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Great People Are Overrated
November 21, 2011 8:04 PM   Subscribe

“Someone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good,” Mark Zuckerberg said recently. “They are 100 times better.” Bull hockey, says Bill Taylor in the Harvard Business Review: great people are overrated. See also Great People are Overrated, II and Malcolm Gladwell's 2002 take on the same theme, The Talent Myth.
posted by escabeche (107 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
Suggested citation norm: Malcolm Gladwell should never be cited for anything without crediting the person before him who set out the same idea more carefully.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 8:10 PM on November 21, 2011 [40 favorites]


Because a HBS diploma is what really counts.
posted by Nomyte at 8:11 PM on November 21, 2011


Ditto Clyde Mnestra... Tired of people using Gladwell articles as evidence of anything. He has too much of a habit of drawing attractive yet inaccurate conclusions about things...
posted by chasing at 8:13 PM on November 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


Zuckerberg is coming from the world of software development, specifically the world of American web developers working on a relatively specific platform. Having worked with similar people on similar projects, I have to say I feel the exact same way that he does-- a great developer is so much better than a good one that it's hard to compare the two. My point is that it's a relatively narrow area so it's hard to extrapolate life lessons from that experience, but I agree with him overall.
posted by cell divide at 8:14 PM on November 21, 2011 [16 favorites]


a great developer is so much better than a good one that it's hard to compare the two.

Well, it's said that writing code is a lot like writing prose. As well all know, there are good writers, and then there are great writers.

On the other hand, is Zuckerberg "great" or merely lucky (like many successful novelists)?
posted by KokuRyu at 8:17 PM on November 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


I believe the analogies the author uses (stock traders and athletes) are poor. Stock traders' performance has a large random component, and athletes' performance are subject to the limits of the human body. On the other hand, something like computer programming, art, writing, or scientific research is subject to very few limitations, and I believe an exceptional performance can accomplish things a good performance cannot. So I'm siding with Zuckerburg in many of these cases.
posted by gyp casino at 8:20 PM on November 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


I haven't read anything past the first link, but the sports-comparison-premise of that piece misses the crucial failure of that analogy: constraints. Sports operate under rules where a single team member can only mean so much; a brilliant engineer can have an idea that will change everything.
posted by neuromodulator at 8:21 PM on November 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


based on the mess that is Facebook, I can only imagine that they've been hiring the Stephanie Meyers of the software world.
posted by jb at 8:22 PM on November 21, 2011 [19 favorites]


Where would Zuckerberg be if he didn't have the Winklevosses to rip off? I'm sorry but a true original wouldn't have the time to do the media that Zuck does, he or she would be holed up in a dark place somewhere being a genius. Zuck should go back to finding the next big idea to steal, something he is demonstrably good at, rather than being a second-rate talking head.

Also consider that technical skill really won't go anywhere if you don't have the position, resources, and circumstances to do something about it, which really comes down to pure luck. So perhaps Andreessen was correct in saying that he could get 5 programmers to do the work of 1000, but those same 5 programmers in a company other than Netscape probably wouldn't have accomplished all that much.
posted by sid at 8:24 PM on November 21, 2011 [12 favorites]


KokuRyu: "On the other hand, is Zuckerberg "great" or merely lucky (like many successful novelists)?"

Zuckerberg's lucky, but I can only remember one very brief period of downtime for Facebook since I joined the site in early 2005. My FB UID is 6 digits; the site now has 800,000,000 people. It's intimidatingly impressive that they managed to scale up so gracefully.

Despite the absolute mess that the Facebook "platform" has turned into, there was at least some point when Mark Zuckerberg had some frickin' geniuses working for him.
posted by schmod at 8:24 PM on November 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


Where would Zuckerberg be if he didn't have the Winklevosses to rip off?

Nice try, the Winkelvosses' mom.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:36 PM on November 21, 2011 [34 favorites]


Insane assholes rule the world.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:37 PM on November 21, 2011 [17 favorites]


Certainly true when it comes to things like writing and music, in my opinion.
posted by unSane at 8:39 PM on November 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


My FB UID is 6 digits; the site now has 800,000,000 people.

I didn't even know there was a way to check that; turns out that I am mid six figures too. That really is an amazing scaling up they have done, for all that I find the interface painful and irritating.
posted by Forktine at 8:40 PM on November 21, 2011


One exceptional person is 100 times better than a merely good person ... in a world that doesn't offer anyone education, mentoring or support after they've been hired.

Not all of your geniuses should be working on products. Some of your geniuses should be hard at work making OTHER geniuses.

If you're working in software, ask yourself if you've seen any really brilliant people assigned to work on building tools. They're few and far between, but they're 100 times more valuable than the hotshots that are most often considered to be hotshots.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:40 PM on November 21, 2011 [45 favorites]


When it comes to software development, Zuckerberg's not without precedent in saying stuff like this.

Paul Graham on the subject.

Fred Brooks in The Mythical Man Month:
Programming managers have long recognized wide productivity variations between good programmers and poor ones. But the actual measured magnitudes have astounded all of us. In one of their studies, Sackman, Erickson, and Grant were measuring performance of a group of experienced programmers. Within just this group the ratios between the best and worst performances averaged about 10:1 on productivity measurements and an amazing 5:1 on program speed and space measurements!
Robert Glass in The Facts and Fallacies of Software Engineering:
The best programmers are up to 28 times better than the worst programmers, according to “individual differences” research. Given that their pay is never commensurate, they are the
biggest bargains in the software field.
This is consistent with my own (admittedly non-scientific) personal experience, not that that carries any weight. Good programmers really are ridiculously, ludicrously much better than average programmers.
posted by smcameron at 8:47 PM on November 21, 2011 [11 favorites]


That great developers are hundreds of times better than most developers is actually regarded as a truism in software development.

If you don't believe it is true, think about say Jimi Hendrix versus a random guy in a bar band.

There are always people who are uniquely suited to their professions. We accept tha Beethoven Is a timelessly good composer, it makes sense that John Carmack is that much better than normal developers
posted by Ad hominem at 8:49 PM on November 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


The analysis in the article 'great people are overrated' is poor because it compares wall street analysts with software programmers. I imagine the 'mozart' of wall street analysts is a dude who could rail half an oz a coke a day without getting a heart attack - you really can't differentiate analysts on any other metric.
posted by Veritron at 8:53 PM on November 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


It's been a long time since I read War and Peace, but I remember Tolstoy spent a fair bit of a chapter refuting the great man theory of history. He pretty much convinced me. Gladwell's "Outliers" helped, too.
posted by Trochanter at 8:53 PM on November 21, 2011


Jimi Hendrix wasn't human so he doesn't count.
posted by spitbull at 8:55 PM on November 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


Okay, I have actually written some academic papers on this. Taylor is wrong, great people matter a lot. Here's some of what we know:

1) The difference between middle managers can be extreme. The gap between a good and a bad project manager on video game projects alters the success of the game by up to 28% (more than the effect of everyone else in the company combines). This contradicts some of the work mentioned in the HBR blog post, but that is because Taylor doesn't understand the Groysberg paper he is citing.

2) The gap between programmers can be extreme. A top computer programmer typically produces the same amount of work as ten to twenty average programmers during any given time period, and with fewer errors.

3) The gap between scientists can be extreme. Lotka’s Law observes that just six percent of publishing scientists are responsible for fifty percent of all publications. Star scientists not only publish more (see the Matthew Effect, but beware of the virtuous cycle where success leads to success, but they can have significant impact on technologies or even national economies.

4) The difference between CEOs, oddly, is not that extreme - they account for about 2% of the variation in firm performance. Make of that what you will.

We don't know how much is talent and how much is luck, but we are starting to get a handle on this. In entrepreneurship, skill seems to matter more than luck, for example.
posted by blahblahblah at 8:56 PM on November 21, 2011 [49 favorites]


Normally I wouldn't do the whole FTFY routine but.....

Someone who is exceptional in their role is I am not just a little better than someone who is pretty good,” Mark Zuckerberg said recently. “They are I am 100 times better.”

I think this is a more accurate reading.
posted by Existential Dread at 8:57 PM on November 21, 2011 [9 favorites]




Malcolm Gladwell should never be cited for anything without crediting the person before him who set out the same idea more carefully.

Bank of America thinks he's pretty awesome.
posted by middleclasstool at 9:05 PM on November 21, 2011


As an addendum to my post above, I should state that the results I mentioned are all in top peer-reviewed journals. In economic and sociological research, we find that talent really does seem to matter. It is really hard, however, to judge where the "talent" comes from - personality, intelligence, training, social status, or something else - but it is an active topic of research. You shouldn't feel doomed by your lack of "talent" but I can't quite tell you what you should do at this point to become more "talented" in your field (I mean, education is my business, so I would by biased in that angle, but I can't demonstrate that it will increase talent).

And, as is always the case, academics go slightly crazy when Gladwell cites our work, because he steamrolls nuance to reach his conclusions. I think his stuff on talent versus training works very hard to minimize the obvious role of talent. That doesn't stop us from assigning his work to undergrads when he is discussing someone else, of course...
posted by blahblahblah at 9:05 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Man, it's like make ourselves feel ok for being mediocre week at MetaFilter.

Look guys, as one of my favorite professors was wont to say, everybody shits. Really - everyone.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:07 PM on November 21, 2011


Sure talent and great people matter and affect the world. It's just not always in positive ways. Exhibit 1: Julius Caesar. Exhibit 2: Just about every other sociopath with imperial fantasies.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 9:10 PM on November 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't think he's saying "Guys, mediocre programmers are just as good as excellent programmers!" Rather the message is "It's great to have a couple star programmers, but don't lose sight of the fact that what ultimately builds a great company is persistence and hard work, and at some point that's going to require enough people that you need to start thinking about building a team instead of just points of talent."

There is truth to what he says. You can be the most intelligent, talented person ever but if you can't work with others, act like a prima donna, or just never put in the time and effort you're really not going to get anywhere with it. When companies are hiring they'd do well to make sure that #1 Star Billy or Susie also has a good work ethic and ability to work with others.

Of course, that is not to say all talented people are terrible in teams or anything, just don't let talent blind you to whether or not they have a practical place in your company.
posted by schroedinger at 9:20 PM on November 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


Oh sure, there is an argument to be made that having a star programmer is a long term detriment to an organization. A company that is to survive cannot rely on one, or a few people. Also, a star programmer in a team is like a giant tree, they block the light from shining on those around them. A tree growing next to a giant oak will not thrive until the oak is cut down and it can receive light.

But this is a management argument, not a pure development question.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:26 PM on November 21, 2011


We're meandering around some, but... Sports operate under rules where a single team member can only mean so much. There are the hugely dominant likes of Michael Jordan, in pro basketball, and there are individual sports.

Having been around boxers, the difference between a guy whose career peaks with a couple televised fights on low-level shows, which is doing pretty damn well, and the elite, best-in-the-world fighters is immense.
posted by ambient2 at 9:26 PM on November 21, 2011


There is a great deal I could opine about this, being both a mathematician and a software developer, two fields where that 100 times better looks the most believable, but I'll restrict myself to one brief comment :

There is an awesome amount of personality that enters into that 10 or 100 times greater productivity. There should be some critical "flexibility of purpose" because you witness much the same capacity for focus whenever you set someone upon some task in which they truly believe.

Instead, I'll emphasize note how the Arab Spring, the ongoing European revolutions, and Occupy Wall Street have not been about 'great men'. There is perhaps some taste of 'the singularity' in how our social movements have reached the point where the 'myth of the great man' no longer plays much role.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:26 PM on November 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


Look guys, as one of my favorite professors was wont to say, everybody shits. Really - everyone.

I was colostomized because code had to be written and the normals couldn't handle it.
posted by phrontist at 9:27 PM on November 21, 2011 [8 favorites]


Great programmers may be that productive(and I could believe that), but the number of great programmers is a lot less than programmers actually think it is.

No, I enjoyed managing programmers, why do you ask?
posted by dglynn at 9:30 PM on November 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


Exhibit 1: Julius Caesar. Exhibit

Hey, Ol' Gaius rid the seas of pirates, rallied populist sentiment against the corrupt Roman oligarchy, repeatedly pardoned his staunched enemies once defeated, and refused to take part in political purges so popular around that time. Not such a bad guy as far as military geniuses go.
posted by Winnemac at 9:31 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


“Someone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good,” Mark Zuckerberg said recently. “They are 100 times better.”

Zuckerberg clearly doesn't understand the meaning of words. A person who is twice as good as everyone else is 'exceptional', by definition. Then again, like everything he says, this statement is infused with his trademark douchiness.

The Gladwell tl;dr seems to be "(1) smart people are fine, but insufficient in isolation to reliably result in success (2) management and organistion is underrated". That doesn't seem to be a ridiculous proposition.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:32 PM on November 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


100:1 is an understatement in programming; I will put forth an upper bound of infinity:one. You can't just measure programmer productivity in some fungible 'output' commodity. Sufficiently difficult problems are literally unsolvable for average-level programmers - the rate of bug creation in a poorly-engineered system outpaces the rate of bug fixing, and the whole system never fully works. Joel Spolsky spelled this out six years ago in Hitting the High Notes. I've seen this play out dozens of times, and clueless managers (another area where I'd believe in huge productivity ratios) who throw more bad programmers at the problem only exacerbate the situation.
posted by 0xFCAF at 9:39 PM on November 21, 2011 [7 favorites]


the rate of bug creation in a poorly-engineered system outpaces the rate of bug fixing, and the whole system never fully works

I think that may be true. But is terms of software management this is just filed under technical debt. Sometimes the value of shipping on time outstrips the value of shipping correct.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:45 PM on November 21, 2011


Hey, Ol' Gaius rid the seas of pirates, rallied populist sentiment against the corrupt Roman oligarchy, repeatedly pardoned his staunched enemies once defeated, and refused to take part in political purges so popular around that time.

Pompey rid the seas of pirates; Caesar, while claiming to be a democrat, managed to have himself nominated dictator for life. (Whatever way you spin that, it's hard to see it not destroying the little democracy Rome had.) He also killed some 1 million Gauls in a war that even the Romans thought was shady, enslaved another million, all while enriching himself until that he become 100 times richer than the next richest man in Rome. Oh, and he made the Roman state pony up the cost of his war while never actually returning a penny to the state. Even the most corrupt of the Roman oligarchy would never have dreamed of the things Caesar made a reality.

When some 60 of your best friends gather together to kill you, I think it's safe to assume that you may not be the nicest person in the world.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 9:55 PM on November 21, 2011 [9 favorites]


But he was an excellent general. And knew how to spend his money. I'll give him that.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 9:57 PM on November 21, 2011


There's this heroic mythology in the tech industry about the performance ratio between mediocre programmers and great ones. The widely quoted figure is 10-to-1 -- good programmers are 10 times more productive than dull ones -- a ratio promoted by Steve McConnell of Code Complete.

Since then, the numbers have been anecdotally increasing, much like the number of Eskimo snow words. If you read the FPP articles and comments, you'll see 25-to-1 show up, and Zuckerberg's claim of 100-to-1. Elsewhere I've read "infinity-to-1" offered with a straight face. Programmers really get upset out of all proportion as soon as they have to deal with an incompetent colleague, while anyone who outperforms them gets treated like a god(dess), so huge ratios seem reasonable to them.

But that 10-to-1 figure, supposedly supported by cited studies, turns out to have no basis in evidence. The citations don't show what McConnell et al claim they do.

Equally interesting is the anecdotal evidence from listening to successful developers who work at modern software-centric companies. They tend to talk and blog more about great team processes they have known, about systems that allowed their teams to produce great results. Steve Yegge has pointed out how well (and badly) his group at Amazon were run, the Extreme Programming folks bang on about their successful methodology, and (to get back to the subject at hand) Andrei Alexandrescu has commented on Proggit how it's the Facebook database group's structure and informal policies that keeps it fast and reliable.

Praise for the heroic 10X developer sounds awfully old-fashioned, something from the '80s. And the folks most likely to tell those stories of cowboy geniuses saving the company from its Daily-WTF idiots seem more often to be working in the dysfunctional end of the industry. The real successful programmers at successful software businesses in the second decade of the 21st century attribute those successes to teams and processes, not to lone wolf superhackers.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 10:03 PM on November 21, 2011 [25 favorites]


I think these multiple order of magnitude comparisons are actually comparing apples to oranges. Yes, people show a distribution of skill and some people are objectively better than others, but when you compare apples to apples the distribution perhaps maxes out at two or three times better. If you take a green kid out of undergrad against someone who has experience in a particular field, or just years of experience, they are of course going to outshine the greenhorn significantly. If you compare two individuals with similar experience, motivation, and background the difference is much smaller.

There are certain individuals, particularly in engineering, who show a propensity for innovation that is valuable, but to truly bring these innovations to fruition you need both the "rockstar" with an idea, and a talented team that can help them succeed. I think the take away from these articles is that you need to find innovators, and to build a team that can work together to bring the rock star's idea to market. This isn't a one or the other thing, it takes both types of person. Behind every inventor with a great idea are scores of other individuals who make small, but very worthwhile, modifications that take the idea to a usable product. Behind every Steve Jobs are hundreds of other engineers who make the small tweaks and changes that make the final product. Our society is shaped in such a way to reward the leader and not the men upon whose backs he stands.
posted by kscottz at 10:04 PM on November 21, 2011


Two things are making me itch about this whole topic, and I'm currently the CTO of a tech startup with three devs, so this has a lot of importance for me.

Yes, good is better than bad, and great is better than good. But the first thing that makes me itch is that the kind of massively more productive "rockstar" programmers that commonly get mentioned are also very, very rare, and they almost certainly don't want to work with you in your crappy long-shot startup. Finding and hiring them really isn't a relevant management consideration unless you're a Zuckerberg who can wield millions in a deal to woo someone. You need to plan to build your team out of the pretty good programmers because any other business plan is like saying "and once we win the lottery..."

The second thing that's making me itch is the unique dynamics of managing a software dev team. Part of the reason one great programmer is better than five good programmers is that one programmer with a clear idea of the result eliminates massive communication and co-ordination overhead from the whole process (c.f., Fred Brooks in the mythical man month discussing how communications channels increase exponentially with additional staff). They're not some mythical fountain of awesome code, it's that the quality of code depends very strongly on a clear understanding of the desired results and the steps to get there, and that's just much, much harder the more people you have trying to work together to achieve that. The better individual has a built-in process advantage due to their small numbers.

What's proven most decisive so far in the year we've been operating has been simply directly relevant experience. We fired the first guy we hired for web development because he just couldn't keep up with the guy that we hired to replace him, and that's because he was mainly a backend guy who did enough frontend work to appear knowledgeable and able to do HTML, CSS and Javascript. And he was able to do it. But it wasn't good enough and wasn't fast enough, and his replacement was a guy who did nothing but those three things, and had a lot of experience converting print designers comps to web pages. Replacing one with the another was like shedding a pair of lead shoes halfway through a race.

We're doing pretty well, we think, but when I look around, I don't see any rockstars. I see a group of (currently) 11 people who are all pretty good, and who are mature enough to work well together as a team. And the fact that nobody thinks they're the rockstar seems to have a made a huge difference in the quality of egos we all deal with.
posted by fatbird at 10:08 PM on November 21, 2011 [13 favorites]


communications channels increase exponentially with additional staff

Quadratically, not exponentially.
posted by escabeche at 10:14 PM on November 21, 2011


Harvey Kilobit- Some good points in the linked article about the original 1968 study of programming ability being cited so many times it seems like folklore.

However, the general principle has been validated several times since then (with numbers from 7 to 27 times, depending on the nature of the study). One such study, special because it is free online, is Prechelt. “An empirical comparison of seven programming languages.” IEEE Computer 33(10):23-29, October 2000.
posted by blahblahblah at 10:14 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


This sounds like the "We only use 10% of our brains" nonsense.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 10:16 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's not hard to see why this is the case in IT.

1. Computer programs are inherently chaotic (in the systems sense); the solution space is vast yet any misstep will give you an inferior or incorrect program.

2. Programming is largely self-taught and ad-hoc: you spend time writing (and reading) software; the earlier you start the better, the more mathematical background you have the better. Pedagogically it is too hard to systematize (see 1), and the technology is continually in flux. Coaches are good for refining and that's why they are so effective in sports or music; in programming and other creative endeavors you basically have to fall back upon your own life experiences.

I think.
posted by polymodus at 10:17 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


But that 10-to-1 figure, supposedly supported by cited studies, turns out to have no basis in evidence. The citations don't show what McConnell et al claim they do.

I think there is a problem of metrics. I don't think there is a scientific way to measure this. For me, correct code meets requirements and is maintainable. There so no way to measure how much better a Mozart symphony is than any other symphony. There is no way to measure how correct my code is, I might hit requirements but actually hamper the project as a whole by producing code that is impossible to maintain.

We all know that software engineering is a funny thing. No engineer is ever asked to build a bridge and then told in mid project that it cannot use steel. In software we deal with that situation all the time. Correct code needs to be able deal with shifting requirements through thoughtful abstractions and encapsulation.

Perhaps I am totally wrong, but it boils down to what I have seen with my own eyes. A productive programmer produces thoughtful code, not more code.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:18 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Something, something Bell Curve, std deviation, etc. BUT how to measure it?
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 10:24 PM on November 21, 2011


However, the general principle has been validated several times since then (with numbers from 7 to 27 times, depending on the nature of the study). One such study, special because it is free online, is Prechelt. “An empirical comparison of seven programming languages.” IEEE Computer 33(10):23-29, October 2000.

I don't think this study shows that programmers vary from 7 to 27, only that programs do. You would need to track the same set of programmers across a set of tasks to determine how much variance there is among them, which this study does not do.
posted by Pyry at 10:24 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


“Someone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good,” Mark Zuckerberg said recently. “They are 100 times better.”

Zuckerberg clearly doesn't understand the meaning of words. A person who is twice as good as everyone else is 'exceptional', by definition. Then again, like everything he says, this statement is infused with his trademark douchiness.


Yes. I didn't want to get into it, but such an assertion is loaded with values and problems that any therapist would have taught you to question and take apart.
posted by polymodus at 10:25 PM on November 21, 2011


When Newton used to give out his physics tests to aspiring PhDs the scores would routinely come back on a Log scale...
posted by Chekhovian at 10:26 PM on November 21, 2011


Someone who founded a zillion dollar company with PHP is anything but exceptional.
posted by readyfreddy at 10:29 PM on November 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


The sides of this argument remind me of 'Extremistan' and 'Mediocristan' from Nicholas Nassim Taleb's book The Black Swan.

You could argue that Zuckerberg and athletes live in Extremistan, a place where both the potential impact or reward of your efforts is truly massive. It's quite possible for an athlete to make many times more money than the average person, or for a single entrepreneur to change the face of social interaction.

But you could also argue that you're in Mediocristan, a place where the variability of impact or reward (or risk or any other variable) is limited. If you make furniture, you'll never be able to produce 100 times more furniture than someone else--there's a physical/technical barrier preventing you from extreme results.

Taleb uses these to describe risk in trading mainly (and it has been a while since I read it and there's a risk I'm misinterpreting it), but I think you could use it to argue both arguments are true: you can be 100-times more effective in some situations, but in others it's simply not possible.

Those differences could even be present simultaneously--the carpenter has no hope of being 100 times more productive (barring a technological breakthrough, which does happen), but it's possible for their furniture to sell for 100 times more than the average.

My point? Um, they're both right, depending on the situation. And The Black Swan is a fun book.
posted by fonetik at 10:39 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


And the folks most likely to tell those stories of cowboy geniuses saving the company from its Daily-WTF idiots seem more often to be working in the dysfunctional end of the industry

I also don't think it is like this. But there is always one go-to guy isn't there?
posted by Ad hominem at 10:40 PM on November 21, 2011


Malcolm Gladwell is overrated.
posted by symbioid at 10:44 PM on November 21, 2011


I was a math major in college and had a professor who would type all the exam scores up and throw them on the course website in order. He regularly would post rows of numbers that looked like:

100 99 99 94 88 86 85 85 83 80 77 71 66 62 61 58 56 56 53 50 48 44 42 37 36 28 22 14 8

Yes, in the same class, with approximately the same preparation, there were people who got perfect scores and people who got 8/100. This is how undergraduate math is. There definitely were really exceptional math students out there. I was generally at or a little above the mean. It was humbling. On the other hand, I know I was occasionally "that score" in my CS classes.

I'm a professional software engineer now, and I think I know one person who I'd really call a "great programmer" - and I know some pretty world-class people. I think what makes this guy stick out is an abundance of stamina and drive. He's not fundamentally all that much smarter or faster than other people, but he can keep churning out good code for 20 hours a day for weeks, and not mind it, and the code never gets any worse. Of course he gets a lot done. I would too if I had 2x as many productive hours in my workweek.
posted by troublesome at 10:45 PM on November 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


I actually had to look up the phrase "Bull Hockey". Amazingly, Wikipedia doesn't have an article for "Bull Hockey", so I was forced to plumb the depths of ancient etymologies to assign a meaning to this phrase. But I think I've found it, and I'm going to share it, for the benefit of others in a similar quandary

The phrase "Bull Hockey" originates with a practice of ancient nomads who rode from place to place on bulls. The bulls were useful instruments of transportation, and their loving cows provided milk and other sustenance. Come winter, these nomads often camped near a lake or river, the better to enjoy the proximity of fresh water. Over the years a sport developed, whereby courageous athletes would maneuver their bulls out onto the frozen water to bat about the frozen turds of their beasts of burden. The sight of numerous bulls colliding and sliding on the ice was a winter joy anticipated throughout the year by every member of these nomadic communities, but it was not without peril. Fairly frequently the overall thickness of the ice was miscalculated, plunging both bull and eager sportsman toward a hypothermic end. Many an athlete perished this way, but it was a matter of honor that as one sank, one had to shout, in as loud a voice as a dying man could muster, "This is fucking Bull Hockey!"
posted by twoleftfeet at 10:57 PM on November 21, 2011 [6 favorites]


I'm a mechanical engineer and I have to agree with there being a skill level where people really are exponentially better. There are also a depressing number of people that actually produce negative work.

I think it comes down to being able to build a complex model of the system in your head. Being able to see the permutations, run down the decision trees, see where the faults will occur, all is what allows that person to avoid the pitfalls. People who cannot grok the system they are designing will never make the intuitive leaps required to do something complex well, let alone quickly.
posted by TheJoven at 11:01 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've met people in many fields who I considered absolute geniuses at what they do, yet have never made it big. They are the people who make things work at the cellular level; they worked harder, smarter and more creatively but either never had the luck, or that one OTHER skill, self-promotion, that could have made them legends and/or billionaires. Talent is not enough, and so often, it isn't really necessary.

And I thought "Bull Hockey" was one of those bowdlerized swearwords that were created for the character of Colonel Potter on "M*A*S*H". Or was that "Horse Hockey"?
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:05 PM on November 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


They tend to talk and blog more about great team processes they have known

Yeah, I'm reminded of the "team IQ" study, which suggested that the factors that make an intelligent team have more to do with group dynamics than with average IQ within the group. It resonates with my experience: I've seen smart people torpedo their chances of having a productive conversation by condescending or steamrolling, and in my experience that comes at the expense of the quality of the resulting science.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:07 PM on November 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


> Look guys, as one of my favorite professors was wont to say, everybody shits. Really - everyone.

Since it looks like attribution has come up a few times already (about other things), I'll take this one. Montaigne is the first person I know of to say something like this. Roughly: Kings and philosophers shit, and so do ladies.
posted by bjrn at 11:09 PM on November 21, 2011


> If you were launching a technology or developing a product, would you rather have five great engineers rather than 1,000 average engineers?

I don't understand. Is he actually implying that a rational person would choose the 1000 average engineers for this case? This sounds nuts.

For version two, sure, you want to ramp up the people, you want to have teams dedicated to maintenance, and the goal in the end is that your product is being maintained by 1000 engineers who take the stuff the 5 great people in R&D are feeding them and turn it into Real Product, but if you pile a whole crowd on right at the beginning you'll never get anything done because communication overheads will kill you.
posted by DRMacIver at 12:20 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


And great commenters are really overrated...
posted by destinyland at 12:36 AM on November 22, 2011


For software I think there is more to it than superstars being X times better than others, it feels to me like the is a log scale of productivity right across the range of abilities. An average dev is miles more productive than a bad dev (we recently lost a guy who I genuinely believe had negative productivity). A good dev is much more productive than an average one, and a great one (who doesn't need to be a 1 in a million superstar) is way more productive than a good one.
posted by markr at 1:19 AM on November 22, 2011


“Someone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good,” Mark Zuckerberg said recently. “They are 100 times better.”

Well, now I know that Zuckerberg is at least 100 times more full of shit than the average business arsehole.
posted by Decani at 1:20 AM on November 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


They tend to talk and blog more about great team processes they have known, about systems that allowed their teams to produce great results. Steve Yegge has pointed out how well (and badly) his group at Amazon were run, the Extreme Programming folks bang on about their successful methodology, and (to get back to the subject at hand) Andrei Alexandrescu has commented on Proggit how it's the Facebook database group's structure and informal policies that keeps it fast and reliable.

What Harvey Kilobit said, a thousand times yes. I could maybe see the 100:1 rule applying to problem solving, but modern software development is much more about tying together frameworks and organizing cohesive effort. Software engineering is a remarkably young discipline, and as best practices become discovered and shared, either with books or with automation, there's going to be more competitive advantage in organizing groups of people to work together well rather than in hiring "rockstar" programmers.

Of course, now we're just setting ourselves up for the "great technical managers are 10 times more productive" argument.
posted by heathkit at 2:05 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


there's going to be more competitive advantage in organizing groups of people to work together well rather than in hiring "rockstar" programmers.

…or maybe the rockstar programmers will be empowered by better development tools to do the work of many times more average programmers.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 2:19 AM on November 22, 2011


I was an "average" programmer on a small team that contained one star. He was arrogant and obnoxious (especially at first; he mellowed over time) and had a tendency to overestimate his abilities and be overconfident in his correctness on any given topic.

One day he was out sick and an important daily transaction failed. The suits all acted like the world would end because he wasn't there to fix it. They spent their time trying to get hold of him, to no avail (he was at the doctor's with his cell turned off).

I found out what the problem was, and went with a colleague to various suit's offices, calmly explaining my thought process and my conclusion of what we should do. I had to repeat the process several times because they all could just not believe that anyone other than star could possibly have figured this out. It was tricky to find the flaw that had been there all along waiting to blow up, and required extensive knowledge of the database and every step of the transaction, yes. But I knew what I was talking about and I explained it logically in terms a non-techie could understand. I finally got permission to implement my fix (this was somewhat of a risk because our production environment was located elsewhere and was slightly different than our test environment, and we were bypassing the steps normally taken), and gee whiz, it worked. Imagine that.

No one said thanks.

The next day, star was back and he sent out an email to everyone reinforcing that my solution was right on and thanking me.

Suddenly, suits thanked me too.

Star, because of his overconfident disposition, had become the public face of the programming TEAM. The management types forgot other programmers even existed on this project. Not just because star was good--although, yes, he was--but also because he was loud about it, he was personable, and he became a pet who could do no wrong. He made the rounds every morning and schmoozed with nearly everyone. The other programmers generally preferred to huddle in their cubicles, you know, PROGRAMMING, and not seeking attention.

Maybe we need to differentiate greatness at performing a task like programming, and greatness at marketing oneself. I do believe he was 100 times better than the rest of us at ingratiating himself. Programming? I do think he was better than me overall. He was faster and his knowledge was more extensive. But he made more mistakes than I did, and didn't document his work as well. Because hey, he was Star! No need to triple check your work when you have "mad skills" (as he described himself when we first met). I knew things he didn't, and gradually he became humble enough to even learn some of those things.

I guess I've rambled. I just wanted to say that I think "star" is partially an assigned role, that people get comfortable believing in... and also that viewing your other employees as "non-star invisible people" is really demotivating. And jerky.
posted by parrot_person at 2:28 AM on November 22, 2011 [8 favorites]


parrot_person: "I was an "average" programmer on a small team that contained one star. He was arrogant and obnoxious (especially at first; he mellowed over time) and had a tendency to overestimate his abilities and be overconfident in his correctness on any given topic."

Your "star" doesn't seem to be a good example of the great programmer Mark Zuckerberg or the other posters are talking about. If this is the only exceptional engineer you've met, I don't think you've ever met one, which is fine - they are few and far between.
posted by falameufilho at 4:39 AM on November 22, 2011


I am distinctly un-great at anything and therefore probably rather underqualified to comment on the increasingly inflated claims made here about the brilliance of software developers. I'm sure some of it is true, and I suspect bits of it are delusional egoism.

The claim by Zuckerberg that 'exceptional' workers are 100 times better than 'pretty good' workers though is just hyperbolic nonsense. What exactly does it mean to make this claim? How is one person 100 times better than another? And before somebody starts citing Leonardo or Mozart at me, we're not even talking about art: it's just business. Say what you want about Facebook; it's no oil painting.

This is just another riff on the business genius fallacy that is wheeled out annnually to justify obscene banker bonuses (as if the pinnacle of human accomplishment is the accumulation of wealth). People may earn 100 times more than me; that doesn't mean they earned it.

But I refer you to the great George Monbiot on this matter, who I concede may possibly be 100 times more articulate than me at making the point.
posted by londonmark at 4:48 AM on November 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


Incompetent people skew this. What a hyper productive, code-centric 'genius' sees as 'average' and what your average pointy haired manager tasked with rolling out the new system sees as 'average' are world's different.

Competent programmers who can actually communicate are 100 times more valuable than an 'exceptional' prima donna. (And WAY harder to find)
posted by DigDoug at 4:59 AM on November 22, 2011


Where would Zuckerberg be if he didn't have the Winklevosses to rip off?
Ugh, what? The winklevosses were idiots who haven't been able to create anything since despite having won millions of dollars -- as well as coming from wealthy families. They were idiots. You see people like that all the time, people with 'big ideas' which are obvious and derivative (let's not forget myspace, frendster, sixdegrees and all the other social networks that came before them)

Anyway, is a good programmer really 100 times better then a crappy one? I've heard the figure of 10x productivity before, but on some tasks it's not really a multiple as it is a simple threshold -- you can either do something, or not.

Pro sports is probably another example, but it's not that lance armstrong is 100 times faster then someone else on a bike, or that LeBron James is 100x more likely to get a basket, but that they are close the human limit so that a slight edge translates into far, far more economic success. People will pay to see LeBron James, but they won't pay half as much to see someone half as good.

I kind of doubt the 100x figure for programmers is true in a pure hour by hour basis of how long it takes to write software. When you become a really good programmer, you can actually find yourself limited by more by typing speed then thinking speed, which is annoying.

But there is probably a network effect at play too 10 really good programmers might be 100x as efficient as 10 mediocre programmers.

But it's also a lot like sports, but even more random when you talk about startups. Two programmers might be just as good as eachother, but if one picks a good startup to work for, and another picks one that sucks, the one who got lucky will make way more money.
Oh sure, there is an argument to be made that having a star programmer is a long term detriment to an organization. A company that is to survive cannot rely on one, or a few people. Also, a star programmer in a team is like a giant tree, they block the light from shining on those around them. A tree growing next to a giant oak will not thrive until the oak is cut down and it can receive light.
It depends on what you're working on. If you're working on the web page for an insurance app you're better off with a bunch of mediocre programmers rather then one prima-donna 'star' programmer. On the other hand if you're a game company you want at least one star programmer and hopefully a 'dream team' of star programmers.

---

I feel kind of bad for Gladwell. Everyone hates him, half of them hate him because they think what he says is wrong, the other half because they think what he has to say is obvious. Especially his debunking of the 'great man' stuff. That was really what got people bashing him. To most of us, what he says seems obvious. But it was actually a shock to people like Zuckerburg and his '100x as awesome' stuff.
I could maybe see the 100:1 rule applying to problem solving, but modern software development is much more about tying together frameworks and organizing cohesive effort.
That's what all the bad programmers are doing, anyway. Someone has to write those frameworks. A lot of good programmers work in real problem solving settings, writing new software or adding features to existing software.
posted by delmoi at 4:59 AM on November 22, 2011


There is a difference between productivity and value. One engineer may produce multiple times what a colleague does, but thats delta around the margins. Paradigm shifting elegant design or incredibly intuitive problem solving involves multi-dimensional knowlege, technique, effort, creativity, passion, and courage. That combination is indeed rare and exponetially worthwhile.
posted by sfts2 at 5:05 AM on November 22, 2011


I'm a professional software engineer now, and I think I know one person who I'd really call a "great programmer" - and I know some pretty world-class people. I think what makes this guy stick out is an abundance of stamina and drive. He's not fundamentally all that much smarter or faster than other people, but he can keep churning out good code for 20 hours a day for weeks, and not mind it, and the code never gets any worse. Of course he gets a lot done. I would too if I had 2x as many productive hours in my workweek.

Stamina matters a lot. Also, familiarity with, and knowing to look for, greater patterns and structures within the thing you're working on. This doesn't just apply to programming, of course, and I don't care enough about programming to be even mediocre about it, but to any creative endeavor you embark upon, which is to say pretty much any single thing you do in life.

You need to know that the bigger patterns are there because they make it easier to plan a few steps ahead. You need to play with them enough that they become comfortable and you can then move on to looking at even greater patterns, with the ones you've learned in your muscle memory. And you need the energy and the patience to move these patterns through to the end.

I'm uncomfortable with terms like "great" and "mediocre" because, like Lutoslawski said above, there's no real point to make people feel like the problem is them. It's a stupid way to look at people. Much better to say that the problem is in how they approach what they do, because approaches can be observed and fixed. Some people think they're idiots for not seeing how others do what they do, but learning to think in patterns and structures is not an intuitive process. The people who know how to do it, and who learned to do it long ago enough that they impress their peers of today, were lucky enough to learn it when they did. And some activities teach it earlier than others. You can't play piano without understanding something of this, you can't dance past a certain level. It's more difficult to explain this in things like programming or writing, or at least, people don't often teach those things this way.

I don't doubt that Zuckerberg understands this exceptionally well, by the way. At this point he's proven many times over that he's capable of seeing big things and pushing for their realization, and everything that I hear about him says that he's good at looking for the right things in people for his company. I don't use Facebook any more and I'm worried about the direction it's being taken, but everything I've ever read about Zuckerberg makes me think he's cool.
posted by Rory Marinich at 5:55 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hey, I've been a rock star. It's a confidence game.
posted by jet_manifesto at 6:12 AM on November 22, 2011


londonmark: "People may earn 100 times more than me; that doesn't mean they earned it."

People will pay a lot of money to take a picture of Giselle Bundchen. She didn't "do" anything to "deserve" it - technically she was born looking fabulous, then all she had to do was eat well, sleep eight hours a night and show up on time with a smile on her face. She's now 31 years old, basically retired and has more money that you and I will ever make.

The world is an unfair place. Money-making skills are not evenly distributed. People should get over that fact.
posted by falameufilho at 6:17 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've never worked with anyone that was some kind of 10X or 100X more productive programmer. Do those people really exist? I had a long conversation with my SO, also a programmer, over dinner tonight. We both have worked at a number of well-known tech companies, and have never really observed this kind of disparity, ignoring the small number of counter-productive people out there that shouldn't be in the profession at all, and normalizing for years of experience. I've know people that were, and have myself on occasion been, 2-3X more productive at best. Again, if you're comparing the counter-productive to the productive, you get infinity, because well, you're dividing by zero. But among the ranks of programmers with 7-15 years experience (so, not green, not generally management), the biggest differentiators are expertise, abstract thinking capability, and judgement. You meet people that succeed and fail in all of these in different ways, but I've yet to meet someone that was so outstandingly amazing at them to be 10X as productive as the next person, let alone 100X.
posted by ch1x0r at 6:50 AM on November 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


I feel kind of bad for Gladwell. Everyone hates him, half of them hate him because they think what he says is wrong, the other half because they think what he has to say is obvious.

I don't know that I hate Malcolm Gladwell, but I certainly avoid him, because he writes like the veteran pop science journalist he is. He picks some marketably contrarian claim, simplifies the arguments in favor of it and ignores the arguments against it. When I read his writing I feel like I'm getting smarter, and then when I look back it turns out I was getting dumber.
posted by Honorable John at 6:50 AM on November 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's interesting that people so eagerly cling to the idea of this huge disparity between the least and most productive people. As a programmer, just as obvious to me is the huge disparity between the same person at their least and most productive.

I am easily an order of magnitude or two more productive when I am working on something where I have real control and there is an interesting problem to solve than when I am doing rote work to someone else's bad spec, and I don't think I'm unique in this, but people who purport to be interested in making the practice of writing code more efficient are always much more interested in looking at the disparities between workers—which lets them judge and divide people—than in looking at the disparities in working conditions and control over one's work—which might mean having to give people some power.
posted by enn at 6:53 AM on November 22, 2011 [6 favorites]


I know there's a lot more to it (as there are folks who write great code and folks who write crappy code), but I can't help it: Every time I hear people harping on with some comparative "truism" like this, all i hear is "Good programmers do their work. Great programmers shut up and work all the hours of unpaid overtime that we throw at them without complaint."
posted by kaseijin at 6:56 AM on November 22, 2011 [6 favorites]


The world is an unfair place. Money-making skills are not evenly distributed. People should get over that fact.

I read somewhere that the Kardashian family made $80,000,000.00 last year. I'm trying to get over that. I really am.
posted by Trochanter at 7:07 AM on November 22, 2011


"I read somewhere that the Kardashian family made $80,000,000.00 last year. I'm trying to get over that. I really am."

That's pretty tough to keep up with.
posted by kaseijin at 7:09 AM on November 22, 2011 [6 favorites]


It's basically like saying that 1 Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein was "100x better at science" the average PhD-holding physicist. It's kind of offensive, really.
posted by polymodus at 7:19 AM on November 22, 2011


It's been a long time since I read War and Peace, but I remember Tolstoy spent a fair bit of a chapter refuting the great man theory of history.

Thanks, it's good to see someone mentioning that. Also the reason why we need the humanities.
posted by ersatz at 7:22 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


The world is an unfair place. Money-making skills are not evenly distributed. People should get over that fact.

What a shame you didn't contribute sooner and we could have avoided any discussion at all.
posted by londonmark at 7:27 AM on November 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


There's a very big difference between what Zuckerberg is proposing and the money-making skills of people like the Kardashians.

Zuckerberg is talking about value added to a team as contrasted between your average professional and a professional who's 100x more productive. This has nothing to do with the fact that the Kardashians are able to earn a lot of money just by succeeding in reality TV and continuing to be marketed shrewdly. I don't think anyone is arguing that the Kardashians are 100x better than their competitors by dint of their collective talent.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:44 AM on November 22, 2011


This thread is getting kind of painful. I strongly suspect I'm one of those mediocre programmers.
posted by lumpenprole at 9:02 AM on November 22, 2011


There is a huge difference between capability/productivity in a particular environment or task and worth.

I've been the guy who really had something nailed. In particular, I had one class in college where I just plain got the professor. I could pick up in three minutes what others were still struggling with after five hours. So, I've directly witnessed that 100x thing. Now, whether that academic environment would ever be replicated in a real world business is a valid question. And, I've also been the dunce on the team who completely broke group cohesion and added work for everyone.

The other hugely important factor is that, at least in my experience, most work isn't really some sort of continuum of progress or grading. It is generally binary. You satisfied the spec, or you did not. You got the permit, or you did not. The client is happy and pays, or they do not. Your client is acquitted and walks, or they spend years in jail. In these types of situations a relatively smaller aptitude difference can yield some big differences in outcomes. The lawyer who is only 50% "better" is worth a whole lot more to me if that is the difference between jail and freedom when I've been falsely accused. Likewise the team member who has a good fit and aligns to the team values and chemistry can easily produce far more contribution than someone with a similar skill set who has their own agenda.

Trying to quantify this all with numbers is hopeless and that is compounded by trying to make reason of what people are willing to pay for relative to technical capability.
posted by meinvt at 9:14 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is consistent with my own (admittedly non-scientific) personal experience, not that that carries any weight. Good programmers really are ridiculously, ludicrously much better than average programmers.

This is why, any managers reading this, you should buy your best programmers/analysts/engineers VERY EXPENSIVE HOLIDAY GIFTS. Every year.
Yes.

(I would like a projector, please.)
posted by Theta States at 9:20 AM on November 22, 2011


then all she had to do was eat well, sleep eight hours a night and show up on time with a smile on her face.

I get your point I think, But models do not eat well, if by well you meant "healthily".
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 9:28 AM on November 22, 2011


When some 60 of your best friends gather together to kill you, I think it's safe to assume that you may not be the nicest person in the world.

I don't speculate too much on whether JC was a great guy or good for the history of the world, I just don't see him as a great example of sociopathy. He was killed by a group of 40 some political enemies, many of whom he had previously pardoned. His problem might have been that he just wasn't ruthless enough. He always had to be the magnanimous victor.

When conservative elites conspire to assasinate a person extremely popular with the lower and middle classes, I think it justifies a presumption that person must have done something right anyway.
posted by Winnemac at 10:07 AM on November 22, 2011


Eight people are Grover-rated.

Sorry.

posted by Anything at 11:25 AM on November 22, 2011


He picks some marketably contrarian claim, simplifies the arguments in favor of it and ignores the arguments against it.
Certainly there are people who do that, (the freakonomics guys) but Gladwell doesn't really come across as contrarian to me. Can you give me an example of a claim of his that's 'contrarian'? Specific example would help your argument.

I think I've only read a handful of actual articles by him, I usually just hear his ideas floating around in comments in stuff, from this secondhand analysis, I've never heard him say anything that struck me as obviously wrong, just obviously obvious.
posted by delmoi at 12:17 PM on November 22, 2011


This thread is getting kind of painful. I strongly suspect I'm one of those mediocre programmers.
posted by lumpenprole at 11:02 AM
Hmm...
posted by delmoi at 12:40 PM on November 22, 2011


there was at least some point when Mark Zuckerberg had some frickin' geniuses working for him

I know it's a cliche now, but "genius" is really one of the most overused/misused words ever.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:44 PM on November 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


Damn it, reading stuff like this really doesn't help my impostor syndrome.

CPB: If you're working in software, ask yourself if you've seen any really brilliant people assigned to work on building tools

Many of the most awe-inspiring programmers at my previous workplace (a notoriously tech-centric studio) worked in the "Core Technology Group", i.e. tools and engine. The monthly show-and-tell meetings were just mindblowing. I miss that place.. *sniffle*.
posted by jake at 1:31 PM on November 22, 2011


I don't speculate too much on whether JC was a great guy or good for the history of the world, I just don't see him as a great example of sociopathy. He was killed by a group of 40 some political enemies, many of whom he had previously pardoned. His problem might have been that he just wasn't ruthless enough. He always had to be the magnanimous victor.

When conservative elites conspire to assasinate a person extremely popular with the lower and middle classes, I think it justifies a presumption that person must have done something right anyway.


JC was popular, but so were many of those who killed him (there were demonstrations in favour of Brutus after he had to flee the city after the murder of Caesar). I think the basic problem is that with the fall of the Republic what you have a bunch of not very appealing players. There's one very powerful warlord (JC), who by keeping *all* the money he made from his wars and distributing it personally back to his army and to supporters built an unassailable base of military support; there's a retired warlord, who was also extremely popular with the people (Pompey); there's a bunch of various aristocrats all with their own clients and mobs and supporters - and then one of these people (JC) decides that he doesn't just want to manipulate the rules, but throw them out. That's what makes him a sociopath: he was willing to destroy the society that created him. It's not like the people of Rome were out there chanting for JC to become the permanent ruler of the state; or, at least, those that were, were met with other people chanting for him to be forced to return to Rome to run for office. And pretty big chunks of both groups were either paid to do that chanting or traditional clients of JC or other aristocrats. Well and engineering a set of wars, which he conducted with such ruthlessness that the Romans, not exactly known for their squeamishness were a bit appalled at.

Many of those who killed him were Caesarians (including the guy who led Antony aside). Some had been pardoned but a good number fought on his side in the Civil Wars.

(Er, sorry for the derail. There's a lot to be impressed by in Caesar, but his utter ruthlessness and actions did ultimately end Rome's Republic. And voting that had any point.)
posted by lesbiassparrow at 1:39 PM on November 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


To bring Caesar back to the great man thing again, though, the Republic was going down anyway. And, frankly, it was failing at governing the outrageous amount of new territory that had come under Roman control in, what 200 years? Someone has said it was like asking a small town council to manage the doings of a whole nation and more.

So, while we may not have been learning all our lives about Gaius and the Julio-Claudians had there been no Caesar, we would still otherwise have been talking about some upper class military "Genius" who took power somewhere near this time. The Republic had been dying violently probably since the Gracchi.
posted by Trochanter at 5:33 PM on November 22, 2011


One could argue that Caesar did what the society that created him expected of a talented high-born Roman - to go and conquer lands for the Republic. He did that but his fault (in the eyes of Roman elite) was that he was too successful. He was told, essentially, to relinquish command of his army, the only thing that was perhaps keeping him safe, and to come to Rome and to accept the punishment his enemies could scheme up. At that point, he had very little choice. The main difference between him and any number of top politicians of that era is immense talent, audacity, and unprecedented, up to that point in history, magnanimity to his enemies. He could see Republic crumbling and its social fabric being torn by internal contradictions, it was a question how, and by whom, it will be rebuilt and reimagined into something new.
posted by rainy at 6:27 PM on November 22, 2011


From what I saw in this interview with Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg on Charlie Rose, Zuckerberg might want to worry about people that are 100 times better than him at controlling a corporation.

Cause he just looked like a kid being led around.
posted by dglynn at 8:48 PM on November 22, 2011


Statements like Zuckerberg's "100 times better" sounds like ego-pumping to me, like an advertisement for a fancy car. I remember hearing that advertisements for expensive cars (or possibly all cars) are partially intended to fan the egos of owners of the model or brand, to make them proud to be part of the family. I think if I worked at Facebook I might feel my ego bolstered by his statement, and feel more confident that I made the right choice in working there, and more proud to tell others the same. I may even believe that I'm the person he's talking about, or at least better than others at "lesser" companies. This would also help entice prospective hires (not that huge $$$ would hurt an ego).

I certainly don't know if that's his intention. It's possible he's inflating the number to inflate his own ego ... but then, confidence in business is important, and he's playing a game against others who are as confident as he is. Maybe this is part of a confidence cold war. "You say 25x better ... yeah, we'll I say 100x better."

Our new super developers better make us proud; invent a web application that produces energy already. I ain't got all day, damnit.
posted by mapinduzi at 9:15 PM on November 22, 2011


He did that but his fault (in the eyes of Roman elite) was that he was too successful.

Well, I suspect that the other fault was that it became clear that he wasn't actually conquering land for the Republic, but for Caesar.

He could see Republic crumbling and its social fabric being torn by internal contradictions, it was a question how, and by whom, it will be rebuilt and reimagined into something new.

It's certainly true that the Republic was in poor health, but the question as to whether it would have expired entirely or perhaps managed to recover was problematically ended by Caesar knifing it in the back, just to make sure. Don't all strong men seize power based on the claim that they only did it because times needed a firm, solitary hand?

Basically, for me arguments about Caesar's marvellous long range plans and concerns about Rome as an country tend to hit the problematic fact that his first brilliant idea for dealing with the chaos and internal problems in Rome was to go and conquer Parthia. This does not strike me as the plan of a man who gave a damn about anything other than his own imperial glory.

One might argue that the real genius was Octavian, and it's only his brilliance that means we think as highly of Caesar as we do today.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 10:30 PM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, I suspect that the other fault was that it became clear that he wasn't actually conquering land for the Republic, but for Caesar.

It's not a either/or: Gaul and Britain were part of the empire for a very long time after Caesar's death, and even before it, they became part of its economy.

Basically, for me arguments about Caesar's marvellous long range plans and concerns about Rome as an country tend to hit the problematic fact that his first brilliant idea for dealing with the chaos and internal problems in Rome was to go and conquer Parthia. This does not strike me as the plan of a man who gave a damn about anything other than his own imperial glory.

Not exactly true, he greatly streamlined and improved the workings of the state apparatus while in Rome. Parthia and then Sassanids were an immense pain in the neck for the future empire, for centuries, and killed at least one emperor and the wars on that front did quite a lot to destabilize Rome.

Rome has been all about acquiring new territory and turning it into Roman "borg" for quite a long time, in fact much more so during the Republic than Empire time (if you look at the territory acquired during both periods). Caesar was doing what a successful leader of the period was expected to do.

What clinches it is that, if Republic was still viable and if the only thing keeping it out was the will of Caesar, his death should have brought on the immediate (or, at least, eventual) restoration, which kind of never happened, right?

As for the Octavian.. your view seems to be almost precisely the opposite of how it really was. Caesar fought for everything he got, often against all odds, over and over again, politically and militarily; while Octavian was groomed as a successor by Caesar and slid into the throne almost effortlessly, with one large battle he did not lead. And then he never felt it the least bit awkward to kill his enemies, like the teenage son of Cleopatra whose only fault was being, well, the teenage son of Cleopatra.
posted by rainy at 8:33 AM on November 23, 2011


As for the Octavian.. your view seems to be almost precisely the opposite of how it really was. Caesar fought for everything he got, often against all odds, over and over again, politically and militarily; while Octavian was groomed as a successor by Caesar and slid into the throne almost effortlessly, with one large battle he did not lead.

Octavian was 18 when Caesar died; no one even knew he was his heir until the will was read; there was no grooming beyond what you'd expect for a relative of a powerful man in general. He did not have an easy time of it with either Antony or the Senate, both of which tried to screw him over repeatedly. Antony didn't even give him his inheritance from Caesar, leaving him to acquire an army based mainly on wheeling and dealing and being Caesar's adopted son. And then when they split the empire into spheres of influence Octavian got the poisoned chalice of the bankrupt, war-torn Italy and the west, where he had to settle soldiers and find land and deal with working out what to do in the chaos after the Civil Wars, while Antony got the wealthy East and a chance to have his own imperial adventure in Parthia. Octavian killed enemies, but the proscriptions were a group deal with Antony and Lepidus, with them each trading names. It's possible that Caesar didn't kill people because he was a stand-up guy, but it's also possible he didn't kill people because he had had a giant whopping war that had taken out many of his greatest opponents and he was a big enough of an egomaniac to assume that deep down everyone loved him.

(Not an Octavian fan, but if I'd been putting odds on anyone to get killed in 43-2 and it would have been him. Even people like Syme who loathe Octavian/Augustus tend to admire his genius in not getting side-lined or killed, so I don't think mine is an unusual opinion.)

As for Parthia; it may be that it was a problem and kept killing Romans and their generals because they kept invading it. Over and over, despite the fact that it took them forever to come up with a strategy that could match Parthia's cavalry. Caesar was a military genius but there's no sign from either the commentaries or the few letters on the topic that he had a new plan either. It strikes me that Caesar's major reforms involved picking the consuls for the next five years and trying to get out of the mess that was Italy as soon as possible - with good reason; the whole land issue for soldiers was still up in the air and that was a huge nightmare no one wanted to face. Sometimes, I think he must have hated Pansa and Hirtius to make them consuls for 43.

What clinches it is that, if Republic was still viable and if the only thing keeping it out was the will of Caesar, his death should have brought on the immediate (or, at least, eventual) restoration, which kind of never happened, right?

The fact that the Republic then went to war with Antony and lost both its consuls for 43 in the battle of Mutina, which meant the Senate now had no army, probably played a large role. It's one of those 'if x had never started the chain reaction, would the situation have been different.' Ultimately, I'd agree that it's really impossible to say. Caesar winning the civil war meant Antony's rise, which led to Mutina, which led to deals with Octavian...and so forth. If he hadn't won, maybe someone else would have done the same thing; likely, though there wasn't anyone on the other side with the energy or ambition of Caesar.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 10:14 AM on November 23, 2011


And in tune with the great people are overrated theme, I think we should mention Caesar's comet! If that hadn't appeared and been spun as evidence of Caesar's deification, who know what would have happened...

(Okay, that's slightly tongue in cheek, but I think it does point out one interesting thing, which is that success even by brilliant people is often bound up in unexpected moments of change or luck that no one could have anticipated.)
posted by lesbiassparrow at 10:18 AM on November 23, 2011


I think our main disagreement is that I feel that Republic at that point was in name only. It wasn't the republic that fought Hannibal. Caesar's foes were the power elite; a dictator like Caesar would have to find his base in wider popular circles than senatorial aristocracy that fought him, so paradoxially that would have been a more democratic scheme than late republic. Caesar could see that old power-sharing set up no longer works and the question is, who is best to lead the transition, someone who is most capable or someone who just happened to be at the top of senatorial pile at the right time? It was in his interest just as it was in the interest of most citizens. It was just a question of competence and principle of meritocracy.

But the reason I feel inclined to defend him is that as far as great generals of antiquity go, he's.. underrated! Compare him to Alexander the great, who was born a king, got an army from his father which was perhaps the best trained force in the world at the time, defeated Darius who was neither brave nor a particularly skillful leader, conquered weak Egypt and small bits of India and then drunk himself to death. Caesar on the other hand kicked ass! Aside from going over to far reaches of Europe that were almost mythical to Romans before his conquest, he had to win Rome itself, piece by piece, often going against equal or even superior forces. And aside from all that, having not insignificant engineering and administrative feats under his belt.
posted by rainy at 6:57 PM on November 23, 2011


a dictator like Caesar would have to find his base in wider popular circles than senatorial aristocracy that fought him, so paradoxially that would have been a more democratic scheme than late republic

That's an interesting point, though I'm not if it quite plays out like that in Rome. The crowd in Rome had phenomenal power and people other than Caesar courted it like crazy. You've only got to look at Cicero's letters to see the wheeling and dealing and the amount of bribery even in elections where the plebs had no great influence (There's no good reason why people bribing the urban tribes in consular elections; most consuls were elected long before they voted. But you still wanted their vote). I've got no doubt that Caesar helped with increasing their power: the more people who courted them, the more power they had, and the more they'd be courted... But the rest of elite played the same game, though not as well.

I tend to think that starting with the Gracchi and the rediscovery of what you could do as a tribune of the plebs and the parallel disintegration of the elite as a unit, the Late Republic was the high-point of Roman democracy. And given that the plebs elected Cato the Younger, a complete arch-conservative who never bothered to hide that fact, a tribune of the plebs, so they're weren't exactly of one mind about which way to go. There's a book called The Crowd in Rome which is a great study of just how much Rome was a democracy and of the power of the crowd, which you might find interesting.

But I have no doubt Caesar was a genius. And not just a military one in restructuring who was making decisions when on the front line and other ways; he wrote a book on grammar! A good one too, apparently. Cicero respected him for those skills and if anyone knew literature, it was Cicero. (Maybe we shouldn't mention the tragedy that Augustus suppressed, but even Homer nods.) But I have never seen reason to stop thinking that like 90% of elite Romans, Caesar's main interest was Caesar. If the needs of Rome overlapped with those of Caesar, then he'd follow them, but he'd happily watch her burn if it helped the cause of Caesar. Hence the Parthian campaign. It was a terrible idea at a terrible time, and would be an impossible territory to hold; Augustus decided to go for negotiations to get the standards back for good reason.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 8:57 PM on November 23, 2011


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