25 Oct 2009
Pragmatist, Perfectionist, Crazy Smart
A quote to start: This quote is the designers’ reflections on designing a programming language (SIMULA).
In the spring of 1967 a new employee at the NCC in a very shocked voice told the switchboard operator: “Two men are fighting violently in front of the blackboard in the upstairs corridor. What shall we do?” The operator came out of her office, listened for a few seconds and then said: “Relax, it’s only Dahl and Nygaard discussing SIMULA”.
The story is true. The SIMULA 67 language was the outcome of ten months of an almost continuous sequence of battles and cooperation in front of that blackboard - interrupted by intervals when we worked in our neighbouring offices (communicating by shouting through the wall if necessary) or at home. (The people arranging this conference asked us to provide material relating to the development of our respective languages. We felt that the best thing we could have done was to bring along that blackboard. But we did not know for certain whether we would be flying a wide-body aircraft.)
In some research teams a new idea is treated with loving care: “How interesting”, “Beautiful”. This was not the case in the SIMULA development. When one of us announced that he had a new idea, the other would brighten up and do his best to kill it off. Assuming that the person who got the idea is willing to fight, this is a far better mode of work than the mode of mutual admiration. We think it was useful for us, and we succeeded in discarding a very large number of proposals.
Isn’t that fantastic? You know that the “idea-defender” here would need to quickly detach himself from any silly latent emotional attachment to an idea. Any idea in that situation is going have to live on its own merits.
If you’ve got someone who you know will rip into your shitty ideas with pointed criticism, then:
That kind of relationship is a huge asset. It’s one thing that turns you into (the very cliched) “more than the sum of your parts”. If you can do this, you’re really combining your 2+ brains effectively.
Drop your ego, cultivate these relationships, and then hang on to them for dear life.