Dumb and gets things done

Someone once asked Napoleon how he decided where to assign soldiers. Napoleon’s reply was that it’s simple: soldiers are either smart or dumb, lazy or energetic.

  • The smart and energetic I make field commanders. They know what to do and can rally the troops to do it.
  • The smart and lazy I make generals. They also know what to do, but they’re not going to waste energy doing what doesn’t need to be done.
  • The dumb and lazy I make foot soldiers.

But what about the dumb and energetic? “Those,” Napoleon replied, “I shoot.”

The Napoleon joke comes to mind when I hear praise for somebody because they can “get things done.” Should we make them a field commander or shoot them?

Joel Spolsky says that the ideal programmer is someone who is smart and gets things done. But what about people who are dumb and get things done?

When Ross Perot ran for president in 1992, his supporters exclaimed “He can get things done!” So I’d ask “What does he want to get done that you’d like to see happen?” I don’t recall ever getting an answer.  What he wanted to get done didn’t matter. (I’m not saying that Perot’s platform was dumb. I’ll stay out of that discussion. I’m only saying that it could have been dumb and some people would not know or care.)

One time I heard someone praised as a good teacher. Not knowledgeable, but a good teacher. I objected that if someone is ignorant but a good teacher, does that mean they’re effective in conveying their ignorance? Wouldn’t that be a bad thing? No, all that mattered was that he was a good teacher.

Computer programs consists of lines of code, and lines of code consist of characters. So it’s good for a programmer to be proficient in producing lines of code and characters. Of course it’s more important that they produce lines of code that are correct, maintainable, and that accomplish something worthwhile.

Why would someone support a presidential candidate without knowing their positions? Why would someone want their children to have an ignorant but effective teacher? Why would someone want a programmer who is proficient at producing bad code?

I don’t think anyone wants these things, though they do lose sight of their goals. People like charismatic presidents, good teachers, and productive programmers. But it’s too easy to fall into reductionism, focusing on elemental components and losing sight of the big picture.

Leaders need to make things happen. Teachers need to teach. Programmers need to write code. These basic skills are necessary, but they are not enough.

There’s an active conversation here (59 comments currently, several of which arrived as I composed this post) on how much typing speed matters. I believe the discussion is lively in part because it touches on the issues in this post, basic skills versus larger goals. Participants are coming from varying levels of abstraction, from keystrokes to software engineering. Some are arguing bottom-up, some top-down. I find the dynamic of the discussion more interesting than its content.

More programming posts

25 thoughts on “Dumb and gets things done

  1. My takeaway is that one should be careful not to confuse effectiveness with simple but inaccurate proxies for effectiveness. It’s a valid point, but you have the metaphor backward in the case of teachers.

    “Good” is a qualitative measure of how well a teacher conveys knowledge to his students. A teacher of middling intelligence may be much better at this skill than a teacher of supreme intelligence. I personally prefer smart teachers, as intelligence is typically a good proxy for effectiveness, but that does nothing to further your argument against proxies.

  2. Nice piece. Not sure about the “good teacher” analogy, though. In contrast to the rest of your examples, I don’t think we would call a person a good teacher if he/she didn’t have a good command of the subject matter being taught. Better might be to use example of a “good salesman”, since one motto there is that “a good salesman can sell anything.” Dangerous, then, to set a good salesperson loose selling crappy products that no one needs.

  3. The energy necessary to achieve excellence in any endeavor tires most people out. But the ones who put in the time to “master” their craft are usually the ones we watch as they pitch the final strike in the seventh game of the world series, allowing their team to win.

    They are also the ones who command space modules, aircraft carriers, perform brain surgery, create art that takes our breath away and generally keep us humans thinking we are the big monkey in the tree. Otherwise…

  4. Herb: Teachers don’t need to be intelligent, but they do need to know what they’re talking about. And they need to enjoy their subject. I want my kids to have teachers who tell the truth and who love learning. I’d take that any day over a genius who makes things up or doesn’t want to be there.

  5. I think:

    “Should we make them a general or shoot them?”

    should read:

    “Should we make them a field commander or shoot them?”

    since it would appear you’re equating “being energetic” in Napolean’s parlance with the ability to “get things done”.

    I think what people are latching onto when they favour someone who can “get things done” is the ability to act without overthinking which can be both helpful and detrimental depending on the situation and the people involved.

    I’m not really sure what the overall argument is here.

    “These basic skills are necessary, but they are not enough.”

    A typist is not necessarily a programmer. An orator is not necessarily a teacher. The guy standing out the front of the group is not necessarily a leader.

    Anything else?

  6. Iain: I agree that field commander is a better analogy than general. I updated the post in response to your comment.

  7. Joel addresses the “dumb and gets things done” question pretty specifically, actually:

    People who Get Things Done but are not Smart will do stupid things, seemingly without thinking about them, and somebody else will have to come clean up their mess later.

  8. I recently blogged about students getting things done. But in my post, getting things done isn’t a proxy for energetic. It referred to students who find ways to achieve agreed-upon goals. This speaks more to persistence and hard work than simply energy.
    ( My post is at http://bit.ly/dEM5w9 )

  9. Jacob: I agree that a bad programmer creates work for others. Here’s a post along those lines: Bad programmers create jobs.

    I’d go further and say this applies to individuals. The same person can be an asset or a liability at different times. I can get a lot of work done when I’m fresh and then create messes when I’m worn out. I try to realize that and just stop when I sense negative productivity coming on.

  10. Hi John,

    I’ve been reading (and enjoying) your blog for quite some time now. I was hoping that my first comment would be substantive, but instead it’s going to be the n-th typo of the day:

    >>losing sight of how the big picture.

    You should remove the word “the”.


  11. Leaders need to make things happen. Teachers need to teach. Programmers need to write code.

    Each of these describe a combination of skills; having the right combination makes you good, and the wrong combination makes you bad. For instance, a teacher can know the subject and express it to students (smart), but their grading might be arbitrary and unfair (lazy). As a teacher the goals are met, but not the goals of the students.

  12. >> >>losing sight of how the big picture.

    >>You should remove the word “the”.

    This is priceless: I made a mistake when pointing out your mistake! I, obviously, meant you should remove the word “how”.

  13. Keep on programming you geekoid.
    As your manager I’ll take all the merit and credit for your work.
    Maybe I’ll reward you with a iTunes gift card at the year end Xmas party.
    While u accept your award at home playing WoW.

    Stars Wars marathon is on. Go now doggy.

  14. Unfortunately, in our world rather than Napoleon’s army, we often find that the dumb and lazy often end up as generals or field commanders. Then we discover them taking shortcuts that allow them to claim they have accomplished their goals even though they have not done the work necessary. One example would of course be anyone who claims that it is possible to infer that a person is dumb and/or lazy because of their sex or color of their skin. Another would be anyone who claims that it is possible to infer that a programmer is inept and/or lazy because he types with two fingers. To the uninformed, or those who seek to simplify the world, such leaders will seem far more productive that those who evaluate others carefully — at least until the fruits of their shortcuts come home to roost. ;)

  15. “I divide my officers into four classes . . . The man who is clever and industrious is suited to high staff appointments; use can be made of the man who is stupid and lazy; the man who is clever and lazy is fitted for the highest command, he has the nerve to deal with all situations; but the man who is stupid and industrious is a danger and must be dismissed immediately.” Attributed to Colonel-General Baron Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord by Robert Conquest in “The Great Terror” (page 64).

  16. One of my best friends, a history major in college who never took programming or AP math in high school, found himself teaching an AP computer science class at a magnet school (don’t ask — this isn’t about politics or hiring practices).

    I think he made a good teacher because he could help kids learn how to learn computer science, even if he never learned computer science very well. He knew his students were not only smart and motivated, but way better at math than he’d ever be. He could use that to teach them how to help each other, find things out on their own through trial and error, and all kinds of other secondary skills that are required for learning but have nothing to do with computer science.

    Granted, a great teacher who also knew a lot of computer science would’ve been better.

  17. Bob: There are rare people, like your friend, who can teach effectively, even without knowing much about a subject. I had two such teachers in high school.

    One was a long-term substitute who stayed a few days ahead of the class. The other gave me a stack of books and told me to go to the library instead of coming to his class. They weren’t subject matter experts, and it would have better if they were, but they knew their limitations and compensated for them.

  18. There’s no question (in my mind) that there are skills and aptitudes for teaching that transcend subject matter. It is entirely possible that someone who knows a great deal about programming could have done far more damage to his students through an inability to teach than someone like your friend.

  19. “Men are basically smart or dumb and lazy or ambitious. The dumb and ambitious ones are dangerous and I get rid of them. The dumb and lazy ones I give mundane duties. The smart ambitious ones I put on my staff. The smart and lazy ones I make my commanders.”
    – Attributed to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel,
    on how he selects officers for staff and command.

  20. In a vector analogy, “gets things done” it’s just magnitude, but says nothing about direction. In the smart/dumb simplification there’s only the right and wrong direction (which is useful to a point to recognize “gets things done” is not necessarily good).

    Taking that a step further, for a team you don’t just want “gets things done” (high magnitude) and “smart” (chooses a good direction) but an ability to adjust their own or others’ vectors into better alignment in a direction.

    I suppose, though, that may just be a refinement of the definition of “smart” since stubbornly choosing a direction that could be good on its own but is in conflict with other parts of the team is still not a good direction. I’ve certainly seen teams full of smart folks that couldn’t or wouldn’t align and were therefore remarkably ineffective (in directional alignment and thus vector sum terms) relative to their raw capability (magnitude).

  21. I remember the initial post of Joel Spolsky on this topic. Excellent points. We do not want dumb people to be energetic. They end up doing something that is counter to our goals. Over and over again.

    Curious, what does AI do to this mix? AIs biggest threat to humanity is that it makes it easy to do dumb things. Now all that power is available to a single individual. I’m reminded by the cartoon Pinky and the Brain. Pinky :” Gee, Brain. What are we going to do tonight?” The Brain : “The same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try to take over the world.”

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