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Hiring Is Obsolete

(May 19, 2005) - Paul Graham is an essayist, programmer, and programming language designer. He's one of those people who just won't pigeonhole easily. A tech-writer with an ear for the big picture, Graham has been at the forefront of Web development since the beginning.

His latest work, Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age, is a series of essays (many available on his website) about the function and importance of technical people and their processes. Graham's thesis seems to be that 'nerds' are today's renaissance people. Larger than life and better than normal folks, the smart, technical people prefer accomplishment to popularity:

The key to this mystery is to rephrase the question slightly. Why don't smart kids make themselves popular? If they're so smart, why don't they figure out how popularity works and beat the system, just as they do for standardized tests?

One argument says that this would be impossible, that the smart kids are unpopular because the other kids envy them for being smart, and nothing they could do could make them popular. I wish. If the other kids in junior high school envied me, they did a great job of concealing it. And in any case, if being smart were really an enviable quality, the girls would have broken ranks. The guys that guys envy, girls like.

In the schools I went to, being smart just didn't matter much. Kids didn't admire it or despise it. All other things being equal, they would have preferred to be on the smart side of average rather than the dumb side, but intelligence counted far less than, say, physical appearance, charisma, or athletic ability.

So if intelligence in itself is not a factor in popularity, why are smart kids so consistently unpopular? The answer, I think, is that they don't really want to be popular.

If someone had told me that at the time, I would have laughed at him. Being unpopular in school makes kids miserable, some of them so miserable that they commit suicide. Telling me that I didn't want to be popular would have seemed like telling someone dying of thirst in a desert that he didn't want a glass of water. Of course I wanted to be popular.

But in fact I didn't, not enough. There was something else I wanted more: to be smart. Not simply to do well in school, though that counted for something, but to design beautiful rockets, or to write well, or to understand how to program computers. In general, to make great things.
- from Why Nerds Are Unpopular, Paul Graham

Echoing Ayn Rand, Graham paints heroic pictures of the people who spend their time creating at the edge of technology. Like the high-rise architects and railroad visionaries who populated Rand's work, a sense of earned arrogance flows through the underpinnings of Graham's works. The harsh judgments reserved for the elite flow easily from his pen.

This is a glimpse into the archetypal mind of the engineer. Any recruiter working the technical ranks should read, absorb and pass around Graham's stuff. It's strong, intelligent and sympathetic.

Graham's latest piece, Hiring Is Obsolete, is a showcase of these ideas. Based on a talk given at the Berkeley Student Union, Graham offers smart insight bout the power and potential of young 'nerds'. Hiring is obsolete because it grossly underestimates the value brought to the enterprise by a certain form of worker.

The employment practices inferred in the piece are in place at a number of Silicon Valley companies. No apologist for the dot-com era, Graham offers meaningful insight into the issues associated with harnessing real talent at the far end of the value spectrum. It's a reminder that not everything we saw together was an example of excess.

John Sumser

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Materials written by John Sumser © TwoColorHat. All Rights Reserved.
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