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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The cleverness attribution error

I hope everyone is familiar with Hanlon's Razor, but in case they are not, it's basically this: never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. I forget when I first heard it, but it's valuable advice.

In recent times, I've been realizing that I've been making a different sort of error. Namely, I have been attributing to cleverness that which is adequately explained by random unintentional behavior. Here are a few examples which come to mind.

On my first day of work as a web hosting monkey, even though I had been hired for second shift, I had to go in at 9 AM to fill out forms for HR. Then they took me upstairs with another new employee and showed us around. We got to sit with a few people to hear how they handled calls and watched how they worked tickets.

Then I was shown my cube. It had a pile of parts waiting for me: a generic whitebox in some state of disrepair, a 15 inch Optiquest monitor, and an evil Microsoft "natural" keyboard. There were also a few cables to make it all work and a pair of speakers which never worked.

This machine's disk was completely blank, and the BIOS was screwed up too. I asked someone over in the 1st shift side to burn me a Slackware CD -- what can I say, I didn't anticipate having to bring one with me. Once that was done, I got the BIOS back to reasonable defaults, fed it the disc, and got busy installing things. Shortly after that, I had X and a web browser running and was able to log in to the ticketing system to start poking around.

I basically bootstrapped myself up into my own job, at least from the technical angle. At the time, I thought it was some kind of "final test" to make sure I was really capable of handling the job. Obviously, I had no problem with it, but I know there are people who didn't do quite as well.

As for that other person who started the same day as me? Well... she was handed a machine which already had some flavor of Red Hat installed on it, and naturally did not know the root password. I was told that she needed someone else to come over and help her break into it. Apparently the usual "single user mode, remount rw, run passwd" stuff was not something she knew about. There was no disk crypto involved, incidentally.

I thought it was a test. It wasn't. They just weren't clever enough to do that sort of thing.

Years later, Google flew me out to the Bay Area for an interview. I wound up in San Jose on a Friday night at 5 PM. This was my first time driving out here on the left coast, and I got to figure out the local roadway customs while in a rental car in the middle of a Friday night rush hour. Fun!

Anyway, the recruiting people had given me directions both from SJC to Hotel Avante, and another sheet with directions from Hotel Avante to building 40. I wish I had taken a closer look at those sheets, because then I might have realized that the stop point of sheet #1 and the start point of sheet #2 were not the same thing.

Knowing what I do now about this area, their "airport to hotel" instructions were completely insane. Sure, it sent me up 87 to 101, but then it immediately had me get off at San Tomas and head towards El Camino. Realize that I was heading to a hotel in Mountain View, and they had me get off the freeway in Santa Clara, two cities away. Anyone who lives here knows how dumb this is.

So, I'm tooling down the expressway, avoiding that #4 lane since it's carpool hours, and then, oh hey, there's my right turn. I got over one lane just in time to make the turn and then proceeded up El Camino. I got to the end of the directions and ... no hotel. The block numbers did not resemble anything like what I was expecting, despite driving the distances given on the sheet. I looped around once or twice, and then finally pulled off around Wolfe to call the hotel for directions.

Fortunately, the person who answered was understanding and knew exactly where I was based on my description. He said that I was still in the wrong city (Sunnyvale!) and had to go past this major street and that major street and even this other major street, and only then would I see them on the right next to something or other. I thanked him, hung up, and drove there uneventfully.

Later, up in my room, there was this brain teaser question thing on the hotel's stationery. It was one of these things like "fill this out and get frequent flier miles". This seemed unusual to me, and back in those days, the official hype about Google was how it was full of scary-smart people, so I figured it might be related.

They had flown me up on a Friday, and my interview wasn't until Monday, so I took the weekend to check out San Francisco and downtown Mountain View. As long as I was there, why not enjoy it, right?

To me, all of this looked like part of a bigger plan. How would I cope with broken directions in a high-stress driving situation? Would I actually pull off and ask for directions? I did that. Would I take on their brain teaser? I didn't do that. Would I spend the whole weekend in a hotel staring at a computer screen? Nope. I spent as much time as possible out in the world and not in the hotel, in fact.

How about Monday morning, there in the building 41 lobby? Back in those days, it was still staffed, and had a pile of newspapers, a huge chess set, and assorted other "stereotypical smart people" toys and gizmos. Was I nice to the receptionist even though she's "just a receptionist"? Did I zone out or did I make good use of my time? Did I abuse or otherwise disrespect any of the toys, furniture, or free drinks?

Then there was the whole Google Labs hiring schtick from two years prior. Had they noticed my answer on my resume?

As it turned out, none of this really mattered. All of those signals were ignored. They only cared about what had happened on that first technical phone call earlier in the month and then the onsites. All of those other events didn't provide any input to the overall picture.

Again, I had assumed cleverness. Why had I done that? Well, it's what I would do. If I bring someone in for an interview and they're mean to the receptionist, I want him or her to tell me about it. That'll be a negative mark on this candidate's assessment. Even if someone is sitting out in a lobby acting as a human firewall, that doesn't give you the right to treat them like crap.

Besides, that firewall might be me, filling in for our usual person for a couple of hours. Weird stuff happens in a small enough company. If they think I'm some moron just because I'm up there and happen to be female, then I want to find out sooner rather than later.

With regard to bad directions, I wouldn't necessarily do that on purpose. However, if it happened anyway, I would love to hear how they dealt with it. It's the sort of thing which nobody studies for, and it can tell you something about how they handle unusual situations in real life. Do they freak out, or do they find a way through it?

Similarly, given a whole weekend on the west coast and a car, what does the candidate do with it? Do they get out and see what makes the area tick, or do they spend it in WoW leveling up? This might give some insight into how they interface with people and the world in general.

Sure, none of this will tell you anything about programming skills, but you can't honestly tell me that those are the only things you need to be successful in even a highly technical job. The most technical person in the world is still not going to be very useful if there's no way to communicate with them. You'd have to put them in a dungeon and park a "wrapper" individual there to relay things back and forth, much as you might wrap a bogus API with your own scheme.

To bring this back to where it all started, I think it's sad that so many things happen seemingly randomly. It's really fun when you find something which was put there by some person with a clever streak. It's when you see something, think "I wonder if...", check, and turn out to be pleasantly surprised.

Successful products which have this cleverness by chance instead of by a deliberate decision run the risk of having it disappear because nobody's purposely keeping it there. That's when people who were there for that little ray of sunshine might just become disappointed and move on.