Motivation or technical skill: what’s important?

“We Can Do It!” poster for Westinghouse, closely associated with Rosie the Riveter by J. Howard Miller

At the end of the summer vacation, one of our colleagues brought a post on LinkedIn to our attention. It said: “Highly motivated student is looking for an intern position on the short term, due to problems outside of her influence”. The student was a young woman in her first year of Application Development on an MBO level (comparable to community college in the US).

At the time, we didn’t really have an open internship and we usually look for students at higher levels of education in their final year or people with specific skills. But the post kept mulling around in our heads. So we decided to make contact with the teacher who posted it. As it turned out, the company where she was supposed to intern wasn’t doing very well and needed to focus on staying afloat. The teacher told us that the student was a young woman of 25 years old. After working as a nurse for a while, she wanted to make the change to development. She was almost 10 years older than most of the other students and with a more clear motivation for choosing this course than most of her peers. According to the teacher, she didn’t have a lot of programming experience, but had impressed him with her perseverance and motivation.

And after our first meeting with her, we could see where he was coming from. But how do you approach this? Putting her in a team, with their own flow, backlog, and way of working? And what would be a fitting learning experience?

So we took a step back and looked at the tools we use to manage our Docker-based microservices platform. One of those tools was a site that gives platform engineers and developers two things:

  • an overview with links to all the available tools (Mesos, Consul, Marathon, Kibana, Elastic Search, Kafka) in each environment,
  • a table with all microservices and their versions and number of instances running in each environment, fed by Prometheus data.

It had been built quickly and did the job. But there were a lot of loose ends to be fixed when someone would get round to it. But of course, that never happened. So, we found a relatively simple (or so we thought) and isolated application for an intern to work on!

Then the next challenge was how to guide the intern. We are used to hiring people and find interns based on experience with a language or framework. Would we go for just the basics or challenge her with more advanced stuff? We ended up picking the latter option, which meant building the app in React.

As she started, it became clear that her programming skills were very low. Arrays were still alien to her, and mentioning map and reduce would be like speaking a foreign language (which I was, of course). With a few decades of programming experience under my belt, it’s hard for me to go back to how it was when I first started. How these concepts seemed so alien. I got a bit frustrated with myself that I was apparently unable to explain one of the most basic concepts in programming in a way that she could understand. I also didn’t have time to constantly look over her shoulder, as I had my own work to do as well.

So, we talked about it and we decided that she should do a JavaScript course online. After a week or so, she was finished. She moved on to learning React, while starting work on the app. In those first weeks, we sat together on a daily basis and she would ask questions and I would show her how to do stuff in JavaScript and/or React. But after a few weeks, she would ask questions less and less. And yet, the application started to take form. At first, just the collection of links to the different dev tools. Then, with some help from me, she implemented the table with microservices.

The internship progressed and the app improved, while the number of questions I got decreased. It turned more into code reviews than knowledge transfer. She got to a level of competency that allowed her to build the app by herself, with me just keeping oversight and pointing out improvements where needed. And most important of all, she did that by being motivated to learn.

And what happened to our intern and the application she built? Well, she went back to school with a much higher skill level and a sense of accomplishment. And we are using her application now every day and without any problems.

What we have taken away from this experience is that motivation to learn can be more important than technical skills. A year ago, we looked for high technical skills and had a hard time finding people that fit our profile. After changing the profile to motivated learners with some technical skills, we hired four new front end developers, who all are performing very well. And we had an intern come in that might not have had technical skills yet, but compensated that more than adequately with motivation to learn.

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Also, I work at one of the biggest e-commerce companies of 🇳🇱
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