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Overconfident in Your Overconfidence

July 7, 2014

This one hits close to home, and at the same time makes me laugh out loud at the culture of technology companies.  In a blog post that’s being picked up by some news agencies, Avery Pennarun, a Google employee, laments the fact that some companies can hire too many good people.

Many people might not believe the premise: that Google only hires the best and brightest.  That’s something that doesn’t surprise me.  I work for a large tech company, and I’ve been involved in hiring for over two decades.  And good companies do an excellent job of screening out people that don’t fit the culture.  So when a company like Google screens potential employees, it likely is very good at finding only the types of people that already make the company successful.  Mr. Pennarun calls this particular set, “smart people,” which is probably true in a simplistic way.  I’m sure they’re all pretty darn smart… they have to be to make it to the level where Google would want to hire them.

But I’d probably rather focus on the limitations he notes.

We all make decisions for emotional or intuitive reasons instead of rational ones. Some of us admit that. Some of us think using our emotions is better than being rational all the time. Some of us don’t.

Smart people, computer types anyway, tend to come down on the side of people who don’t like emotions. Programmers, who do logic for a living.

Here’s the problem. Logic is a pretty powerful tool, but it only works if you give it good input. As the famous computer science maxim says, “garbage in, garbage out.” If you know all the constraints and weights – with perfect precision – then you can use logic to find the perfect answer. But when you don’t, which is always, there’s a pretty good chance your logic will lead you very, very far astray.

His take continues that people need to make mistakes to learn how to fail, and that Google culture doesn’t necessarily let people make mistakes.  I doubt that’s true.  What the culture doesn’t let happen is for those mistakes to have consequences.  The project might be total dud in the market, but the company will continue to keep the group working on it, and keep promoting the activity.  Mr. Pennarun believes this is detrimental to the company, and it probably is.

If you look at Nokia in the early days, they had a motto: “Fail early.”  That is, recognize that you’re making a mistake and fix it before the project it doomed.  I’ve seen this culture in many other large companies as well.  The take on Google encompassed here is that it doesn’t encourage failure.  It encourages constant forward movement.  That’s a fine plan as long as the money keeps coming in, but what happens when times are tight?  At this point, Google doesn’t have to worry about that, but in the future…?

As his blog notes, knowing how to fail is an important component in success.  Being confident that a company can’t fail is surely a problem, but a little dose of humility makes smart people smarter. Let’s see how this works out as Google hits a few rocks.  I’m fairly confident — but not overconfident — that the culture can adapt.

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