When you are not the smartest programmer in the room

February 17 Bullet_white By Derek Bullet_white Posted in Development, Business Bullet_white Comments Comments

Most of the freshman engineering students at my college took two computer science courses together. These were the hardest classes I would take during college (my colleague was a TA for these courses so he deserves partial blame).

The experience for Sam Epstein, a friend of mine, was decidedly different. A project that might take me a week to finish (poorly) would take Sam a couple of hours. This was a seminal moment in my life: while I knew there were smarter people than myself, I thought I could out-work my way to the top. In programming this wasn’t the case. I’d never be Sam Epstein. Not only would I not be Sam, I was pretty average compared to my peers.

This was scary: since middle school I saw myself running a technology business, usually based on technology I single-handily invented. I wasn’t as brilliant as I imagined. I wasn’t the smartest person in the room.

Eleven years later, things have turned out just fine for my dumb self. Am I building the next Google? Absolutely not. Will I be invited to speak at the next TED Conference? Not unless it’s regional conference called TED - My Living Room. Thankfully, you don’t need to be the smartest person in the room to love what you do and make a living. To compensate for my limited brain power, I’ve focused on three things:

  • People Input/Output Skills. Read How to Win Friends and Influence People. Programmers are notoriously bad with people. Be the one that isn’t and you’ve opened up a lot doors.
  • Priorities. I spend a decent chunk of time making sure I’m working on the right things.
  • Peak Output. I know my brain is more like a Toyota Corolla than a Ferrari. I also know it works best 9am-11am Monday – Thursday. I make sure I’m working on the most important things during those peak periods.

Later on during college I made another Sam Epstein-like friend. I felt a bit like a leech studying with him. However as we worked together more, I realized he was absorbing the skills I worked on. By the time he graduated, you almost wouldn’t recognize him by his interactions. We learned a lot from each other. I had my second seminal moment: I was cool with not being the smartest person in the room as long as that person wanted to work with me.


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