Sunday, April 1, 2012

Why geniuses are overrated in software engineering. Knowing that > knowing how.

Knowledge is underrated in software engineering. We value problem solving skills and quick learning a bit too much by comparison. Let me explain what I mean.

Being smart means you can pick up any programming language in no time. You can get to know new technologies quickly and do a good job at using them. But that's not enough. In fact, since learning how to do stuff is so easy these days you don't really get to accumulate a huge advantage over others in this way. Everybody knows how to google, and these days googling takes you 90% of the way to learning anything you need to learn. Sure, smart people learn faster. But how much faster?

Let's see.

One constant (sort of) is the time is takes to read up on something. Even a genius has to actually RTFM, and if the manual has a few hundred pages then it's going to take a bunch of hours to read it. No getting around that. This genius would probably understand it all immediately and realize the implications and possibilities of this new knowledge in a deeper way, while us ordinary folks would struggle a bit. True. Maybe we would need to find a better written text - something that's easier to understand. Maybe we need a few more examples. The bottom line, though, is that it's going to take a non-genius three days instead of one day to reach roughly the same level of knowledge. 3x as fast. That's about it.

Put another way, geniuses are real good at learning how, and that makes them more effective. But the reality of software engineering is that we don't spend the entire day every day learning how to do new things. Most of our time is spent applying this knowledge, you know - actually creating software. So being 3x as fast at learning new stuff probably means you get the job done 15% faster over all. (Why 15%? Whatever, the point is it optimizes a smaller portion of the total work-time as an engineer).

So how come we value IQ so much when we evaluate software engineers? Most of us aren't doing rocket science. There's a minimal brain span you need to have so you don't make stupid mistakes and you can actually understand what you're doing. But beyond that it seems that all this brain isn't really making a difference.

Here's the reason. I think.

What googling doesn't really help you with is knowing that there's something you need to know. It boils down to search being a function that takes a parameter - you search for something. If you have no idea that something even exists then you can't really search for it. To learn that something is possible you need to engage in active exploratory learning. You need to be curious about stuff, talk to people, go outside your narrow field of work and generally fill you brain with facts about the possibility and existence of things.

In short, knowledge, not just know-how, is key. And the kicker is that knowing about something isn't that hard. Don't need to be a genius to remember that you read about somebody who did something. Then you just need to look it up and apply it. This sort of superficial, broad knowledge makes a ton more difference than know-how. Why? Because so much time is wasted trying to solve problems that have already been solved. Being a genius can really be a hindrance to productivity in this sense. Brainiacs often underestimate the difficulty of problems, or just seek out challenges because they're getting bored. This is costly. You don't want a genius reinventing new kind of scalable database for your terabytes of data. You want somebody who's heard of Cassandra or CouchBase and follows the High Scalability Blog. That's the guy you want.

Bottom line, I would value someone who's heard about every new technology or technique much more than someone who would be able to utilize it 15% more efficiently. When the playing field for learning how is pretty much flat, thanks to Google, we can differentiate ourselves and compete by accumulating knowledge. Sounds a bit trivial when put this way, but  really this sort of broad knowledge is just not something that hiring managers are focusing on these days. The mantra seems to be that smart people could learn anything, so why bother testing their knowledge - that would be like evaluating a new car model based on where this car has been driven. Kind of pointless, right? 

No. It's not like that. It's not just about how fast you can learn - it's more about how much you have learned. It's not just about how deep your knowledge - it's more about how wide it is.

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