional development programs
The result of this approach is that anybody who carries the certification of "CA", or "CPA" (Depending on your country) can generally be assumed to have all the relevant skills and knowledge to perform the role of an accountant.
For a professional technologist, the situation is a bit different. Of course, there are many local and international industry bodies that we can belong to. Organisations like the IEEE, IIBA, AEA and PMI spring to mind. Unfortunately though, being a member of one of these bodies is largely voluntary and does not guarantee a minimum level of proficiency. Perhaps I'm being harsh here, because the PMI and IIBA have certainly made great strides towards standardising skills in the project management and business analysis fields.
But this brings us to the field of software development, where the problem is very pronounced. In certain pockets we do still have formal certifications that guarantee a minimum standard (for example, the Oracle Java Certification path), but the reality is that the skills needed by a modern developer has become too broad and dynamic to be managed via a bureaucratic certification program.
In many ways, our industry is a lot like the early days of the medical profession, where anybody who wanted to call themselves a doctor could easily do so.
Which brings us to our current reality where recruiters employ tedious screening processes and bespoke skills-assessment tests to determine whether a person's actual skills match what their resume proclaims. While these processes may help to separate the wheat from the chaff, there is still a significant amount of subjectivity involved. And additionally, this focuses specifically on recruitment, which is only a part of the problem.
I would love to be in a situation where we have an objective way for a person to assess (and profess) their own skills. Most developer resumes include some form of "Skills Matrix" which lists the person's skill and then offers a 5 level rating system for specifying their proficiency. Typically the levels are as follows:
5 = High level of competence - extensive experience in the skill area
4 = Moderately high level of competence - good experience in the skill area
3 = Average level of competence – some experience in the skill area
2 = Low level of competence – little experience in the skill area
1 = No level of competence – no experience in the skill area
In my opinion, such a definition of skill levels mean almost nothing, and I've had countless examples where people claim to be a "level 5 expert" at a topic that they know almost nothing about. The most memorable example was a junior developer who claimed to be a PDF expert because he knew exactly how to download and open any PDF document he found on the internet. He literally didn't even know that it was possible to render a PDF document using a structured input language like XML or LaTeX.
For DevSkillDojo I am therefore working on a simple, but objective, system for assessing a person's technical proficiency in a given skill. The idea is that a person should be able to objectively rate their own proficiency, which can then serve as a great input to finding the correct learning path for the individual. Such a system is valuable in many settings, including recruitment, project allocation, career planning and skills development planning.
Effectively, I'm looking for a technical equivalent to the Interagency Language Roundtable scale for language proficiency (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ILR_scale)
Due to the broad nature of software development, I believe we will need to have:
- Generic definitions of proficiency levels.
- Specific definitions that apply at lower levels of the skills-tree which may override the generic definitions.
So effectively we are using the Object Oriented principle of inheritence for managing proficiency levels. Fancy that.
Below are the generic definitions I am using as a starting point. Keep in mind, that where the definitions can't be used for a specific skill in the ontology, it will then be overridden.
Level 0: No Proficiency
I have no knowledge of this skill, or I may have some knowledge, but really only enough to use the word correctly in a sentence.
Level 1: Fundamental Awareness (Basic Knowledge)
I have read up on this skill and worked through some tutorials.
Level 2: Novice (Limited Experience)
I have built a solution using this skill, without following steps in a tutorial, i.e. getting the solution to work required some self-directed searching on Google and StackOverflow. I generally expect help from a more experienced practitioner to successfully apply this skill.
Level 3: Intermediate (Practical Application)
I have built multiple non-trivial solutions using this skill. Solutions include at least one client project or, if the solution was a personal project, a project published on the public internet. I may still require guidance from a more experienced practitioner in some aspects, but generally I can apply the skill independently.
Level 4: Experienced (Applied Theory)
Same as Intermediate plus: I have built one or more solutions in a project leadership role with limited or no assistance from colleagues. I can apply this skill entirely without assistance. Within my team, I am recognised as the "Person to ask" when it comes to this particular skill. Additionally, I am able to offer coaching to colleagues in this skill.
Level 5: Expert (Recognised Authority)
Same as Experienced plus: In addition to this particular skill, I am also experienced in a number of alternative and complementary skills. As a result I am able to evaluate (and lead) design decisions that are impacted by the application of this skill. My broad knowledge in this particular skills domain also allows me to understand how different components can work together to form an end-to-end solution. Additionally, I can write and present training material, reference materials and opinion pieces related to this skill.
These definitions are used in the DevSkillDojo skills domain model (https://devskilldojo.com/skills-framework/skills-domain-model/) as well as the skills ontology (not published yet).
Note: I have taken a lot of inspiration from the Competencies Proficiency Scale published by the NIH while compiling the above definitions (https://hr.nih.gov/working-nih/competencies/competencies-proficiency-scale).
Lastly, take note that I'll be posting regular updates from the DevSkillDojo journey. If you'd like to come along for the ride, follow my blog (http://devskilldojo.com) and Twitter feed (@devskilldojo). And don't be a stranger, join in the conversation on Twitter.
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