Wednesday, August 28, 2013



Head and shoulders portraitI wrote about Steve Jobs recently, but forgot to mention that he made one point of particular interest to me—which I will explain in a moment.

He said that the difference between the best and worst in most occupations was arguably two to one—or something along those lines—whereas the difference between the best and the worst, when it came to writing software (and, by implication computer science in general) could be a hundred to one.

Frankly, I am not sure he is quite right—in terms of the figures he quoted—but I accept his general point that, in certain sectors, the difference between the merely competent, and the exceptional, is vast. And the number of such exceptional people is decidedly limited. One was J. Robert Oppenheimer (see photo) who led the scientific team which developed the atomic bomb.

I used this theme in developing my plot for SATAN’S SMILE. In the book, cutting-edge scientists (the kind of people who make breakthroughs) are being assassinated in order to cut down the U.S.’s technological lead—and then one of the killers loses control and starts killing for the sake of killing. What results is horrendous—but I won’t say more in the interests of maintaining suspense.

Do I believe in the concept of A-List talent which is disproportionately superior? Well, I have talked to enough people—particularly scientists—to have become persuaded. Further, I have no doubt at all that, despite our huge pool of scientists, whittling away at the elite would have an impact—and probably a pivotal impact at that.

In Job’s case, he said he decided to build his team entirely from such exceptional people—and the result was the Mac (which was, and remains, so superior to the PC that one can but marvel). He also remarked  that such people were exceptionally hard to manage—and needed tough, demanding, rigorous, leadership (which, inevitably, some absolutely hated).

Based on my experience and observation, many teams boast some extremely competent people, but few teams are composed entirely of the exceptional. They are hard to find and hard to keep—and they make conventional managements uncomfortable.

Competence versus outstanding talent—it’s a concept worthy of considerably more thought than it receives. This isn’t to deny the importance of competence. We have to rely on it since most of us peak at such a stage. However, I have to wonder what could be achieved if we aimed higher—much higher—and if we focused such talent on some of our more intractable problems.

The context for such thinking is worth considering. Over the last few decades, the U.S. has lost its leadership position in sector after sector to the point where the economic wellbeing of the average American is under threat. In short, the trend lines are not encouraging. Beyond that, we are letting more and more of our problem areas—from education to exports to poverty—become intractable. But, can the Jobs approach be made relevant to non-scientific situations?  Given political will, I see no reason why not.

The case for a fresh approach would seem to be strong. But, will it happen? 


Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.

― Steve Jobs

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