On the pseudo-concept of “best developers”

imageMany years ago, at home with my parents we had as guest an American geneticist, as often happened being my father a geneticist too. They were discussing a prize in genetics, and my father’s friend had a medal designed and produced, and showed it to us, introducing it as “made by the best possible sculptor”. My father, knowing he had a dangerous loud-mouthed teenager at the table (myself), made a quick signal, so I took the coin, smiled, nodded in appreciation, kept silent and passed it along, and we all behaved as my old gentlemen wanted. Of course the coin was a kitsch, ugly object as most prizes are – which my classically trained father knew too well.

But I always had an allergy for such statements, and I was unpleasantly surprised to hear it repeated in the form of “best developers” by some of the guys I most respect as web opinion makers. “You want to get the best developers in the world”, or “you should have your company in the Silicon Valley because there only you can get the best engineers”.

Is it a notion that makes sense? What do you mean by “best”? For there to be a “best developer” there must be an unchanging global notion of “developer”, and a unique scale of “best” (I believe that in particular those with a developer’s training will be already becoming aware of how silly this sounds). This is also assuming that people skill’s don’t change in time, relatively to conditions and motivations.  I understand that there are people more talented relatively to meeting specific problems (surely not as wide and vague as the “developer” term), but all this is again relative to motivations.

I don’t have any scientific data, but my experience in working in different countries is that you will meet smart, energetic people simply everywhere; talent requires a minimum of facilities to emerge – to learn more about the secondary role played by environments in acquiring real skills, read the books from Freakonomics fellows. Talented people desperately need motivations – but this is a different problem, it is not a question of best and second-best.

Believing that some places magically generate smarter fellows is even sillier, verging on the delirious.

So never again say “we hire the best developers”, or “we work with the best developers”. Replace it with “given the limited set of problems we try to solve, and the limited number of people we get to meet, we are happy with what they have done so far. And wish the best for the inscrutable future.” Or something even more relativistic and non committal. Or stay quiet, and smile. As my father’s wink suggested.

One Response to “On the pseudo-concept of “best developers””
  1. I think when people speak of “the best developers”, they’re talking more about the skill of the average developer being high, and having a positive feedback loop where high-caliber devs work together and boost each other’s skillset and knowledge. In this case, I totally believe the valley is such a place, where skill shared begets additional skill.

    Of course it’s silly to think that a certain region creates more talent; rather, like I said above, it’s a system of mutual learning and connections that foster the talent, and the kicker is that talent elsewhere see this and *move* to learn and gain this experience. I’ve seen this over and over again with interview candidates, where they’re definitely smart, but have stagnated at their previous jobs because they had no one to challenge their expertise. Being the best developer in the room is not necessarily a good thing.

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