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What Should Start-Ups Do With the Brilliant Jerk? 480

First time accepted submitter glowend writes "Cliff Oxford writes in the New York Times 'I define Brilliant Jerks as specialized, high-producing performers. They are not, however, brilliant business people, and that is what companies need during periods of rapid growth. There are a lot of hurdles to cross when companies move from start-up to growth, including dealing with chaos and changes in culture. But the biggest hurdle is dealing with the human factor — how you move, shift and replace people as the company grows into the next level of success.' So how do you make the best use of the Brilliant Jerk as your company grows?"
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What Should Start-Ups Do With the Brilliant Jerk?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 27, 2012 @01:17PM (#41479565)

    The guy sounds like a booster rocket. At some point it has to be cut loose or you won't reach orbit. Just one thing: people aren't hardware that you can just let burn up. Make sure he gets a nice severance. The next problem you have might be "they chew people up and spit them out". Who wants a reputation like that?

  • by postbigbang ( 761081 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @01:20PM (#41479613)

    Sometimes the best tactic is to let the creative-if-blustering types do what they do well: create and bluster, but in the back room. Serial entrepreneurs often do well because they have the ego needed to push thru ideas into really profitable businesses, with a few dead ones along the way. No one is perfect.

    High collaboration and creativity is very productive, and productivity is helpful for rapid growth. Then move the blusterers out into new ideas, where they can regenerate. Some people are really good at cash-cow business, while others know how to start low and do rapid business building. Some will grow with a business, others need new challenges. It's not a talent easily given to aphorisms. And sometimes, it's not pretty.

  • Re:easy (Score:4, Interesting)

    by udachny ( 2454394 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @01:24PM (#41479667) Journal

    The whole point of being a brilliant business person is to see an opportunity and to be able to take it in order to make profit from doing something that the market wants.

    Of-course in the absence of free market there are other possibilities, like buying influence from politicians to establish yourself as a monopoly.

    Your "definition" doesn't cut it at all. Workers don't produce out of nowhere, they have to be hired and told what to do and before they can be hired there has to be a case made to hire them, savings have to be allocated to hire them, tools have to be acquired so that the workers can be productive. Throw a bunch of 'workers' together without any purpose, capital, tools and management and see how far that takes you in terms of productivity.

    People who take the most business risk are not those who accept salaried positions for jobs that somebody thinks to be necessary to make more profit, it's people who take the risk in terms of putting in their own savings, capital, time and effort into a venture that nobody ever guarantees to be a winner.

  • by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @01:24PM (#41479671) Homepage

    First, the brilliant jerk isn't as brilliant as he or others think he is. Often, it is right after your superstar leaves that people covering his work find out about the shortcuts he took.

    I'm sure it's not true in every case, but I've definitely seen cases of this.

    Had a co-worker years ago who could crank out huge volumes of code, so management loved him.

    The problem was, his code was absolutely un-maintainable crap, and he didn't like to go back and fix things. So first you needed to cajole him for a long time to even do it, and then he would do a half-assed job and go back to whatever he was finding fun at the moment.

    He didn't follow any procedures, didn't bother with testing, documentation, or sometimes even putting his code in the the version control stuff -- which meant he didn't always even had the version he was trying to fix as it had long since been updated in place. In some cases, he created more work for the people around him than the value of his code.

    In a lot of ways, I always found him to be a liability, since he refused to adhere to even the most basic standards we had.

    But, to the best of my knowledge, he's still there writing large volumes of lousy code, and I'm not there any more. So clearly how I perceived things had nothing to do with how management did.

  • Let him be... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Zapotek ( 1032314 ) <> on Thursday September 27, 2012 @01:28PM (#41479723)
    Give him his own office, a supply of fast food, sodas, coffee and energy drinks and let him work on the weird stuff that would defeat the others.
    Why did everything get so touchy-feely all of a sudden? Why can't a guy just work in peace without having to tip-toe around the feelings of all the precious little snowflakes?

    Now, if he goes out of his way to piss people off and promote general chaos and destruction then kick his ass out, otherwise suck it up.
  • by DocSavage64109 ( 799754 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @01:34PM (#41479769)

    I worry that people labelled as "the Brilliant Jerk" are sometimes "the guy smarter than me who doesn't go along with what I propose."

    +1 on that thought. Especially if what that person proposes involves me doing all the implementation.

  • by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @02:03PM (#41480179) Homepage

    You were not the boss, so your opinion really didn't mean shit.

    In that context, I absolutely agree ... that doesn't change the fact that his code was utter crap.

    Some places are just more willing to sell utter crap if it makes the quarter.

    But an amazing amount of companies can't always correlate long-term costs associated with a project and the like.

    I've seen projects at many places where once the sales guys have cleared their cheque, nobody keeps tabs on what it really cost to deliver what was sold. And I know for a fact that in many places, it ended up costing more in the long run than the revenue.

  • by garyisabusyguy ( 732330 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @02:04PM (#41480191)

    I have been the jerk and karma has certainly made me pay

    About 20 years ago I was working on GIS for a local government. The challenge was to present our Pavement Management System data (from a beloved DG Mini) on our spiffy new GIS system. I proposed using dynamic segmentation (new concept in ArcInfo 6) and set about learning what needed to be done. My boss assigned his bestest buddy to ride along on this and even split the coding responsibilities down the middle... The bestest buddy decided to work in awk and sed instead of the software tools that were part of ArcInfo... Pissed me off so much that I kept all documentation in my head and set about finding another job. When I left, it took them about three years to get back on track...

    As luck would have it, I walked into a new job where people had been pulling the same stunt for the last decade. Every day of my life was debugging undocumented code and re-creating wheels. These days I invest a lot of time into cross training, documentation and making certain that my developers are happy

  • Re:The Jerk (Score:5, Interesting)

    by thereitis ( 2355426 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @02:12PM (#41480323) Journal
    I happened to be reading the steam locomotive wikipedia entry and it says:

    During the early days of railroading, the crew simply stopped next to a stream and filled the tender using leather buckets. This was known as “jerking water” and led to the term "jerkwater towns" (meaning a small town, a term which today is considered derisive).

    I don't know the origin of the word 'jerk' but I wonder if it had to do anything with the kind of people who normally did the "jerking water" job. I could see that being shortened down to 'jerks'.

  • Re:Sack him. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 27, 2012 @02:21PM (#41480459)

    Already posted here, so can't mod, but yes. Posting anon because I'm about to describe a former co-worker... I'll call him Dave (not his real name).

    Dave was our chief network admin, and he was brilliant -- he knew his stuff better than any other network admin I've worked with.

    He was, however, a huge jerk. The first manifestation of Dave's jerk-ness -- and the most obvious to me, since I was working in the same group with him -- is that he could not stand to have competent employees under him. The incompetent ones he'd keep, because they made him look better. Anyone who was hired in under him that was actually competent, he'd give only the tasks that he didn't want to do -- basically, pulling cables and putting ends on them. When management got tired of everyone who was hired in under him leaving quickly and ordered him to give his guys more responsibility, he started deliberately setting them up for failure. He did things like letting tasks that he knew were high-profile, but not really important overall, age until there was very little time to do them, then hand them off to his subordinates -- often with incomplete information, or doing this with tasks that were things they hadn't been trained in.

    (To give a concrete example, when we were getting IP phones and the time came to set up the phones for the executive office, Dave went and installed the CEO's phone himself... then gave his subordinates the task of setting up the phones of the other people in the executive office, with them not having been trained on setting them up. And telling them it needed to be done that day. Thus, he showed off his personal competence to the CEO, then made his employees look incompetent to people he knew would complain about how long they were taking to the CEO.)

    Related to that, he'd withhold training from his guys -- or get them sent to training months before the new equipment would arrive, then not let them have any devices to work with in between, so they'd forget as much of what they'd learned as possible before they had a chance to actually use it. He also would use "his guys" as his personal entourage and lackeys, sending them to do errands for him, and loaning them out to other groups to do things that weren't in their job descriptions. He lent them to the front office to help them move furniture so often that someone made a sign that said "Dave's Moving Company" and stuck it on their door.

    Oh, and by the way -- one of those guys he kept lending out to move furniture had a chronic back injury. Really.

    Eventually, there were enough complaints that Dave's position was changed, and his employees were moved under another manager -- under me, actually. They still took direction from him for network tasks, but I was responsible for managing training for them, and had to approve any non-network-related uses of them... so "Dave's Moving Company" promptly went out of business.

    Of course, that meant that I had to then deal with Dave a lot. Which led to discovering more aspects of his jerk-ness.

    Dave was brilliant at what he did -- but he believed he was perfect, and would lie, falsify evidence, and do anything else he could to avoid ever admitting that he'd made a mistake. When someone suggested that a network port or device might have a configuration error, he'd huffily deny the possibility... but quite often, it would mysteriously start working correctly a couple of hours later. Dave would deny that he'd changed anything, but when that happens over and over, as it did, it definitely becomes suspicious.

    Lastly, Dave loved to feel important. Oh, he'd vocally complain about how often he'd get called when he was on vacation... but at the same time, he'd refuse to give his subordinates access to the passwords to the most important network equipment, so that if anything went wrong, he'd be the one people would have to call. When management told him that he needed to start giving them passwords, he stalled, saying first that he needed to train them mor

  • Re:easy (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jason.sweet ( 1272826 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @02:22PM (#41480487)

    That's an ignorent statement.

    That's the funniest thing I have read in ages.

  • Re:easy (Score:3, Interesting)

    by udachny ( 2454394 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @03:00PM (#41481027) Journal

    I'd go further than that. All people that I personally know that started and run their own businesses are nearly insanely productive or at least are trying to be insanely productive. All of them had to work their asses off for at least 3 years to get somewhere, before the business would turn even 0.6% of return on the yearly investment. The problem with the majority of people is that they never even thought about running their own business, they are not thinking in those terms, they think they can hold a job and it's an equivalent of starting from scratch and actually making some venture into a profitable one. Another problem of-course is that today 'business' is nearly a dirty word, which is propaganda pushed by the establishment with political power. Businesses actually create everything we buy and use, businesses distribute everything we buy and use, businesses hire all the people *outside of government*, businesses create all the wealth (products, services).

    Of-course it's not a surprise that the majority of the population is so completely on the wrong side of it, they never actually tried to run their own real business.

  • Re:The Jerk (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Thursday September 27, 2012 @03:36PM (#41481415) Homepage Journal

    The word 'jerk' has gone through a transformation from when it started. First it was someone cool

    No, "jerk" was never a synonym for "cool". It was originally coined to label the kid that had a job pouring soda at the drug store; "Soda jerk". In short, the uncool guy, the guy that had to take all the cool kids' shit or be fired. It transformed from there to mean "dweeb" or "dork" (the Steve Martin jerk) and finally morphed as a euphamism for "asshole".

  • Re:easy (Score:4, Interesting)

    by pla ( 258480 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @04:53PM (#41482331) Journal
    Tell me, was Henry Ford a parasite? How about Sam Walton?

    Henry Ford's biggest fans describe him as "obsessive, dictatorial, abusive and utterly without conscience". He built an empire on the backs (and not infrequently, the blood) of his workers.

    And Sam Walton? Seriously, you want to use a guy who built such a great empire that towns go to frickin' court to keep it out, as a role model of what businessmen can do for us?

    You're a fucking moron.

    ...Says the guy who made my own point far, far more poignantly than did I. So in that regard, I guess you did one-up me. Thanks ,dude! :D
  • by garyisabusyguy ( 732330 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @05:18PM (#41482623)

    Because, at that time I lacked the business acumen to take advantage of it... I had led the development of postscript based high resolution mapping and even got our agency to receive national awards for the work. My first inclination was to give lectures to other GIS-folk on how to do it themselves. My first presentation was 20 minutes of me talking as fast as I could and a room full of people who looked like a pterodactyl had just swooped over their heads... complete and utter incomprehension

    At that point, other ArcInfo users started hiring me on contract to apply the methods to their systems, and even then I horribly undercharged them for the work and spent my own time training their people to take it over

    That is to say, I had no idea on how to profit from my knowledge and I missed on out on a prime opportunity because of it

  • Re:Do unto others (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Penguinisto ( 415985 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @06:07PM (#41483119) Journal

    I recall seeing that happen once at a previous job. Four of us, and one gent who acted as leader/purchaser/fill-in-admin/etc, basically built an entire IT infrastructure from the ground up. Then the PTB hired this reject VP from a huge F500 corp as the new IT Director. Everything immediately goes to shit as he starts slinging around acronyms and demands that were workable for huge orgs like the one he just left, but were impossible for a tiny IT department to implement properly in the deadlines he wanted. To top that off, he whips out the microscope, looking for something - anything - to hold over each of our heads as a threat and as a consolidation of power. It just got uglier from there. It took a development admin suffering a stroke, and a sysadmin getting a heart attack before this jackass would get a clue and hire some help to fulfill his ever-increasing list of demands. Given the economy at the time, other jobs were impossible to find, so we were stuck for awhile.

    There's only one person out of the original crew left, and she's likely to be gone once her degree is complete. The rest of us said 'fuck it' and pulled the D-Ring on his ass at the first graceful opportunity (and some even sooner). Last I heard their expenses went way up since most of us left (having to hire consultants all the time to fix even minor breaks is a bitch, I guess).

    Eventually shit hits the fan for such people. OTOH, even if it doesn't, no skin offa mine - the job I left them for came with a huge raise, a mere 30% of the workload, and telecommuting. First 3 months felt like an effing vacation to me.

    But yeah, the corp was shifting from start-up (of sorts) to full-blown. Thing is, unless someone takes control of the situation, it'll eventually crash - either figuratively (budget) or literally (as systems crap out).

  • by thesandtiger ( 819476 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @07:07PM (#41483573)

    Years ago I worked at a place called Divine Interventures in their "Buzz" group. We had a guy - he was the webmaster/developer guy, one of the first employees, etc.

    Guy had ideas for graph design that were better than what the designers came up with, came up with awesome ideas pretty much whenever we had a problem, but was kind of brusque.

    He got laid off in the first wave (and was smart to do it - one of the only people to get a full severance package when the companyimploded, and literally started his new job the next day) and about a month after that we got written up in a magazine as being a great place to work in Chicago. There were several specific things pointed out in the article as why it was so great, and when the CEO was holding an all hands meeting to congratulate us, she asked who came up with idea one, and it was pointed out this guy did. Then idea two and... Same guy. Then idea three and... Same guy. "Well, decisions like laying him off are probably why we're going out of business," the only honest thing I've ever heard from a CEO.

    If they are really brilliant, it's worth keeping them around.

  • by tragedy ( 27079 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @07:20PM (#41483653)

    But why is direct management of other people the only thing that's important? And who says that the brilliant person in question isn't good at drawing up plans and handing over the implementation to others. The author of the article seems to simply think that the natural place for "low-level tech person[s]" as you call the people who did all the work to make the company a success, is at the bottom. Is it just stupid sentimentalism for a company to pay its dues to the people without whom there wouldn't even _be_ a company?

    How would you possibly avoid the distance increasing?

    By not considering every middle managing paper pusher the company later hires (with the money that they wouldn't even have without the people who built it up to start with) to be more important. By promoting them even if the promotion doesn't involve a block of people being under them in an org chart?

    Maybe I'm just a little bitter because I've been in a similar situation. I worked essentially for free at first for a company that simply couldn't have existed without me (and my fellow "low level tech person[s]") because virtually all it consisted of was us. The promise was always of the company succeeding and us sharing in that success. When they actually got the large investment they were after they went on a hiring spree. They hired marketing people and sales people and HR people and all kinds of management all of whom were pretty much above us as well as more "low level tech person[s]" like us. All of us who started with the company and had once been nearly the entire workforce were now only a small percentage of the employees, and not a single one of us ever got promoted. There were internal job postings and we applied for management positions and even just other jobs in the company we were perfectly qualified for, but everything went to outside hires or even to other people with our job descriptions who were hired later. I was far less jaded at the time and didn't really see what was going on very clearly. Now I think that our founders just didn't have any respect for us because we'd worked so hard for them for so little at the start.

    In the end, I could see that the company was doomed in the long run. I left for an opportunity with another small startup. I waited until the day of my performance review and gave my notice to my supervisor right after it. I still remember how enthusiastically he told me that he'd managed to get me a raise up to the level of the other people with my job description who were hired after me.

    Not too long after I left, they went under and sold off what was left to another company. It wasn't much of a surprise to me that they couldn't sustain themselves as a company with more than twice as many administrators and managers than actual productive employees.

    In any case, I've been in the position of being actively marginalized in a growing company that I felt owed me at least a chance to grow with it. It wasn't much fun for me, and it wasn't what I would call good business practice either considering the effect it had on morale.

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