Thursday, May 19, 2022

Of Diet Coke, Elon Musk, and gaming programmers [Talent Search!]

Conversations with Tyler: Daniel Gross and Tyler Talk Talent (Ep. 150):

COWEN: Let’s start with a simple question. Talk us through what is a good interview question. Pick one and tell us why it’s good.

GROSS: We’re going to get to that in a minute, but I actually had a question on my mind for you, as I sit here and am holding a can of Diet Coke in my hand that I’m going to crack open. I was wondering — Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Lauren Summers, Warren Buffett, John Carmack — all of these people drink Diet Coke. What do you think is going on with that?

COWEN: I think they have habits of nervous energy and more energy than they know what to do with. There’s no series of challenges you can present to them that exhaust all of their nervous intellectual, mental energy, so it has to go somewhere. Some of them might twitch. Some of them just keep on working basically forever. But also, drinking Diet Coke is something you can do. You feel it’s not that bad for you. It probably is really bad for you, and the quantities just get racked up. I’ve seen this in many high achievers.

What’s your hypothesis?

GROSS: Yes, it’s a good question. Of course, many people in America drink Diet Coke, so I don’t exactly know what we’re selecting for, but that would be boring to just leave it there. I do wonder if this amazing molecule we discovered called caffeine is really good, and maybe these very high achievers are just slightly caffeinated all day long.

There’s also something very not neurotic about getting too worried about, is aspartame good for you, bad for you. Regular Coke, Cherry Coke — just drink it and move on. There’s a sturdiness there, and maybe, in fact, it is really bad for you, and the people who manage to be very productive while consuming it are spectacularly good. It’s like deadlifting on Jupiter — there’s extra gravity. Yes, I think it’s an interesting question. I do wonder how much of what we assume when we think about talent — how much of it is innate versus just environmental?

COWEN: I wonder if there isn’t some super-short time horizon about a lot of very successful people, that the task right before them has to seem so important that they’ll shove aside everything else in the world to maintain their level of energy, and as collateral damage, maybe some long-term planning gets shoved aside as well. It just seems so imperative to win this victory now.

GROSS: There is something, definitely, I’m struck by when I meet a lot of the very productive people I’ve met in my life. They seem to have extreme focus, but also extreme ease of focus, meaning it’s not even difficult for them to zone everything out and just focus on the thing that’s happening now. You might ask them even, “How do you do that? Is that a special skill that you have? And what type of drug are you taking?” And they look at you with a dazed and confused face. Anyway, you asked me what is a good interview question.

Elon Musk:

COWEN: No, I view our central message in the book as, right now, the world is failing at talent spotting, and this needs to be a much more major topic of conversation. We have our ideas on how to do it better, but if we can simply convince people of that, I will be relatively happy.

GROSS: Yes. I think, to me, proof of this is SpaceX. Look, SpaceX, until fairly recently, wasn’t really doing anything new from a physics standpoint. There weren’t any new physics discoveries that Elon, in a lab in LA, figured out that von Neumann couldn’t figure out. It’s yesterday’s technology. It’s just that he is a better router and allocator of capital to the right talent.

You see this time and time again. Many Elon companies are this. He just manages to put the right people doing the right thing. If you were to try to really explain to a five-year-old at a very basic level, why aren’t there more SpaceX’s, I think it comes down to the right people don’t have the right jobs for human progress. Once you start viewing the world through this lens, it’s really hard to unsee it, at least for me.

COWEN: The new book on SpaceX— it indicates that Elon personally interviewed the first few thousand people hired at SpaceX to make sure they would get the right people. That is a radical, drastic move. You know how much time that involves, and energy and attention.

GROSS: Jeff Dean, who’s probably the best engineer at Google, used to work at Digital Equipment Corporation. I think he was the 10th or 11th engineer Google hired, and he’s basically responsible for the fact that Google Search works.

He did crazy optimizations — back in the day when this mattered — like writing data that you’re going to access a lot on the exterior side of the disc, so it was a bit easier to access. Anyway, brilliant guy, still works at Google. Amazing software engineer. He told me once, while he was just waiting for code to compile, he would just go through a stack of résumés that Google was hiring. This was back when Google had maybe 10,000 people. He still had a pulse on the type of people they were bringing in.

You hear stories like this a lot, but very few organizations do it. The best organizations tend to do it. It really matters. It might matter more — especially in the current market that we’re in — it might matter more than capital, just allocating the right people to the right jobs.

Software engineers in the gaming industry:

GROSS: By the way, a small sidebar here: software engineers from the gaming industry are extremely underrated, and there’s a nice thread on the internet the other day, about how, effectively, the entire Starlink team who’s building SpaceX’s internet network are gaming engineers.

I think that whole corner of the world is really overlooked by adults who view gaming as somewhat of a pejorative. But it’s a very powerful sphere of human creativity, and I think more of it needs to be brought into day-to-day life. By the way, just in general, when I think about gaming and fun, more of that needs to be brought into day-to-day life. There should be a Michelin guide for having fun. What are the best ways to have fun?

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