When you are not the smartest programmer in the room

BY Doug Breaker

February 17, 2011

Most of the freshman engineering students at my college took two computer science courses together. These were the hardest classes I would take during college (my colleague was a TA for these courses so he deserves partial blame).

The experience for Sam Epstein, a friend of mine, was decidedly different. A project that might take me a week to finish (poorly) would take Sam a couple of hours. This was a seminal moment in my life: while I knew there were smarter people than myself, I thought I could out-work my way to the top. In programming this wasn’t the case. I’d never be Sam Epstein. Not only would I not be Sam, I was pretty average compared to my peers.

This was scary: since middle school I saw myself running a technology business, usually based on technology I single-handily invented. I wasn’t as brilliant as I imagined. I wasn’t the smartest person in the room.

Eleven years later, things have turned out just fine for my dumb self. Am I building the next Google? Absolutely not. Will I be invited to speak at the next TED Conference? Not unless it’s regional conference called TED - My Living Room. Thankfully, you don’t need to be the smartest person in the room to love what you do and make a living. To compensate for my limited brain power, I’ve focused on three things:

Later on during college I made another Sam Epstein-like friend. I felt a bit like a leech studying with him. However as we worked together more, I realized he was absorbing the skills I worked on. By the time he graduated, you almost wouldn’t recognize him by his interactions. We learned a lot from each other. I had my second seminal moment: I was cool with not being the smartest person in the room as long as that person wanted to work with me.

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