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The Lifeguard Who Couldn’t Swim

August 13, 2015

Think you know what skills are required for a particular job? You might be surprised.

I live in a neighborhood with a lot of kids. There are seven houses on our cul-de-sac and over 30 kids. (Yes, I do live in Utah. How could you tell?) It’s been fun watching the kids grow up. Some have gone on missions for the LDS Church, some have gone to college. This summer, some of them got jobs for the first time. One young man got a job this summer as a lifeguard at the local pool. 

How’s the new job going?

Pretty good. I struggle most with the swim.

What do you mean?

We have to swim 500 yards each week. It takes me forever.

You’re not a strong swimmer?

Ha. No, not really

He is 15 years old and 6’3″. He looks like your typical lifeguard. His naturally brown hair has bleached in the sun and he’s got the lifeguard tan. 

  

But, can you really be a lifeguard if you aren’t a strong swimmer? 

Think about the people you work with. Do you really know what it takes to be good at their jobs? I’ve been an IT manager for many years managing teams of programmers and engineers. One day I was talking with or Project Manager. 

Clint, what do you think my major was in school? 

Oh, I don’t know. Political science? Maybe, English? 

Obviously to Clint, my effectiveness as an IT manager was not dependent on me having studied a technical subject in school. One of my first managers at WordPerfect Corp was in charge of the Telecom system. His major in college was Literature. I would have never known, if I hadn’t asked him. 

One of the great things about the IT field and computers in general is that the barrier to entry is still incredibly low. Mark Zuckerberg, one of the richest men in teh world, famously started Facebook in his dorm room. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple in a garage. Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google (Now renamed Alphabet) started their company while students at Stanford. 

The IT world is full of examples of people who had a cool idea and built it into a multi-million, or multi-billion dollar company. Some of the best programmers I know didn’t take Computer Science in school. They found a passion and taught themselves. 

That’s not to say that education is not necessary, or even useful. It is. If you want a career in computers, the easiest route is to study it in school. But, just because you see someone working in a particular job, don’t assume that means they had formal training in that role. 

But, I can hear you now, “That’s great Rodney, but they still have the skills necessary to do the job. How can a lifeguard do his job if he doesn’t swim well?” 

The skills that we think a job requires are not always the skills that are actually required. I once went to my boss to ask about a technical certification that one of my team members wanted to do. 

Sure, I’ll approve it. I think certifications are really important.

Yeah, me too. But, I don’t make hiring decisions based on them.

What do you mean?

I mean that just having a certification doesn’t tell me that someone can do a job. 

For example, you might decide it’s important that all your employees take a course in communication. There are several that I’ve been through that are excellent. (Crucial Conversations, Influencer, Arbinger Institute Courses) But, not everyone’s job requires communication courses. I neede programmers who are great at coding. If they don’t write effective emails, I can live with that. I need engineers who are brilliant at diagnosing network issues. If they can’t present their finding to a senior-level managers meeting, I don’t really care. 

“Rodney, are you saying that swimming is not a required skill for lifeguards?”

That’s exactly what I’m saying. . .with two caveats. Swimming is not the the most important skill for a lifeguard. Beyond a certain minimum level of expertise, additional swimming skill does not make someone a better lifeguard. 

  
Realize that when you are lifeguard at a pool, the odds that you will have to jump in and swim for more than a couple strokes are very low. Lifeguards are primarily there to watch, to keep people safe, to prevent injuries. Our neighborhood pool is about 50 yards long. But, the deep end, the part you cannot stand up and walk in, is about 20 yards long. And a lifeguard’s first response to a swimmer in distress is to reach out to them with a pole, or to throw a flotation device to them. The last resort is to jump in and swim to the person. You don’t need to be a distance swimmer to do that. 

When you are working with other teams, or especially when you are hiring for your own team, remember that the skills needed to do a job may not always be what you think they are. 

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. (He majored in Computer Science) His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

Follow him on
Twitter (@rodneymbliss
Facebook (www.facebook.com/rbliss
LinkedIn (www.LinkedIn.com/in/rbliss)
or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

(c) 2015 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved 

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