SMOKE: Faking Your Job

Originally published: 6 November 2003

I'm not really a great believer in surveys - most of them are only done with achieving a result the client wants to see and most are hopelessly too "light", ie. they poll too few people. The results are often sensationalised for the benefit of the media and some cheap publicity.

I'm also not a great fan of The Sun tabloid in the UK, as it's a sensationalist publication which relies on drama to get people interested at the expense of good journalism.

Which makes my interest in the result of a survey - published in the Sun yesterday - perverse at best, although I have good reason to be impressed.

The survey - which was conducted by a company called Cognisco - has been a three-year study of work competency in the UK. It polled more than 40,000 employees, making it one of the more significant surveys I've ever seen.

Most surveys don't poll more than a maximum of 2,000 people and in a country with a population of over 40-million, 2,000 simply doesn't cut the mustard for me.

The aim of the Cognisco survey was to determine just how competent people are in their jobs, and the frightening figure revealed was that eight out of 10 Britons are completely hopeless.

That's 80 percent of the workforce which is underqualified, underskilled and probably - although this is purely my assumption - underpaid.

However - most of the folks polled have literally no idea how incompetent they are, which is naturally worrying.

Cognisco tested whether or not staff reached a basic level of competency in their job - the basic level required to perform their duties - and found that only 18 percent met the necessary criteria.

Most people seemed to believe that they were perfectly competent doing what they were doing, and this - according to Cognisco - is a serious danger.

"It's the confident mistake-makers who give most concern", said the company. "These are the people who mis-sell insurance, misinform customers - or even put lives at risk."

This survey was obviously only for residents of the UK, but it got me thinking about the South African workforce and whether or not we would do any better in a similar survey. Speaking from personal experience, I'd have to say not.

I spent the first five years of my working life in the performing arts - acting, directing, writing music, scripting and so on, and I was more than competent in those fields.

But when it became apparent that I couldn't support myself doing that type of work anymore I realised I had to find a more regular form of employment, and thus I began a series of semi-unskilled jobs which eventually led me to where I am today.

But in all of the "regular" jobs I had I felt like a complete and utter con artist, as most of the time I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I could cover all the basics in most jobs, but ultimately I'm still staggered that I was never fired for incompetence.

One of the jobs I had was for Telkom (hey - don't shoot the messenger here). It involved keeping an eye on corporate data networks, reporting any outages or downtime and arranging technicians to go out - often in violent weather at 3am - and fix the problems.

I got the job by sitting through some sort of amateur IQ test, but bizarrely one of the things they didn't check was my ability with computers. Had they checked this they would have discovered that I had touched a computer for the first time about two months previously and as such was not what you might regard as quality material to be handling Telkom's massive corporate data infrastructure.

I lied about my computer ability, of course: "What, computers? Dude - they call me Luke 'Network Jesus' Tagg. Screw Bill Gates and his fairies from Redmond - I am the computer messiah, baby. I am data, homeboy - I'm a binary code motherfucker, motherfucker. Don't talk to me about computers, man."

Of course, at that stage I barely knew how to type a sentence in Microsoft Word, much less how to run diagnostics on routers, assess network performance and manage top clients like SARS, Bokomo, and Standard Bank.

But I think they were impressed at my ghetto-speak and with affirmative action just taking off in South Africa I got the job smart quick.

Foolish mistake. I have no idea how I lasted a year there, but when I resigned they actually offered to up my pay package, rather than simply fainting in relief.

The point is - I somehow managed to fudge my way through a year in a job for which I wasn't even remotely qualified and as part of the bargain I managed to convince management that not only was I a computer genius, but probably the best man they had as well.

Perhaps now you can start to appreciate why Telkom delivers such appalling service - if I was their best man and had absolutely no idea what was going on, can you imagine what the other network operators must have been like?

Then I did a door-to-door sales job for a couple of months, but because I loathe sales as much as I do I hardly knocked on a single door in my entire time there.

I worked as a credit clerk for Edgars and simply made up the rules as I went along, allowing people to return shoes that had been worn every day for three years without batting an eyelid.

I got a job at Iafrica.com as an HTML programmer (I used my Telkom experience to plump up my CV), and at the time of application I didn't even know what HTML stood for, much less how to programme in it. At the time Iafrica was the largest Internet portal in South Africa.

Somehow I managed to fudge my way through the first month and after that I got pretty good at it, but I still shudder at the memory of my blatant lies to get the job and my incompetent fumblings for my first month there.

The point of all this? I would certainly fit into the statistic produced by Cognisco - while I may have become competent at the various jobs I have had I certainly wasn't qualified for any of them. Only my ability to worm my way around potentially embarrassing enquiries saved me from some almighty disciplinary procedures and sackings.

So how confident are you that you have all the necessary skills required to do your job? You may know the basics, but do you fit the profile of someone who should be doing your job, and do you have a thorough knowledge of every facet of your job that you are required to know?

And finally - do you give a shit one way or the other?

I don't.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
Spending time online does bad things to a person, but I'm OK.

Look at me now - all the way from Uitenhage to the bright lights of the big internet.

Find out more using the handy links provided.

Copyright © Luke Tagg. All rights reserved. A few lefts as well.

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