In the 1980s, when computers were still a novelty, psychologists were busy researching "computer aptitude", a specific kind of intelligence that would identify those capable of working in this rarefied new high-tech realm of employment.
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Looking back at this now computers play such an important part in everyday life, penetrating every home and impacting on every job, this idea looks fanciful.
In fact, the tests developed by the psychometric researchers at that time have proved poor predictors of job performance, largely because there appear to be many different routes to success in the IT world.
Programming is like learning a foreign language
Programming may actually be related to foreign language learning or to mathematical aptitudes; so either an art or a science – not a promising basis for identifying a single differentiating feature of IT success.
The biggest and most reputable test publisher of the day accepted defeat and shelved its research projects.
Over this period, the focus in job selection criteria has turned from special kinds of intelligence to the impact of personality differences, largely because of the significant breakthrough in personality research. Previously a battleground of competing personality theories, personality research has found a fruitful new academic consensus and utility.
What sort of personality makes the best programmer or IT specialist?
So, what sort of personality makes the best programmer or IT specialist? That's not a trivial question. We know that personality characteristics make a difference. Personality will either contribute to high performance in a role or interfere with it.
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Introverted people, for example, struggle to perform in roles that demand relentless engagement with clients. Less obviously, compliant personalities lack the free spirit required for very creative roles. This dynamic between personality and job success also operates at the level of attraction towards particular careers.
Engineering applicants are calm and composed
Research shows that the pool of applicants for professional roles is already shaped in terms of its personality characteristics. Some personality types are strongly represented and others are absent. Engineering applicants are generally towards the calm and composed end of the spectrum, recruiter applicants are more impulsive, while auditor and accountancy applicants are more prudent and conservative.
There appear to be many different routes to success in the IT world
Geoff Trickey, Psychological Consultancy
In a recent police force recruitment project, although there were four different pipelines into the selection process, there was a very distinctive trend or bias towards certain personality types. This roused some interest and even some concern. What was preventing a significant percentage of the population from applying? Did this diminish the chances of recruiting the required range of talents?
Interestingly, earlier research in 1976, 1977, 1984 and 1991 delivered very similar results. Those attracted to a career in policing are, it seems, compliant, calm and sociable. Other professions also have a particular allure to particular personalities, but what attracts candidates into the world of IT?
IT sector is more diversified
The IT sector may be more diversified than others. Some roles are relatively isolated and in others the requirement to communicate is crucial. In most cases, keeping up to date with progress and technical developments would be important, emphasising the advantage of curious and studious personality characteristics.
Project management and creativity are also common themes. But all this is mere speculation. Computer Weekly has teamed up with Psychological Consultancy to conduct an IT personality survey to address this question.
Not only will participants be contributing to a fascinating debate about the IT profession but, by completing the survey personality questionnaire, they will instantly receive a detailed confidential psychometric evaluation of their own personality.
Geoff Trickey is managing director of Psychological Consultancy Ltd.