I was having a conversation with a co-worker today whose first name prominently features the letter "Z". Our topic: how does a company like ThoughtWorks, which hires lots of experienced developers, determine at what level that person should be hired. Some candidates are cut and dried: you can tell when you interview them. But what about the developers who fall through cracks? Maybe they are an ace developer in 4 languages, but they've never done agile. Or, a great militant Agilist, but they have never done test-driven development. As a company, we need 2 things: how to categorize these folks upon hiring and, more importantly, how to fill in knowledge gaps after they arrive. After all, the ultimate goal is to create well rounded ThoughtWorkers, who are good at all the things we value highly.
In talking about this subject, I came up with the idea I called the Merit Badge approach. Just like in the Boy Scouts, when a scout moved from one troop to another, you knew their rank instantly because of the acquired merit badges. Each merit badge had deterministic acceptance criteria, and you knew that the scout in question had mastered the badge criteria before moving to the next one. A certain number of badges, covering a certain set of areas, lead to increased rank. If a company like ThoughtWorks wants all Eagle scouts, we must invest in our rookie scouts to enable them to get to that level. We should have technology merit badges. If we get a good candidate that knows everything but TDD, we should send them to a TDD training class or similar until they have mastered that skill. Advancements in the technical ranks becomes an exercise is acquiring useful skills. That keeps the process more objective and allows for clear ascension paths through the technical ranks. The People People can track the merit badges and recommend training and mentoring for the next milestone.
And, we'd all get to wear those cool sashes!