Working with People who are Smarter than You.

The government department I’m currently working for recently embarked on buying a new HP Blade environment to upgrade their VMware cluster, something which I had a big hand in getting done. It was great to see after 5 months of planning, talking and schmoozing management that the hardware had arrived and was ready to be installed. My boss insisted that we buy services from HP to get it set up and installed, something which I felt went against my skills as an IT professional. I mean, it’s just a big server, how hard could it be to set up?

The whole kit arrived in around 27 boxes, 2 of them requiring a pallet jack to get them up to our build area. This was clearly our fault for not ordering them pre-assembled and was an extraordinary tease for an engineer like myself. I begrudgingly called up HP to arrange for the technician to come out and get the whole set up and installed. This is where the fun began.

After chasing our reseller and our account executive I finally got put onto the technician who would be coming out. At first I thought I was just going to get someone who knew how to build and install these things in a rack, something I was a bit miffed about spending $14,000 on. Upon his arrival I discovered he was not only a blade technician but one of the lead solution architects for HP in Canberra, and had extensive experience in core switches (the stuff that forms the backbone of the Internet). Needless to say this guy was not your run of the mill technician, something I’d discover more of over the coming days.

The next week was spent elbow deep in building, installing and configuring the blade system. Whilst this was a mentally exhausting time for myself I’m glad he was there. When we were configuring any part of the system he’d take us a step back to consider the strategic implications of the technology we were installing. I made no secret that I barely knew anything about networks apart from the rudimentary stuff and he did his best to educate me whilst he was here. After spending a week talking about VLANs, trunks and LACP I firmly understood where this technology was taking us, and how we could leverage it to our advantage.

Initially I felt very uncomfortable having someone constantly question and probe me about all the principles and practicies of our network. I’m not one to like being out of control, and having someone who is leaps and bounds smarter then you doing your work makes you seem redundant. However this all changed after I got up to speed and starting asking the right questions. It began to feel less like I was being lectured and more I was being led down the right path. Overall I’m extremely happy with my boss’ decision to bring this guy in, as the setup I would have done without his help would have been no where near the level that it is today.

In any workplace it’s always hard to work with someone who’s a lot smarter then you, especially if they’re your subordinate. Whilst I can’t find the original source for this quote (paraphrased) I’ll attribute it to my good friend, Nick:

A bad manager will surround themselves with people who either agree with everything they say or aren’t as smart as them. A good manager will have a team of people who are much smarter in their respective fields then them and use their advice to influence their business decisions.

So whilst I felt inferior because my boss didn’t believe I was capable and the architect was leaps and bounds above my skill level in the end it turned out to be a great benefit to everyone involved. From now on I’ll be looking at decisions like this in a new light, and hope this is a lesson that all the managers out there can take to heart.

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  1. But wait—Isn’t working for people not as smart as you even worse? How would you ever learn anything?
    (Sort of the situation I am in now…)

  2. He doesn’t, although everyone where I work knows that this blog exists. I don’t think they’re regular readers though :)

    As for working with people not as smart as you, I guess it depends on the kind of “smarts” we’re talking about. If you’re looking to learn a lot then working with lower skilled people isn’t going to help you, and you’ll have to seek training on your own. I guess the whole idea is that you have a whole bunch of really skilled people but their skills all lie in different areas. That way you can learn a lot from each other whilst still excelling in your area of expertise, something which actually came up with the architect I talked about (he’d never done LDAP integration before, and was really happy to learn how to do it on our kit).

    So are you seeking your own education? Or, are the kinds of things you want to learn are not the type to be taught in a class/book/tutorial? Seems like you might have outgrown your current workplace, and need a new challenge :)

  3. You’re last sentence is entirely correct. Which is why I’m shaking things up and heading back to Australia. I’m always educating myself whenever I can, but I seem to have pretty varied interests, and I’d rather be learning and doing design stuff at work, so that I can use non-work time to learn non-design stuff. Try to keep my brain flexible.

  4. Were you working with Michael Struik from HP?

    The other issue regarding installation(from a management perspective) is that of liability. We were in a similar situation to yourself, but my boss and the contractor we had working with us also opted to have HP install and build the machine to our design. why not do it ourselves?

    Plausible defensibility – In the event that the shit hit the fan later on down the track because mistakes are made, it is possible to blame the outsourced service provider rather than have it hang on your own head. The boss is happy, he can point the finger and he doesn’t have to point it at his own team. Win/Win. It was a big CYA move on a politically sensitive topic.

    Everyone has their strengths in IT – it is such a broad and varied field and there are so many nooks of specialisation. I’m always looking for people who are smarter than me and I often enjoy being the ‘least knowledgeable’ person in any workplace. why? 1) it motivates me to bust my ass to learn heaps more, and 2) the opportunity to learn, and in turn, share the knowledge you have on things other people may not know about.

  5. It was Greg Healy, who I’ve learnt has been pulled up to Sydney recently to do a 3 month consulting stint with Woolworths on their new infrastructure. Talk about a high flier ;)

    You completely correct Nick, after thinking about it I came to the conclusion that if we were able to point the finger at HP and say “You said this would work and it doesn’t” then all the better. Turns out that if we hadn’t of got them to come in we’d be stuck on a problem that we wouldn’t of been able to solve (Brocade Fabric OS incompatability, no one is going to diagnose that over the phone), so that was definitely money well spent.

    I often find myself switching between being the “top guy” and the “grunt” from pretty much every job I’ve been to. It’s great being one of the lower lungs because, as you said, you get to learn a lot. Being at the top is also great as well because people then trust you to do things that they wouldn’t let others do, even if you’re not completely experienced with them. I usually find I’m the top gun of a workplace when its a smaller organisation, and one of the grunts when it’s a big multinational or similar.

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