Rehabilitating the Arrogant Engineer

A few weeks ago, I was browsing non-fiction titles on the Kindle and came across Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture”. I guess I’d been avoiding it for a while as it sounded like it could get pretty morose or preachy real quick. But then I read in the summary that he had a Ph.D. in computer science and taught virtual reality at Carnegie Mellon. These are serious nerd credentials, so I decided to give it a try. I downloaded it and didn’t put it down until I was finished.

In its totality, it carried a specific message to a very specific audience. Amongst all the stories, pictures of his family, doctor interactions and discussion of his dreams and his illness, Randy said very clearly to all computer science engineers: The key to innovation is that teams beat individuals.

Randy knew that learning to play in the sandbox with others—especially really smart people with different skill sets—drives innovation faster than someone trying to figure it out on their own, no matter how smart they are. But Randy also knew this wasn’t easy because many great engineers have serious deficiencies when it comes to working well with others. He knew because he was one of these people. He was a top engineer and had firsthand experience in both working through his interpersonal issues and working successfully in a team environment.

I’ve had the privilege of spending my entire career in technology surrounded by wicked smart engineers. I’ve always been drawn to their raw intelligence, Spock-like rationality, sincere honesty, dry humor and quirkiness. With the immense popularity of the sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory”, I suppose I’m not alone in my appreciation of them. That said, as a CEO, I’ve observed that many of the very best technical minds often have a hard time overcoming major Achilles’ heels associated with working in a team or leading others. Specifically, and stereotypically, they often:

  • Have little appreciation/respect for the other skill sets necessary for building a product or company
  • Can come off as arrogant jerks
  • Don’t take or give feedback particularly well
  • Have a hard time delegating

I was stunned to find every one of these observations called out specifically by Randy in his lecture. As a non-engineer, I’ve had mixed results in my attempts to reach and coach engineers through these issues so I was thrilled to see so many great points explained by Randy in his unique, nerd-to-nerd style. Although I encourage everyone (especially engineers) to see or read “The Last Lecture” (video here), the best tribute I can give to him is to include a few of Randy’s insightful excerpts below for people trying to overcome the aforementioned limitations:

Like countless American nerds born in 1960, I spent part of my childhood dreaming of being Captain James T. Kirk… I seriously believe that I became a better teacher and colleague by watching Kirk run the Enterprise. Kirk was not the smartest guy on the ship. Mr. Spock, his first officer, was the always-logical intellect on board. Dr. McCoy had all the medical knowledge available to mankind in the 2260s.  Scotty was the chief engineer, who had the technical know-how to keep the ship running… So what was Kirk’s skill set? Why did he get to run the Enterprise?

The answer: there is this skill set called “leadership”. I learned so much by watching this guy in action. He was the distilled essence of the dynamic manager, a guy who knew how to delegate, had the passion to inspire, and looked good in what he wore to work. He never professed to have skills greater than his subordinates. He acknowledged that they knew what they were doing in their domains. But he established the vision, the tone. He was in charge of morale.

Andy Van Dam, the school’s [Brown University] legendary computer science professor, made me his teaching assistant. One day Andy took me for a walk. He put his arm around my shoulders and said, “Randy, it’s a shame that people perceive you as being so arrogant, because it’s going to limit what you’re going to accomplish in life.” Looking back, his wording was so perfect. He was actually saying, “Randy, you’re being a jerk.” But he said it in a way that made me open to his criticisms, to listening to my hero telling me something I needed to hear. There is an old expression, “a Dutch uncle”, which refers to a person who gives you honest feedback. Few people bother doing that nowadays…

Delegate. As a professor, I learned early on that I could trust bright, nineteen-year-old students with the keys to my kingdom, and most of the time they were responsible and impressive.

I’ve tried hard to come up with mechanical ways to get people to listen to feedback. I was constantly helping my students develop their own feedback loops. It was not easy. Getting people to welcome feedback was the hardest thing I ever had to do as an educator. (It hasn’t been easy in my personal life, either). When I taught my class at Carnegie Mellon, we’d do peer feedback every two weeks…which gave specific suggestions for improvement, such as “Let other people finish their sentences when they’re talking.” I told one student, “Out of fifty students in the class, your peers ranked you dead last. You are number fifty. You have a serious issue. They say you’re not listening. You’re hard to get along with. It’s not going well.” The student was shocked. (They’re always shocked). He had had all of these rationalizations, and now here I was, giving him the hard data. And then I told him the truth about myself… “I’m a recovering jerk.”

Over the years, improving group dynamics became a bit of an obsession for me. I’d give out a one-page handout I’d written titled, “Tips for Working Successfully in a Group.” We’d go over it, line by line. Some students found my tips beneath them. They rolled their eyes. But the most self-aware students embraced my advice. Among my tips: Meet people properly, find things you have in common, try for the optimal meeting conditions, let everyone talk, check egos at the door, praise each other and phrase alternatives as questions.

There are many, many other great quotes in the book. In retrospect, the phenomenon that Randy describes is not limited to the field of engineering. It exists in any environment (but most apparent in team sports) where high performing individuals are pursuing a shared goal with teammates.

For instance, it took years of coaching (and losing) to get extraordinary professional basketball players Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Michael Jordan to exhibit the necessary teamwork to win their first championships. In “The Book of Basketball”, the author, Bill Simmons, describes Michael Jordan’s struggle:

For years and years, Jordan couldn’t rein himself in. He cared about winning, but only on his terms—he also wanted to win scoring titles, drop 50 whenever he pleased and treat his teammates like the biggest bully in the prison block—which led Phil Jackson to adopt the triangle offense in a last-ditch effort to prevent Jordan from hogging the ball…

I believe building a technology company is essentially a team sport. And every wildly successful company I know is built around a core group of ridiculously smart engineering rock stars (you can read my post on hiring them here). When they can be successfully coached into working as part of a team, magic happens.

Thank you, Randy Pausch, for communicating this critical message so clearly.

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