The trouble with judging by aptitude
It sounds like something you're born with, but could it be more nurture than nature?
NUSWhispers is always an entertaining read, what with the anonymous confessions of relationship woes, thirst posts, and complaints about the university in general.
And occasionally, a raging debate erupts about what it takes to thrive in the world of programming. The war of words got so hot that the forum’s administrators declared a ceasefire and stopped accepting posts to do with the topic.
At issue was the subject of aptitude: Its proponents contended that natural ability – which cannot be taught – separates the best from the merely good and those without aptitude face long odds of getting a coveted software engineering role in the FAANG companies.
On the surface, this is eminently reasonable and intuitive. Do what you’re good at, don’t force a square peg through a round hole, don’t teach a fish how to climb trees.
But a few things bug me about this message.
Is it aptitude, or just early exposure?
When you think of aptitude, you think of someone who gets something easily. It takes just one explanation and this person is able to do it!
But what if you were unaware that this person had already come across the concept previously or even had some practice at it? When I joined my Scouts troop in secondary school, I was initially better at the different knot-tying techniques than some other students simply because I had learnt them before in primary school. It wasn’t because I just had a better “knot-tying brain”. But the positive reinforcement when I received praise for completing my tasks faster than others sure made me feel like I did.
When we see people display a higher level of skill than others, we often jump to the easy conclusion that it’s due to some natural ability that they’re born with. But perhaps it’s actually deliberate training that got them there.
Skill in school doesn’t equate to career progression
Some people are middling students but thrive in the work environment. If you subscribe to the belief in aptitude and come across these late bloomers at work, you would think they have high aptitude. But if your first encounter with them was at school, you would have written them off.
Moreover, one of the realities of the workplace is that skill at the job is but one factor, and often not even the most important one, in determining who gets the next career break. Your team work, whether you’re liked by your peers, stakeholder management, how you play the political game, how effectively you suck up to your boss – these are just some of the other elements that go into whether you climb the corporate ladder.
So just because you don’t enter a FAANG company straight out of graduation doesn’t mean you can’t make it in after you’ve got a few years of working experience under your belt.
Aptitude is sometimes used to justify pre-conceived notions
There’s a gender imbalance in tech today and unfortunately, some believe this is due to biological reasons. In other words, it’s just something we’re born with and the natural order of things.
This sounds strikingly like what aptitude is often characterised as and indeed, it’s common to hear comments that it’s simply harder for women to learn how to code.
Yet when the field of programming first started, women were the ones who were assumed to have the right mindset for such work and they dominated the field. Again, this shows perception of aptitude can change.
Giving yourself a fair shot
The points in this article were made at various points during the NUSWhispers discussion as well. And to be fair, some who came down on the side of aptitude also acknowledged the possibility of entering a FAANG company at a later stage of one’s career, as well as the fallacy of gender being a marker for aptitude in programming.
Ultimately, if you’re thinking about making a mid-career switch to a job that involves coding, aptitude is not a helpful way of framing your decision. It places too much emphasis on initial impressions of one’s skill level, it downplays one’s ability to learn and improve, and unconscious biases about one’s aptitude are too often attached to one’s background. You have to believe in yourself before others start believing in you.