Showing that fear of mediocrity can make the world a better place.

Soft skills are hard

I finally made the time to watch the Myth of the Genius programmer presentation from a Google conference in 2009 ( It had been on my list of this to do for a while and since I was on a roll I decided to cross it off.

Overall the presentation was well delivered and was professionally presented. The topic itself was mainly a rehash of the old adage “Nothing happens is a vacuum”. The idea was that there is some sort of myth built up around some successful people and products that make them out to be bigger than they really are. This causes some developers to want to erase any mistakes and make their SCM revisions spotless. There were many topics touched on in the hour or so presentation but the main ideas is to accept failure and the fact that even though the programmer mythos is to go into a dark room and pound out the next application to change the world; the reality is that the idea should be exposed to the light of day as soon as possible. This prevents the “brain crack” effect where you hold onto an idea without ever telling anyone or at least trying to implement it. The idea becomes precious and perfect but it would quickly shrivel up and die when you try to implement it because it just isn’t what you thought it was. This has applications outside of open-source software and dives right into the heart of some resentment in business organizations. You have to foster an environment where failure is an option so that new ideas can be tried without fear of punishment so that innovation can occur but more importantly you can find out what doesn’t work. And then those failures can help prevent similar mistakes in the future by other developers.

I was so impressed with the presenters’ presentation skills that I decided to watch another video of their presentation from the 2010 Google IO event ( The most important message I got out of that one was (roughly paraphrased) ” a temporary lapse of integrity means there is no integrity”. It was certainly interesting to hear two open source developers turned engineers at Google talk about the transition to management and the different skill set involved. They provided a nice concise example of what a manager of a technical department should and could be. It’s difficult to say how realistic it is for anyone to take their advice since they exist in the vacuum of Google. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to proselytize the best practices, but when the rest of the world is stuck in the get-it-done-to-hell-with-quality (GIDTHWQ? – gid thawk) attitude it can be hard to think about what you are doing and even see where you can squeeze in a best practice or two. I guess the real trick there is to stay educated of possible solutions and rise enough above the din and flurry of the day-to-day bustle to be able to see the problems clearly.

Overall the presentation were very well done. There was a little reused information between them. If anything that means that the information held up under another year of scrutiny. They had great ideas that seem to find their way to the heart of some difficult issues that many developers and managers are facing. The only questions I have:

  • Are the right people listening to what they are saying?
  • Does anyone care enough to try to implement any of their ideas where they work or can effect change? (Ah, apathy and indifference. We meet again.)

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