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This quote tends to pop up in some places, such as Paul Tyma's post on why he works at Google. An argument in favor of this is that you will generally learn more from people who are smarter than you. An argument to the contrary is that if you are the smartest person where you work, people are relying on you, and if you can get the job done, it is a form of job security.

Not that I was the smartest person at AV or even in my group, but there was a time early in 2001, not long after a big layoff, that I turned down an offer from another company. It was a very small startup. I rationalized my decision on the grounds that AV was in the process of trying to turn itself around (read: be "the search company" and abandon its portal ambitions), and that I "knew my job," so was unlikely to be laid off (as long as the company was not bought by another company with a better infrastructure for processing web traffic). At the time, I was pretty burned out, and unsure that I could handle the pressures of a new job, particularly doing something I hadn't done in a long time. (In fact, one of the AV VPs suggested that I not start up a new job right away due to burnout.) I didn't want to take the chance that I wouldn't do a good enough job, but couldn't return to AV because my position would have been filled, or they would have outsourced the work. I think some people would argue that I should have left, but I'm not sure that would have been a good decision.

If anything, here's what I would like to learn:

  • How the mind of a genius works (and how to make my mind do that)
  • How to recall quickly, and on command (such as at a test or on an interview), everything I ever learned

Seriously ... sometimes when I write about learning, problem solving, etc., I think I am writing about something else, like money. However, I don't (consciously) want to be wealthy. (I certainly don't act that way.) OTOH, sometimes I would like to be able to do things that some of the wealthy people I know are able to do. I would like to be able to afford good medical coverage when I'm no longer able to work. Also, I'd like to be able to have people over from my chorus for get-togethers, and if we ever do any more choral exchanges, to host people who've hosted me in the past. Both of those things take a lot of time and effort, so I also would like to be able to reserve enough time to do those things, but not be risking the ability to get the work done I need to get done (translated: make money?). It bothers me that I think about wealth, since I never used to until being unemployed. (In the past, such as around the time I started grad school, I perceived being smart as a means to get onto a better, more fun project, and had nothing to do with money.)


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 1st, 2007 04:22 pm (UTC)
You learn from people who are more knowledgeable than you are and who can also teach. Smart people can have gaping areas of ignorance, and aren't necessarily able to impart the knowledge they have.

If you're unhappy at work, and aren't in dire financial straits, then you should quit. If you enjoy your work, can afford the things you need and want because of it, and your employer's future prospects seem good, the intelligence of your colleagues means rather little. A successful employer has to know how to produce what clients and customers want. Period.

As for wealth, I wouldn't know. I'd never strive to be wealthy; I don't want to work that hard. It's nice not to worry about paying the bills, but a regular position with decent salary and benefits coupled with a commitment to live within one's means does that.

Edited at 2007-12-01 04:23 pm (UTC)
Dec. 14th, 2007 06:16 am (UTC)
I'm not sure how hard the people I know who are wealthy work. One of them invested really well. Some others bought cheap property (that they live on) many years ago (back in the days when the Silicon Valley was mostly fields and orchards). Some of the spouses of people in my chorus work for VC firms, or hold executive-level positions at SFBA tech companies, so perhaps they work very hard. (One travels most of the time.)
Dec. 12th, 2007 04:16 am (UTC)
How a genius works?
I wouldn't stress out on this one because it just happens.

You wake up with the answer, discover it sitting in the bathoom, or it happens when you're in the shower, maybe even just staring at some spot on the wall, there's no cut and dried thing that defines genius, it just happens.

And I don't mean genius with off the scale IQ because some of them can barely function in the real world, I'm talking about problem solving genius which is basically what a programmer is in the first place.

If you don't like to solve problems and come up with out-of-the-box solutions then you're just a for hire coder, those people that implement my ideas ;)

Dec. 13th, 2007 07:28 am (UTC)
Re: How a genius works?
Hey IncrediBILL, it's been a while ...

Sometimes when I talk about genius, I feel like I'm describing something that people (e.g. employers or investors) flock to because they think the person will make them a lot of money. Famous example: Sergey Brin. Other times, I'm talking about certain types of characteristics, such as quickness and a high degree of robustness in identifying solutions to "difficult", "non-obvious" (note quotes) problems. An example here would be a person who can just "figure out" that a way of doing a swap of two values without using temporary variables. I want to understand how these people's minds set up these types of problems and the steps they go through to solve them. In particular, at a place where I might get stuck, I want to know what is kicking in for them that enables them to make progress.
Dec. 13th, 2007 10:35 pm (UTC)
Re: How a genius works?
You can't all have the same exact skills because people's brains are just wired different so try as you might you may never come up with the idea the other guy does even if you're aware of the concept just because your brain doesn't process in that manner. That's why in a team you leverage each other so the whole is much stronger than the individual and getting stuck can usually be fixed brain storming with anyone on the team.

That's why mixed teams of people with various problem solving skills tend to produce the best products as you bring all the best thinking to bear on the solution.

One of my skills lets me skip from idea concept to complete implementation concept in a very short time. It annoys a lot of people because I have the whole idea scoped out in my head in seconds and while they're still trying to grapple with the bits and pieces going from step A to step B to step C, I'm sitting there with the final idea in my head filled in all the way to step Z and it sometimes takes days to get everyone else up to speed.

Don't know how I do it but I've met a few others that can do it too and it's real scary when we sat down for a "conceptual product meeting" as things can spiral out of control (in a good way) real fast.

Doesn't make me a genius exactly but I landed a job once when the hiring manager told me what they were trying to build and asked me how I'd do it. I literally grabbed a marker and hit the white board and scoped out the whole product architecture, he ran and grabbed the CEO to come look, they went out in the hall for a minute, got an offer on the spot.

Just happens, can't explain it.


Dec. 14th, 2007 06:05 am (UTC)
Re: How a genius works?
Here's a paragraph from another example that I gave to someone who went to the 'tute around the same time I did:

If I had wanted to start something like Google, I would have been sufficiently concerned about click fraud to implement mechanisms to reduce the likelihood of it, or at least give advertisers tools to control the distribution of their ads. But this might have impeded progress and allowed another company (like Google) that just ignored the problem until they were forced to address it to be more successful.

Deducing from the capabilities and limitations of the Internet architecture that click fraud can occur is a kind of "problem solving," but I don't think it has as much value as, say, the ability to come up with PageRank, or how to architect low-cost Linux machines to serve query results faster than other search engines. At least, it does not seem to be valued as much by people who fund companies or interview for software engineering positions. I have speculated that one way in which I differ from Sergey Brin is that he had Montessori education when he was young. (I did not. I went to public schools.) Another difference is that his father, a mathematician, was able to shape his education in ways that made him able to do what he does now. (Neither of my parents have any background in the sciences or engineering.) Maybe these guys are geniuses; maybe not. Some other people who work at Google probably are geniuses. But when I speak of the "value" of said genius, I sometimes feel like I'm talking about what the marketplace would pay for it. It's like talking about first round NFL draft picks – teams will invest quite a bit of money on the top college players because they believe (or at least hope) they will be top pro players.

Edited at 2007-12-14 09:05 am (UTC)
Dec. 16th, 2007 01:04 am (UTC)
Re: How a genius works?
Da Vinci was a illegitimate peasant child and wasn't eligible for a public education and Einstein flunked 7th grade math because he was bored with it so I'm not sure what role education plays in genius.

TBH, I'd rather be the guy that solves the click fraud issue because that looks much easier to solve as long as you do a few draconian things!

Dec. 16th, 2007 06:05 am (UTC)
Re: How a genius works?
I don't know much about Da Vinci's background, but based on Einstein's Wikipedia entry, I get the feeling his background was similar to Sergey Brin's. His father was an engineer; the Einsteins had a family friend who introduced him to mathematics; he was able to transfer to a school that didn't bore him.

Much of my thoughts on this subject come from seeing some of the kids (and grandkids) of people in my chorus reach their teens and start preparing for college. In addition to the money issue, many of the folks from chorus went to places like Stanford and Berkeley. (Some of them (or their spouses) teach and/or do research at these places.) So these kids are getting all the information they need about the subjects they are interested in and the careers they want to pursue. The parents know a lot about how their kids ought to be educated.

Edited at 2007-12-16 08:01 am (UTC)
Dec. 16th, 2007 11:23 pm (UTC)
Re: How a genius works?
Guess may I'm a little jealous of the new class of programming students because all they taught was COBOL and FORTRAN back in the day, no algorithms, just language basics and no college anywhere near me knew anything about microprocessors in 1978. So I got published at 17 and skipped the college route into the wonderful land of full-time programming at 18, maybe a good choice maybe bad, hard to say.

Some days I kind of wish I'd stayed the college route and other days I realize all the opportunity to innovate that I would've missed in the early days of PC's had I still been on a campus.

But you're right, those that start early learning something that doesn't bore them obviously have a better chance in the long haul.
Dec. 17th, 2007 12:34 am (UTC)
Re: How a genius works?
You must be reading my mind. I was going to post something about programming in FORTRAN, since that's the first language I ever programmed in. I learned it in HS – in the spring of 1978, actually. nsingman and _darkvictory may remember my teacher, Mr. Bodenheimer, who was kind of a geek of that time. I don't remember everything about the class, but the computer may have been a Burroughs that took punched cards. There must have been something about the class that I liked, because a few months later I decided I wanted to be an electrical engineer instead of a doctor.

Perhaps you could write something about how you went about getting published, especially how you came up with your ideas and who influenced you. Even if I'd had something of publishable quality at age 17, I wouldn't have known who to talk to about it. The computer classes I took (the one I mentioned above and another a year later) were electives taught by the math department, but I don't know what their official position on the classes was and what they were hoping students would get out of them. We learned how to implement some algorithms (like how to compute Fibonacci numbers), but it was quite a leap from that to programming in Lisp in the spring semester of my freshman year at the 'tute. I think I might have benefited from a bit more structure – for one assignment, we had to implement solving systems of linear equations, but the method of doing so was left up to us. I used Cramer's Rule instead of Gauss-Jordan elimination, which in retrospect wasn't such a good idea. I couldn't get the program to work in all cases, and I wasn't quite sure why. There also was a computer club that met during zero period. I used to submit some of my jobs during that time, but I was kind of intimidated, so I didn't fully participate in the club; just quietly watched from the side.
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