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Quirky Engineers Gone the Way of the Dinosaur? 319

Posted by Hemos
from the what-happens-to-the-engineers dept.
Milican writes "I think its time we ask our fellow Slashdotters, 'is there still room in a company for a quirky 'guru', or are projects so large now by necessity team-based development rules.' Read this article on Embedded.com and decide for yourself." I think this article didn't describe someone really 'quirky' though - it was someone who didn't really want to work.
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Quirky Engineers Gone the Way of the Dinosaur?

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  • Not true of course (Score:4, Interesting)

    by youreanidiot (521687) on Friday October 19, 2001 @10:19AM (#2451505)
    There is always room for someone who is different who actually does work, and actually does know his shit.

    Even in a team based environment. There is an example here at my work in the Unix SA team. The smartest person I have probably ever met in respect to Unix just sits there and plays chess online and reads slashdot, but when there is an actual problem to be fixed, he not only fixes it, but documents it well enough that he shouldn't have to be bothered from his chess playing next time it comes up. I respect him anyway, and from the rumors of his paycheck, The Man does also.

    • by hawk (1151) <hawk@eyry.org> on Friday October 19, 2001 @10:36AM (#2451599) Journal

      the difference here is that your quirky guy s good, while the one in hte article is just quirky . . .


      heck, if all you want is quirky, just go downtown in any big city . . .


      hawk

    • by iomud (241310)
      I think everyone knows that guy who at a moments notice of trouble waves his hand in front of the servers jedi mind trick style and all is right with the world again. That guy is worth what they pay him because his technical chops are just that good, his skills are too honed to ignore. When the crap hits the fan you want him on your team.
      • I have been honored to meet such a man durring a job on wall street back in the 80's. His desk was 3' x 6', 2 monitors, ash tray, and a library of books.

        With a wave of his hand the room always went hush, nobody would move. then he would look up from his screen and ask "WHAT", then spin around in his chair, pour a glass of brandy.

        At that point people would nervously state there problem, He would then give out the time it would be done. You could almost feel the tears of joy, from these poor people that he helped. Never failed on a project. Boy did he hate it when you took him away from his pet projects.

        From what I have heard of him, he created one of the first distributed computer process programs ever to be used on wall street (90 - 93) for PC's (like seti but for stocks). And became a one of the firms best traders using the crunching ability of software that he created.

        -onepoint
    • I read slashdot for hours at work, and play tons of chess online. Unfortunately my boss hasn't reciprocated by offering me a huge paycheck yet. Are you guys looking to hire another "guru"?
    • Bruce Perens?
  • Quirky my ass (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Gaijin42 (317411) on Friday October 19, 2001 @10:21AM (#2451511) Homepage
    He just didnt want to work.

    There is always room for individualism and outright wierdness on a team, as long as the person can communicate and somewhat meet deadlines.

    However, the best developers and engineers I have ever known are always out working on personal projects. Its a way to get your juices flowing when you have been stumped on a problem for a few days/weeks.

    If it only lasts a day or so, and only happens every few weeks, it was encouraged in all the teams I've been in.
    • Agreed. Look at this quote from the article:

      "Quirky" was obviously a code word used by his former employers to warn us without risking legal action.

      So Mr. Ganssle admits that "quirky" didn't mean "quirky" in this context, then goes on to draw conclusions about those who actually are quirky?

      Doesn't inspire my confidence. Sounds like he started with his conclusions, then tried to use the "Tom" incident to justify them.
  • Even if you don't want to live with the "quirky guru", they will always exist [rickleephoto.com]!
  • People like to expound on the successes of tortured geniuses who work 20 hour days, failing to recognize that for the most part, they fail miserably at the tasks they set themselves out to do. It's true, some people do work their best when left alone, but most of us would rather just not work if we're not being scrutinized. Laziness is always easier.

    It's a fact of human nature that we limit our perceptions... our eyes can sometimes ignore a certain color, we tone out people we don't want to hear, and we don't see that extra " mark in the code no matter how hard we try. Working on a team might add an extra amount of burden to solo-flying engineer, but it also means someone can catch the big, flaming errors he makes.

    Having recently been in the "want-to-be-hired" position, I found many jobs were wary of hiring people that had an abundance of technical skills and no interpersonal skills. Ten years ago a company would have to just suffer with those quirky engineers... these days, there are lots of great workers who might be 90% of what the "quirky" guy is, but who you definitely would rather have around more.
  • I remember the headaches we had when a real bad former employee used us as a reference on another job interview...

    If you say you wouldn't hire that person again, there is a threat of legal action...so we just said he had worked here and let him become someone else's problem
  • I think this is article is accurate, to an extent. In my experience, the geeks lacking social skill in high school often develop it later on. Plenty of 'geeks' end up funny, socialable, and rich. The combination of the three feed of each other, in the business community.
  • Motivation is all (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ColMstrd (103170) on Friday October 19, 2001 @10:28AM (#2451550) Homepage Journal
    This piece raises more questions than it answers.

    I'm curious about how the quirky one managed to demonstrate mastery of the system he was being employed to develop, yet so spectacularly failed when he actually had to produce the goods. Certainly it seems like he didn't have single-minded attention on the job in hand (but even engineers deserve a life).

    I'd be interested to hear his side of the story: there could have been plenty of internal organisational reasons or technical reasons why he didn't gel, which the author of the piece may not be so forthcoming about.

    And, if his body odour was really a problem to his inter-relationships with colleagues (and it sounds like it was), why did he not obtain medical help? (Or work from home?)

    It all smells a bit one-sidedly fishy to me.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      We're talking about Richard Stallman here, let's be honest. The description was perfect.
  • by eusdlwy (76228) on Friday October 19, 2001 @10:28AM (#2451551) Homepage
    A pretty normal co-worker of mine once told me of a software engineer he had worked with at a previous company. This engineer would write software and during the debugging process hold a conversation with his hand concerning the problem at hand. The best part was, his hand (he) would talk back to himself in the voice of Donald Duck.

    The same guy was also said to have hit a deer with his car on the way to work one morning. The next day he came to work with a home-made "cow catcher" like contraption (imagine the front of locomotive) welded to the front of his car to avoid any further damage due to auto-deer collisions. The big problem with this "solution" was that the contraption was so heavy, every time his car hit a bump in the road, the front end would scrape the pavement and send off sparks.

    Anyone have weird co-worker stories to share?
    • by The Panther! (448321) <panther@@@austin...rr...com> on Friday October 19, 2001 @11:05AM (#2451770) Homepage
      One of my office mates was an interesting fellow. He had a real problem making eye contact with people, loud noises, or physical contact. I wouldn't call him a guru, exactly, but competent I suppose. It's hard to call someone a guru when they largely remind you of a squirrel. For kicks, a coworker would sneak up behind him and scream AHHHH!! just to watch him go white and literally run out of the room.

      Another guy was a neat freak. He knew exactly the precise angle of every object on his desk. A coworker would screw with him by rotating his stapler 180 degrees. Every morning the ritual was to watch him rearrange everything into precise order. He couldn't work unless everything was perfect.

      And then there's the really freaky people that you only hear about in whispers... like the guy who would walk around in socks mumbling calculus to himself, drinking beer and eating reeses pieces at noon, and while drunk, getting naked in front of the security guard because he forgot his identification in his office and she wouldn't let him in... best that we don't think about that too much!
      • Re:Weird co-workers (Score:2, Interesting)

        by mjprobst (95305)
        Problems with eye contact, physical contact, or loud noises indicate something on the autistic spectrum, which is not at all uncommon among techies. I have some of the same problems, probably to a lesser degree, but you should _see_ me start running in circles when someone touches me uninvited. It's an entirely involuntary initial reaction, though most can learn to "tame" the response in a hurry with experience.


        It's not all that funny for those folks to be kicked into freak-mode by sudden noises, especially if you know what the problem is. But I guess people are destined to find causing pain for others funny. Witness the Road Runner and the Coyote.

        • Problems with eye contact, physical contact, or loud noises indicate something on the autistic spectrum, which is not at all uncommon among techies. I have some of the same problems, probably to a lesser degree, but you should _see_ me start running in circles when someone touches me uninvited. It's an entirely involuntary initial reaction, though most can learn to "tame" the response in a hurry with experience.


          There was a book review on Slashdot a year or two ago for "Shadow Syndromes" which had a chapter devoted to such types of people. I'm not sure if I buy into it actually being mild autism, but it does look alot like that. It was a pretty interesting read, I'd recommend checking it out if you're interesting in knowing more about the actual signs displayed by techies that resemble autism.

      • Re:Weird co-workers (Score:3, Informative)

        by noy (12372)
        ###
        One of my office mates was an interesting fellow. He had a real problem making eye contact with people, loud
        noises, or physical contact. I wouldn't call him a guru, exactly, but competent I suppose. It's hard to call someone a guru when they largely remind you of a squirrel. For kicks, a coworker would sneak up behind him and scream AHHHH!! just to watch him go white and literally run out of the room.
        ###

        FYI, That sounds like a classic case of the hypersensitivity that goes along with mild asperger's syndrome. Lack of eye contact is a hallmark as well. At least this guy was able to hold a job...
      • Well it's so nice to see the torture that is the hallmark of high-school can extend to the work place...

    • I worked with an older programmer who started off as an radio/electronics guy back in the 50's (yes, that old). He said HE had a coworker who used to test if *house current* was live by sticking the wires in his mouth.

      But the really weird part is that I happened to mention this to the electrician that was visiting my house to install my central AC. He said HE knew a guy that did that too.

      Must be the result of some kind of Excess Electron Syndrome that only electricians get...
      • I know quite a few electricians whose natural skin resistance is such that they can grab 120V lines with their bare hands and not be shocked.

        I've never heard of ANYONE who'd test it with their mouth. I think they should test some 277V mains the same way and become Darwin Award nominees.

    • I worked with a Russian dude (well, he was from Odessa, which I don't think is Russia anymore... if it ever was - I'm retarded with geography... among other things), and he was by far one of the more painful people I have had to share an office with. he would spend the entire day doing the following pattern 1) sit down at his computer, and disconnect the ethernet cable, 2) unplug the phone and plug the computer modem into it (which he must have brought from home since there was no need for them at work) and then he'd dial up into... somewhere, 3) then he'd sit there and slowly click on things which looking at C++ code and mumbling, then he'd go "aaaaahhhhhh" then unplug the modem, and plug the phone back in, from which 4) he'd call someone and talk for an hour in russian - loudly, then 5) he'd hang up and mumble and then go outside and smoke, then come back in and get a coffee - then repeat the whole process.
      The only three times I saw a change from this were 1) I came back into our office and he had his tower workstation on the side, was standing on it and pulling with his hands trying to get the cover off - not understanding why it was so hard. 2) he was trying to get a desk drawer open and he was using all fo his weight pulling like he was on a strong man show on espn pulling a truck - I told him that the drawers had a lock mechanism where you had to pull the bottom one out slightly and that would disengage the top one - I didn't know why, but it worked. he nodded, turned back around and then proceeded to pull with all his bodyweight again, but this time in many large jerking motions, which dragged the desk about the office. and then 3) the glorious day he was fired for not ever getting anything done.

      The fact that I had to be near him all the time (he was annoying in many ways, the above was the humorous parts) made me consider quitting, so I'm glad that he was fired first.
      But I left the company I was at prior b/c I worked with a girl on a project who was by far the most painful person in the world. There were many things I couldn't stand, but again, the ones that are funny are what stick out - she was a documentation person, and that somehow entitled her to always carry an open felt pen around with her. Fine. Except she also had some weird condition where when she talked she shifted her weight all around and waved her hands as if she were casting a spell on you - in the process you'd have to dodge the pen or it would mark all over you - she on the other hand never dodged her own waving hands - so she had pen marks on her neck, hands, forehead - or anything else that got in the way. They moved her desk in her office one day and there was an odd half moon patter on the wall from below where the desk was - we pondered it for a bit and then cam to the conclusion that while seated her legs flailed about and left marks all over the wall. Those things alone are just odd - but she was terrible painful in every respect which made any conversation with her resulting in you pondering to yourself if a swift blow to her throat would kill her or just shut her up for a bit, or if you took your own pen and jabbed yourself hard enough in the stomach if the resulting injury would be enough to get out of the conversation.

      good times.

      now I just work with a bunch of guys that don't speak english very well and smell bad. but most of them do good work (one doesn't seem to understand that you can't name all functions "function1" so it makes debugging his code interesting.
    • I had a co-worker who didn't beleieve in numbered versions of a file so instead of save something like "file_2_3.xxx" , "file_2_4.xxx",
      he saved as "this_is_the_one.xxx", "this_is_the_one2.xxx","this_is_the_REAL_one.xxx", "final_version.xxx", "the_absolutelly_final_version.xxx", "forget_the_rest_this_is_the_one.xxx", "forget_the_rest_this_is_the_one2.xxx" and so on, we defined that as the Morales Notation.
    • by Grab (126025) on Friday October 19, 2001 @12:57PM (#2452332) Homepage
      Current job: Tempting, but some of them might recognise themselves, and my website is shown in my ID! :-) Ah what the hell... Our top engineer is _seriously_ hot on damn near everything. He also has a long, flowing white beard which would put Gandalf to shame. But the kicker - he dresses monochromatically. By which I mean every item of clothing (every visible one, anyway - the rest I don't want to know ;-) is the same colour, including his socks and sandals. He has two sets of these, one in pillarbox red and one in light blue. But by god, does he ever work!

      Previous job: Another genius type. Bulgarian. He worked with ear defenders on bcos he said the rest of the office were too noisy. When he got a few new ppl in the office, he said this wasn't good bcos of the negative ions - his ioniser could cope with a few ppl, but more than that would cause problems. :-) When stuck, he'd go outside, walk up and down a while talking to himself, then almost run inside and type frantically. But he's the only guy I've ever known who could knock out several hundred lines of code and have it work perfectly first time, every time - he got very annoyed one day when the compiler spotted a syntax error in his code!

      Neither are exactly normal humans, but when the sh*t hits the fan, you're damn glad they're on your side! :-)

      Grab.
  • by sien (35268) on Friday October 19, 2001 @10:30AM (#2451564) Homepage
    I've only worked in a few places, so I've not seen many circumstances, but this is my take.
    Most of us, the committed ones, who are reasonable with people, will be quite able and produce good code and do good things.
    However, the ones who do spectacular things tend to be quirky and a bit crazy. It's my guess that a lot of times these people aren't that great, but that once in a while they will do things that 'normal' people won't. They are the ones who code almost non-stop for six months to produce a first class engine. Would anyone describe what Linus did to start the kernel as normal ?
    Normal people tend not to do this. We have normal interests and try to live balanced lives.
    To quote Henry Rollins:
    "Want a good body? Work at it. Want to be a success? Work at it. Want to be truly exceptional? Be a touch insane...You need a little bit of insanity to do great things."
    So, if you hire a quirky person, be aware that he might save your shop, or kill it and be totally ready to sack the person. And that's what these people did. On the other hand, if you have a few engineers, a few risky bets that might just pay off bigtime are probably a really good idea. And of course, as with anyone else, keep track of them. Very few of us work well in a vacuum.
    • Sometimes, as you describe, those of us who are hit with sparks of inspiration and yield that 95% persperation, get buried in the humdrum. I do what I must, but when there's a crisis, again I'm acheiving the status of the go-to-guy because I can be tenacious and creative and grind through problems and get the ship right again. The key for managers is to know when you have someone like this and to assign them to projects where their strengths are best used.
  • by BroadbandBradley (237267) on Friday October 19, 2001 @10:30AM (#2451568) Homepage
    I think most people expect someone at a genius level to be quirky, but to be quirky and effective, and to be quirky and not effective are still 2 different issues.

    I have long hair and a beard (not zz top, just a short beard) and on some level I feel that I must uphold an image of excellence to pave the way for others that might not want to be 'Johnny clean cut'(no I don't mean dirty vs clean I mean different vs "normal"). I'd bet others like me feel the same and as a result now society has accepted that I'm problaby real smart as a result of seeing me wear my hair long and being into computers instead of just figuring me for a dead beat stoner. If you wear a Mohawk, or have several Piercings, or just refuse to wear a TIE, do us all a favor and BE REAL GOOD AT IT.

  • ...is there still room in a company for a quirky 'guru'?

    From what I read, while this guy was "quirky", I'd hardly call him a "guru"...

    ...arrived with his program, thousands of lines of uncommented and convoluted assembly language. Nothing worked; even the simplest tests we constructed failed spectacularly...

    Shouldn't one of the prerequisites for guru status be that your stuff actually works? Sounds to me like he was something of a charlatan...
  • In a word... yes... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Your_Mom (94238) <slashdot&innismir,net> on Friday October 19, 2001 @10:33AM (#2451579) Homepage
    The days of the 'software jockeys' are numbered. Businesses are not going to put up with the furry-toothed geek who works from 5-9 because it hurts productivity. For example: FTG come in at 5 codes until 9, leave, testers show up, program doesn't work, they have to wait until the next day for the FTG to fix the problem. Testers sit around twiddling their thumbs all day. This is stupid and businesses are not going to put up with it. Within 10 or so years, computer programming is going to be more of an assembly line business with each programmer doing a certain section of a large project, working 9-5 on a salary.

    Honestly, I think its better this way, I speak from experience with the above example.
    • by Zurk (37028) <zurktech@gm[ ].com ['ail' in gap]> on Friday October 19, 2001 @11:35AM (#2451933) Journal
      the thing is though -- you CANT run a software business like an assembly line. there is no blueprint - every project is unique. systems change often, bugs crop up in everything from the OS, compiler to the development platform. it takes creativity to fix all that and an assembly line drone simply will not have that creativity.
      i've gone days doing nothing simply because my mind was a blank -- i couldnt code. ive gone thru periods where i can code 24/7 and not even feel it. you can impose a 9-5 schedule but then the productivity of your best programmers will plummet like a rock. would you rather have the product up and running with a minimal of bugs in 8 months or 4 years ? i've been on a project where i threw out every single line of code developed over 4 YEARS by multiple consultants (4-5 mil $'s) with an aseembly line approach and rewrote the whole thing in 8 months to produce a working and sellable product. what would you rather have ?
  • This story is really about "How not to maintain hiring standards in a time of need."

    Honestly, it's a huge jump to go from:
    -There is a guy who seems to be a good hire, but there were some red flags from his references. We hired him anyway, and were shocked to find out it was a mistake!
    to:
    -The quirky engineer that we once considered a staple of a company is gone.

    It's a big stretch -- especially when the fault lies in the hiring practices...

  • by trilucid (515316) <pparadis@havensystems.net> on Friday October 19, 2001 @10:36AM (#2451597) Homepage Journal

    The question posed is *really* overly broad:

    'is there still room in a company for a quirky 'guru', or are projects so large now by necessity team-based development rules.'

    I'm a developer, and always will be. I've worked on projects ranging from simple contact managers to the actual Bank of America telephone banking system (I'm sorry to say, 99% written in VB 6.0) via a company in Atlanta.

    Here's a little secret about the BOA project. The core development team is 6 people. Yep, that's right, *six* people to manage a project that allows millions of people to do their banking by phone. Those people are developers; there are three primary guys above them, one dev manager, and two project managers. (Well, one more guy, the VP over that division...)

    Now, that kinda puts things in perspective. The "apparent size" of a project in no way guarantees how many dudes it takes to get the job done. Likewise, some "very small" projects end up requiring a whole lot of coders to whip out new releases. It all depends.

    Now, about the guru bit... with the BOA project, there's one guy (good friend of mine still) who's the "guru" of that team if you will. He codes VC++ and VB, and is a freakin' maniac at it. The team would be seriously hurt if he up and left (or got hit by a Marta bus) one day. Even so, nobody minds this, because he does a damn fine job.

    I think you also have to consider the fact that even in teams with a guru of sorts leading at the helm, most often he/she isn't the uber-asshole elitist coder the media would like us to believe. Sure, he may not get along very well with folks down at the local bar, but he *does* get along with the developers and project people at his job pretty darn well in most cases that I've seen.

    Room? Yes, there'll always be room. It all depends on the personality merits of who you've got.

    • by The Cat (19816) on Friday October 19, 2001 @12:06PM (#2452098)
      Here's a little secret about the BOA project. The core development team is 6 people. Yep, that's right, *six* people to manage a project that allows millions of people to do their banking by phone. Those people are developers; there are three primary guys above them, one dev manager, and two project managers. (Well, one more guy, the VP over that division...)

      Six developers, four managers.

      Wow, no wonder it costs $12 to cash a check.

  • I could be defined as "quirky" in that I am not conventional... at all. But I get the job done, and do it better than most, so there is alot of tolerance for me.

    Think about it from a hiring manager's point of view, you have 2 candidates with strong backgrounds in their field and a proven track record... but one is a straight laced drone and the other is a consumate class clown. Who is going to fit better in your enviroment? For some people the more conservative candidate will fit in, and for others a loose cannon is an accet more than a liability.

    Some people want people to just produce, others want people to think outside the box and challange everything... including their supervisor's patience.
  • by tshoppa (513863)
    I'm not sure that I fully appreciate the characterization of your typical engineering guru having a big beard, long hair, and enormous belly.

    But what else would be a "guru uniform"? I could wear a slide rule on my belt, but I suspect most slashdotters wouldn't even know what the 18-inch-long implement was for.
  • Quirky "guru"? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Jerf (17166) on Friday October 19, 2001 @10:38AM (#2451611) Journal
    "Guru"? Nothing he did worked. How, exactly, did this person attain "guru" status? Sure, the guy trying to get rid of him claimed he had knowlege, but why assume he had skills? (Esp. for the people posting without reading the article.)

    There's an amusing stereotype at work in the posts here... we are automatically granting "guru" status because he is quirky. Sorry, I still look for skillz, and all the evidence suggests that was lacking. (Uncommented assembly may indicate guru status, but only when it works... when it doesn't work, it indicates an overestimation of personal skill. Not much middle ground here.)

    The fact is that there is every bit as much room for an exceptionally talented person to bend the rules as there ever has been. Our definition of exceptionally talented is rising, though. (Besides, eccentricity itself seems to be on the decline.)
    • by Nindalf (526257) on Friday October 19, 2001 @10:54AM (#2451696)
      Guru (gu'ru): from ancient Hindi guy (guy) and uru (beard) literally "guy with a freaky big beard." Modern meaning: guy with a freaky big beard (generally bad personal hygiene habits add. imp.).
    • Re:Quirky "guru"? (Score:2, Insightful)

      by LordKronos (470910)
      "Sure, the guy trying to get rid of him claimed he had knowlege, but why assume he had skills?(Esp. for the people posting without reading the article.)"

      Question: did YOU read the artice? I did, and here is what I read:

      "Fred went on to relate how this candidate mastered every question, knew as much about the products we made as some of our own engineers, and easily fielded even the most arcane embedded questions."

      To me, that statement would give credibility to classifying him as a "guru"
      • Why should I take that quote at face value, as you do? It comes from a guy trying to get rid of the so-called "guru"! Sources don't come more suspicious then that! Meanwhile, the empirical evidence flatly contradicts the guru status. Knowlege ain't skills!
        • ...and thus is the myth of the quirky guru born, no?

          After most instances of references claiming "this guy's got f'ing insane mad skills" but they turn out to be eccentric to the point of unemployability, might not some people start thinking that high skill level necessarily means "quirky"?
  • by Snowfox (34467) <snowfox&snowfox,net> on Friday October 19, 2001 @10:41AM (#2451621) Homepage
    Some of our most valuable guys are borderline insane. These are the guys you put on the graphics engine behind a well-defined interface, and with a video game, these are the guys you turn loose on optimization toward the end of the project.

    I don't think our most valuable guy could design a way out of a paper bag, and I sure as hell wouldn't want to touch code after he's been through it. But in a few hours, he can singlehandedly double or triple the performance of code that most people are afraid to touch.

    It's okay, in my book, if people want to pursue weird interests during office hours, or if they want to keep really weird hours, so long as a steady amount of work is getting done. A lot of the best programmers I know work this way to some extent, and it keeps them fresh and interested.

    That said, the guy in the article wasn't a quirky genius. He was a circus side-show. If I have to keep pushing someone to work, they don't stay on my team, because having to spend hours each day supervising them eats into my productivity. If their code doesn't work and they can't fix it straight off, that's also useless to me. And I don't think I should ever have to remind someone to get into work - if they disappear for a few days and they haven't been in a coma, sent a postcard from wherever they eloped to, or come back with some really fucking amazing code to show for the time, I don't think there'd be a position to come back to.

      • Some of our most valuable guys are borderline insane. These are the guys you put on the graphics engine behind a well-defined interface, and with a video game, these are the guys you turn loose on optimization toward the end of the project

      Ah, the heady world of games development. I agree that (original) games development absolutely requires incredibly talented people. You can't just throw a horde of so-so hackers at it and hope that they'll muddle through. Also, if you're having discussions about how you should be working, you're already screwed. Games programmers either produce the goods then burn out, or fail to produce the goods, then burn out.

      On the other hand... I've seen games "gurus" that almost exactly mirror the story above. They shuffle from job to job, badly dressed socially incompetent and spouting the correct arcane incantations. You can't give them a technical interview, because if you knew how to do the stuff they (apparently) know, you wouldn't need them. Then as the days and weeks go by, the awful realisation dawns that they are fuckwits. They probably could do the work, but they're waiting, always waiting, for you to get the code to a stage where they can "make a difference". They'll tell you where you're going wrong, but they won't dirty their hand making it right. Oh, if you want tiny toy programs that demonstrate how to solve a completely different problem, these guys are great.

      The trouble is that it's only really possible to tell the genius from the goon by looking at their results. And by the time you realise that you're not going to get any results, you're screwed, because you needed them to be a genius.

      God damn, but I miss the mix of fun and loathing that is games development. ;-)

  • by Ars-Fartsica (166957) on Friday October 19, 2001 @10:46AM (#2451643)
    The heroic developer is the opposite of software engineering. While its often the case that one developer will carry the load of many (the 90/10 rule - 90% of the work is done by 10% of the staff), organizations often end up depending on this individual for more and more, until sooner or later the system simply breaks down.

    That said, we don't live in Utopia - some programmers are simply better than others, but if you don't have a process in place to support migration and redistribtion of that work load, you will regret it.

  • by BluePenguin (521713) on Friday October 19, 2001 @10:46AM (#2451646) Homepage
    Looking around my current environment I find several things:
    1. The SD (software development) guys make thier own hours. I've never seen an engeneer face to face and never reached one before 9 am or after 3 pm.
    2. The Unix group makes thier own hours, supplied by a wink and nod from management as long as the windows group doesn't find out.
    3. The Unix guys stash ties in thier desks in case really senior management ever drops by, but by and large, they push the envelope of the dress code.
    4. The windows group is so clean cut, crisp, and polished I could slice vegetables on their creases and use their shirts as drafting boards.

    Windows guys, hardware techs, network techs, and most any position that can be filled with a few hundred hours of training or an associates degree is becomming very clean cut and corperate. There is an abundance of these guys and management can hire people who fit the corperate image rather than more "quirky" candidates.

    In other areas, the supply is still scarce, and you take what you can get. (As the article says, they were having a hard time finding someone qualified).

    The place I see the most freedom these days though, is with Web Developers and Graphic Artists. They're supposed to be creative, expressive, and different. I think they have to be a little quirky to get past the interview.

    :q!

  • by oneiros27 (46144) on Friday October 19, 2001 @10:50AM (#2451672) Homepage
    There are folks at my office whom I would define as quirky. They are not, however, people who neglect to come into work, and do not meet their project deadlines.

    There are quite a few of us, whom, unfortunately, work into the night and on weekends. Sometimes it's just because that's the only time that we can get downtime for a machine. Normally, it's because of production problems [which have been most commonly caused by upper level management setting drop-dead deadlines, and not giving us sufficient time to load test the system before it goes live, which was in turned partially caused by production problems -- wash, rinse, repeat]

    Of our rag-tag group, we have two-ex military [one retired, who's seen a lot, been lots of places, and you really don't want to piss off, because he gets really, really, quiet, until you're just sure that he's planning revenge somehow], the other's we never see as he only works part time, and always seems to be fixing problems in other offices.

    We've got our stereotypical grizzled 'unix engineer', an ex-military contractor who used to build pools for a living, but now just bitches when people keep changing stuff at the last second. We've got your typical BOFH, who can rebuild a solaris box damned quick, but you really don't want to catch her on a bad day.

    We've got a handful of 'boring' people, who just sit there, do their work, and you never really see causing trouble. [I think they're actually allowed to go to meetings].

    And of course, there's me, who finds every opportunity to send subversive e-mails, complain about the dress code, etc. [I've since been asked not to wear armour to work, even though a gorget, is, technically, a collar]

    You do, however, had to know your environment, and how far you can push your 'quirkiness'. I make sure that I just shoot people's screens with nerf guns and make 'em jump back, I don't shoot them in the back of the head [anymore]. I know that my work is so paranoid about lawsuits that I would have to actively assault someone, or steal something to be fired, so I can give it a good push. [That's not to say, however, that I won't be passed over for promotion, etc, but well, I don't want to be management, so that's fine for me] I've also proven myself as a hard worker, and can make my deadlines, and I've been here long enough that I've made friends in enough departments that I got requests to transfer when I had to leave one department when my manager pissed me off.

    So well, 'quirky' is here to stay. 'Incompetant' and 'lazy piece of crap' are not. 'Scares co-workers' is out, also.
  • Legal Problems (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Armaphine (180636)
    Maybe it's just me and being somewhat inexperienced in the ways of company legalities, but how would there be issues with not giving someone good references? Shouldn't there be something there to allow one employer tell another about a guy like the one in the story?
    • Just because it's technically legal doesn't mean it isn't inviting a lawsuit over "libel" or somesuch. Remember: merely getting sued and fighting the suit, regardless of the suit's merit, is a fantastically unprofitable activity in the eyes of most business manages...and unfortunately, they're almost always correct in that belief.
  • There's a big difference between the two.
  • Okay, first, an agreement that this guy wasn't just quirky.

    But, I wanted to share an overall perception that my management readily agrees with. Your best Systems Administrators *ARE* a bit unusual. The more normal a person is, chances are, the less skilled of an SA they are.

    Knowing this helps quite a bit in the interview process. "This guy seems normal. But he doesn't seem to be very skilled."

    It also helps when dealing with members of a team, "This guy can be a pain in the ass sometimes, but he really has some great ideas."

    My team is full of unusual people, with a few normals mixed in. Generally, as long as the person isn't in outer-space, or is outrageous, you can mesh their quirks quite nicely, and sometimes take advantage of them.

    But none were as "quirky" as that guy.

  • Quirkiness should always be accepted in the workplace the same as other traits of personality should be allowed for. What shouldn't be allowed for is the primmadonna attitude fostered by engineers who decide that they're irreplaceable.

    I read one time on here that some guy refused to open a document someone had sent him at work because it wasn't in an "open format." Give me a break.

    As the economy gets tighter, more and more people have the luxury of working with people that are team players and lots of "gurus" who are assholes are going to find their skills more replaceable than they thought.
  • When I read the article I expected to read about some developer who was highly skilled but eccentric who ended up being fired because his/her boss could no longer deal with the developer's eccentricities. Instead what I read was a typical story of a developer who got canned for being unable to deliver. His "quirkiness" or eccentricity had little to do with it and in fact it looked like his employers may even have practiced a little reverse discrimination in assuming that simply by being eccentric he ws a high performer which turned out to be false. Kinda reminds me of how most companies expect their Indian programmers to be geniuses and react with surprise when some of them turn out not to be.

    Anyway, from my experiences working in different software companies over the past few years, "quirky" engineers that deliver still exist and are respected by many in their organizations.
  • I've worked on large projects where there is no one person in charge. It didn't work. It was fun, and all, but in the end it didn't produce.

    You need someone to stand up to management and say "java 0.9 might be the latest thing, and it might be the future, but it doesn't work today, so lets not make it our only interface". You need someone to stand up and say "The GUI is not the place to put critical error checking." You need someone to stand up and say "a remote boot device doesn't specify what software it runs (including version) , a remote device specifys what it is, and what the proms version is, and we figgure out the proper software based on what is installed."

    The above are just a few of the real examples of where a project goes wrong when you don't have one smart, EXPIRENCED guy in charge who has power over management to say how it works.

    Marketing tells you what sells, enginerring says what can be done, and project management makes sure it gets done on time, and upper management makes sure the budget works out. The cheif engineer screams "It has to work" and "That can't work" at the other engineers all day until something that is designed right and works is produced. (at which time you go on to the enxt project part time, and maintian the old junk).

    If there isn't one engineer who management gives absolute power to say how this will be designed, then the project will fail.

  • I've found that if you look at people and organizations closely enough you find people broadly divided into two groups (beware: sweeping generalization approaching). The groups are capability and capacity. As an organization, you need both, but it is important to recognize the roles they play.

    Capability people are the people with the skills to build new things and handle complex, unknown situations in an effective manner. They are the "heavy lifters" that are capable of solving complex problems that don't have text book solutions and don't show up in the policies and procedures manuals. They enable you to do things that weren't possible before. In other words, the add capabilities to your systems (whether technological or organizational).

    Capacity people are your solid performers. They are reliable and have the skills to get the job done. They make sure that the "i"s are dotted and the "t"s are crossed and do the grinding sort of work which isn't always glamorous, but keeps things running every day and distinguishes the pros from the amateurs. As an organization grows, these are the people who provide the horsepower to keep it moving.

    It's crucial to recognize which group a person fits into and how their values to an organization differ. The capacity people aren't really geared toward creating new things or adding features to a system. They are valuable because they keep your organization going and free up your capability people. Capability people are usually not well suited to grind-it-out sorts of tasks, but when the going gets tough, these are the folks who pull your fat out of the fire. They also enable you to do things that simply wouldn't be possible for your organization otherwise.

    So back to the question at hand: is there room for the "quirky" engineer? The answer is that there certainly is, but you need to know where to put that person and how to use them. I suspect that most of the "quirky" types will fit in the capability group. Your expectation of that person is to solve the really nasty problems that no one else can tackle. That person must also be able to communicate somewhat effectively with the rest of the team as well to enable them to fill in the blanks. Don't put them in a place where you expect them to attend lots of meetings and crank out line after line of mundane (but necessary) code. They will not do well in that environment.

    As a manager, you need to ensure that the capability people communicate effectively with capacity people (who will do the leg work of getting the results out the door). You also need to ensure that the capability person is living up to his/her billing and getting the job done. In the case sited in the article this was clearly not happening. To me that has little to do with the quirks and more to do with actual performance (the two are not mutually exclusive).

    Of course, it's also possible that this is the product of a completely insane train of thought on my part. But what the heck, it's Friday.

    Best!
    • Capability people are the people with the skills to build new things and handle complex, unknown situations in an effective manner. They are the "heavy lifters" that are capable of solving complex problems that don't have text book solutions and don't show up in the policies and procedures manuals.

      Manuals which no doubt have a chapter on "how to avoid hiring anyone with capabilities"

  • Well, I call myself a "software developer", actually. I've got the beard and ponytail, I weigh about 300 pounds, I haven't worn a suit or tie to work in years, I'm not one to pretend I'm heterosexual, and oh, by the way, my last company credited me with saving their financial ass last year.

    I provide expertise that no one else in my area seems to have and I stay very, very billable. I've pulled one all-nighter in the last decade but will do whatever is necessary to get a project done on time. I will work by myself or as part of a team, and I don't think anyone I've worked with would equate my "quirkiness" with an inability to help my team reach its goals.

    While bad economic times can force people like me to at least pretend to conform a little bit, I've gotten a lot of mileage out of fixing systems created by guys from companies run as though they were temp agencies. I think the author needs to examine his company's interview style as others have suggested. But he should also take a look at his own motivations: people who make part of their living lecturing are effectively salespeople, and salespeople require an entirely different set of traits to be effective.

    Appearance and political prowess aren't valid measures of engineering competence; productivity is.
  • As one of two engineers out of 40 in my company that sport long hair and hippie-ish attitudes, I take exception to this article. I don't think the example of Tom was a good one -- there are still lots of us anarchistic (and, yes, given my proprensity to dressing in medieval garb, anachronistic!) hippie types making a *difference* in their company. And I have to prove myself even more -- because I am a college drop out and many of the more clean cut folks I work with are degreed CompSci engineers. Do they think I am quirky and eccentric (you should have seen the looks some peopel gave me when i pinned up the "history of Unix" flowchart that wraps halfway across my cubicle)? Hell yeah. Does it interfere with my work (who do they come to when they have obscure Unix questions)? Hell no! Does anyone give me a hard time for being 'quirky'? You're damn straight they don't!
  • by trb (8509)
    Read the article and factor out the "quirky" part. He looks and smells grubby, both are irrelevant to his productivity. He got some "quirky" references from former employers. I have never really understood the references thing, how big a loser does a hacker have to be to not be able to find someone on earth to vouch for him?

    I have have worked with quirky/grubby folks who are God's gift to hacking, angels fallen from heaven. RMS is quirky, I wouldn't mind having him hack on anything I needed done, warts and all. And I don't dress like a GQ model since I spend all my time typing and staring at a screen and crawling under tables pulling cables and arm-wrestling robots.

    Of course, quirky is a subjective matter. For some people, quirky means a beard, for others, it means sacrificing children to Moloch. Hiring a good hacker is a a bit of a crap shoot, but whether he seems quirky just isn't relevant.

  • by overshoot (39700)
    I've been in the electronics industry for more than 25 years, am (as they say) "not unknown in my field" and consulted by senior management in one of the largest electronics corporations in the world.

    My business card reads, "Mad Scientist."

    I may not be Bob Pease, but I'm trying!

  • by karb (66692) on Friday October 19, 2001 @11:11AM (#2451806)
    We have a guy who works at my job who is amazing. I am a software developer and he is one of the systems guys who does system admin type stuff. He won an award a few months ago based on his contributions to his organization and is basically a junior chief engineer.

    However, the man is an idiot. He's tempermental, and solves some problems quickly but others not at all (and never answers forms of communication if he isn't going to help). He is also in a position where developers frequently need his help to be able to do their job (we're required to go through him).

    Despite his technical brilliance, I don't think that any developer here would rather have him than somebody with 100th of his talent who was easier to work with. If they need help, we have plenty of non-quirky expertise and can always call tech support from various vendors. It's better to have reliable good help than spotty expert help.

    We do have some quirky geniuses here that I do like, by the way (they're my heroes). It's just that they are quirky geniuses who also happen to be non-vindictive and responsible.

  • We once had this contract UNIX guy,who insisted on be called Obi-wan, actually I didn't even know his real name. His van would be in the parking lot, even when I got there early, but he would roll out of the back of it about 5 mins after 8 everyday in a cloud of smoke. But it didn't matter because he had mad skillz and could acomplish in a day what it would take the rest of us together a week. So I say, call him Obi-wan, make sure not to take lunch in the back of his van and enjoy the show.
  • I happen to be working on a project that has only 3 people on it. I would hardly call it a "team" effort. The only team ideas that we have are, "What are you working on so I don't duplicate your effort?"

    I would call all three of us quirky, in some way, shape or form. One guy constantly shows up late, another is more interested in paintball at times than work, I probably spend too much time worrying about whether or not there is enough food and coffee (for me, not the office).

    We each have our own opinions about how the project is to be built, and our own methods of going about building it, but the one thing we do have in common is that none of us are out right schmucks, like "Tom" in the article.

    That guy just sounds like a putz. I wouldn't call him quirky, I'd call him an asshole. Too lazy to understand that with a paycheck, comes obligation.

    When I hire folks, I don't give a damn how eccentric they are, just as long as they understand the obligation bit, and produce.

  • The article generalizes software development too much. I have worked on numerous software projects ranging from database apps to n-tier applications to device drivers to custom servers etc... There is little room (and indeed, little need) for a 'guru' when developing database applications which focus on data collation and entry. Most 4GL languages are simple enough for run-of-the-mill developers to 'get into'. However, it takes a special breed of person to tackle lower-level code and the truly ground-breaking applications.

    The problem is this; developers who work 9-5 and are 'normal' as society portrays rarely meet coding challenges outside work, and, as such, will not have the broad knowledge gained from reading around the subject. Social outcasts may well not understand business needs, but, if their time is spent wisely, DO understand the intrinsics and tricks of lower level code in order to get the job done better than the competition.

    It all depends on the task in hand.

  • by rikrebel (132912) on Friday October 19, 2001 @11:28AM (#2451906)
    Being one of these somewhat quirky, highly individual, 11 year *.com techies, I have some insight on this issue.

    First, the type of person mentioned in this article is more like a corporate myth in the sense of an urban myth. I have rarely come across such useless people and have never tolerated them in my environments. If the author of this article had spent the time it took to type it on interviewing the candidate I am sure he could have avoided the whole situation.

    Frankly there is some merit to what the point the author is trying to make, altho not perhaps the exact point.

    There is little tolerance in the corporate market right now for individual thinkers, loners if you will, and especially to guru's seeking lots of perks even if it is for lots of good work. This is somewhat understandable, I mean, how many of you have had engineers over-use the flexible schedule you allow them? How many of you have had to insist that your employees wear their shoes when running around the office, not sleep under their desk, or to get some dandruff shampoo? I am sure there are plenty of these cases.

    Unfortunately, the cattle of corporate culture have had a bit of a knee jerk reaction to the whole 'crash' and the climate is rediculously herd-like. This is not the answer, and frankly this type of extremism won't last just as the type of free-wheeling internet company culture didn't.

    To give you an example: The vendor of our new billing, provisioning, and CRM system had informed one of our developers that they had completed his assigned project for him: integrating a web based filemanager into their system. Of course QA signed off on it but it was never really tested. Four days before the launch, it was noticed by a support person and brought to general attention that the program authenticated but didn't work at all. Basically, the vendor did a small portion of the work.

    Being the most Sr. technical person and the most proficient developer in house (I run R&D and Eng.), I end up being the 'buck-stops-here' guy. So, I spent that Thursday, Friday, and Saturday working from home 18 hours per day to complete the integration work, full regression testing, and documentation.

    On monday, the CEO calls me and his other direct reports into a meeting at 9:00am. I was expecting significant praise for getting a tough project done in time to save the launch date of a 7 month project. What I got instead was a general message to send to my staff and the rest of the company that we must be at the office working from 9:00am till 6:00pm mon-fri regardless.

    When I asked him how he would address the issue of me working from home (we have a very interruptive workplace) in order to complete the a key task on time and extensive use of my personal time, he basically responded that he wanted me to do the work at the office (including the Saturday work) and made some comment about being paid the big-bucks... This discussion degraded into him sharing his perception that all of the technology group was over-paid and under-performing. He made some exeption for me, saying I worked hard just was over-paid. He also has the impression that job market is so bad that we must accept his perceptions. All of us made cases in return and he waved them off without further discussion (he is a pretty bad manager when it comes to conflict).

    Of course I will do what is asked. I am quirky, individual, driven, but am a team player. I also know how to make a point. The next time this sort of thing happens (which is often), I'll insist on being paid the OT in my contract. I'll also go back to making him personally call me when he needs help from me on my time when the operations team is unable to fix a problem.

    Altho this sounds like so much bitching, my friends in similar situations all tell similar stories. Even tho they are successfull, productive, typically over-worked, gurus, they are treated like they resemble the man mentioned in the article above. It's unfortunate, but this is reality for many. Far more real and far more common than type type of situation portrayed in the article on embedded.com.

    How do I handle it? Patience. For now, I just wait. The *.com boom had an end, the *.com crash will too. I try to show good work, productivity, and I try to be more agreeable. I keep my more innovative ideas to myself, saved for a time when they are more acceptable to the herd.

    rr.
  • by Telecommando (513768) on Friday October 19, 2001 @11:29AM (#2451908)
    Here where I work, we had an electrical design engineer who everyone referred to as "ZZ", due to his ZZTop style beard and long hair that hung down below his waist. Strange fellow, liked to talk about UFO abductions, Harleys and why fat women were better in bed. Helluva engineer, though. He'd look at a diagram for a minute or two, then whip out a pencil and start marking it up. Deleting unnecessary parts, changing values, adding parts... When he was done it was usually simpler, cheaper and more solidly designed. He was respected among all in the engineering department. Whenever someone would come up with a new circuit change they were always told, "run it past ZZ first." His own designs were often unique and innovative. It might take you a while to figure out what he was doing but when you did you just kinda sat back and said, "Wow!"

    When we had a management shakeup a few years ago, where it was decided to shuffle all the managers around to different departments, his new manager took an immediate dislike to him. He called ZZ a "goddamn filthy hippie freak" in a staff meeting and ordered him to either show up clean shaven the next day or be fired. Of course, ZZ declined. Actually, ZZ was quite fastidious in his appearance. His beard and hair probably took an hour to comb out and braid everyday.

    The manager didn't fire him, but did do his best to make his life a living hell. Finally after about a year, ZZ got fed up with it and left.

    We didn't see or hear anything from ZZ for a couple of years after that. One day we had a big project that wasn't going well and our manager hired a consulting company to come in and help straighten things out. He asked for their best man. As you've probably guessed, the engineer who showed up was none other than ZZ himself. He had taken a year off to motorcycle across Asia before joining the consulting company. He was making 3 times what he was before. Our manager had to grit his teeth and refer to ZZ as "Mister ZZ" (ZZ insisted) until the project was completed.
    • We didn't see or hear anything from ZZ for a couple of years after that. One day we had a big project that wasn't going well and our manager hired a consulting company to come in and help straighten things out. He asked for their best man. As you've probably guessed, the engineer who showed up was none other than ZZ himself. He had taken a year off to motorcycle across Asia before joining the consulting company. He was making 3 times what he was before. Our manager had to grit his teeth and refer to ZZ as "Mister ZZ" (ZZ insisted) until the project was completed.

      (Wipes tear from eye) *sniff* That was beautiful... ;)

  • The main problem at least in a business sense is that those efforts can rarely be repeated on the next project or continued on the current project if the one key guru leaves for some reason or another.

    We had a brilliant kid in my research group on grad school. He could code up just about anything. Elegant code too. Problem was it was next to impossible to follow up behind him to document his work and he was so "quirky" that it was like pulling teeth to get him to go over it with you.

    That's a valuable guy but he's certainly a management challenge to integrate him effectively into a development team.

    Is there room for him? Certainly.

    But he better be worth the extra effort to manage him effectively.

    Quirky + brilliant = YES
    Quirky + average = NO
  • So what if you are a guy with calico colored hair who wears a skirt? Can you fix our problems? Yes? Great? That's what I've seen before, and I expect it will remain that way as long as we have the attitude that "diversity" and stuff like that matters.

    When times were good, this was especially so. I used to describe the interview process to people like this:

    Interviewer I see you have a felony drug conviction... oh wait. You answered that question about TCP/IP correctly. You're hired!

    Interviewee Great. When do I start?

    Of course now that people are being layed off left and right, it won't be quite this easy. OTOH, if the guy has a great resume I bet they still don't care what he looks like.

    As for the guy in the article, he was just a bum. Even "back in the day" performance mattered. It might have taken a few months back then, but anybody who didn't perform got let go sooner or later; with no regard to race, creed, or hair color.

  • OK maybe not a disorder -- it's a matter of degree -- but we all know the type, and many of us are them: hasta hasta hasta be the special one, the center of attention, has to be different, on top, front and center, the star.

    If you've read Miller's "Drama of the Gifted Child" you understand this type of person. These people have tremendous unmet needs (no need to go into the psychogenesis here, read the book). If you as a manager can meet those needs, they will perform for you beyond expectations. Meeting those needs requires one simple thing: you have to help them feel good about themselves, valued, safe and secure, because they never learned how to do it for themselves when they were younger.

    This simple thing isn't so simple, though, especially since many technology managers are themselves former geeks -- insecure, hypercompetitive types to whom the idea of building someone else's ego is the very last thing to occur to them. Not everyone can effectively manage the gifted and driven. Done right, however, the return on a manager's interpersonal investment can be significant.

    Every team has room for a star, but to give the star slot to someone without the star abilities risks at least two bad things: having the rest of the team laugh them out of the office (bad outcome), and having other potential stars perform at less than their full ability (why is this person getting the glory when I'm better than him?).

    So, as a hiring manager, you have to ask yourself a couple questions:

    does this person have stellar abilities that make it worth the extra effort?

    am i willing to provide the frequent ego-stroking required to keep them performing at a high level?

    are the team and the organization willing to support me in providing this individual with the social identity of "the gifted one"?

    There's more you can say, but I think this is the essence of it.

  • Two paragraphs in... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by The Cat (19816) on Friday October 19, 2001 @11:57AM (#2452052)
    ...and the word "stereotype" started echoing through this article, louder and louder.

    [comment mode="sarcasm"]Yes, of course. The lone genius *is* an anachronism, just like shareware, and inventors, and entrepreneurs, and garage developers, and (wait for it) UNIX? [/comment]

    When engineers are subject to the "upgrade-discard-upgrade" cycle of the programs they produce, companies will not benefit from their knowledge, because they *choose* not to.

    Most of these companies are seeking to assemble the "perfect" development team, where there is no disagreement, and never a missed milestone, and birds chirp and there is a light breeze over the meadow.

    They want "team players" which is company-speak for "people who will agree with us even when we are wrong."

    They want extremely intelligent, competent, professional people who ALSO have no ideas about the right or wrong way to do anything, who will gladly throw away all their experience to do things the "company" way, and who will not mind having no substantial contribution to the project EXCEPT to work 15-hour days writing code to half of a broken specification, with a big smile.. BIG SMILE!!!!

    As a matter of policy, they drive away highly qualifed, extremely intelligent engineers who can do the work of five people when they are at maximum output, and are worth ten times what they are offered as compensation... until they are laid off two months after being hired, of course.

    Interesting how one word sets off "alarm bells." Is it really any wonder that so many software engineers are out of work? Only this guy had the "elusive combination," huh?

    Hmmm... here's a short list of the losers in this story:

    1. The company didn't complete their project
    2. The guy that got hired lost his job
    3. All the other candidates that applied are still unemployed
    4. The customers got a [broken|late] product

    ..and of course, it's all the employee's fault. I didn't see any of the managers having to explain themselves either. I'll also guess they still have a fully-staffed HR department as well, complete with rows and rows of desks covered with accumulated coffee mugs, houseplants, stuffed animals and framed pictures belonging to people who have been gainfully employed on an uninterrupted basis for years.

    I guess the "word search" hiring technique isn't really the best approach. Of course, wanton incompetence never seems to disqualify anyone anymore, only having 99% of the job requirements does.

    The frequent use of the "Always Right Manager" buzzwords like "prima donna" were also entertaining.

    Prima donnas are sometimes a good thing. Like when it's third and 15 on your own 35 with 40 seconds left in the game, down by six? You're the GM. Who would you rather have, Joe Montana or some guy that plays QB?

    "Software engineering has been the last refuge of the non-conformist... but times are changing."

    That's right. YOU WILL CONFORM. YOU WILL HAVE NO INDEPENDENT IDEAS. YOU WILL DO AS YOU ARE TOLD.

    Sounds like a real winner. I'll pass.

    Someone ought to start a company of old "prima donnas" and see if they can out-produce the team players and their management teams. I'll invest.
  • by bob (73)

    cf. "a little luny" in Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street [bartleby.com] written by Herman Melville in 1853:

    "I prefer not to," he replied in a flute-like tone. It seemed to me that while I had been addressing him, he carefully revolved every statement that I made; fully comprehended the meaning; could not gainsay the irresistible conclusion; but, at the same time, some paramount consideration prevailed with him to reply as he did.

    "You are decided, then, not to comply with my request? a request made according to common usage and common sense?"

    He briefly gave me to understand that on that point my judgment was sound. Yes: his decision was irreversible.

    It is not seldom the case that when a man is browbeaten in some unprecedented and violently unreasonable way, he begins to stagger in his own plainest faith. He begins, as it were, vaguely to surmise that, wonderful as it may be, all the justice and all the reason is on the other side. Accordingly, if any disinterested persons are present, he turns to them for some reinforcement for his own faltering mind.

    "Turkey," said I, "what do you think of this? Am I not right?"

    "With submission, sir," said Turkey, with his blandest tone, "I think that you are."

    "Nippers," said I, "what do you think of it?"

    "I think I should kick him out of the office."

    (The reader of nice perceptions will here perceive that, it being morning, Turkey's answer is couched in polite and tranquil terms, but Nippers replies in ill-tempered ones. Or, to repeat a previous sentence, Nippers's ugly mood was on duty, and Turkey's off.)

    "Ginger Nut," said I, willing to enlist the smallest suffrage in my behalf, "what do you think of it?"

    "I think, sir, he's a little luny," replied Ginger Nut, with a grin.

    "You hear what they say," said I, turning towards the screen, "come forth and do your duty."

  • The lone genius may just be an anachronism.

    According to Fred Brooks' [kzoo.edu] classic, The Mythical Man Month, you should build your team around gurus, not try to integrate them. This guy may have been a dud but gurus are still worth looking for because they can be as much as 20 times more productive than other programmers when used properly.

    They are cheaper, even when highly paid, not only because they are more productive but because they reduce project management problems since fewer programmers are needed.

    A better approach than recruiting gurus may be to take good programmers and make them better and mediocre programmers and make them good. You can achieve this objective by training, incentives and sometimes just asking a programmer what he needs to be better. A manager who tries this approach should steel himself for what he may hear.

  • There are still plenty of gurus, but they no longer know everything about everything, they just know absolutely everything about a couple of things. Team development sets up an environment where those that aren't gurus can in fact contribute, but the gurus are still very useful and important.
  • by catslaugh (443278)
    I'm one of those quirky engineers out there; at 30 years old, I seem to be one of the last. Most of my co-workers don't seem to feel like bringing color into the workplace from any source, let alone Archie McPhee [mcphee.com] [www.mcphee.com] or Despair, Inc. [despair.com] [www.despair.com]. My manager was slightly worried when I arrived at work and promptly put up a fuzzy stuffed gargoyle "trophy" head on my cube wall with a Pointy-Haired Boss doll gripped in its jaws.

    I get very little trouble for being quirky, though. I've even had jobs where they make a point of bringing interview candidates past my office.

    The most important part of being a quirky engineer is being competent. You have to make it abundantly clear that your quirkiness doesn't detrimentally affect your job performance.

    Raw productivity, though, is not enough. You also need to be present during reasonable hours to be accessible as a resource to the other engineers, to answer questions for folks from other parts of the company (such as Marketing and QA), and you have to make it to the meetings.

    I'm not sure how long this is going to last as an available mode of operation. As more and more people become programmers because it's a job, rather than because they like messing around with computers and are willing to redirect their messing around for pay, the fraction of quirky programmers will diminish. (I've experimented with inducing it-- when one previous job changed buildings, I purchased the Medium-Sized Treasure Box, the Bag of Mystery, and a gallon of Tiny Treasures from Archie McPhee, spread them all out on a spare desk, and said "It's free!" Unbeknownst to me, a friend in QA spread a lie that I'd be terribly hurt if people didn't take at least one. Weird goodies spread over the entire company, and some people started bringing in some of their own.) As long as we can keep the correlation of quirkiness and competence high, though, we should be able to keep software engineering safe for weirdness for a good while yet.

  • My father was on the mechanical side of things, though. Anything Tim Allen joked about, he did (though a few years ago he hauled off his turbocharged lawnmower to the dump after many years of faithful service).

    However, his skill for spotting and correcting problems in the manufacturing process that fly right over suits' heads earned him respect, and a position in upper-middle management at Xerox. All this without completing his college degree.
    You can tell I admire the guy. I still turn to him frequently for advice even in my field where the nature of the work is different but the disciplines are the same. Quirky engineers are cool, especially when they can work with people and actually solve problems. There won't be any shortage of jobs for them to fill anytime soon, I think.
  • by dstone (191334) on Friday October 19, 2001 @01:04PM (#2452359) Homepage
    I love hiring and working with quirky people. But for all the romance of having a rag-tag, superhero-caliber team, you'd better be prepared to step up to the management plate in a big way. If you hire sheep and lemmings, your job as project leader will be relatively simple. If you hire the moody geniuses, you better give them some clear goals, lots of milestones (that are verifiable), and for god's sake, when you hire someone, put them on probation or under contract with some really explicit goals for a few months. If you can black-box their responsibilities, even better, because then you don't have to worry about tracking hours or social interaction as much. But make the terms of probation very clear and tell them 1) you don't care how they do it (this will earn their respect), 2) what you expect to be delivered and how you plan to test/verify it very critically, 3) that time is of the essense (eventually, they'll be put on a project where it is), and 4) what the consequences will be if they succeed and if they fail. Keep the trial period short and make no excuses or apologies in the end if you cut your losses. Try to keep the candidate on relevant tasks but out of the critical path of current projects. That's ideal, I know, and doing so can be very expensive, especially for a small company. But consider it part of the investment in acquiring an employee and be prepared to walk away from your sunk costs spent evaluating someone. I've met very few managers who can do this well, including myself.

    The guy in the article was no guru or genius -- he was a burned-out slob, whose sole accomplishment was rising to the challenge of getting hired.
  • by pkesel (246048) <pkesel@chart e r .net> on Friday October 19, 2001 @01:11PM (#2452383) Journal
    I've been the guru, the guy with the answers in the middle of the night when the last demon from Hell has just run through your server rack. I've been through the adjustment.

    The moment your 'quirks' start to keep any significant part of the organization from functioning well, you'd better start making things right. No matter what rabbit you can pull out of your hat, most management won't let you keep waving it when the rest of the crew wants to hang you.

    The web paradigm, with lots of smaller pieces making up large enterprise application, makes the guru less of an asset. The guru isn't going to make a monumental impact on a 500 line servlet. The guru is the guy who knows that there's a gotcha back in some back corner of the 100,000 lines of application code. In the early days there were poeple who could dazzle the crowd with web tricks, but it's too well known, and most people now know that web programming isn't all that tough.
  • One of the best science fictional examples of this are Henry Kuttner (as Lewis Padgett's) Gallagher stories (collected in Robots Have No Tails), about a guy who's a genius inventor, but only when he's completely drunk! He gets sloshed, builds something, passes out, and when he comes to, he had no idea what it was he built! Funny stuff, and highly politically incorrect today. Anyway,even Kuttner knew that Gallagher couldn't work in a corporate environment (even one extropalated from the 1940s!), so he has him as a consultant.

    Though somewhat dated now, there's a great section from one of the stories ("Ex Machina," 1948) which could have been written today: "The social trend always lags behind the technological one...moreover, an electronic duplicator could infringe not only on patents but on property right, and attroneys prepared volumious breifs on such issues as whether "rarity rights" are real property...the world, slightly punch-drunk on technology, was trying desperately to walk a straight line...It was all perfectly clear to the technicians, but they were much too impractical to be consulted; they were apt to remark "So my gadget unstabilizes property rights? Well-why have property rights then?"

    Not bad for half a century before Napster...

  • by daviskw (32827) on Friday October 19, 2001 @01:56PM (#2452563)
    I've been on a lot of projects and there are two types of 'Quirky' developers that I've come across. The first is the long haired hippy type. They may have short hair, but the have the sole of someone from Oakland. These are the guys that no every odd little thing about their operating system of choice. They play D&D. They code like demons. Sometimes a project can't live without them. Usually nobody even notices they are gone. The second 'quirky' type is much more sublte. He's the one with the wierd laugh. He's probably annoying. He may smell but probably doesn't. Management usually hates him but every once in a while he become management. These are the guys who don't get the girl. They don't get the program. They couldn't tell you what the scores to the game were last weekend and they definetly don't even know what games were played last weekend. Their attention is on their code. They are the people who everybody else goes to for help. These are the people that other programmer's look up to. They are 'quirky' true. But they are programmers and developers and without fail if a company chases one of these guys away the company won't produce anything good after that. If you're Microsoft you may have a dozen or two dozen of these guys and may two or three hundred of the other type.

    Fancy tricks like XP and Scrum are nice buzz words from people who don't code in the trenches anymore, but, if you scare away the chief guru then you might as well shut the door to the business. I've seen that happen at least three times.

    There is a difference between 'Guru' and 'Wierdo' and the author should have known better.
  • Unix and tie-dye (Score:3, Interesting)

    by bee (15753) on Friday October 19, 2001 @03:06PM (#2452849) Homepage Journal
    A friend of mine was being hired as a contractor in the Boston area. Before she showed up to work, she asked what the dress code was. "Oh, it's relaxed, wear whatever you want", she was told. So she shows up wearing a tie-dyed shirt and bluejeans. Most everyone else there is wearing shirt&tie or otherwise 'professional' clothing. So she asks around, "is what I'm wearing ok? I seem to be out of place here" but is told "no, that's fine, wear what you want". Later on she found out that the presumption in the company was that the real Unix wizard-types wear tie-dye or what have you, so she was inadvertantly reinforcing their perception.

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