Why talent for tech is different than skill

Taming technology is sometimes more art than science, but the difference can sometimes be hard to discern

Wherever you are in IT, you've probably come across colleagues who were extremely skilled at their jobs -- system administrators who can bend a zsh shell to their every whim, or developers who can write lengthy functions that compile without a whimper the first time. You've probably also come across colleagues who were extremely talented -- who could instantly visualize a new infrastructure addition and sketch it out to extreme detail on a whiteboard while they assembled it in their head, for example, or who could devise a new, elegant UI without breaking a sweat.

The truly gifted among us exhibit both of those traits, but most fall into one category or another. There is a difference between skill and talent. Such is true in many vocations, of course, but IT can present a stark contrast between the two.

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Part of the reason for that is that we might consider someone skilled if they need little or no documentation to accomplish a certain task. A skilled chef can make a meal without requiring a recipe, for instance, and a skilled network admin can make major changes to production switches and routers without calling up a CLI reference guide to check syntax.

A talented chef, on the other hand, may think along different lines and construct an entirely unique dish for which there is no recipe. A talented system administrator may do much the same, assembling various tools in a unique way and devising a method around a problem that hadn't been attempted before. This may require some research and reference instead of rote knowledge, but the end result is something that wouldn't have otherwise existed, and is something for which there are no guidelines.

To take another example, there are many extremely skilled musicians who play through difficult sheet music with ease, but have problems improvising when the music, the guide, is removed. By the same token, there are many extremely skilled musicians who improvise amazingly well but can't read a note. Truly gifted musicians excel at both -- as do truly gifted developers, administrators, and network and system architects.

The fact is that companies of just about any size need people who are skilled, people who are talented, and generally, a few people who are both. Many projects have failed because although they might have been technically sound and functional, they lacked key features, general usability, or the vision necessary to prevent future problems. On the converse, many flowing, visually stunning works of technical art have become mired in technical issues caused by a lack of skill during development. We all have seen examples of each, be it the immaculately functional application that has a laborious interface, or the immensely usable and friendly UI that lacks fundamental power and scalability.

The key, as I see it anyway, is to have a fundamental understanding of the technology in question, if not the particulars. Talented developers view different languages as tools with different strengths and syntaxes, and they will choose the best language for the job at hand, even if they're more comfortable with another. Others might choose their preferred language due to their experience with the language, even if it's not as adept at solving the problem as another choice might be. Understanding the fundamental problem and identifying the proper method of solving it require that underlying foundational knowledge of computing in general. Knowing your options and how to leverage them is more important than knowing exactly how they work, at least in many cases.

This translates into all aspects of IT. A solid IT admin or developer cannot resist change and cannot resist learning new technologies. It just isn't an option. Remaining sedentary in this wildly changing world means that sooner rather than later, the steps required to regain currency become far too high to climb, and you'll remain stuck at your current level.

This is not to say that you need to learn every new language that shows up or be fluent in every network operating system. But when a new technology starts spreading like wildfire, you must at least understand why, and you should know how it plays within any form of IT infrastructure. If the time comes when that technology might help you solve a problem, that's when you can dig into the details.

One of the reasons we got into deep IT in the first place was that it is an ever-present source of problems that need solving, and we're junkies for that sort of thing. We just need to remember that sometimes new problems can't be solved with old tools, but will require learning new ones. After all, our tools -- and the skills and talent behind them -- are all we have.

This story, "Why talent for tech is different than skill," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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