The senior professional

This article is a translation of my original written in Portuguese.

Before we get into any details about this article’s subject, I have to tell you a little about this fellow from the picture, the ironic Socrates, and his dialogues.

Socrates was born around the sixth century BC in Greece somewhere near Athens. He is considered one of the fathers of philosophy, devoted his life to the elevation of spirit (the search for knowledge and wisdom), influenced people, accumulated disciples. Two of these disciples, Plato and Xenophon, were remembered for the rest of history, and were responsible for telling us everything we know about Socrates, for he never wrote a single word (at least none that have survived through time).

It is through the dialogues written mainly by Plato and Xenophon that we know the “teachings” of Socrates. I write teachings in quotation marks because there is where the whole irony of this philosopher lies. You see, Socrates was very wise, the wisest of all Athens according to the Oracle of Delphi, but he himself judged not to possess such wisdom (hence his famous paradox “I know that I know nothing”).

So, how a person that knew so little raised so many disciples and ennobled so many people?

Through conversation, debate. Socrates never knew anything, or at least he would pretend not to (hence his irony), but he was a curious and ingenious interrogator, and it was through his questionings, always trying to refute the ideas presented, that he made his interlocutors come to their own conclusions.

Elenchus is the name of this Socratic method of dialogue. And this is my cue to talk a bit about the original subject of this article, what it means to be a senior professional?

It is a difficult task to differentiate in technical knowledge the professionals of the technology field. What exactly does a junior professional know? A middle level one? A person can be an expert in one specific area, but for any reason this technology is not used in the team, how does it qualify then? Maybe we can rely on the years of experience? But anyone who work with technology knows that this doesn’t mean much, one can learn in a year in some company what would take five in others. And even more complicated, when do you stop being a middle level professional and become a senior?

What if the path to this evolution was not necessarily related to your technical knowledge? What can we learn from Socrates and his method? I think that the more we know, more experience we get, the less important that technical knowledge really is. Let me try to explain it better.

The role of a professional within a company changes with the passing years of accumulated experience. A senior should be, above anything else, an agent of debate, an inciter, must promote a constant flow of conversation and exchange of knowledge between everyone in the team. The role of executor is no longer so important (although certainly does not cease to exist) and that person becomes a guide, never dictating the path or telling what’s right or wrong, but rather debating and questioning every presented “truth”.

All the technical knowledge you acquire during these years of experience is of great importance, it is this that will help you guide, through your questionings, the team to the safest way. You must encourage the constant pursuit for knowledge in your teammates and help whenever they need. This way everyone evolves, everyone learns.

Of course this is a personal philosophy. There are specialized fields where technical knowledge is indeed more important, but I truly believe that the passing of experience should always be valued and encouraged. Here at VivaReal for example, out of all the technical skills, we have the following prerequisites defined for more experienced engineers:

[…] Sharing your experience is part of everyday life, whether through tech talks, blog posts, training, workshops, etc. You are always interested and available to evolve your fellow engineers and the architecture of VivaReal.

I’m not advocating to the complete abandonment of any and all technical studies, after all it was this eager to learn that brought you to this point in your career, and it must continue forever. I’m saying that it is important to learn to question constantly, including our own knowledge (“I know that I know nothing”), and understand that we will never know everything. The experience of the group will always be greater than that of the individual.

Thus the senior professional becomes the one that gives less importance to the technical knowledge in relation to the continuous evolution of the team and the company through the sharing of experiences and constant debate.