Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Corporate Communications #2: Penny

Charles Simonyi was once asked if he compared notes with other well-known programmers. Simonyi named half a dozen or so famous programmers that he knew, and said, “These guys are all great. We don’t have much to talk about. We feel good vibes and exchange three or four words. I know that if one of these guys opens his mouth, he knows what he is talking about. So when he does open his mouth and he does know what he is talking about, it’s not a great shock. And since I tend to know what I am talking about, too, I would probably say the same thing, so why bother talking, really? It’s like the joke tellers’ convention where people sit around and they don’t even have to tell a joke. They just say the joke number and everybody laughs.

Now some really smart people—MIT types—not too long ago said Simonyi is one of the smartest guys on the planet. And the world’s press has pointed out that he is Martha Stewart’s boyfriend. I don’t like disagreeing with a guy like that, but my experience regarding conversations with smart people has been the exact opposite of Simonyi’s.

My experience has been that if you talk to people they will always say something you never expected and they will often something you never would have imagined.

(I hope my complete disagreement with Simonyi on this point doesn’t mean that really smart people—MIT types—would conclude I’m one of the dumbest people on the planet. I wouldn’t mind too much, however, if Martha Stewart didn’t see me as her kind of man...)

When I worked for the giant insurance company I talked about yesterday, I knew a woman named Penny. Penny was very cool. When I first met her she worked in an accounting job, crunching numbers all day. But Penny was a former Hippie who’d gotten a day job and she didn’t really like working with numbers all day. So, on her own time, she went back to school and acquired some kind of computer science degree. Then she transferred out of accounting and into data processing.

Personally, I’m not sure that programming Cobol applications for payroll specs is a big step up from accounting, but Penny was very energetic and I really admired her taking the initiative to make such a big change in her life.

Penny and I often had breakfast or lunch together in the company cafeteria. (The giant insurance company had a “cafeteria” that was larger and offered a wider selection of food than many restaurants.)

I don’t believe Penny and I ever had one discussion where she didn’t say something that took me completely by surprise. Often they were little things, but little things can be real eye-openers that change how a person thinks.

One time we got into an argument over breakfast. I don’t even remember what we were talking about. We were both enjoying eggs, sausages, toast and orange juice and we both got passionate about something. It wasn’t politics and it wasn’t sports and it wasn’t minicomputers versus mainframes. It was probably something like, ‘What is the role a person’s business life should play in their personal life?’

Back then I was younger and I was, back then, still a big fan of Ayn Rand. I probably would have been saying that a person’s business life should define their personal life. Penny, really an unreconstructed Hippie, didn’t much like the business world and regarded corporations as just places to struggle along in with a day job.

I remember we argued almost until our plates were empty and it was time to go to work.

Penny, sighing, said, “Well, let’s just agree to say that this is one of those things where there is no right and no wrong and it just depends on a person’s point of view.”

I shrugged and said, “Well, why don’t we just agree to say that this is one of those things where you think I’m wrong about it and I think you’re wrong about it?”

Penny’s eyes went wide and she said, “No! I don’t want to go through the day knowing you think I’m wrong about something!”

I really didn’t know what to say to that. She might as well have reached across the table and slapped my face, because that was the effect of her words. I certainly hadn’t expected her to say something like that, and, in fact, I never would have—never could have—imagined her saying something like that.

On one hand I was flattered that she put such weight on what I thought. On the other hand, I wondered, ‘What the hell, what difference does it make if I or anyone think she’s wrong?

For the most part, I generally assume everyone thinks I’m wrong about everything!

I’ve never really gotten over that conversation with Penny.

And if I hadn’t had that conversation I never would have had so much to think about since then. If I’d embraced Simonyi’s point of view—that Penny just would say the same thing I’d say on any given topic—it never would have occurred to me that some people expect that all conflicts, all disagreements, are capable of resolution. Some people don’t gear up to go through the day thinking that other people are flat out wrong about some things and some people do not at all like the thought that other people might consider them simply flat out wrong about some things.

A lot of the struggles in the modern world seem to make more sense in light of this, well, epistemological point. And I owe my introduction to it to a breakfast conversation in the cafeteria of a giant insurance company.

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