Saturday, June 21, 2008

Getting things smart

I was not going to post about this, but I cannot seem to get Steve Yegge's post, "Done, and Get Things Smart", out of my head. It is clever piece on hiring that challenges the conventional wisdom.

An excerpt:
Smart and Gets Things Done is a good weeder function to filter out some of the common "epic fail" types.

But realize that this approach has a cost: it will also filter out some people who are just as good as you, if not better, or even way better, along dimensions that are entirely invisible to you.

So there's this related interviewing/hiring heuristic that I think may better approximate the kinds of people you really want to hire: Done, and Gets Things Smart.

You don't want someone who's "smart". You're not looking for "eager to learn", "picks things up quickly", "proven track record of ramping up fast".

No! Screw that. You want someone who's superhumanly godlike. Someone who can teach you a bunch of stuff. Someone you admire and wish you could emulate, not someone who you think will admire and emulate you.

You want someone who, when you give them a project to research, will come in on Monday and say: "I'm Done, and by the way I improved the existing infrastructure while I was at it."

Working with them directly ... you'll see that virtually every problem space has a ... component that you were blissfully unaware of until Done, and Gets Things Smart gal points it out to you and says, "There's an infinitely smarter approach, which by the way I implemented over the weekend."

These people aren't just pure gold; they're golden-egg-laying geese ... They're your seed engineers: the ones who will make or break your company with both their initial technical output and the engineering-culture decisions they put into place.
Smart people who can do stuff is one thing. But, getting people who constantly push everyone to learn and improve, who help build the culture, who make people do more than they ever thought possible, there lies the gold.

There is one spot where I might disagree with Steve, assuming I am at all qualified to do so. Steve implies that "Done, and Get Things Smart" people are born that way. Rather, I think they learn from other "Done, and Get Things Smart" people.

At, for example, the seed engineers Steve mentioned had an enormous influence on each other and those around them, pushing everyone to be better. People who already had some "Done, and Get Things Smart" tendencies were pushed further. Others learned from and sought to emulate the masters.

"Done, and Get Things Smart" is made. We can all strive to achieve it. Even if we fail, we will all be better for the attempt.


Andrej Gregov said...

Can't agree more. As "high tide raises all boats" as a description of the effect of a bull market on all stocks, stars raise the caliber of everyone around them in the work place. I'm consistently humbled working at Amazon--and that's the way I like it.

Anonymous said...

greg that is right that this is a skill, which can be improved and learned. even the biggest winnars had to practice, to get to such a point.

roflmao "'epic fail'"

The Osbornian One said...

How many gods can there really be, though? One in a hundred? One in ten thousand? I don't care if you're MSR, Google, or some other company where ambrosia flows from the golden taps of the washroom. You're not going to be able to find, hire, and retain a team full of gods. And even if you do, you'll probably find that the magnetic polarities of all these godlike individuals doesn't add up to guaranteed success. Just look at the Yankees.

Granted, Amazon DID seem to have an unusually high high god-to-mortal ratio. Was it the "bar-raisers"? Was it luck? I dunno, but a lot of those folks are no longer on the market. :-)

Anonymous said...

In my experience, most often people who are "done" too fast are nothing but undisciplined engineers who build problems that look like solutions. Ive seen it many times and these people never cease to impress managers with their incredible turn around time but their code is full of bad design choices. Often they are also overly impressed with themselves which often leads to this belief in those less intimate with their work.

I do believe there are truly amazing people out there but they are definitely more like 1 in 10,000 or even rarer. Caveat Emptor if you choose this policy.

Greg Linden said...

I think the focus on these people as god-like or very rapid coders misses the main point here, "getting things smart".

At least in my mind, the important thing is the culture that "done, and get things smart" people build, a culture focused on learning.

"Done, and get things smart" people push everyone to think in new ways, to build tools that help others get work done, to do everything better than they would have otherwise. This push comes partially from actions, but also partially from the example set combined with everyone's desire not to disappoint their peers.

The people who help build that culture are worth their weight in gold. "Get things smart" people change how people work. "Get things smart" people how everyone thinks of what is possible and impossible. That is why they are so valuable.

Shirish said...

Hi Greg,

That is a great post. I read this post a couple of days back and already started having an effect on me :) Just today, this post came to my mind at least three times, and I put in *little* more effort in doing things *little* better.

Thank you!