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Your first point is why I’m quite skeptical of the narrative around “brilliant assholes”. Are they really an asshole, or do they just not communicate in the manner you’d prefer?



> Your first point is why I’m quite skeptical of the narrative around “brilliant assholes”. Are they really an asshole, or do they just not communicate in the manner you’d prefer?

As someone who generally enjoys working with the "brilliant asshole," there are two types to look for.

The first is a brilliant engineer who is an asshole in matters unrelated to the task at-hand. I've seen coworkers physically assaulted by this type.

The second is a brilliant engineer who takes no shit when it comes to the task at-hand, which I think is a bit more of the Torvaldian asshole. If you have someone trying to slip in a below-threshold quality solution into place, this person will not let it slide. One of my favorite engineers had a little comic strip tacked to his cube, the punchline was something along the lines of "You're right, let's do it the stupidest fucking way possible because it is easier for you personally."

Regarding the second, I tend to see their frustrations come out when interacting with the "politician," the kind of person who puts on a polite veneer but uses it as a shield. This is the kind of person who will tell you they aren't doing something because they don't feel like it, but when management gets involved starts acting surprised at the accusation while playing into the "brilliant asshole's" known-quantity.

If you see someone at work getting frustrated with another, don't just buy into the "he's an asshole" narrative. Do a little investigative legwork.


Often times I get frustrated with the second type you describe because they seem to assume that I have deliberately (or otherwise) chosen to do something suboptimal out of laziness or neglect when often it is simply from not being a subject matter expert myself.

There is a lot to be said for not taking any shit when it comes to getting things right in a project. However, I think that the most brilliant engineer is the one who helps people who make mistakes or are not as smart/experienced as they. Implying the only reason someone would not do "The Right Thing" is because they're bad is a sort of self fulfilling prophecy.


That’s definitely problematic behavior you’re describing, there is a big difference between starting from a place of reason and moving to stern due to repeated behavior and starting with stern. The latter is the “good asshole.”


This is an interesting question. I tend to think the narrative is actually true (obviously we’re talking about a very large and vague grouping here - results will vary.)

I’ve definitely run into “brilliant assholes” and yes, they are actually assholes — highly sensitive to perceived insults to their intelligence, violently protective of their fiefdom, etc etc. Culture cancer and I’ve never regretted being rid of them.

BUT - I think it’s worth considering a variation based on the OP’s first point - maybe it’s not the “brilliant asshole” who we should pay more attention to, but instead the brilliant quiet introvert who maybe doesn’t join in on every chat or share his/her opinion so readily, or the brilliant person-who-doesn’t-fit-whatever-subtle-bias-we-might-have that might look, sound, or be older/younger than we might expect.

Those are the people we should be paying more attention to, not the assholes.


I was working somewhere once when we hired this guy. He was brilliant but so intense, he always seemed worked up and emotive. I thought he didn't like me and that he was kind of an asshole.

Years later, when I had become a bit more worldly, I remembered him one day and had a sudden realization: He wasn't an asshole at all! He was just French!

(No disrespect meant to any French persons! The joke is on me and my own naivete, eh? Vive la France!)


For most situations, the distinction is irrelevant. The question that should be answered is: Can this brilliant person do the work him/herself, or will (s)he need the cooperation of others? If the latter, then interpersonal dynamics should be significant factor in evaluating performance.

If most of the team has trouble working with someone, then that someone is a problem. It doesn't matter if he really is an asshole or just communicates differently. If people leave teams because of that someone, then harm is being done to the team.

It's why I don't believe in concepts like 10x developers/engineers. As a manager, if I cannot replace 10 people with this one developer, he/she is not a 10x developer. Almost all teams need to do different types of work - including communicating with customers, writing docs, paperwork, etc. When you factor all those in, no one is a 10x engineer. They're just really, really good at one or two of the skills the team needs.


I have seen engineers making themselves look brilliant by intentionally taking down achievement of others. By successfully blaming own mistakes on others, by saying people they have to do things their way and then blaming them for doing what they have been told. Also by successfully claiming their subjective preferences are objective standards (in front of non technical manager).

By undermining competitors - equally smart skilled people who are not assholes.

By doing completely inconsistent unpredictable code review (forcing you to redo it each time differently in the same situation) and then saying that delays are due to shitty code.

Like, there are brilliant non-assholes. Plenty of them. But in some companies being asshole makes you look better.

The thing is, that in order to have cult around you, you have to consciously build that cult. And brilliant assholes is the person that consciously worked on building that following.


I think the “brilliant asshole” narrative just fits better with the west coast’s (generalizing here) need to armchair psychoanalyze everything. Even in the rare cases where it is right, amateur talk therapy is often low- or counter-productive to solving the problem at hand.

Everyone is bad at giving constructive criticism to some extent, just like everyone is bad at receiving it to some extent. Clickbait that muckrakes LKML does not absolve anyone of the responsibility of finding a way to be productive with someone they don’t like.




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