I was reading Beautiful Teams the other day. In chapter 2, Scott Berkun talks about “Ugly Teams” and weighs in with an opinion on academic scores and how they tell you nothing about a persons aptitude (of course when I say “person”, in my mind that translates to – “developer” :)). I’ve heard similar opinions so many times now that I felt like I had to champion the other side of the argument. Here are some quotes:
“If we go beneath the superficial, perfect grades often mean the perfect following of someone else's rules”
“They (good grades) are not good indicators of passionate, free-thinking, risk-taking minds”
“The tragedy of a team of perfect people is that they will all be so desperate to maintain their sense of perfection, their 4.0 in life, that when faced with the pressure of an important project their selfish drives will tear the team apart”
“Beautiful people are afraid of scars: they don't have the imagination to see how beautiful scars can be”
Frankly I have to say – that is all so much bullshit. How is it that in the world of software, mediocre grades have come to be equated with creativity and flair and flashes of genius. “Oh, he is an academic underachiever you say – well that must mean he is a creative, entrepreneurial go-getter who thinks outside the box”. You see they just didn’t get the poor guy at university, it is so sad that his genius has been overlooked. What a load of rubbish, why is it that this side of the argument is never vociferously argued by people with perfect GPAs and a record of academic excellence? Sure, poor grades can be an indicator of a creative mind but they can also indicate laziness, inability to concentrate, lack of knowledge and skill, inability to complete tasks, poor interpersonal skills etc. Good grades can sometimes mean slavish obedience (rarely), but are more likely to indicate, superior knowledge, better study skills, adaptability, great teamwork skills, quicker mind etc. It is beyond me how high academics can possibly indicate lack of passion and creativity.
So you want to employ some people, you have some high academic achievers and you have some mediocre ones, who do you hire? Do consider the average Joe, those grade jockeys are just law-abiding drones, Joe is the radical who is going to revolutionise the industry, he just needs the right kind of motivation. What about motivation then? Lack of the right kind of motivation is often cited as the reason for average academic performance. If only our underachieving friends had the “right” kind of motivation, they would be brilliant. Well, it’s not as if the high achievers get their kicks out of boring lectures and worked examples. The difference is that the high achievers are able do well and motivate themselves despite the banality and minutia. So which skill is more valuable, ability to self-motivate no matter what, or passively waiting for the “right” type of motivation? Are you sure you have the “right” kind where you are?
Let’s get this one out of the way, cause it will inevitably come up. Yes, there are plenty of people in the world of software who had average (or worse) grades when they were studying, but have since “made it”. They gained kudos, money, the acceptance of their peers (either or all of those) there is no arguing this point. But that in itself is the problem, these academic underachievers who succeed have the spotlight cast upon them, because people didn’t expect it of them. They get hailed and written about – see, even the average Joe can make it. Thing is – they are the exception, not the rule. These people succeeded “despite the fact” and this is the very reason why they are interesting. People love an underdog story, makes us feel good, nobody wants to hear about the brilliant guy who lived up to his potential and made it big, as per expectations.
Rather than looking at high academic achievers as conformist drones, let me paint another picture for you. Those who get good grades are the ultimate survivors. They enter an environment, evaluate it critically to figure out what skills they need to succeed and thrive in said environment. They then put in the effort to gain and/or sharpen these skills. At this point they can apply their knowledge and skills with precision to get to the top of their environment and stay there. Excellent academic results are just a side-effect. And you know what, it’s not as if being a high achiever is black magic, all it takes is a little bit of work and practice (I am so going to cover that in a later post).
So yeah, good grades make better programmers, hell, good grades make better anything. And there is nothing that stops a high achiever from being a passionate, free-thinking, risk-taker. When faced with the pressure of an important project high achievers won’t get torn apart by their selfish desire for perfection, infact they will be better able to adapt and achieve superior results because that is what they do – evaluate their environment and figure out what is needed for them to succeed. Beautiful people (academically speaking) are not afraid of scars, but they do have the knowledge and skill to avoid the scars when they can and create superior scars when they have to.
Image by GogDog