Coding Horror

programming and human factors

Who Needs Talent When You Have Intensity?

Jack Black, in the DVD extras for School of Rock, had this to say in an interview:

I had to learn how to play electric guitar a little bit because all I play is acoustic guitar. And I'm still not very good at electric guitar. And the truth is, I'm not very good at acoustic guitar, but I make up for it with intensity.

It's hard to appreciate how true this is until you've heard (or better yet, seen) Jack Black's band Tenacious D perform. Musically, they're terrible. But they still manage to be thoroughly entertaining and often hilarious.

Jack Black in The School of Rock

I was reminded of this Jack Black quote while reading "It's not about you" in the excellent Creating Passionate Users blog:

The I-don't-matter-so-don't-introduce-myself plan was just the beginning of the "it's not about YOU" experiment. I would conduct the rest of the five day course with all of my energy devoted to making THEM smarter, rather than trying to make sure they knew how smart I was. (A clever and necessary strategy on my part, since I'm not all that smart.)

The year-long experiment was a success, and I won a nice bonus from Sun for being one of only four instructors in north America to get the highest possible customer evaluations. But what was remarkable about this is that this happened in spite of my not being a particularly good instructor or Java guru. I proved that a very average instructor could get exceptional results by putting the focus ENTIRELY on the students. I paid no attention to whether they thought I knew my stuff.

And when I say that I was average, that's really a stretch. I have almost no presentation skills. When I first started at Sun I thought I was going to be fired because I refused to ever use the overhead slides and just relied on the whiteboard (where I drew largely unrecognizable objects and unreadable code). But... I say average when you evaluate me against a metric of traditional stand-up instructor presentation skills. Which I believe are largely bullshit anyway. Assuming you meet some very minimal threshold for teaching, all that matters is that you help the students become smarter. You help them learn... by doing whatever it takes. And that usually has nothing to do with what comes out of your mouth, and has everything to do with what happens between their ears. You, as the instructor, have to design and enable situations that cause things to happen. Exercises, labs, debates, discussions, heavy interaction. In other words, things that THEY do, not things that YOU do (except that you create the scenarios).

These inspiring results echo my feelings about what it takes to be a "good" programmer. Don't be cowed by the existence of thousands of developers far more talented than you are. Who needs talent when you have intensity?

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Overflow and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: