“… but I can’t complain too much, given what I am paying …”
Competence is a binary condition. You either are competent at something, or you are not.
Some people excel. Masters of their craft. True artisans, whom others can derive conscious pleasure from watching them ply their trade. Hans Zimmer. Joël Robuchon. Sarah Storey.
The incompetence of others becomes the stuff of legend.
James Howell once threw away an old hard drive containing 7,500 Bitcoins he had acquired in 2009 for next to nothing. At the time of writing, that mistake had cost him more than £190 million!
Howie Hubler made a bet on the property market that cost Morgan Stanley USD$9 billion during the Global Financial Crisis.
A Réseau Ferré de France official supplied incorrect platform measurements to SCNF, leading to the £12 billion purchase of 2,000 trains that were too wide to fit into over 1,000 regional stations.
Competent people will sometimes fail. Against the odds, incompetent people occasionally succeed.
Yet competency should reliably achieve a successful outcome far more often than not.
Regardless of the magnitude of success or failure, the fundamental question remains: does it work?
Best endeavours. Good intentions. Noble efforts. Tried hard. All language used to excuse failure.
This week I caught myself uttering another excuse for incompetence. Price.
As soon as I said it, I mentally slapped myself upside the head for talking utter bollocks.
Price allows us to determine whether we received value from a transaction.
Price should be a factor when setting our expectations.
But price alone does not guarantee a successful outcome.
When viewed in that context, price is an excuse, not a justification for failure.
The price we pay
I’ve often had to manage the expectations of clients who suffered from the chronic condition of having deep pockets and short arms. Expecting miracles, yet only willing to pay peanuts.
A trade-off ensues. Cost versus convenience.
Procuring service providers who are capable of providing a “good enough” service. Most of the time. While remaining within the budgetary constraints imposed by the client.
This usually involves some combination of automation, offshoring, and outsourcing.
Eastern European coders. Filipino data entry personnel. Indian technical support. Mauritian Accountants. Scottish back-office staff. South African call-centre jockeys.
A kaleidoscope of accents and cultural mores. Insomnia inducing timezone tennis. And lots of robots.
Yet the key determination of success or failure is always the question “has the problem been solved”?
Does it actually work?
The trade-off is never of cost versus competence.
Competence is a given.
A pre-requisite for success. Without it, you are doomed to failure. Whatever the price!
Stories of overpriced incompetence are legion. Active fund managers. Building contractors. Consultants. C-suite executives. Enterprise software vendors. Financial Planners. Non-executive directors. Project Managers.
Such tales are so commonplace they have become clichéd. We could be forgiven for wondering whether an inverse correlation between the two might exist!
Of course, many who perform those roles are competent. Some are actually good at what they do.
Meanwhile, we rely upon services that cost little or nothing every single day.
Nurses. Police. Politicians. School teachers. Important roles, vital for a well-functioning society.
All paid notoriously little. Attracting idealists. True believers. People who want to make a difference.
Discouraging those who desire a high standard of living for themselves and their families. Causing a disheartening number of those entering these professions to seek better-paid alternative employment.
Resulting in many of society’s most competent and capable choosing to ply their trade elsewhere. Brokers. Estate agents. Investment bankers. Gurus. Middle management. Multi-level marketers. Property developers.
Free ≠ bad
We use free calendaring, email, and mapping services provided by the likes of Apple or Google.
Keep in touch with each other using free social media tools such as Facebook or Twitter.
Entrust banks offering free accounts to keep our money safe and pay our bills on time.
Most good enough to get the job done.
Few sufficiently bad to warrant seeking a more expensive alternative. Which might be better, or may just be a more costly substitute.
At this point, it is worth acknowledging that for all these “free” services we are the product.
Were a business to truly offer something for nothing, they would not remain in business for very long! Business plans fatally flawed. Their management demonstrably incompetent.
This is one of the things that makes evaluating loss-making businesses like startups notoriously difficult. Unsustainably haemorrhaging investor money while attempting to “blitz scale” their way to an unassailable dominant market position and a position amongst the fabled unicorns.
Occasionally, the approach works. More often, it flames out in ignominy, after burning through an eye-watering amount of money.
Which brings me back to not “complaining too much, given what I was paying”.
The recent launch of Sovereign Quest had proved successful. A technical platform based on free technologies. Showcasing content freely published by talented creators from around the globe.
Kind souls from across the blogosphere, with audiences big and small, volunteered to spread the word. Already Sovereign Quest receives more daily visitors than my ramblings here at indeedably ever has.
A steady procession of creators made contact, seeking to be added to the platform. This included some very persistent folks who convinced me to extend coverage to include English language European content.
I even received a couple of approaches from aspirational sponsors. Not an idea I’m opposed to, though only where the organisation represents a good fit for the nature of what I am building.
The only notable stumble during the launch was my piss poor social media game.
Now I’m the first to admit that social media is not my natural habitat. However, even I recognised that social media would play an important part of the community building aspects of Sovereign Quest. It is hard to share amazing content without a means of communicating with the audience!
A quick scroll through the Creator Directory revealed that nearly everyone had a Twitter account, while surprisingly few still use Facebook. That meant Twitter was destined to be a major channel for sharing warm fuzzy feelings amongst featured creators.
Except there was one small problem.
As part of their battle against the spread of misinformation, it appears Twitter had concluded that a real user would never attempt to follow 10 people in a single day.
Much to the consternation of their algorithm, on launch day I did exactly that. On the 10th follow request, Twitter deemed the @SovereignQuest account to be a bot, banishing it to the naughty step for a week-long timeout.
Which meant no following of talented creators.
No sharing their amazing work.
No liking or saying thank you to the generous folks promoting the new service.
No shouting from the rooftops about those awesome creators chosen as Champion of the day.
Instead, there was radio silence. The curious and the interested received a warning when they viewed the Twitter profile: the account was potentially dodgy and had been restricted.
Which was unfortunate.
I was mildly annoyed, but found myself thinking that the inconvenience could be excused because Twitter is a free service. Complaining seemed churlish. Ungrateful.
No service level agreements containing enforceable penalty clauses existed.
Nor were there milestone payments attached to the successful delivery of said service.
Instead, there was a free technology platform.
That lets anyone freely create themselves an account.
They can communicate, establish relationships, and interact with the 340 million other users on the platform. All for free.
Except here is the thing. @SovereignQuest wasn’t a bot.
The behaviours flagged as suspicious weren’t conducted via automated API calls. Nor was a robot mindlessly mimicking human interactions, Azure or UIPath style.
Instead, these actions were manually performed. By me. Via their official app. On my phone. While watching my younger son play on the playground at the local park.
Which is exactly how the service is designed to be used. Quick. Easy. Friction-free. Frequent.
The restrictions had been poorly thought through, and applied in error.
That got me thinking. How would such a thing have happened?
Somewhere in Twitter, a middle manager will have dreamed up a need for the platform to appear more resilient to misinformation spreading bots.
A vague requirement would have been articulated to a business analyst, who attempted to document it.
That requirement would have been triaged. Prioritised. Assigned to a project manager, to make happen.
A solution architect would have interpreted the requirement into some form of technical design.
The design was probably reviewed and approved, ensuring it was fit for purpose. Met the requirement. Would not break the platform.
Developers would have faithfully coded to the design. Transforming it from idea to a reality.
Testers would have marked the work of the developers against the requirements. Ensuring the success criteria articulated by the middle manager and captured by the analyst had been met.
The middle manager would have nominated an underling to conduct some cursory user acceptance testing.
Eventually, the new feature would have been deployed to the production platform.
After being signed off by the middle manager. The tester. The architectural review board.
Each a stage-gate. Designed to catch communication issues. Gaps. Omissions. Mistakes. Misunderstandings.
And yet, the @SovereignQuest had been erroneously dinged for automated bot-like behaviour.
Which meant the rules were articulated wrongly.
Which can only be explained by incompetence.
True, I was paying nothing for a free service. Yet all those who worked on that feature were being paid to apply their skills, knowledge, experience, and professional to the task at hand. Some of them handsomely.
Yet the wrong problem had been solved.
The service doesn’t work.
Which is a question of competence. Not a question of price.
- Ableson, M. (2010), ‘Howie Hubler of New Jersey: The Return of a Subprime Villain’, Observer
- BBC News (2013), ‘James Howells searches for hard drive with £4m-worth of bitcoins stored‘
- Omnicore (2021), ‘Twitter by the Numbers: Stats, Demographics & Fun Facts‘
- Sovereign Quest (2021), ‘Creator Directory‘
- The Guardian (2014), ‘How a French rail company spent £12bn on trains that are “too wide”‘
- Twitter (2021), ‘Sovereign Quest‘
- Yahoo Finance (2021), ‘BTC/USD (BTCUSD=X)‘