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Why I Love Neal Stephenson

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I’m reading Cryptonomicon for the second time, having rediscovered it on a basement shelf and remembering that I really enjoyed it years ago. Last night I got to this part, when Randy’s trying to crack the Arethusa intercepts from his Manila jail cell:

“Who framed me, then?” Randy asks, kind of rhetorically. He was just in the middle of doing some pretty cool C++ coding when he got yanked out of his cell to have this surprise encounter with the Dentist, and is surprising himself with just how bored and irritated he is. He has reverted, in other words, back into a pure balls to the wall nerdism rivaled only by his early game coding days back in Seattle. The sheer depth and involution of the current nerdism binge would be hard to convey to anyone. Intellectually, he is juggling half a dozen lit torches, Ming vases, live puppies, and running chainsaws. In this frame of mind he cannot bring himself to give a shit about the fact that this incredibly powerful billionaire has gone to a lot of trouble to come and F2F with him. And so he asks the above question as nothing more than a perfunctory gesture, the subtext being I wish you’d go away but minimal standards of social decency dictate that I should say something. The Dentist, no slouch himself in the social ineptness department, comes right back as if it were an actual request for information.

Obviously any book that contains the phrase “pure balls to the wall nerdism” is probably good. An author who writes entertaining fiction and knows the software developer’s mindset this well is rare. Hilarity ensues. I can’t say that I’m proud of these moments, but what professional software developer hasn’t been there? Of course, I’d have to substitute an “oblivious coworker” for the “incredibly powerful billionaire,” making the caricature even more painful. :)

Written by Ian Olsen

November 28, 2007 at 10:55 am

Posted in Work Life

Civilization Was Built By Obnoxious Jerks

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I don’t understand the people who find their way into every organization and blame every problem on management. These people are the cause of their own problems. In short, they’re too passive. I don’t think I’m an overzealous management-blamer, but I could stand to be more assertive sometimes. I can think of many instances in the past, in my personal and professional life, where things sure would have gone smoother if I would have grown a pair and made people see things my way. I know I’m not alone. A while back Jeff Atwood published some thoughts about assertiveness among software developers that I found interesting, but I think he missed something. I think a lot of developers choose to be passive, and we don’t realize what a disservice we’re doing ourselves.

Recently I found myself with a few minutes to kill, and as luck would have it, there was good reading close at hand: Bathroom Reader 8: Things Everyone Should Know. It was full of pithy thoughts, one per page, in a tone similar to Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy. One page held only this:

People only get what they think they deserve.

Not people get what they deserve. People only get what they think they deserve. This is true, but it’s even more true if you expand it a little. People don’t get 100% of what they think they deserve, but they get 0% of what they don’t think they deserve. People get no more than what they think they deserve.

You get only what you think you deserve

What do I mean by “what you get?” Well there’s the classics: respect, prestige, power, and money, but those are sooo twentieth century. And we’re not supposed to admit we’re after them even if we are. “What you get” could be anything. The love of a partner. The advanced degree. The respect of a family member. The house on the water. The friendship of that brilliant, funny co-worker. Work/life balance. If you don’t think you deserve it, you’re not going to take any of the steps to get it, and you won’t.

I know what you’re thinking. “Well thank you, Captain Obvious! Did you really think Bathroom Reader 8 held the wisdom of the ages? Perhaps if you had more fiber in your diet you’d waste less time and bandwidth around here, hmm?”

Okay. But there’s more!

In addition to the “I Deserve” value we give ourselves, we assign “You Deserve” values to the people we know. We do it with everybody: co-workers, family members, friends, anybody you would consider more than an acquaintance. You decide how smart they are, or how talented, or good-looking, or whatever qualifications are appropriate for a particular relationship, and subconsciously assign a value. When someone’s “I Deserve” value grossly outstrips the “You Deserve” value you give him, he becomes obnoxious, the kind of person who constantly toots his own horn.

Engineers are particularly vulnerable to this pattern of thinking. We invented the bozo bit, after all. Our skills and qualifications are pretty well defined. Either you know something or you don’t. We tend to extend this: either you’re qualified or you’re not. In a technical field, you can assign a professional “You Deserve” value far easier than you could in, say, oil painting. As hard as it is to quantitatively measure the value of a software developer in an organization, it’s relatively obvious day-to-day who the brilliant engineers are, and they don’t even have to die first. In our binary world, there’s a pronounced bias against those whose confidence overshadows their demonstrated skill. We prefer to celebrate our brilliant but self-effacing, populist leaders, like Linus Torvalds and his penguin. We’re suspicious of those who have an apparently bottomless well of confidence without being obviously brilliant. We reserve our respect for those ushered into a position of leadership by consensus among their peers. Most of us decide it’s better to be failingly humble, and instead strive to produce work that outshines our passivity.

But we’re missing something important. Have you noticed the people heavy on bravado and light on skill often wend their way into positions of authority? Is this simply the typical workings of a clueless bureaucracy or something else? Both. Here’s the thing: if people did only what they were qualified to do, things for which they had already proven some aptitude, we’d still be living in caves. The caveman that built the first fire was certainly not qualified. What a pompous jerk this guy was. The other cave-people were doing just fine huddling together for warmth and eating raw meat, thanks. And it was so obvious that he had no idea what he was doing. Rubbing sticks and banging rocks for hours? Nice going there, Lothar. Do us all a favor and spear a woolly mammoth or something, would ya? But you have to admit that the whole fire thing worked out pretty well.

It seems to me that with very few exceptions, anybody who ever did anything extraordinary had a much higher “I Deserve” value than the “You Deserve” value they were assigned by their well-adjusted, humble peers. Some hid it better than others, but they all had it. Am I suggesting that we should strive for maximum arrogance in hopes that we’ll someday stumble upon greatness? No. Nor would I ever claim that acting skilled is more important than actually being skilled. I would prefer that the engineers that designed my airplane actually are skilled, thanks very much.

But there is a relationship between what you think you deserve, your confidence, and what you’re actually capable of attaining. Natural leaders tend to believe this implicitly. They come out of the womb and ask the nurse to fetch them a coffee. The rest of us just have to strive to keep it in mind when one of these obnoxious types is in our face. Here’s the way I think it breaks down:

The Blowhard Index

The point at which one’s cup of confidence floweth over, taking him into obnoxious territory, is certainly subjective. The people I consider successful in life, professionally or otherwise, spend most of their time slightly left of the blue area. Some occasionally venture well into the blue. But notice that leadership ability continues to increase a smidge beyond the obnoxious threshold. That’s intentional. 90% of the household name leaders, even in technical circles, fall into this very slim minority of extraordinary people: obnoxiously confident, tremendous leaders. Bill Gates? No question. Steve Jobs? Notoriously so. Larry Ellison? The guy actually has a lifestyle section on Wikipedia wherein his obnoxiousness is detailed.

At some point it became fashionable to declare Joel Spolsky arrogant. This was inevitable, because he’s successful and outspoken and he moves in the highly confidence-skeptical world of software development. And he’s still just small-time enough that people tend to wonder if maybe he’s gotten too big for his britches. I’ve shaken his hand and exchanged a couple of sentences with him, but certainly don’t know him well enough to place him on the Blowhard Index. Certainly the fact that he started his own company, which appears to be thriving, places him somewhere firmly in the right-most 50%. Doubtless there are people who actually know him that do find him obnoxious. But the people he employs at Fog Creek surely enjoy the living they make there, which never would have been possible if he’d waited to be qualified to start a company. Without the outrageous confidence necessary to publish his opinion about everything related to software development, he’d never have attained the runaway marketing success that launched FogBugz. (All of which is true about my boss, too, but by declaring himself arrogant occasionally, he cleverly sidesteps the whole mess.)

Do entrepreneurs or corporate big-shots need something larger than life to associate with in order to offset what is actually deep-seated insecurity, merely masquerading as confidence? Probably in some cases. But even these people are valuable contributors to an organization. The truth is, we need people who are more confident than we are, whether or not they have the qualifications to back it up. Without them, we’d all still be huddling together for warmth in a cave somewhere.

Confidence is A Good Thing. For techies too. If you allow your professional bias to keep you from realizing this, you’re only hurting yourself.

Written by Ian Olsen

June 14, 2007 at 9:34 am

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