Ian's Blog

Civilization Was Built By Obnoxious Jerks

with 14 comments

I don’t understand the people who find their way into every organization and blame every problem on management. These people are the cause of their own problems. In short, they’re too passive. I don’t think I’m an overzealous management-blamer, but I could stand to be more assertive sometimes. I can think of many instances in the past, in my personal and professional life, where things sure would have gone smoother if I would have grown a pair and made people see things my way. I know I’m not alone. A while back Jeff Atwood published some thoughts about assertiveness among software developers that I found interesting, but I think he missed something. I think a lot of developers choose to be passive, and we don’t realize what a disservice we’re doing ourselves.

Recently I found myself with a few minutes to kill, and as luck would have it, there was good reading close at hand: Bathroom Reader 8: Things Everyone Should Know. It was full of pithy thoughts, one per page, in a tone similar to Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy. One page held only this:

People only get what they think they deserve.

Not people get what they deserve. People only get what they think they deserve. This is true, but it’s even more true if you expand it a little. People don’t get 100% of what they think they deserve, but they get 0% of what they don’t think they deserve. People get no more than what they think they deserve.

You get only what you think you deserve

What do I mean by “what you get?” Well there’s the classics: respect, prestige, power, and money, but those are sooo twentieth century. And we’re not supposed to admit we’re after them even if we are. “What you get” could be anything. The love of a partner. The advanced degree. The respect of a family member. The house on the water. The friendship of that brilliant, funny co-worker. Work/life balance. If you don’t think you deserve it, you’re not going to take any of the steps to get it, and you won’t.

I know what you’re thinking. “Well thank you, Captain Obvious! Did you really think Bathroom Reader 8 held the wisdom of the ages? Perhaps if you had more fiber in your diet you’d waste less time and bandwidth around here, hmm?”

Okay. But there’s more!

In addition to the “I Deserve” value we give ourselves, we assign “You Deserve” values to the people we know. We do it with everybody: co-workers, family members, friends, anybody you would consider more than an acquaintance. You decide how smart they are, or how talented, or good-looking, or whatever qualifications are appropriate for a particular relationship, and subconsciously assign a value. When someone’s “I Deserve” value grossly outstrips the “You Deserve” value you give him, he becomes obnoxious, the kind of person who constantly toots his own horn.

Engineers are particularly vulnerable to this pattern of thinking. We invented the bozo bit, after all. Our skills and qualifications are pretty well defined. Either you know something or you don’t. We tend to extend this: either you’re qualified or you’re not. In a technical field, you can assign a professional “You Deserve” value far easier than you could in, say, oil painting. As hard as it is to quantitatively measure the value of a software developer in an organization, it’s relatively obvious day-to-day who the brilliant engineers are, and they don’t even have to die first. In our binary world, there’s a pronounced bias against those whose confidence overshadows their demonstrated skill. We prefer to celebrate our brilliant but self-effacing, populist leaders, like Linus Torvalds and his penguin. We’re suspicious of those who have an apparently bottomless well of confidence without being obviously brilliant. We reserve our respect for those ushered into a position of leadership by consensus among their peers. Most of us decide it’s better to be failingly humble, and instead strive to produce work that outshines our passivity.

But we’re missing something important. Have you noticed the people heavy on bravado and light on skill often wend their way into positions of authority? Is this simply the typical workings of a clueless bureaucracy or something else? Both. Here’s the thing: if people did only what they were qualified to do, things for which they had already proven some aptitude, we’d still be living in caves. The caveman that built the first fire was certainly not qualified. What a pompous jerk this guy was. The other cave-people were doing just fine huddling together for warmth and eating raw meat, thanks. And it was so obvious that he had no idea what he was doing. Rubbing sticks and banging rocks for hours? Nice going there, Lothar. Do us all a favor and spear a woolly mammoth or something, would ya? But you have to admit that the whole fire thing worked out pretty well.

It seems to me that with very few exceptions, anybody who ever did anything extraordinary had a much higher “I Deserve” value than the “You Deserve” value they were assigned by their well-adjusted, humble peers. Some hid it better than others, but they all had it. Am I suggesting that we should strive for maximum arrogance in hopes that we’ll someday stumble upon greatness? No. Nor would I ever claim that acting skilled is more important than actually being skilled. I would prefer that the engineers that designed my airplane actually are skilled, thanks very much.

But there is a relationship between what you think you deserve, your confidence, and what you’re actually capable of attaining. Natural leaders tend to believe this implicitly. They come out of the womb and ask the nurse to fetch them a coffee. The rest of us just have to strive to keep it in mind when one of these obnoxious types is in our face. Here’s the way I think it breaks down:

The Blowhard Index

The point at which one’s cup of confidence floweth over, taking him into obnoxious territory, is certainly subjective. The people I consider successful in life, professionally or otherwise, spend most of their time slightly left of the blue area. Some occasionally venture well into the blue. But notice that leadership ability continues to increase a smidge beyond the obnoxious threshold. That’s intentional. 90% of the household name leaders, even in technical circles, fall into this very slim minority of extraordinary people: obnoxiously confident, tremendous leaders. Bill Gates? No question. Steve Jobs? Notoriously so. Larry Ellison? The guy actually has a lifestyle section on Wikipedia wherein his obnoxiousness is detailed.

At some point it became fashionable to declare Joel Spolsky arrogant. This was inevitable, because he’s successful and outspoken and he moves in the highly confidence-skeptical world of software development. And he’s still just small-time enough that people tend to wonder if maybe he’s gotten too big for his britches. I’ve shaken his hand and exchanged a couple of sentences with him, but certainly don’t know him well enough to place him on the Blowhard Index. Certainly the fact that he started his own company, which appears to be thriving, places him somewhere firmly in the right-most 50%. Doubtless there are people who actually know him that do find him obnoxious. But the people he employs at Fog Creek surely enjoy the living they make there, which never would have been possible if he’d waited to be qualified to start a company. Without the outrageous confidence necessary to publish his opinion about everything related to software development, he’d never have attained the runaway marketing success that launched FogBugz. (All of which is true about my boss, too, but by declaring himself arrogant occasionally, he cleverly sidesteps the whole mess.)

Do entrepreneurs or corporate big-shots need something larger than life to associate with in order to offset what is actually deep-seated insecurity, merely masquerading as confidence? Probably in some cases. But even these people are valuable contributors to an organization. The truth is, we need people who are more confident than we are, whether or not they have the qualifications to back it up. Without them, we’d all still be huddling together for warmth in a cave somewhere.

Confidence is A Good Thing. For techies too. If you allow your professional bias to keep you from realizing this, you’re only hurting yourself.


Written by Ian Olsen

June 14, 2007 at 9:34 am

14 Responses

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  1. Ian,

    It is far too rare that we get to read or listen to you dissertate on anything. I always find myself thinking more deeply about the simple things while laughing hysterically when you do.

    Thanks for the laughs and the knowing smiles I had while reading this.

    MI Pal

    June 14, 2007 at 12:35 pm

  2. Immensely enjoyed the writing!

    And, I think there is definitely some truth there. For many, big risk in general is not terribly appealing. The possibility of failure is a serious negative, especially for those who like to get things right – and be right – all the time if possible. And when we personally find certain people obnoxious or arrogant, unskilled or even a little stupid, the last thing we would like is for someone else think of us that way, or to deserve such a reputation. (cringe) And if we do happen to accidentally do something rather stupid, we’d much rather we were not in the limelight at the time, and that we do not do it in a loud, obvious way. Preferably, if we must make mistakes at all, we’d like to do it in a way that noone will notice, and when noone is looking.


    June 14, 2007 at 5:05 pm

  3. […] Civilization Was Built By Obnoxious Jerks I don’t understand the people who find their way into every organization and blame every problem on management. […] […]

  4. Ian,

    Great blog! You just made my day. Thanks


    June 14, 2007 at 6:15 pm

  5. Thought provoking with a nice touch of sarcasm, enjoyed it, thanks.

    By the way, have a look at my latest post about archaic, linear thinking; seems to me this type of thinking might well mirror itself in the people you mention. Bill Gates, now there is a fellow, did you know he and Tony Blair (that Blair) were the instigators of what is now the biggest IT debacle?
    Details are in another post on my blog, feel free…


    June 14, 2007 at 8:59 pm

  6. Boo.

    Timmy Jose

    June 15, 2007 at 12:32 am

  7. A rather non-serious take on this topic, available here: http://coderific.com/blog/post/597


    June 15, 2007 at 2:40 am

  8. came across your blog… glad i did…very impressive… and very positive too…


    June 15, 2007 at 3:27 am

  9. ob·nox·ious –adjective
    1. highly objectionable or offensive; odious: obnoxious behavior.
    2. annoying or objectionable due to being a showoff or attracting undue attention to oneself: an obnoxious little brat.

    People who take big risks and experience big failures have an edge on everyone else. That is they have survived and consequently know the consequences of their failures. Usually, the consequences are not as great as the uninitiated fear. That is why we find such people obnoxious. They aren’t scared by what our neuroses tell us to be scared of. They aren’t hindered by what we think the requirements of success should be.

    grant czerepak

    June 15, 2007 at 4:10 pm

  10. couldnt agree more, buddy.


    June 15, 2007 at 6:01 pm

  11. Wow… as sad as it is… It is true…


    June 15, 2007 at 10:08 pm

  12. How true! What griefs could be avoided, and what wonders discovered, if only half of “See, I told you so” had been “No, I insist”.

    – but I suspect that if the rest of us upped our obnoxious index, any increase in opportunities seized would more than be lost from an increase in rivalry, back-stabbing, and all out war. Only think how truly obnoxious any wanna-be leader would have to be.


    June 18, 2007 at 11:15 am

  13. […] Civilization Was Built By Obnoxious Jerks « Ian’s Blog […]

  14. Seems to me you have re-named the popular “Peter Principle” that came out of the 60’s… anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging application until it fails. Who better to advance civilization than those who score high on the blowhard index? Like your boss, it seems the most valuable thing is to know you are confident! Who hasn’t been in a situation where, against all odds, you sold yourself up a notch and it worked out. And most of us have slid down the obnoxious slide into failure and managed to turn that into an asset too. Thanks for the good words on confidence, Ian!

    Stephen B. Starr

    March 13, 2008 at 7:59 am

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