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The Bozo Event Horizon (law.harvard.edu)
204 points by strlen on Aug 20, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 101 comments

the Google process reminded me of the time, more than 20 years ago, when I interviewed at Microsoft. And we saw how well that worked

Microsoft from 1992 onwards? I guess we did; 20x increase in adjusted share price; in OSes alone, the release of Windows 3.1 (IMO the breakthrough move to GUI on PC, away from DOS), NT 3.1 (the original seed that grew to NT 3.51, NT 4, Win2K and all current kernels), breakthrough success of Windows 95. Looks like it worked pretty well, and made a lot of people very wealthy.

> Looks like it worked pretty well, and made a lot of people very wealthy.

The same could be said of [Insert great company here]. The same could also be said of many criminal enterprises and a variety of industries that were abusive before regulation and reform. Conclusion: The ability to say this is of no particular worth in determining if an enterprise is or isn't evil.

EDIT: Downvoters: see grey-area's granchild comment. I find it incredible to be downvoted for observing that a statement is essentially neutral.

Evil? This isn't a conversation about making moral judgements, why are you dragging moral constructs into it?

From the article:

All of the great companies I have worked for (Apollo and Sun in various incarnations) or heard about (DEC, PARC, Bell Labs and the like) started around a core of incredible people. These were people who are or were legends in the field.

Since the article talks of success and greatness in moral or intellectual terms, the conversation should not just be a simplistic comparison of money earned... that's not a measure of greatness.

> Since the article talks of success and greatness in moral or intellectual terms, the conversation should not simply be a simplistic comparison of money earned... that's not a measure of greatness.

That's an excellent paraphrase of my evidently controversial comment. (And it's arguably better because it avoids use of the emotionally loaded word "evil.")

"Legends" is partially dependent on luck (being in the right place at the right time). The stories of the "legends" are told, in part, because of their successes. We hear the stories about the right people in the right time/place. We don't hear about the right people in the wrong place.

If you are legend material, you'll, eventually be in the right place at the right time.

Odds are wherever you are has a greater chance of being the right place.

The suffering caused by many kinds of bozo managers is evil, though there are also the depredations of well-meaning bozos.

Much of life is livelihood, so I don't think morality can be or should be precluded from such discussions.

An event horizon means there is no going back, not that you are actually in the black hole. Although Microsoft may have continued to put out innovative products and create shareholder value after 1992, the company is now run by a textbook bozo. It must be depressing for people who actually know a thing or two about computer science.

Maybe Microsoft discovered a process of getting out of an event horizon. The work they're doing right now is very interesting.

They bought Kinect, other than that I can't see any real innovation in the last 5 years. Consider there is plenty of talk about surface, but they where talking about it before the iPad came out and it's still little more than a tech demo. Bing is not bad, but it's interface is on par with Duck Duck Go and hardly the 'revolution' in search they were hoping for.

That said, they do seem to keep refining things and that's a path to great products. But, innovation is more than just doing a mash-up that meets everyone's expectations without any 'wow' factor.

We must have very different definitions of innovation, or even success. So you're saying the Windows Phone and Metro isn't at all innovative? How do you figure?

>They bought Kinect

And Apple bought FingerWorks, which means there was no real innovation from Apple in iPhone multitouch technology, same with Siri. Or does it?

There is a lot to getting research technology into a usable, affordable and marketable form than just buying it and copy pasting the code.

There is a lot. But that still doesn't explain why Microsoft has canceled some actually interesting projects just because "they weren't Windows" -- the Courier comes to mind.

The most absurd thing in my opinion is self-promotion. Let's be honest, some of the most influential people in HN, Github, etc., are accomplished, naked self-promoters.

Many rants posted to HN could simply be entered as text on HN but end up being blog posts one someone's blog. Lots of creative ideas turn into blog post rants that point to code on github with no history, no evidence of the messy process of creation, only the illusion that the author typed it all as if by divine inspiration.

I wish more of the elites among us would let us see their ugly commit history, their discarded design ideas, their untested, uncommented code.

In some circles, this is called keeping it real. Open source should not require such artifice if we have a meritocracy.

On the other hand, maybe all great luminaries started out as aggressive self-promoters (picture accomplished performers busking on the street in their younger days).

How about posts describing times when the author has screwed up? I try to learn something from my mistakes and then share that knowledge in the hopes it will reduce incidences of that same mistake in the wider world. I don't care that it means admitting that I did something stupid or was ignorant of some particular technique at the time.

It's going to happen to everyone, so I just figure, why not turn it around and use it as a learning experience (for me) and then a teaching opportunity for others?

Case in point: I did something really stupid with MySQL's client library without realizing it when I designed my own interface to it, and it bit me hard enough to bring down a bunch of database-backed stuff on my systems. In fixing it, I discovered both a thing to make sure I never do again in my own code, and also uncovered a possible way to launch a denial-of-service attack on a MySQL daemon

Then I turned it into a post. So I screwed up. It happens. What I found out as a result more than makes up for it.

I wonder if the current environment where HR googles everyone leads people to not give post-mortem stories of failures. Even if a technical person would see the wisdom of your post, HR might use it to discard your resume.

What you're saying here reminds me of a short conversation I had once. Someone said to me: "this post might make it hard for you to work with <specific people> in the future." My response was: "if I have to work with <specific people>, then I will have failed."

In this case, <specific people> are the ones in HR who somehow think that skipping over someone like me is warranted because I'm honest about mistakes I've made in the past. Just what kind of company would that be, anyway? What would my coworkers be like in that environment?

If you accept that everyone makes mistakes, would you rather work with the ones who discover them and deal with them ably, or the ones who conceal them and/or don't learn from them?

That said, I do see what you are getting at. If you haven't gotten to a point where you can say "to hell with this corporate misery" and live with the consequences, maybe you don't want to rock the boat. It might impact your ability to get into yet another miserable place.

In a lot of places HR does a first filter on people, and the local job markets (where some people might be stuck) aren't exactly doing great right now. HR is often not a reflection of the rest of the company for some strange reason. I've worked at fun, great places with absolutely horrid HR.

I am genuinely happy you have that freedom and such a refreshing outlook.

However, first you have to attract the attention of a nice open-minded company of the kind you describe. Of which there are not really so many. Getting that attention requires being much in demand. So I don't know that it is much of an exaggeration to call this an unattainable luxury for most of humanity.

You personally have enough visible merit and momentum that you can admit to screwups and not suffer much in your reputation. (Like how peacocks can have huge unwieldy tails and still get away from predators - the idiocy of the tail advertises fitness by self-handicapping)

I can't imagine an HR department sharp enough to find, read, and think about your blog posts, yet dull enough to bin your resume because one of them describes some day-to-day error you made.

Its actually pretty easy to meet that criteria, they use 3rd party internet search firms that hand them a little portfolio (often printed.. err) on you with a lot of cruddy summarizations. I honestly think it makes them feel like the internet is just another background check.

Most startups don't have HR resources to waste on that sort of thing. In any case, what kind of HR person would even understand a detailed story of programming-related failure?

They don't have to understand, they just need to see the word.

> In some circles, this is called keeping it real. Open source should not require such artifice if we have a meritocracy.

On the other hand, maybe all great luminaries started out as aggressive self-promoters (picture accomplished performers busking on the street in their younger days).

The extent to which people need to self-promote to establish themselves is an indicator of whether or not such circles are subject to Reputation Bubbles.


What's absurd? There's not much artifice here. Nobody thinks less of people who have a commit history because there are errors in it!

I don't think tendency toward self-promotion really correlates with technical chops in one direction or the other.

A constrained elite does seem useful within an organization. I like the idea of distinguishing those engineers who go above and beyond and really create something new. However it can also become a gerontocracy easily and can limit the adoption of innovative ideas in the long run.

The problem I have with these sorts of social structures is that it assumes that one person out of a hundred is some how "gifted." After reading Coders at Work and listening to interviews with "gifted" artists I think most of these people do not in fact consider themselves such. AFAIK they just worked really hard and the right people at the right time took notice. I assume this is why I often hear these "gifted," people say they feel really lucky to be in the position they're in -- luck did have a small role in it and that seems to be where the "gifted," term comes from. The important part is the hard work these people put into improving themselves, their skills, and the state of the art.

However these DE titles can have a negative passive-impact on hiring practices. In order to avoid, "bozos," organizations will try to, "only hire the best." However the "best," is a highly subjective threshold that is constantly in flux. What is state of the art today will be laughably archaic in 5 - 10 years (especially so for technology companies). The harmful effect is that every company will adopt this policy in order to compete and hope that the other companies will adopt the "bozos." What then will happen to the average programmer who is learning the ropes and doing their best to become a DE some day? Should they get filtered out?

There are some things about the event horizon that make sense ("one of us is not as stupid as all of us"). However one must be careful when distinguishing their fellows. While it may encourage the best of the best to join together it can also breed an elitist attitude that is counter-productive to innovation.

Interesting article and a good read! It's something that I toy with in my mind now and again. Personally I think DE's should form their own groups outside of the organizations they work at. Let people lead by reputation rather than hierarchy.

This reminds me of part of an essay PG wrote (context: it was intended for high school students, but seems relevant):

"People who've done great things tend to seem as if they were a race apart. And most biographies only exaggerate this illusion, partly due to the worshipful attitude biographers inevitably sink into, and partly because, knowing how the story ends, they can't help streamlining the plot till it seems like the subject's life was a matter of destiny, the mere unfolding of some innate genius. In fact I suspect if you had the sixteen year old Shakespeare or Einstein in school with you, they'd seem impressive, but not totally unlike your other friends.

Which is an uncomfortable thought. If they were just like us, then they had to work very hard to do what they did. And that's one reason we like to believe in genius. It gives us an excuse for being lazy. If these guys were able to do what they did only because of some magic Shakespeareness or Einsteinness, then it's not our fault if we can't do something as good."

This is huge. I once dated a girl who absolutely believed that there was some inherent skill with math / programming that I possessed, and consequently felt that my making good money was just a function of my genetics. This entirely undermines the fact that I spent years upon years forgoing any sort of social life to learn more about computers. The only 'inherent' thing wasn't skill - it was an inability to not want to learn more about computers and programming.

It took sweat, and there's an entire category of people who believe in inherent genius versus really effing hard work. That category of people will never put in the work necessary for others to inappropriately categorize them as inherent genius. I hate this problem and don't know how to convince people when they've fallen into that trap :-\

I find this extraordinarily encouraging. If doing great work does not require some innate Einsteinness, then I am not automatically precluded from doing so due to my genetics. It means having the natural technical skills of John von Neumann is not necessary to do great things. This is an extremely comforting thought.

> What is state of the art today will be laughably archaic in 5 - 10 years

That depends on what you mean by "state of the art".

If you mean the cutting edge of computer science research, then it might not even appear in the mainstream in the next 20 years. For example, type inference was invented in 1982, and 25 years later a very limited version of it entered the mainstream in C# 3.0. Heck, some people even consider lambdas innovative, even though they were invented before computers.

If you mean the most widely used parts of computer science research, like algorithms and big-O notation, then it seems pretty clear that those won't become archaic any time soon.

If you mean the syntax and libraries of today's popular programming language, then well, duh. You shouldn't be asking about this stuff at interviews in the first place. Your own argument perfectly explains why.

> "The problem I have with these sorts of social structures is that it assumes that one person out of a hundred is some how "gifted.""

The point of DE-style positions is to get demonstrated great engineers out of the org chart, to free them from bureaucratic overhead. The key is, again, is that these engineers demonstrated their technical value. It has, in ideal form, nothing to do with anything other than a big pile of really excellent work. The idea that some people are better than others despite such a stack of excellent work is antithetical to the DE position and precisely the sort of mechanism by which bozos infiltrate those positions.

"A constrained elite does seem useful within an organization. I like the idea of distinguishing those engineers who go above and beyond and really create something new. However it can also become a gerontocracy easily and can limit the adoption of innovative ideas in the long run."

Might it be the case that a technology company itself has a limited lifetime? Or more accurately a limited 'innovation potential' after which it becomes a service organisation?

I think the message is that there are certain strata that you should be VERY careful and thoughtful about letting people into. I don't think that is the entry level, but at higher levels of an organization, incompetence can be malicious in a sense.

> What is state of the art today will be laughably archaic in 5 - 10 years (especially so for technology companies).

Not everything works like this. It takes decades for some ideas to filter out to the mainstream.

The requirement to "only promote A-players" is difficult to ensure, but I think one requirement is to teach people how to tell the difference between A and B work, and what the effect is. This difference takes a long time to learn to spot, and the ability to see it is something I've seen the technical elite take for granted. When you can't tell what a difference A versus B makes, it's hard to see why fairness shouldn't play a larger role.

This goes along with the well known effect of over-confidence from lack-of-knowledge when making judgements, or the way newcomers to a community are often overly-vocal in their judgements. I think it takes some sobering first-hand lessons to be able to see the difference between A-work and B-work.

It wasn't until I tried to code that old Windows star-spreading screen-saver in high school that I got even an inkling of how difficult it was to make all of Windows work, and it wasn't until I actually had to write something as a composition of partial recursive functions that I even began to appreciate the A++ work it took to conceive computing machines at all. Even now, I wouldn't consider myself capable of really distinguishing between A and B work except in a few very select fields.

The original poster wrote:

> The other is their hiring process (full disclosure; I’ve looked at Google a couple of times and it never worked) which has gotten pretty process-bound and odd. The last time I went through it, the site manager admitted that I was plenty smart, but they didn’t know what they would do with me. Given what they were obviously looking for, I wasn’t sure what I would do with them, either. But the whole process seems to indicate that they are looking for people to fit a pre-defined mold, which the top performers generally don’t do all that well.

My observation would be that the primary goal of Google's hiring process is that there is a very strong bias towards _not_ hiring any bozos --- even if that means that not hiring someone who might be a top performer. It's better than you miss out on a top performer than it is to hire someone into a senior position who turns out to be a bozo. That may be the cause of the OP's perceived "oddness".

The fact that Google's promotion system is done exclusively by peers (i.e., the people who decide whether someone at level N should progress to level N+1 are composed of engineers at levels N+1 and N+2; the manager can give input to the promotion committee, but it's not the manager's call) is a good way to hopefully prevent bozos from getting promoted from within.

Is it perfect? No human-created system is. But I think it's pretty good....

   It's better than you miss out on a top performer than it 
   is to hire someone into a senior position who turns out 
   to be a bozo. 
Is it possible that this model stops working when you get to have tens of thousands of employees and you've scoured the planet looking for people that you end up empty-handed, so you have to increase your risk tolerance for bozos if it means you can hire a top performer?

I guess google knows better than I about their hiring practices but it seems like they have probably taken more risks in these later years than they did when they had only 1000 employees.

I've seen startups with rigorous hiring processes, places where only top employees are hired. But then when it comes to hiring execs, they get so focused on luring in a "superstar", that they do little to no screening. The idea is that the person is so great, all you need to do is sell.

And thats how great startups hire a bozo exec team. And we all know where that leads.

Much of the poster's concern is over their hiring process generally:

>...the whole process seems to indicate that they are looking for people to fit a pre-defined mold, which the top performers generally don’t do all that well. In fact, the Google process reminded me of the time, more than 20 years ago, when I interviewed at Microsoft. And we saw how well that worked…

Hiring processes can become infected from the top-down, however, as high-level employees exert influence over the process to fit their own comfort levels.

I also suspect that there's a point at which hiring like-minded people loses whatever benefit that accrues from increased group cohesion in a company, or that there's a point where such benefits start to get swamped by the effects of groupthink.

In my personal experience being a bozo or not has less to do with the technical/non-technical skill and more to do with motivation.

Motivation is what drives people even dummies to excel. And that's sometimes a coin flip. You will see stars perform poorly because they don't enjoy the environment or the specific task they are given.

When there's no motivation even a "star" will just procrastinate and be unhappy until he either quits or conform. When conformed unmotivated people outnumber the motivated ones that's when you are doomed.

I see them both as multipliers, at least in the short run.

Perhaps Facebook is going to hit a motivation black hole, as stock options will no longer matter and so employees won't care about what's good for the company. Instead, they will care about bonuses and resume-padding.

Google has had poor motivation for years (employees who don't really care about the success of the company), I think, but they have enough good products that it doesn't really matter.

Steve Kleiman, another Sun alum, had some international 'no bozo' stickers. I still have one stuck to a filing cabinet.

Its possible for someone who was once quite good to become more of a bozo, sometimes its an ill advised step outside their comfort zone, sometimes they get pushed there by well meaning management. Like many things, and perhaps related to the nostalgia effect, it is 'obvious' in hindsight when the bozos came, but often times their initial arrival is silent and unheralded.

I saw some of that going on at Google just before I left, I mentioned it to Eric (who had seen it at Sun when we were there and was well familiar with the effect). It isn't at all clear to me that its something you can stop.

Can you stop it by staying small? I don't mean a small business, I mean a small team.

Perhaps, which is to say that yes if you don't change you can avoid this fate, but not changing is its own form of death.

One of the amazing things of being at a successful company is that each passing quarter increasing revenue brings a bigger pool to spend on doing things, and there are so many things you want to do. But you can't do everything yourself, and growing means hiring, and hiring means getting larger.

Perhaps if you chose to fork the company at that point, I always wondered what would have happened at Google if they chose to 'slice off' the part that built platforms into its own universe. There are fairly natural dicing and slicing points.

But at Sun there was a huge chasm between the 'systems' folks (aka the SunOS creators) and the 'windows' folks (aka the SunTools guys and gals) and the 'language' folks and of course Sun Labs. Competition between how many DE's came from Systems (old boys club) vs other groups, and such like. I do know that one of the contributors was that Sun had a financial year that went July 1st to June 30th. Budget meetings happened in February for the upcoming fiscal year. Inevitably people would panic in April or May that Sun wasn't going to 'make the year' (meet expectations of Management or the street) and there would be wide adjustments (like hiring freezes). What we noticed was that everytime managers would panic and hire anyone they had interviewed if they could 'fog a mirror' just before the freeze because they knew if they didn't they wouldn't be able to hire for another 4 - 6 months. There were some quality issues with those hires.

What I like about your answer is how you kind of say that's not possible and then immediately hit on one way it might be possible.

Why should the only kind of growth people recognize in companies be the kind that terminates in ossified monoliths? Isn't this a failure of imagination on our part? Life doesn't usually offer only one way to grow. I'm excited by the idea of a small organization whose revenue grows much faster than it does. Seems to me that this hasn't typically been thought of as the goal. What might happen if it were?

"What I like about your answer is how you kind of say that's not possible and then immediately hit on one way it might be possible."

Its an engineering crutch, like people walking around in a building cannot cause it to fall down, but if everyone jumped at the exact same cadence they could. Any thing is possible, sometimes the requirements to get there are so difficult the solution becomes effectively impossible.

If you consider Google as an example, the roughly 1,500 people who are in the search and ads teams make all the money for the company. Everyone else is, rounded to the nearest billion dollars, a non-contributor. But rather than accumlate cash faster than the Federal Reserve can inject it into economy, they spend it on projects which might get them into other markets. Or sometimes create entirely new markets. But that gives them size. And at both Sun and Google its pretty clear that the Bozo Event horizon hits somewhere between 10K and 15K non-sales employees. I don't know why that is, just that it has hit there two times. If Jim's reading he can pitch in DEC's number.

I agree with you're assessment that there are always other growth strategies, and I can identify things that contribute to the incursion of bozos, but that is a long way from the experiment that can show a bozo free stable organization with growing revenue.

that is a long way from the experiment that can show a bozo free stable organization with growing revenue

Agreed, but let's look at it from the other side. Suppose one such experiment did succeed. How significant would that be? (I say very. Because it would change people's thinking about what's possible.)

Also worth pointing out: such an organization wouldn't need to stop growing, just hire at a slower than traditional rate. Seems to me you could grow for a long time before hitting "between 10K and 15K non-sales employees".

"Others, like James Gosling, quietly change the world by building something (the core Java language and libraries) that make so much sense and are so elegant that you just smile when you use them."

I'm afraid everybody says this about whatever is new. Nowadays people would say this about Guido, Matz, etc.

Man, I'm sort of with you. In the last few years, I've spent time in a variety of languages --- Python, Ruby, JS, Java, and lately Go and Haskell --- and Java just seemed completely terrible: bureaucratic, staid, and just plain mediocre by many standards.

Then I started reading a lot of C++. And I mean no disrespect to the many brilliant people who use and enjoy C++, but it wasn't until then that I really got why Java exists.

> bureaucratic, staid, and just plain mediocre by many standards.

Josh Bloch called it a "blue collar" language: a language for building things, not for looking smart.

Yeah. And as above I'm kinda sorta with you. People tend to criticize Go along similar lines, that it's not particularly innovative, and my reaction is similar. It's not meant to make you look smart or blow your socks off or whatever; it's meant to help you be productive in no small part by being very, very straightforward.

As such, I'd actually criticize Java for not being simple enough. It's well and good to be staid, but excessive bureaucracy is problematic. Arrays are thoroughly un-idiomatic in Java. Exceptions play hell with attempts at control-flow analysis. Lack of type inference increases repetition. The language is embarrassingly devoid of literals. Pick your poison, really.

And people should feel free to disagree, but I don't think such as type inference, literals, or multiple return values are anything particularly flashy. If anything, they tend to make code simpler and/or cleaner.

Go read Project Oberon, including the code, and realize why Java makes many people sad.

Thanks for the recommendation! Anything particular section I ought to pay especially close attention to?

Also, let me stipulate that Java really does make me sad. It's just that in the realm of sad-making, I discovered new depths.

No particular section, it's the entirety of what the book shows that's remarkable: "This book presents the results of Project Oberon, namely an entire software environment for a modern workstation. The project was undertaken by the authors in the years 1986-89, and its primary goal was to design and implement an entire system from scratch, and to structure it in such a way that it can be described, explained, and understood as a whole. In order to become confronted with all aspects, problems, design decisions and details, the authors not only conceived but also programmed the entire system described in this book, and more."

Also, if you think that JVMs and JIT'ing compilers are cool, take a look at Michael Franz's PhD thesis at ETHZ: "Code-Generation On-the-Fly A technique for representing programs abstractly and independently of the eventual target architecture is presented that yields a file representation twice as compact as machine code for a CISC processor. It forms the basis of an implementation, in which the process of code generation is deferred until the time of loading. At that point, native code is created on-the-fly by a code-generating loader. The process of loading with dynamic code-generation is so fast that it requires little more time than the input of equivalent native code from a disk storage medium."

Talk about "roads not taken". :(

I think I see what you're saying. And that actually sounds right up my alley, truth be told. That characterization reminds me a little bit of Plan9.

I say it's up my alley because lately I've been paying particular attention to folks like Rob Pike and Rich Hickey. (I'm sure there are more.) I am not sure they'd agree with this characterization, but they're both part of a movement to simplify programming, especially by cutting out excess and complexity.

Go is an example of a more straightforward, modern C, complete with strong concurrency primitives, first class functions, duck-typed interfaces, abundant literals, etc. I'm still learning about Clojure but I started looking at it after watching Simple Made Easy and The Value of Values, both of which espouse a somewhat different form of simplicity. Still, I think it's animated by a similar line of thinking, that we as a profession are hurting ourselves unduly by building so many systems we struggle to understand and/or maintain, and one way in which we do it is through both the technology we use and the way in which we use it.

The JVM/JIT bit might go over my head, but I'll be sure to check that out, as well.

Yes! One string type! OMG. What a revelation!

Also, I'm not sure that of all of Gosling's achievements, I would point to Java-the-language (or the UTTERLY GODAWFUL initial libraries) as a particular exemplar of elegance. NeWS was much, much, much more interesting and forward-thinking, for one.

Perhaps I'm overstating Gosling's contributions to NeWS, or perhaps he was in fact an elegance sink, and the reason NeWS lost out to the unutterably execrable X-Windows was because he was on the project.

There's desperately few informations about NeWS (at least with my limited googling abilities)



I developed against NeWS (mostly using HyperNeWS) for a research project in the early 90s - was a huge amount of fun.

Those are the desperately few I was aware of. That said I never looked into the NeWS book. I'll keep digging

If you like NeWS then I can recommend trying to find out about Arthur van Hoff's HyperNeWS which was, as the name suggests, a HyperCard like system but written in NeWS.


his phd thesis was pretty cool. It's one approach at a constraint solver built into a language. I can't, off the top of my head think of any direct application (maybe some prolog variant), but it's a neat way to model stuff.

Irony: complaining about bozos and then writing this sentence:

"Others, like James Gosling, quietly change the world by building something (the core Java language and libraries) that make so much sense and are so elegant that you just smile when you use them."

Yeah, I saw that too.

I would never, ever describe James Gosling as a bozo, but he doesn't make my top 50 list of language designers and researchers. Java started with a laudable goal to improve upon C, but they didn't take enough risks at the start.

Am I the only person who feels woefully inadequate whenever I read articles where phrases like "10 or 100 times as productive as the average engineer".

Sorry guys, I'm trying my best! :-(

Such people do exist. Notch, creator of Minecraft, is a good example. The guy virtually developed it himself. I'm currently developing a game myself and I can tell you, it is a lot of work. At minimum I would say the guy is at least 10 times more productive than the average developer/engineer.

I'm willing to bet that a lot of Notch's productivity is based on things he learned in previous projects. According to Wikipedia, he's been programming video games since 86. That's 26 years of experience.

If you use those 26 years wisely, you'll learn a lot of different things - and more importantly, you can draw on 26 years of mistakes that you now know to avoid.

I'm not saying he's not also a talented programmer - but all "superstars" I know are as good as they are because they have worked hard for a long time, and they keep working hard.

(She says while posting on HN... I probably should head back over to my code ;)

Oh, I'm not disputing they exist, more just pointing out that it's kind of momentarily depressing thinking that the devs who actually affect change and do noteworthy things are 100 times more awesome than you'll ever be.

Not 100 times more than you'll ever be; just 100 times more than you now. This could be a comforting (or at least natural) fact because it means that you too (if you believe that desire and work is the determining factor) can improve your skills many times over than where you are now.

Does it help to know that you're not alone? I often hear that good programmers can be an order of magnitude more productive than the Average Joe, and I wonder if talent is required (as in 'it MUST be present') to reach this level or if I can make it with hard work alone. I think it's like being born rich or born poor. Success is based on talent, opportunity and hard work. Some people have got all of them in abundance, some people have got some, and some people lack all of them. The most successful ones are under the spotlight, and our perception of talent ends biased.

I believe productivity comes with experience and motivation.

I don't know who the so called average engineer is, but I would imagine with enough experience and drive he / she could outperform his / her previous self by a significant factor (10x perhaps?).

I assume the same rule applies to the crazy talented freaks (only with a big head start), but I can't be certain.

> A number of you asked...what I’m seeing happening at Google (and what I mean by a bozo).

The subjectivity of this is the core of the problem. One man's Zen Master is another man's Bozo. Often, they look indistinguishable to the uninitiated.

> Others, like James Gosling, quietly change the world by building something (the core Java language and libraries) that make so much sense and are so elegant that you just smile when you use them.

Another example of how one man's X is another man's Y. (EDIT: In putting it this way, I mean to respect both directions of opinion.)

> The indicator is when process and fairness becomes more important than judgement, and when it isn’t ok to say that some people have reached their limit.

Process and fairness are often used as proxies for meaningful relationships and understanding among coworkers. Often they are used as a means of avoiding taking such responsibility.

This article was fantastic! Thanks so much for linking it.

Steve Jobs always said that part of his job was to keep the bozos out and this article explains exactly why.

Every single company I have worked at has been on or past the Bozo Threshold... The author notes that this phenomenon may be limited to technical companies, but I would like to argue that it is not limited to technical companies and may not even be limited to companies at all! This same sort of stupidity can be seen any organization that is around long enough.

A great product is not built by comittee, because committees care too much about FAIRNESS!

Isn't this the Peter Principle[1] in action? I noticed this halfway the end of the post, but nobody cited it here yet…

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Principle

Very much so.

I have been in organizations where there are two ladders (in a very large company). One for technical people and one for management. Needless to say, all the bozos clearly went to the Management ladder, while the technical ladder kept the people with more depth in their field, the ones who actually made stuff in the first place. However, I felt that the technical ladder had flaws as well. The higher titles (principle scientist, research fellow, etc...) were simply provided based on these people's past achievements. Once you are such levels there is very little incentive to work hard to go to a higher level, and there is virtually no risk of being fired either. So, you end up with relatively senior people who reapply what worked for them instead of trying new things and pushing new technologies or new ways of doing things. And many times when I was in touch with these people in the higher technical ladder, making presentations and all, I did not find much of what they were talking about to be very impressive or innovative either.

Two cases:

1. You work for a tech company which produces a tech product (e.g., Google, Microsoft)

2. You work as a tech person in a business company (e.g., bank, insurance)

This article fully applies to #1 where the core competency is technology. For #2, there's debate.

For #1 you are front-office. For #2 IT is back office. Bozo explosions still happen at investment banks' front offices, e.g. when smart traders are sidelined in favour of politically savvy traders.

It applies to #2 as well - not just in tech but across all of the functions. Top level A sales people are wildly more productive than average joes, and can deliver millions more in revenue. Meanwhile spreadsheet jockeys, deal makers, marketing people, engineers, production engineers and even HR folk also fit the curve.

Simpler definition: when politics eclipses merit. When "it's not what you know, it's who you know," the organization (or society) is doomed.

The old hiring slogan, which they used in the MSFT hiring and hammered even harder in hiring manager training was, "As hire As; Bs hire Cs."

Who hired the Bs?

The better question is who failed to keep the As engaged? For a variety of reasons, people stop growing and sometimes even move backwards.

There are few things more destructive to a team than smart people who've completely checked out.

your comment was probably in jest, but honestly, hiring is really really hard. no matter how hard you try to screen, test, and filter candidates, applicants and recruits, you never know for sure what performance you are going to get, or how this performance will change over time. the absolute hardest is personal fit within a team (back to a players like a players), but if you have high performers competing instead of working together you get that herding cats syndrome.

where is that old superbowl commercial of herding cats. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pk7yqlTMvp8&feature=youtu...

An A with a hangover?

to expound on that, A people are not usually afraid of competition or a challenge.. often welcome working with people smarter, more talented or productive than themselves.

B people are more interested in protecting what they have, and to keep what you have, you may be able to out perform a C player, this the interst in hiring C players.

honestly, I think everyone is self conscious, or a little afraid from time to time, and that is OK, you just need to be able to get past it, have a little Faith in your abilities, work hard and don't expect raises, praise or titles (which ever your favorite flavor of sucess us) until you work hard and accomplish something.

These companies seem to suffer brain-drain and increasing mediocrity in the same way that online communities suffer the constant erosion of their best users.

Is there anyone else that thinks Harvard is now spewing out "bozos" for writing this type of piece? Are you that arrogant? First of all "B class" employees are generally speaking still highly intelligent and educated. Second off, you seem to dismiss the reality of the business world in replacement for technical achievement.

To me all this article displayed is the clear distinction between the technical and the business side (that which employs the technical).

Degrading "B class" people as "Bozos" is quite frankly disgusting. You can have all the brightest minds in the world that create the next progression of technology, but without the "bozos", they will be stuck in a room congratulating themselves into perpetuity...

I'm really surprised that yours is the only comment pointing this out.

Note that the author implicitly defines "bozo" as anyone who's not a world-class programmer or researcher (or possibly, any such person that rises above a certain level in the hierarchy). So, 99.9% of programmers, including even some programmer-entrepreneurs who have built valuable companies without being world-class technically.

It's really about management. Companies evolve as they grow and the magic sauce that took them from Start up to Successful is not the same sauce that takes them from $1 Billion to $10 Billion and then $10 Billion to $100 Billion.

Moreover, the techno-guild at Exxon is going to have a different mandate than Cisco's or Disney's.

Managing growth, competition and markets is the job of management (CEO) and understanding the role that technology plays in their business, and then ensuring that foresight is available (CTO) to them to act on, is what they get paid for.

A Bozo at Amazon might be a god at Delta Airlines.

It probably isn't safe to assume that the word "bozo" is applied in a remotely objective way. Or even that it has any kind of consensus definition.

So in any given case there is a good possibility that the "bozo detector" goes off mostly on people who don't like you, or whose lunches smell bad, or even people who might be competition, or people who are doing better than you are.

I have seen the effect of an appointed organization head, hiring and promoting only those less competent than them selves. Even after the head retires, the infected organization may take a lifetime to recover.

The whole Jobs A thing is just pure BS ego speaking.

I am a fan of the word "bozo", and even used it in a book title. It explains so many bad things in our industry. The fact that this author is associating it with Google is just the icing on the cake for me.

Gary Larson thought it's a good thing: http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v479/alanganes/HSM_Board/B...


Uh... Google and Microsoft are really successful companies, though!

How to recognize during interview if company is run by bozos?

What to look at? What question ask? About process? structure?

There are no bozos, just elitists. I prefer a respectful anarchy to an oligarchy.

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