When there's only one

...there's only one choice
Everything here is my personal opinion. I do not speak for my employer.
July 2014
August 2014

2014-07-01 »

The Curse of Smart People

A bit over 3 years ago, after working for many years at a series of startups (most of which I co-founded), I disappeared through a Certain Vortex to start working at a Certain Large Company which I won't mention here. But it's not really a secret; you can probably figure it out if you bing around a bit for my name.

Anyway, this big company that now employs me is rumoured to hire the smartest people in the world.

Question number one: how true is that?

Answer: I think it's really true. A suprisingly large fraction of the smartest programmers in the world do work here. In very large quantities. In fact, quantities so large that I wouldn't have thought that so many really smart people existed or could be centralized in one place, but trust me, they do and they can. That's pretty amazing.

Question number two: but I'm sure they hired some non-smart people too, right?

Answer: surprisingly infrequently. When I went for my job interview there, they set me up for a full day of interviewers (5 sessions plus lunch). I decided that I would ask a few questions of my own in these interviews, and try to guess how good the company is based on how many of the interviewers seemed clueless. My hypothesis was that there are always some bad apples in any medium to large company, so if the success rate was, say, 3 or 4 out of 5 interviewers being non-clueless, that's pretty good.

Well, they surprised me. I had 5 out of 5 non-clueless interviewers, and in fact, all of them were even better than non-clueless: they impressed me. If this was the average smartness of people around here, maybe the rumours were really true, and they really had something special going on.

(I later learned that my evil plan and/or information about my personality may have been leaked to the recruiters who may have intentionally set me up with especially clueful interviewers to avoid the problem, but this can neither be confirmed nor denied.)

Anyway, I continue to be amazed at the overall smartness of people at this place. Overall, very nearly everybody, across the board, surprises or impresses me with how smart they are.

Pretty great, right?

Yes.

But it's not perfect. Smart people have a problem, especially (although not only) when you put them in large groups. That problem is an ability to convincingly rationalize nearly anything.

Everybody rationalizes. We all want the world to be a particular way, and we all make mistakes, and we all want to be successful, and we all want to feel good about ourselves.

We all make decisions for emotional or intuitive reasons instead of rational ones. Some of us admit that. Some of us think using our emotions is better than being rational all the time. Some of us don't.

Smart people, computer types anyway, tend to come down on the side of people who don't like emotions. Programmers, who do logic for a living.

Here's the problem. Logic is a pretty powerful tool, but it only works if you give it good input. As the famous computer science maxim says, "garbage in, garbage out." If you know all the constraints and weights - with perfect precision - then you can use logic to find the perfect answer. But when you don't, which is always, there's a pretty good chance your logic will lead you very, very far astray.

Most people find this out pretty early on in life, because their logic is imperfect and fails them often. But really, really smart computer geek types may not ever find it out. They start off living in a bubble, they isolate themselves because socializing is unpleasant, and, if they get a good job straight out of school, they may never need to leave that bubble. To such people, it may appear that logic actually works, and that they are themselves logical creatures.

I guess I was lucky. I accidentally co-founded what turned into a pretty successful startup while still in school. Since I was co-running a company, I found out pretty fast that I was wrong about things and that the world didn't work as expected most of the time. This was a pretty unpleasant discovery, but I'm very glad I found it out earlier in life instead of later, because I might have wasted even more time otherwise.

Working at a large, successful company lets you keep your isolation. If you choose, you can just ignore all the inconvenient facts about the world. You can make decisions based on whatever input you choose. The success or failure of your project in the market is not really that important; what's important is whether it gets canceled or not, a decision which is at the whim of your boss's boss's boss's boss, who, as your only link to the unpleasantly unpredictable outside world, seems to choose projects quasi-randomly, and certainly without regard to the quality of your contribution.

It's a setup that makes it very easy to describe all your successes (project not canceled) in terms of your team's greatness, and all your failures (project canceled) in terms of other people's capriciousness. End users and profitability, for example, rarely enter into it. This project isn't supposed to be profitable; we benefit whenever people spend more time online. This project doesn't need to be profitable; we can use it to get more user data. Users are unhappy, but that's just because they're change averse. And so on.

What I have learned, working here, is that smart, successful people are cursed. The curse is confidence. It's confidence that comes from a lifetime of success after real success, an objectively great job, working at an objectively great company, making a measurably great salary, building products that get millions of users. You must be smart. In fact, you are smart. You can prove it.

Ironically, one of the biggest social problems currently reported at work is lack of confidence, also known as Impostor Syndrome. People with confidence try to help people fix their Impostor Syndrome, under the theory that they are in fact as smart as people say they are, and they just need to accept it.

But I think Impostor Syndrome is valuable. The people with Impostor Syndrome are the people who aren't sure that a logical proof of their smartness is sufficient. They're looking around them and finding something wrong, an intuitive sense that around here, logic does not always agree with reality, and the obviously right solution does not lead to obviously happy customers, and it's unsettling because maybe smartness isn't enough, and maybe if we don't feel like we know what we're doing, it's because we don't.

Impostor Syndrome is that voice inside you saying that not everything is as it seems, and it could all be lost in a moment. The people with the problem are the people who can't hear that voice.

Why would you follow me on twitter? Use RSS.
apenwarr-on-gmail.com