Smarts alone are not enough

Working in a company that is obsessed by hiring people on smarts alone I can attest to the fact the being smart isn’t always helpful. The use with of Google-style puzzle questions to select candidates rather than “boring” questions about “what does this piece of code do?” drives me nuts.

I overheard someone here saying “All the new graduates we interview seem to be better at the puzzles than the more experienced hires, I wonder what that means?”. The answer is: it means they are better at puzzles, nothing more. I think the important thing is that software engineering is not like pure mathematics. Your achievments are not 100% correlated with your IQ.

The point is that there is such a large body of knowledge – admittedly not as developed as the BOK for structural engineering – that it is not possible to work out the best way of doing things from first principles. Just because a person has a 140 IQ it doesn’t mean that they will figure out how to make an enterprise strength messaging system – or a secure cryptosystem – because it takes tens of man-years to do such a thing.

Tinkering around with little programs doesn’t teach some of the things that an experienced programmer on large (i.e., more than 100k lines) systems take for granted. Having spent some time trying to tell very clever people (i.e., PhD from Cambridge, self-taught programmer) that they should do things in a certain way because that is the best practice, I know that they aren’t always responsive. They think that they can manage the complexity because they are clever, and immature enough to be in love with their own cleverness.

Of course, there is a point where the system outgrows them and having no structure means that point is meltdown for maintainability.

Experience actually does mean something. Raw knowledge of best practice obtained from books means slightly less on its own. But the two together are really useful. Now, if you can combine them with a person with enough IQ to do the job, and enough maturity to not want to show off their IQ… then you have a software engineer and not just a clever hacker.

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