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How to impress Joel Spolsky (programmers.stackexchange.com)
201 points by rlmw on Dec 11, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 76 comments

It's hard to believe that we used to get a new story like this every few weeks.

Joel is such an enjoyable author to read that it really doesn't matter what he's writing about. He could be writing about some random Distributed Version Control system you have no intention of using (and he has) and you could still be pretty sure you'd be in for a pleasant 15 minutes.

I hope somebody can convince the guy to put stuff like this up on JoelOnSoftware. I mean sure, somebody might accuse him of blogging again (god forbid), but selfishly it would be nice not to have to rely on HackerNews to find little gems like this for me.

I thought about writing a blog post once because I think I've finally found the key insight to being a successful engineer. Then I realized it isn't long enough for a blog post.

Simple rule: if you're the smartest person in the room, go look for a room with smarter people in it.

My simple rule: find the guy who thinks he is the smartest person in the room and stay the hell away from him.

What if he actually is the smartest person in the room? Maybe even by far?

On the other hand, if you have that kind of attitude it will probably be mutually beneficial if you stay the hell away from him so it's a good strategy.

Optimization: don't find the guy who thinks he is the smartest person in the room.

Sometimes he's right, though; and if you can swallow your distaste you can learn quite a bit. Fortunately, it's easy to tell if a vain person's judgement of his own intelligence is correct if you're smarter than he is.

The only problem: I think we all believe we're the smartest person in the room, or at very least inflate our own "intelligence" some modicum amount, every time, so that someone who is actually 20 or so % smarter than us we actually see ourselves as slightly superior to. So, it's hard to make this judgment call, or, if we did, we'd be traveling a damn lot.

I think that's only true for people who've never been humbled. If you've been humbled, you are more easily able to question yourself and recognize if you're not the smartest in the room. At least, that's the way it worked for me. :)

I think it mostly has to do with whether someone's ego is all wrapped up in his or her intelligence, which is pretty common for people of above average intelligence. If it is, judgment of relative intelligences will probably be clouded, at least as it relates to the person, since evidence that others are intellectually superior in a particular area will often be treated as a threat to the person's identity and ignored or rejected, often subconsciously.

If the person has a strong feeling of self worth that is independent of intelligence, they won't care very much, and so can be more objective about whether they're the smartest person in a room, regardless of if they are or aren't.

Put another way, there will undoubtedly be situations for a very high percentage of human beings where they happen to be the smartest person in the room. Being able to recognize this doesn't necessarily indicate arrogance or an inflated perception of one's intelligence.

Of course this issue is also obscured by the entirely vague and amorphous nature of the very concept of intelligence. There likely exist countless 'mentally retarded' people who have much higher emotional intelligence than a typical MIT genius, and are thereby probably better equipped for a happy, successful, and socially beneficial life.

I don't think someone needs to 'be humbled' to get it. They just need to be humble. It -is- possible to learn lessons without having your nose ground in it.

Also, there's a difference between thinking you're smartest and knowing it. Mostly in attitude.

I always feel the dumbest or close to it (honestly). At my new gig I'll really feel bad :/

You don't have to conflate feeling like the dumbest with feeling bad.

I think you need to find smarter people, then. I'm constantly amazed (in a good way) by the people I work and socialise with.

whenever I'm alone in a room I always think I'm the smartest guy in the room.

Very well stated; and I agree 100%.

I don't mean to be dumb, but I really don't get it. How does that story answer the question, other than to imply that in a few years, nothing the OP will have done will matter at all. Sort of sad.

Impressing your boss is a crappy career goal. Even if your boss is amazing.

I don't know: people crave recognition from their communities. For some people, the boss is an important constituent there. (Plus, there are emminently practical reasons why one would like to have a boss think you were very good at what you do. It is an intermediate step to getting other things you want.)

Granted, I am no longer a salaryman so clearly this wasn't my #1 aspiration in life.

I don't know: people crave recognition from their communities. For some people, the boss is an important constituent there.

I guess this depends on what someone wants to be recognized for. An interesting question worth asking is why the recognition they are seeking compels them to include their boss as part of their community.

At one of my past employers, my boss and I worked with one another more as peers. The organizational structure was there for the sake of everyone else who needed the place to feel more like a company, and he played that part when he needed to. Otherwise, he and I would interact as though he was just another software developer. Peer recognition is big, and if you happen to have a de jure boss who would rather be a de facto peer, this can be a good cause for recognition from a boss to matter.

You present a concrete alternative in your parenthetical note.

Plus, there are emminently practical reasons why one would like to have a boss think you were very good at what you do. It is an intermediate step to getting other things you want.

It can be an intermediate step, depending on two things: you know what is required for your boss to think you are very good at what you do; and, you know that your boss thinking you are a rockstar is going to lead you to what you ultimately want.

One of the things I've come to discover is that these can actually be opposing forces. It depends on the boss, and on the wants.

The more obvious negative implication is that if your want is to be recognized for your technical talents, and the only way to impress your boss is to compromise those talents, then it is an intermediate step to nowhere.

The less obvious negative implication -- because people do this all the time anyway -- is to believe that impressing your boss will ultimately get you what you want (usually, more money). It really depends on what impresses the boss, and if what it takes to make him think you are productive is actually what makes you productive. If not, you are paying for image capital by charging against economic capital. Since customers typically only trade in terms of economic capital, enough of this will result in things turning very bad very rapidly.

Granted, there are other aspects here as well; whether or not the company keeps profiting in spite of it own internal obtuseness, for instance. My point is, unless the boss is clairvoyant and nonpartisan, this levies a cost against all parties involved. Sometimes, that cost is enough to prevent anyone from getting what they ultimately want, because the company busts.

I realize that this may not be the perspective you took when you wrote this, but similar things I've heard from others who took this stance and meant precisely what I am arguing against: if my boss loves me, then I'll win big. That model doesn't seem like the sure bet corporate folklore makes it out to be.

Perhaps, like many other things about work culture, Japan is different. When I look around and see in our corporate culture, I can't help but think the same thing Deming saw in our manufacturing culture: "American management thinks they can just copy from Japan -- but they don't know what to copy!" Maybe we aren't copying and this is just emergent behavior, but we seem sort of schizophrenically halfway between salaryman and cowboy. Either way, I'm perplexed.

You must have worked at Microsoft at some point, right?

I like your version better. I don't know what it is, I use to love reading his stuff for hours, but then one day I just couldn't stand it. Did this happen to anyone else?

You liked it when you were surprised and thrilled that someone agreed with you in a way that was clearer and more exciting than your own thinking. You stopped liking it when you started wanting something new.

Not to take anything away from the value of his writing. It's good to stay engaged and delighted with the fundamentals. If you get bored with the simple things, you'll neglect them and spend all your thinking about novel, peripheral, trivial things that you aren't bored with yet. Making the important things you've known for ten years sparkle and rock again is a valuable contribution.

My version is much worse. Without the context of Joel's post, it'd bounce right off you, like all the rest of the banal platitudes you hear about your career. Joel's has a narrative with a protagonist. It doesn't simply say "placating bosses is an ineffective career strategy"; rather, it takes you to the end of the story and begs you to come up with underlying point. That's smart; smarter than I could have done.

I had a similar experience. I really enjoyed reading the first collection of Joel's essays, which made me follow his blog. He published some good articles at that time (eg. the law of leaky abstractions) but I changed my mind when the blog evolved into a promotional vehicle for his company. I'm not really interested in the brand of chairs in their office, the fact that they fly interns First Class, or a bug tracker that's nice, but not as unique as he'd like to present it.

Don't get me wrong, there's nothing inherently bad about that, but I just lost interest and moved to greener pastures.

What if your "boss" is only a boss by organizational title, but is in truth more of a peer?

That is, they play the part for the areas of the company that need the organizational structure to be comfortable. But, amongst the developers they seem no different than the rest; just as capable, and impressed by the same things.

Even for advancement in a corporate world, it's much more effective to keep your boss happy but impress your boss's boss.

I read it differently, perhaps because I feel so strongly about this idea: do a good job, focus on what's important. If management doesn't appreciate you for that, then it's a terrible place to work. If you're doing a good job and they aren't appreciating it, then you seriously need to gtfo. If you don't, you will rot.

Over the years as I've looked around me, I've seen a lot of people stagnating in their jobs. Sometimes it's because of lack of effort from the developer, and sometimes it's because of poor management.

But if doing a great job isn't already enough, then maybe the job is a poor fit. The parable in the story touches on both of these issues: trying hard, and the struggle to please management.

A third issue that's perhaps more important: you need to find the work fulfilling for your own reasons. Working exclusively for the praise of your superiors is a good way to be unhappy with your employment in most places. So figure that out, or go to a place where the work matters.

And buyer beware: there are places even in San Francisco where doing good development work will garner you no notice. I just left such a place.

Think many HNers won't find their life similar to Ashton's. Unfortunately, mine is. At least, the job part is. Honestly, it's not much bad but it looks like it's leading towards the same frustration.

focus on what's important. If management doesn't appreciate you for that, then it's a terrible place to work

Do you mean focus on what's important to you or what's important to management? I agree that if you focus on what's important to the people you work for and they don't appreciate that, then it's a crappy place to work. But what's important to a developer is often completely irrelevant to the business.

That's a great point. I meant what's important to the company, which hopefully is the same thing as what's important to management.

It's funny how thought provoking your question is, though. Because a lot of developers, as you point out, care about far different things for their own reasons. One developer I knew, cared more about everything being 100% as "efficient" as possible before releasing it. She didn't care if things ever got released, really, that didn't matter as much as whether it fit her personal ideas of what's aesthetically ideal. To show you how extreme that was, she spent a week writing a caching layer (in python) using a hashtable + list for a least-recently-used algorithm. When I mentioned she could do this in 2 lines of code talking to memcached, she refused, pointing out how silly it is to talk to an external process with a context switch to look up some data.

Who's right and who's wrong? Hard to say. I guess it depends on the context, and what the company is trying to do. I think the answers are different if you're trying to show good, sustainable results for customers without muddying up the code base, versus if you're writing software for lunar rovers.

I think the point of the story may be that you can't wait for the hard problems to come to you. You have to go and look for them. Ashton waited at the furniture company hoping that one day he would be presented with a problem that would gain him recognition. After years of waiting, he decided he couldn't wait any longer and went to San Francisco to FIND a problem that would get him the recognition he wanted.

You nailed it. I was going to say 'if your work doesn't challenge you, you need to find a new job' or 'don't let your job stand in the way of your development'

It's interesting how people came up with different interpretations or 'take home points.' This thread has made me think about the essence of storytelling. I guess it's like

- people always do things for reasons

- when people do strange things, we tell stories about it

- the stories are interesting because we must reconcile the strangeness with the motivation (ie. its interesting because the motivation is not immediately obvious but we know it must be there unless the subject was insane)

- the job of fiction is to imagine new 'interesting' cases; the difficulty is keeping it 'true.' The author doesn't have the luxury of relating what did happen, he/she has to project what would happen, sort of like a machine plugging endless variables into an equation until an unusual/unexpected (but still valid) result crops up

Someone could teach a high school English class with Joel's SO post

How does that story answer the question, other than to imply that in a few years, nothing the OP will have done will matter at all.

I think the thesis is "If in a few years nothing you have done will matter at all, then go change that even if doing so makes you look like a madman."

The impression I get from that little story is that if you don't write code that matters, you don't matter (as an engineer).

A different restatement: If you're standing there at work and you are forced to ask the web what you could do that would make a meaningful difference -- either to your boss, or more importantly to yourself -- go stand someplace else.

My face-value interpretation of it is that you don't become a great programmer by impressing your boss.

I feel like Joel really misses blogging. Good writing is just kind of pouring out of him, spilling here and there.

Seriously. He's still got it.

Oh, come on, Joel. Grand Haven isn't that bad. It's only slightly colder than Manhattan, and just 15 minutes further inland you're in a weird Michigan microclimate where they can grow decent wine grapes. The beaches are fucking beautiful --- those are the beaches they shot the end of Road to Perdition on.

And I bet the chairs they give you at that company are awesome.

I believe Joel was talking about Holland, MI and Herman Miller.

In the story he mentions a name Charlie Sherman, which could be some kind of reference to Herman Miller. Later on he talks about the Gerald R. Ford freeway, which is I-196 that runs right through Holland.

Furthermore, a Google Maps search of Herman Miller in Holland would indicate that there are several possibilities for a person to be driving on Lincoln Ave in which a left would direct them to Herman Miller and going straight would run them into I-196 [1].

Now, the question in my mind is: How does Joel know so much about West Michigan and in such great detail that he can accurately portray the directions he would turn. According to Joel's Wikipedia profile [2], he has never been close to Michigan his entire life. It appears to me he has never even set foot in this great state. So he can not be talking about himself. Jeff Atwood makes no mention of anything relating to Michigan on his profile [2], so I would not believe to the story a reference to Jeff.

Someone would had to have been particularly close to Joel for him to remember a story such as this in such great detail. The search continues....

[1] http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&... [2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joel_Spolsky [3] http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2004/02/about-me.html

-Internet Detective

He's clearly talking about Herman Miller. You're right; Herman Miller is closer to Holland than Grand Haven. I was going by memory; we drive past it several times a year on our way to our family's cottage.

>Someone would had to have been particularly close to Joel for him to remember a story such as this in such great detail...

Or it could have been reconstructed from the emails and/or blog postings the story was originally told in.

Or it could be entirely fiction, the corroborating details made up using the same tools you're using to track them down as reference material.

I lived in Grand Rapids for 5 years (4 of them were college). Not going back. EVER. Most claustrophobia inducing environment I've ever lived in (the trees man, the trees, you can't get out of the trees). But the beaches are nice.

Grand Rapids is like an hour and a half inland from Grand Haven. =)

Coming from the desert, I feel the opposite.

You could start by spelling "Spolsky" correctly

Best way: build something that you know will break, then be prepared to swoop in and fix it. Whenever you fix one bug, add another. Repeat ad infinitum. Some people will be impressed by your resourcefulness. Others will be angry that things break at all, but over time these people will get fed up and leave. Eventually a culture will develop wherein it is accepted that IT systems are just fundamentally unreliable. You will get stable long-term employment, a good salary, and regular (though superficial) praise and deference from everyone around you, including your boss.

This strategy is extremely reliable. I have seen it used successfully at every company I've ever worked at, large and small, in multiple industries.

Another approach is to develop an internal professional ethic and pursue it irrespective of office politics. It's not as good for career stability but you sleep better.

Funny how the guy that doesn't do anything in the story is named Jeff.

What is that a reference to? I suppose this is what I get for not owning a tv.

I think duck is insinuating that it's a reference to Jeff Atwood, Joel's cofounder for Stack Exchange.

This was a good read, yes, but did anyone here really learn anything new from it? I don't understand why it's go so many upvotes, and I'd really like to know what I've missed.

"Write code that people use, and ship it."

Was there anything else?

"Impressing your boss is a crappy career goal. Even if your boss is amazing.” -- tptacek

Linking the comment, give him the upvotes: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1994344

All I can think about is Batman vs. Spock. I mean, it's Spock, right? It's gotta be.

That bit was lifted straight from the Usenet in the '90s.

Back in the day, before there was much of anything going on on the internet, entire communities with brainpower of the same magnitude as this one would spend months on end debating whether the USS Enterprise could defeat an Imperial Star Destroyer.

I've witnessed these debates, and they were epic in scale.

Substitute SQL and noSQL, and you'll get an idea of what it was like.

Definitely batman, he has way more gear.

Spock has a starship; I think that counts as more gear.

It isn't Spock's ship, it's Kirk's. Spock just rides along, like Robin.

He has a phaser; Batman won't even use a gun. Plus, he's got a tricorder that can detect somebody's location from miles away. No way in Hell Batman wins.

How often has Batman fought someone with a gun? Heck, I'm pretty sure he's fought people with frickin' lasers! In any case you're focusing too much on gear. For both of them their greatest asset is their mind. Spock is definitely ahead of Batman in that regard.

Although do keep in mind that Spock is an explorer, Batman is a crime fighter.

Plus Batman has defeated every superhero he's ever fought against including Superman.

Thank you for giving us all examples of jasonkester's point. I applaud your direct didactic approach. But I fear we are hitting the point of diminishing returns now. We're done here, right?

Also, Vulcans are far stronger than humans, so Spock wins in hand-to-hand combat too.

Batman regularly beats much-stronger opponents. That shouldn't be an issue. Strength only matters if you actually manage to punch or grab Batman. And you're not gonna manage to punch or grab Batman.

Spock only has one decent fighting move, and it targets the back of the neck. Batman's neck is so heavily armoured that he can't even turn his head.

Batman's ability to defeat stronger opponents is predicated upon his superior logical faculties, as we've already established. He's the Sherlock Holmes of Kickin' Ass. That said, he cannot hope to outmatch Spock in that regard, and, even should hand-to-hand combat be a factor, he would still lose on account of the Vulcan's clear advantages in strength and reflex.

No, Sherlock Holmes is the Sherlock Holmes of kicking arse, as demonstrated in the recent movie. Holmes' superior deductive abilities enable him to quickly detect an enemy's weaknesses and capitalise upon them; this serves him well against common street thugs.

When milliseconds matter, though, training and experience beat logic. And Batman has years of martial arts training followed by quite a few more years of practical ass-kicking experience in the streets of Gotham. This is why Batman could whup Sherlock Holmes and Mr Spock. (Sequentially, at least. Put them together and they'd outwit him with some brilliant plan.)

I think I may be missing the point of the story ...

"Ashton even wrote a macro for Jeff that automated that one task. Jeff didn’t want to get caught, so he refused to install it. They weren’t on speaking terms after that. It was awkward."

My favourite quote.

It's so true, too. Productivity really does alienate slackers. Who was it that said small teams Do not tolerate freeloaders?

To be fair to Jeff, he understood that Ashton was in the wrong place to be doing what he was doing. He might as well have been knitting mittens in the Congo. It took Ashton two years to realize that Jeff was the one who understood what the company offered and what the company expected in return.

The writing style of both the posted question and Joel's response gave off such a "Dear Abby" advice column vibe that it was a pleasant, surprising piece to read on a usual by-the-numbers Q&A site. If he ever returns to blogging, a "Dear Joel" format might be an entertaining read.

What the story might leave out is that Ashton's family is in a lot of trouble, Mom alcoholic, Dad MIA a long time ago. Mom's boyfriend is a physically abusive guy and thinking about that prick gave him strength to do just one more rep on his 200 lb bench-press routine. He could never quite fit in with the rich "middle class" kids from the big cities, preferring to drink Pabst Blue Ribbon with his high-school buddies, get stoned and listen to 80s hard-rock. On one or two occasions, he read Hacker News but thought ... well, the readers here might get angry but our farm boy thought all of them were sheltered dweebs who did not know a damn thing about how real life is like.

On one of those occasions where their crowd was full of freshman girls who were really looking forward to getting wasted and laid that night, in drunken stupor Ashton heard Wayne calling out to him. He hasn't seen Wayne since he joined the Army 2 years ago. Man it was good to see him again, he's the kind of buddy who'd get in a fight for you without asking a single question. Wayne knows what's up, Ashton thought to himself as they talked about Wikileaks and f__king sh__ up. Giggly girls just kept interrupting his conversation and, irritated, he asked one of them if she would give away a government secret if all it was doing was covering someone's ass for raping some 9 year old dancing boys in Afghanistan. Janice just clammed up and some of her ditsiness immediately disappeared. Not having much to say, feeling put on the spot, a bit shamed and a bit embarassed, she remembered him well that night, but that's another story.

Wayne and Ashton went to Bobbie's Diner to sober up with some greasy burgers and shoot the sh_t. Soon enough they weren't talking about tits, even though Janice had a really nice pair... Wayne kept telling him how much of cool stuff the military really does and how he could hook him up. Man, Wayne knows what's up, he thought to himself. Besides, if it came to working with guys like Wayne or the dweebs in San Francisco, it was a no brainer....

That's at least how Ashton thought about things back then... but then again, he was only 20. Nowadays he spends his time working for DISA on new worms. Everyone needs a botnet nowadays, even the government. It's really cool work, he learned a lot. But he knows damn well that's something he's never going to be able to talk about. At least Wayne gets to post bullshit on Twitter as th3j3st3r, he thinks to himself. His $80k salary is pretty damn good, and even his Mom is better, she dumped that dickwad. Though she is really getting old, all that alcohol just turned har brain to mush and she sometimes doesn't make sense. Maybe it'd be better he went to Silicon Valley, but then, just glancing over at the picture of him, Janice and their adorable 3 year old made him say "fuck no!" loud enough that his officemate looked up at him with that "dude, are you allright?" look.. He would've never met Jen and would probably still be chasing money like a wannabe pornstar in Los Angeles...

Wow! Spock vs Batman! I never thought about it!

by spelling his lastname correctly?

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