hackNY Speaker Series – Joel Spolsky
On Tuesday, June 14, 2011, hackNY welcomed Joel Spolsky. Founder of Fog Creek, co-founder of Stack Exchange (which runs over 50 Q&A websites including Stack Overflow), Spolsky really doesn’t need an introduction in the tech world. We were really thrilled to have him.
He started off by quoting Dijkstra, emphasizing that we are moving much beyond just computers –
“Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.”
He talked about the three classes he took during his time at Yale that influenced his career the most:
- a class on “dynamic logic” – in which you literally add dynamics to logic (things are true over time, truth values that change with time etc.) and which is supposed to enable computer scientists to prove hypotheses regarding programs that change state. Seeing the graduated students sketch out confused, convoluted proofs in that course convinced him not to go to graduate school, which he had been planning to.
- a class on Artificial Intelligence by Roger Schank, which was meant to be a gut class for students from other departments and a class that CS students weren’t given any credit for. He said that the class was instrumental in helping greatly improve his writing ability, as he had to write a single long essay every single week, which was “the best thing I could have done” – getting practice writing convincing arguments about slightly technical topics. Emphasizing the significance of good writing abilities as a life skill, Spolsky said that there was no question that being able to write and explain yourself clearly in English was one of the most important things he “ever learned”.
- a Systems Programming class (something like COS 217 at Princeton). Spolsky said that all the stuff that we need to do to create a product that somebody can use constructively happens “long after it ceases to be interesting to a computer scientist”. This class taught him how to do things that were “previously beyond my mental capacity.” He said that, looking at a random sample stats from the class, the assignments took students anywhere in the 4-40 hours range. Surprisingly though, the students’ grades had no correlation whatsoever with the amount of time they spent on these assignments. This implied a 10X direct productivity difference between the 4 hours and 40 hours guys, and he said that the difference is “obviously bigger” in the real world. His basic point was that one should figure out the best way to improve one’s productivity, which can lead to drastic payoffs.
Spolsky also talked about a class he took on cultural anthropology, which he called “the most boring class” he had ever taken. However, he said that he really realized the importance of what he had learned decades later, when he started his websites and had to deal with millions of users that provided all sorts of interesting anthropological challenges. He said that if we ever had a situation where users of our sites/products were struggling, we should make an anthropologist conduct an ethnography of our users!
He emphasized that we should always want to work for a “where your labor is directly aligned with the output of the company…You always wanna be on the track of what it is that the company does…You are the star, everybody else is a cost center.” According to him, this is the way to get career satisfaction.
In the Q&A, he was critical of consulting as a career (based on his own experiences with Microsoft Consulting) – and he said that the greatest secret of management consulting was that every engagement started with telling the consultants the desired result.
Overall, it was a great session and Spolsky just shone through. I hope I have a chance to work around him sometime.
If you want to get a sense of Spolsky’s style of speaking and overall awesomeness, below is a video of a Google Tech Talk he delivered about Stack Overflow.