Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Meeting the "Genius Programmer" Myth

We've all had it, we've all met them, a few of us have maybe even pretended to be them... But there are very few real, and therefore absolutely swathes of fake, Genius Programmers.

I bring this topic up, as my current role revolves around pampering a system which I had no design input into, which is, frankly, a bit of a mess, and which I would and could and at one time was allocated time to re-write from the ground up myself.  This system was designed by a Genius programmer, in some aspects it wasn't even a very good programmer, or rather not a very good modern programmer.  It was designed by a chap with his roots in 1980's Radio equipment, and whom had google at hand.  So it's coded to a Coding Standard downloaded from India, it's main features, though functional and good don't take full advantage of modern programming practice, like inheritance or even full encapsulating things as classes.  It's a hodge podge.

And then it had a team each work upon it, where each member would do their own thing, but the designer would reel those changes in and uniform them, that was until the first, the perhaps the worst ever, specimen of a "Genius Programmer" was hired.

Hired, some time after me, he soon changed the core programming language being used by the department from being C++ to C#... Yes, you heard that right, from C++ to C#.  Though this was luck as a manager grade member of the group was pushing for us to take up Java, as she'd used it at a previous job.

So, C#... Genius Boy soon had it running tricks, but many of his tricks were to call down into the Operating System, something far easier to do from C++, and it all became a bit of a farse, he'd write unintelligible code, in poor structure, and then the designer was so intimidated by this boy talking the talk he'd not check whether he walked the walk.  And 50% of the time the boys code did what was intended, so long as he didn't get bored between starting to implement it and delivery day, if he got bored, forget it, all bets were off.

And we've all met people like this, presenting themselves as the best thing since sliced bread, but they don't acutally deliver.

So, I'm now coaxing this system into old age, and probably extinction soon.

However, he wasn't the first time I ever met the 'genius programmer' phenomena, the first time was a genuine example Max (if you're out there Max Barr, hello!!!!), was a genuine article, he as kindly spoken, had infinite patience to listen to the problem, would mull things over and then he'd attack (between smoke breaks) the problem.  He even had the same phone as they used in that years hit film "The Matrix".

Max was the genuine article, able and produced working results every time, however, his code often had a world of it's own, as he included such variable names as "Great Green Flesh Devouring Scabs", yes you can imagine you could not maintain his code easily.  But it worked, and you left Max to his projects knowing they were in good stewardship.

At the same time I met this genuine article, I was also introduced to a complete fake... I wasn't involved in hiring this joker, but the boss at the time gave us this speach he was coming in and showing us how to do things... Shaking things up...

At the time I'd just finished porting the company's old product to the internet via CGI, and the new project was in Java, hosted on Jakarta Tomcat and later through IBM WebSphere.  This fellow was to be a Java expert.

He came in, he was a bit odd, immediately one had a feeling of... "He's odd"... I couldn't put my finger on it at first, but he sat in a corner, and the first week there he was off to buy a brand new hard drive for the machine he was working on... So he spent that day out, at a local shop to buy a drive.  I went into the shop later, they served the guy in about 5 minutes, so immediately he'd had the day off doing nothing.

Then he presented his first piece of code, and we were meant to clap in awe that it used a thread, it was very annoying to watch.

He then decided the IBM WebSphere server we'd all got sorted was not good enough, and we needed a Linux machine.  And I agreed, the trouble with this however was it was 1999, so you had two choices for your Linux server Suse and RedHat.  I would have chosen to install both, except back then they cost money to get the support and in a commercial environment the boss wanted it all supported.

It was therefore decided that the genius would be sent to pick, at a Linux conference, I was sent with him... Well, another waste of time later, I left early and headed back to the office "pointless day, he just met his mates and they didn't talk tech", indeed the whole presentation for the whole morning was the Suse guy in a suit telling us to use theirs, followed by the RedHat guy in a t-shirt with a red-hat printed on it, telling us to use theirs... very annoying.. No comparisons, no service information, no detail, no point.

So anyway, back at the office, no more code came from this guy, and I learned working in Warwickshire he was commuting every day 64 miles from Nottingham, so that's 128 miles a day... And oh look, I'm from Nottingham... "Where'd you used to work?"... I asked one day... And by remarkable coincidence, where he used to work, is where I work now... But he made out he'd been senior developer here, and al-sorts... Genius programmer remember, he was telling the boss, and us all, how he'd worked on major projects...

But like I said, no more code came out of his corner, and after only a few weeks he departed that employment.

Spin forward two years and I work where I am now, which happens to be where this Genius claimed to have been a senior programmer.  So I ask about after him... Nope, no-one remembers him... I ask HR, they look at me puzzled... The HR lady at the time did go have a look though, and this genius did indeed work  here... For four weeks... He was never senior.

He seems to be one of those hummingbird programmers, able to talk the talk to get the role, but then unable to walk the walk.

Years later this chap was in the news, on the TV, turned out my feeling of something odd about him might have been right, he turned out to be of some strange religious beliefs...

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