5 min read

Competence as a practice

Competence as a practice
Photo by Jordan Sanchez / Unsplash

Recently, one of my mentors emphasized to me the importance of learning. She said that the swift pace of the tech industry demands that we learn quickly, and the key differentiator between those who advance and who don't is in their ability to learn and keep up with new information.

Tanya Reilly also wrote about being competent in The Staff Engineer's Path and the importance of knowing things. This paragraph from her book stood out to me:

No matter how good your leadership, you can't be a technical leader without the "technical" part. Your big picture thinking, project execution, credibility, and influence are underpinned by your knowledge and experience.

The expectation to be technical can be intimidating, especially for those of us who have been labeled as being "not technical enough." I vividly remember struggling with this when I took on the role of Go Security tech lead in late 2021, having had limited security expertise. I received several direct comments questioning my suitability for the position, with people bluntly asking me, "I don't understand why they chose you as the security tech leader. Is it because you are organized?" Fortunately, my team had a different perspective, and were so supportive during my onboarding and the years beyond.

These attitudes, in my opinion, stem from a lack of emphasis on the importance of learning. I strongly believe that learning is the most important skill in tech. I also think that a contributing factor to these attitudes is the perpetuation of the myth of the 10x engineer. Despite ongoing efforts to dispel this myth, my experience is that many engineering teams continue to place their "10x engineers" on a pedestal, sometimes to the detriment of the overall team's productivity.

Having witnessed this hero-worshipping firsthand, I can say that it has hindered my own career progression. I've been told that the glue work I do as a tech lead to help my team move faster is non-technical work, and encouraged to switch to being a project manager, product manager, or engineering manager. I've wasted time dealing with disrespectful behaviors exhibited by these revered 10x engineers, especially when they were not held responsible for their actions.

Above all, I have held myself back. My own internalization of the narrative that "some people have it and some don't" made me convinced that no matter how much I tried to learn and grow, I would never be a 10x engineer.

I can't change others' actions, but I can change my own. This year, I'm choosing to reject the idea that "some people have it and some don't," Instead, I am choosing to believe nobody can know everything, but we can all be highly competent at the things we choose, as long as we commit ourselves to the practice of competence.

The practice of competence

I've dabbled in meditation with Headspace, although it never stuck for me. Nonetheless, I love their framing of meditation as a practice. As Headspace describes to beginners:

Meditation is the practice of intentionally spending time with our mind. We take time out of our busy days to sit, breathe, and try to remain focused on our breath. Doing this helps us become more aware of our thoughts, act more compassionately toward ourselves and others, and connect with the present moment.

In the same way, I think that we should think about technical competence as a practice. Borrowing the framing from Headspace, I'd like to define the practice of competence as follows:

Competence is the practice of intentionally spending time with the things we want to be better at. We take time out of our busy days to sit, breathe, and try to remain focused on one of these things. Doing this helps us become more aware of what we know, act more compassionately toward ourselves and others of what we don't know, and connect with the present moment as you strive for personal growth.

Making time to practice

As with any practice, the most important thing is making time for it. This year, I am making time in the moments before sleep and on Wednesdays.

Reading 2 pages a day

Following James Clear's Atomic Habits, I've made a habit of reading 2 pages every night since Christmas. As a result, I have read:

While some days I read more, I practice the daily habit of never reading less than 2 pages. By the end of January 2024, I expect to have read a total of four books, which is four more books than I read in 2023!

Making Wednesdays mine

I have also taken a more proactive approach to creating focus time. Playfully, I've established a new rule:

Unless you put a diamond ring on it (aka my fiancé), we don't speak on Wednesdays.

This rule applies to both my work and personal life. I don't accept meetings on Wednesdays, and I make an effort to avoid engagements after work. That way, my focus time can extend as long as needed. Last Wednesday, it was 5am to 11pm!

I've previously written about my reasons to prioritize my alone time. Paul Grahams' Maker's Schedule, Manager's Schedule also emphasizes how even one meeting can disrupt an entire day by breaking up a morning or afternoon.

What I haven't written about is how this practice has began to reshape my beliefs about my technical abilities. I've started thinking that maybe I am not slow or incompetent; maybe I just had a lot of interruptions! During my university days, I aced a lot of hard classes – organic chemistry, physics, multivariable calculus – subjects I found much harder to grasp and less enjoyable than what I work on now. Yet I don't remember feeling the overwhelm, incompetence, and shame I sometimes feel in the workplace. My hypothesis is that back then, I had what felt like unlimited time. I allowed myself to work on the same problem over and over, until they clicked. Adult life hasn't offered that same luxury in terms of time, but I am choosing this year to prioritize and make time for learning.

As I sit in a coffee shop, writing this post, I have my index cards and a stack of papers to read, ready to tackle writing an engineering strategy as soon I hit that publish button.

Unlike past attempts to write this strategy, I am excited to immerse myself in this work. I know that today I can work at my own pace. I won't be worrying about the meetings on my calendar. I won't be worrying about whether I finish. I won't be worrying about whether I am technical enough to be tackling this work in the first place.

Today, I am just practicing being competent.