The Appearance of Competence

Terry Crowley
2 min readNov 17, 2023

I first wrote an internal version of this blog post when managing the Microsoft Office development team and I recently had two people tell me they searched it out in the depths of Microsoft’s old SharePoint portal to send out to their teams. So I thought I’d update it and share it here.

Inevitably in a large organization and a large company, there are these annoying “paperwork” tasks like doing your annual review input, taking that online legal compliance course or writing up that interview feedback. As an engineer, you’d much prefer to be designing, coding or shipping that new feature.

As a manager, even worse than doing this annoying paperwork is nagging your team to do this annoying paperwork. It’s just a no-win situation; your team doesn’t want to hear it and you feel like a pointy-haired boss since you’re focusing on this extraneous stuff instead of actually building the product. On top of this is you know that no one is saving any time here — it’s going to take just as long to complete it late as it is to complete it early.

Often these tasks get pushed off because they are things where we aren’t directly accountable to the folks in our hallway. Out of sight, out of mind.

The way I like to think about these kinds of things — and get my teams to think about them — is that being on top of these things, especially when dealing with other parts of the business, can really make a difference in how competent you appear. By extension, this also makes a difference in how competent your team appears.

So what I ask for is to at least give the appearance of competence. This doesn’t actually mean you are competent (hopefully there are other ways of detecting that) but appearing competent can’t hurt.

Now the interesting thing is that for much of this kind of stuff, the appearance of competence and actual competence are effectively the same thing. This can even bleed into real work — there are many cases where appearing competent (responding to that email in a timely way, getting the design written up in time, getting the feature written and checked in) effectively is competence.

Not everything is like this — that feature really needs to work, the bug really needs to be fixed. But it can’t hurt for all the little stuff and it creates the right mind set for the big stuff. And it doesn’t hurt to make your manager’s life a little easier every once in a while.

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Terry Crowley

Programmer, Ex-Microsoft Technical Fellow, Sometime Tech Blogger, Passionate Ultimate Frisbee Player