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The 7 Habits of Highly Overrated People

I remember having a discussion with a more tenured coworker, with the subject being the impending departure of another coworker. I said, “man, it’s going to be rough when he leaves, considering how much he’s done for us over the last several years.” The person I was talking to replied in a way that perplexed me. He said, “when you think about it, though, he really hasn’t done anything.” Ridiculous. I immediately objected and started my defense:

Well, in the last release, he worked on… that is, I think he was part of the team that did… or maybe it was… well, whatever, bad example. I know in the release before that, he was instrumental in… uh… that thing with the speed improvement stuff, I think. Wait, no, that was Bill. He did the… maybe that was two releases ago, when he… Holy crap, you’re right. He doesn’t do anything!

How did this happen? Meaning, how did I get this so wrong? Am I just an idiot? It could be, except that fails as an explanation for this particular case because the next day` I talked to someone who said, “boy, we’re sure going to miss him.” It seemed I was not alone in just assuming that this guy had been an instrumental cog in the work of the group when he had really, well, not been.

In the time that has passed since that incident, I’ve paid attention to people in groups and collaborating on projects. I’ve had occasion to do this as a team member and a team lead, as a boss and a line employee, as a consultant and as a team member collaborating with consultants, and just about everything else you can think of. And what I’ve observed is that this phenomenon is not a function of the people who have been fooled but the person doing the fooling. When you look at people who wind up being highly overrated, they share certain common habits.

If you too want to be highly overrated, read on. Being overrated can mean that you’re mediocre but people think that you’re great, or it can mean that you’re completely incompetent but nestle in somewhere and go unnoticed, doing, as Peter Gibbons in Office Space puts it, “just enough not to get fired.” The common facet is that there’s a sizable deficit between your actual value and your perceived value — you appear useful while actually being relatively useless. Here’s how.

TomSawyer

1. “Overcommunicate”

I’m putting this term in quotes because it was common enough at one place I worked to earn a spot on a corporate BS Bingo card, but I’ve never heard it anywhere else. I don’t know exactly what people there meant by it, and for all I know, neither do they, so I’m going to reappropriate it here. If you want to seem productive without doing anything useful, then a great way to do so is to make lots of phone calls, send lots of emails, create lots of memos, etc.

A lot of people mistake activity for productivity, and you can capitalize on that. If you send one or two emails a day, summarizing what’s going on with a project in excruciating detail, people will start to think of you as that vaguely annoying person who has his fingers on the pulse all of the time. This is an even better strategy if you make the rounds, calling and talking to people to get status updates as to what they’re doing before sending an email.

Now, I know what you’re thinking — that might actually be productive. And, well, it might be, nominally so. But do you notice that you’ve got a very tangible plan of action here and there’s been no mention of what the project actually involves? A great way to appear useful without being useful is engage heavily in an activity completely orthogonal to the actual goal.

2. Be Bossy and Critical

Being an “overcommunicator” is a good start, but you can really drive your phantom value home by ordering people around and being hypercritical. If your daily (or hourly) status report is well received, just go ahead and start dropping instructions in for the team members. “We’re getting a little off schedule with our reporting, so Jim, it’d be great if you could coordinate with Barbara on some checks for report generation.” Having your finger on the pulse is one thing, but creating the pulse is a lot better. Now, you might wind up getting called out on this if you’re in no position of actual authority, but I bet you’d be surprised how infrequently this happens. Most people are conflict avoiders and reconcilers and you can use that to your advantage.

But if you do get called out (or even if you don’t), just get hypercritical. “Oh my God, Jim and Barbara, what is up with the reports! Am I going to have to take this on myself?!” Don’t worry about doing the actual work yourself — that’s not part of the plan. You’re just making it clear that you’re displeased and using a bit of shaming to get other people to do things. This shuts up people inclined to call you out on bossiness because they’re going to become sidetracked by getting defensive and demonstrating that they are, in fact, perfectly capable of doing the reports.

3. Shamelessly Self Promote

If a deluge of communication and orders and criticisms aren’t enough to convince people how instrumental you are, it never hurts just to tell them straight out. This is sort of like “fake it till you make it” but without the intention of getting to the part where you “make it.” Whenever you send out one of your frequent email digests, walk around and tell people what hard work it is putting together the digests and saying things like, “I’d rather be home with my family than staying until 10 PM putting those emails together, but you know how it is — we’ve all got to sacrifice.” Don’t worry, the 10:00 part is just a helpful ’embellishment’ — you don’t actually need to do things to take credit for them (more on that later).

Similarly, if you are ever subject to any criticisms, just launch a blitzkrieg of things that you’ve done at your opponent and suggest that everyone can agree how awesome those things are. List every digest email you’ve sent over the last month, and mention the time you sent each one. By the fifth or sixth email, your critic will just give up out of sheer exasperation and agree that your performance has been impeccable.

4. Distract with Arguments about Minutiae

If you’re having trouble making the mental leap to finding good things about your performance to mention, you can always completely derail the discussion. If someone mentions that you haven’t checked in code in the last month, just point out that in the source control system you’re using, technically, “check in” is not the preferred verbiage. Rather, you “promote code.” The distinction may not seem important, but the importance is subtle. It really goes to the deeper philosophy of programming or, as some might call it, “the art of software engineering.” Now, when you’ve been doing this as long as I have, you’ll understand that code promotions… ha! You no longer have any idea what we were talking about!

This technique is not only effective for deflecting criticism but also for putting the brakes on policy changes that you don’t like and your peers getting credit for their accomplishments. Sure, Susan might have gotten a big feature in ahead of schedule, but a lot of her code is using a set of classes that some have argued should be deprecated, which means that it might not be as future-proof as it could. Oh, and you’ve run some time trials and feel like you could definitely shave a few nanoseconds off of the code that executes between the database read and the export to a flat file.

5. Time It So You Look Good (Or Everyone Else Looks Bad)

If you ever wind up in the unfortunate position of having to write some code, you can generally get out of it fairly easily. The most tried and true way is for the project to be delayed or abandoned, and you can do your part to make that happen while making it appear to be someone else’s fault. One great way to do that is to create a huge communication gap that appears to be everyone’s fault but yours.

Here’s what I mean. Let’s say that you’re working with Bill and Bill goes home every night at 6:00 PM. At 6:01, send Bill an email saying that you’re all set to get to work, but you just need the class stub from him to get started. Sucker. Now 15 hours are going to pass where he’s the bottleneck before he gets in at 9:00 the next morning and responds. If you’re lucky and you’ve buried him in digest emails, you might even get an extra hour or two.

If Bill wises to your game and stays a few extra minutes, start sending those emails at like 10:00 PM from home. After all, what’s it to you? It takes just as little effort not to work at 6:00 as it does at 10:00. Now, you’ve given up a few hours of response time, but you’re still sitting pretty at 11 hours or so, and you can now show people that you work pretty much around the clock and that if you’re going to be saddled with an idiot like Bill that waits 12 hours to get you critical information, you pretty much have to work around the clock.

6. Plan Excuses Ahead of Time

This is best explained with an example. Many years ago, I worked as lead on a project with an offshore consultant who was the Rembrandt of pre-planned excuses. This person’s job title was some variant of “Software Engineer” but I’m not sure I ever witnessed software or engineering even attempted. One morning I came in and messaged him to see if he’d made progress overnight on a task I’d set him to work on. He responded by asking if I’d seen his email from last night. I hadn’t, so I checked. It said, “the clock is wrong, and I can’t proceed — please advise.”

After a bit of back and forth, I came to realize that he was referring to the clock in the taskbar on his desktop. I asked him how this could possibly be relevant and what he told me was that he wasn’t sure how the clock being off might affect the long-running upload that was part of the task, and that since he wasn’t familiar with Slackware Linux, he didn’t know how to adjust the clock. I kid you not. A “software engineer” couldn’t figure out how to change the time on his computer and thought that this time being wrong would adversely affect an upload that in no way depended on any kind of timestamp or notion of time. That was his story, and he was sticking with it.

And it is actually perfect. It’s exasperating but unassailable. After all, he was a “complete expert in Windows and several different distributions of Linux,” but Slackware was something he hadn’t been trained in, so how could he possibly be expected to complete this impossible task without me giving him instructions? And, going back to number five, where had I been all night, anyway? Sleeping? Pff.

7. Take Credit in Non-Disprovable Ways

The flip side of pre-creating explanations for non-productivity so that you can sit back in a metaphorical hammock and be protected from accusations of laziness is to take credit inappropriately, but in ways that aren’t technically wrong. A good example of this might be to make sure to check in a few lines of code to a project that appears as though it will be successful so that your name automatically winds up on the roster of people at the release lunch. Once you’re at that lunch, no one can take that credit away from you.

But that’s a little on the nose and not overly subtle. After all, anyone looking can see that you added three lines of white space, and objective metrics are not your friends. Do subjective things. Offer a bunch of unsolicited advice to people and then later point out that you offered “leadership and mentoring.” When asked later at a post mortem (or deposition) whether you were a leader on the project, people will remember those moments and say, grudgingly and with annoyance, “yeah, I guess you could say that.” And, that’s all you’re after. If you’re making sure to self-promote as described in section three, all you really need here is a few people that won’t outright say that you’re lying when asked about your claims.

Is This Really For You?

Let me tell you something. If you’re thinking of doing these things, don’t. If you’re currently doing them, stop. I’m not saying this because you’ll be insufferable (though you will be) and I want to defend humanity from this sort of thing. I’m offering this as advice. Seriously. These things are a whole lot more transparent than the people who do them think they are, and acting like this is a guaranteed way to have a moment in life where you wonder why you’ve bounced around so much, having so much trouble with the people you work with.

A study I read once of the nature of generosity said that appearing generous conferred an evolutionary advantage. Apparently generous people were more likely to be the recipients of help during lean times. It also turned out that the best way to appear generous was actually to be generous since false displays of generosity were usually discovered and resulted in ostracism and a substantially worse outcome than even simply being miserly. It’s the same thing in the workplace with effort and competence. If you don’t like your work or find it overwhelming, then consider doing something else or finding an environment that’s more your speed rather than being manipulative or playing games. You and everyone around you will be better off in the end.

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99 Comments on "The 7 Habits of Highly Overrated People"

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Divya
Guest

Erik,
Well written blog. I could easily place some of our people and i guess you already know them 🙂 Nice work.
-Divya

Erik Dietrich
Guest

Hi Divya. Thanks for the kind words, and I’m glad if you enjoyed the read. And yes, the people who tend to do this stuff are pretty obvious about it as they do it 🙂

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Marc Carson
Guest
Well written. I was talking with a colleague, complimenting a mutual acquaintance on something last week, when the colleague stopped me and said something similar: “But exactly what has this person done? Where are the results of their work?” We had been playing the good sport game for so long that I was caught off guard when it had to end. I think there’s a fear of sticking your neck out when you push too hard on somebody else, and maybe a fear of losing a potentially valuable networking contact. You can see how they might be a valuable contact… Read more »
Erik Dietrich
Guest

This is an *excellent* point. People who are good at being serially overrated are likely to be extroverted and also fairly likely to be good at creating consequences for people who mess with them. I think I’m going to let that soak in my head for a bit and potentially write a follow up post on it. Thanks for the comment!

Teresa Van Dusen
Guest

Well, usually these overrated people tend to converge towards other people like them and gravitating around them to get connections are usually going to put you in a position of being their slaves, doing all the work for them and sharing the credit with them. Been there done that. It is better to spend your time and money getting some cognitive behavior modification training to become more extroverted yourself.

Tom
Guest

This is the definition of Elon Musk.

Anonymous
Guest

Could you expand please?

WOZ
Guest

I think he meant Steve Jobs

Henry Binklebauer
Guest

Minutia is the definitely the bikeshedding holy grail of business theater.

anonymouse
Guest

This sounds like the average “(Technical) Project/Program manager” job description.

And pretty much how they behave too.

Corey
Guest

Hmm. One thing I’m confused about is that you end the post saying “don’t do this, it’s much more transparent than the perpetrators think it is”, but you started the post by talking about a coworker who basically tricked you (and another coworker) in this way, and it seems was getting away with it for a really long time. What did he do that allowed him to get away with it, then?

Erik Dietrich
Guest
In this specific case, it was that he was able to get away with it as far as I, specifically, was concerned (but obviously not my colleague, who pointed it out to me). In retrospect, this was the case because I wasn’t usually in a position where evaluating this guy’s contributions mattered for me — I never depended on the code he wrote, needed deliverables from him, etc. But even in spite of that, the simple act of trying to recount his contributions made the situation obvious to me as well. Either way, good catch. 🙂 I probably should have… Read more »
sdf
Guest

a description of a typical Indian guy

Chris Sherlock
Guest

We’ll that was racist!

Nathan Alden
Guest

Indian is a nationality, not a race. At least understand terms before you spew them.

Benjamin Dobell
Guest

Or perhaps, don’t ne a smartarse when you know full well that irrespective of whether Chris was technically correct that Indian is absolutely 100% well understood as commonly referring to a race, particularly given this sort of context.

Irrespective the comment was derogatory and bullshit.

Chris Sherlock
Guest

That only makes you look more stupid. You think there is a “typical” Indian guy in such a diverse and populace nation?

Go back to the hole you crawled out from.

However, one of the definitions of race is:

“any people united by common history, language, cultural traits, etc.: the Dutch race.”

Try looking up the various meanings of race next time, you racist!

Jonathan D
Guest

4. Distract with Arguments about Minutiae

Carsten
Guest

I LOL’ed @ Jonathan’s reply 😀

Law 'n order
Guest

The term “ethnicist” is not commonly used. Most people understand “racist” to include prejudice against a race or ethnic group.

Erik Dietrich
Guest
Let me be clear about this point. These behaviors have no correlation that I’ve ever seen with any kind of nationality, race, religion, gender or any other demographic grouping that I can think of. Opportunistic credit hogging and blame deflection are truly universal currencies in the world of office incompetence and human interaction. I’ve had the good fortune to work, over the years, with an extremely diverse array of people, and they’ve contributed or loafed basically according to no broader trend than what appeared to be random chance. The motivation for me saying this is not political correctness, but simple… Read more »
Alena Reva
Guest

Hi! May I repost your article for corp blog and translate it into Russian there?

Erik Dietrich
Guest

By all means, and I’m glad if you like the post. All I’d ask is that you link back to the original post here.

Ira San
Guest

Racist or not. It’s definitely interesting that the upvotes are significantly higher than the downvotes. Indian managers are mostly like this. Sometimes race is a good granularity for describing a set of people. It’s just like saying blacks have big d**ks for example.

Juni Samos
Guest

Interesting only in that it points out, once again, despite many who deny it, prejudice is alive and well even in this day and age.

Ira San
Guest

Actually, it points out that people have thrown out practical uses of the English language in favor of political correctness.

Juni Samos
Guest

Using the English language “practically” doesn’t exempt one from bigotry, just as being unaware of one’s own bigotry doesn’t make one less of a bigot.

When someone applies a broad brush across an entire nation of people with a statement of “typical Indian” It is bigoted, wether you are able to discern that or not.

Ira San
Guest

And when someone calls someone else a bigot without understanding the reality, he/she is a total asshole. Go back to the home that you came from which represents a hovel.

Jonathanh
Guest

It’s definitely typical of American people too; our way of life has become so fake.

Doug Lee
Guest

shirk responsibility; shift blame; take credit when it’s not due.

corner office, here i come!

filterfish
Guest

I know this guy.

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Guest
Guest

Number 6 all the way. There’s always one of these idiots and they drive you mad with their pedantic excuses for lack of progress. It’s always someone elses fault.

DyslexicAtheist
Guest

we all know such a guy. lol. especially big companies are full with them

Marcel
Guest

This, boys and girls, is the definition of every public employees on this planet.

Origami_Isopod
Guest

Hi, teabagger!

dh
Guest

My goal is to do as little as possible. You’re preaching to the choir, dude.

Zen Master
Guest

I’m writing this stuff down! this is absolute gold mine!

See you suckers later, I’m off climbing the corporate ladder.

🙂

I jest of course.

wtpayne
Guest

Are you sure you have enough cookies? I mean, I think you *might* actually have *everybody*.

that guy
Guest

I couldn’t read the whole article because there was a typo at the beginning. Please fix.

Coworker here
Guest

Minutiae strategy?

that guy
Guest

I’m constantly having to do other people’s jobs so that we’re not embarrassed as a group and as a company. It’s unprofessional to submit work that’s done half-assed. In the time you took to respond, you could have corrected the typo. Our strategy is to do things once and do them right the first time. The typo is still there. This is now wasting everyone’s time and is costing the company money.

MarkatBrevedy
Guest
Erik, good post. I’m assuming you brought in Covey’s 7 habits as a literary device, but I’m a big fan of Covey and I was thinking about how he would deal with they type of people you’ve portrayed. Covey is a big fan of cooperation and a proponent of companies that reward teams more than individuals. Individual based rewards creates the type of environment where the dirty tricks you’ve illustrated are employed and tolerated to some degree. However, even in a team reward-based environment, not everybody contributes equally, so even if they’re not playing dirty tricks, not everybody is equally… Read more »
Erik Dietrich
Guest
You are correct that I used the title as a literary device. I had mostly written the post and had 5 or 6 sections written when I decided I should probably think about when to cap it. It struck me that if I had 7 sections, I could have a fun title, and that was really all the thought I gave it. Thanks for the info and the links, and I have a keen interest in incentive schemes and reward systems, so I’ll give a read when I get a chance (both the link and perhaps, at some point, the… Read more »
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beingsocialized
Guest

OMG.. damn accurate.. I have been working with one teammate of same character and I was feeling like you had written by taking that person as prime example.

Saikiran Yerram
Guest

Was a fun read for sure. I was doing a consulting gig in Boston, and majority of them were self promoters, last min checkins etc. It happened one of the guys got promoted and became my boss. I quit in a week or two, earlier than I planned for.
This sorta behavior is found in most consulting, corporate or government entities. Unfortunately you can’t survive there unless you employ these tactics. Either ways, I am glad its over with.

Oday
Guest

Just great, thanks

Vishipedia
Guest

The last 2 paragraphs were the best, Erik. I was actually beginning to wonder if one should indulge in these because most people who do end up climbing the corporate ladder real fast.

But it looks like there is a lot more to life (and work) than merely coming across as a self-professed know-it-all and a pain-in-the-ass…

Michael Musgrove
Guest

#1 is those that post links to other people’s work. Lame, but not saying I’ve never done it.
#6 is a union employee, no? Don’t change a lightbulb if it’s not in your union contract.

This reminded me of the Seinfeld episode where Costanza figured out as long as you looked exasperated and irritated, people would think you’re really busy.

JRI
Guest
Nice shot at union employees. I’m sure the company will be glad to get rid of its maintenance staff and have you do their job by working a few extra hours. Of course you are still on contract so there will be no extra money. Don’t worry though it’s a two way street. If you need maintenance at home I’m sure the Board of Directors will be glad to help. Not performing your job because your incompetent is much different than not performing your job because you haven’t been given the tools and environment to do it. The union contracts… Read more »
Salman Ahmed
Guest

well I have to admit I have done points 1- 6 some of the times and have to become more honest, but thanks for the critic again. I will keep it in mind.

Matt
Guest

How do you get rid of this guy or catch them in the act?

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M
Guest
I’ve got to disagree with you on the overcommunication habit; the other 6 make perfect sense. Communication is a two-way street. Information flows from one person to the other. However, the WAY information SINKS in can vary from person to person. Some people grasp information from an overheard conversation, and can act upon that. Others need a written bullet, and they’ll pick it up immediately. And some people need a conversation with an opportunity to ask questions. Rarely, do people get it absolutely right in one go, in one medium. There’s nothing wrong with getting all communication done via IM… Read more »
Erik Dietrich
Guest

It sounds like your objection is to my term rather than to me finding fault with the behavior (since what I’m talking about is essentially generating useless documents over and over). I might replace “overcommunicate” with “babble” or “SPAM” if that clarifies the point. Unless I’m misunderstanding your objection, that is.

gerdo888
Guest

Nailed it. Spot on. A masterpiece.

Dane Stuckel
Guest
The last few posts here have been a bit too much like Tarot. That is, by listing generally bad behaviours that could be subtle, everyone is seeing what they want to see in these words, especially if there is a particular person at work that they already dislike. Each point, could be applied to almost anyone if their behaviour is scanned for any long period of time. There’s probably times when the folks in the comments here have over-communicated, or planned their excuses when they realized that what they were doing has a low chance of success. There’s probably also… Read more »
Erik Dietrich
Guest
These type of op-ed posts are what I think of as “catharsis posts.” They generally arise from my own personal frustrations that have no good, direct outlet, so I compose my thoughts and express my frustrations as blog posts. The title of this one just happened to be the result of my idea to engage a spoof of a popular title — list titles like “12 reasons Java is better than C#” generally aren’t my style. For what it’s worth, I have the last post in the unit test series in my drafts and I’m planning to do a few… Read more »
lorennorman
Guest

This is an uncanny reminder of The Gervais Principle: a fascinating read on modern corporate politics that casts these behaviors as the basic toolkit and playbook of upward mobility:
http://www.ribbonfarm.com/the-gervais-principle/

I’m glad your ultimate message is an unambiguous “don’t do this!”, and I agree with you. But, armed with the insights of the aforementioned essays, I find these kinds of acts downright normal; they’re an emergent property of contemporary corporate organization.

Erik Dietrich
Guest
I absolutely love that series of posts. I happened on it when the first one got slashdotted and followed the series to its conclusion. In the context of those posts, off the cuff (I hadn’t considered it until reading your comment), I’d say that the people I’m describing in this post are text book “Clueless” blowhards, posturing their way to middle management positions. I don’t think this is the path to power for your C-level and board room Sociopaths. After all, who better to maneuver into a cannon fodder position than someone whose entire game is to mask incompetence with… Read more »
lorennorman
Guest
Thanks for your response! I think it’s probably all in the details. What stands out to me from GP are the great lengths that Losers-cum-Sociopaths go to in order to avoid work yet overcommunicate, give orders, and take credit. You say a C-level may poke holes in their obviously weak record. Well, that supposes they’ve been climbing the ladder at a single job and that their record is actually available and auditable. More likely the career ladder is climbed laterally, jumping from job to job so they can skip rungs altogether, scorched earth in their wake but bright futures ahead.… Read more »
Erik Dietrich
Guest
I think the distinction you make between using these techniques during lateral/upwards job-hops is a good one. Someone employing tactics like this with the intention of staying put in a smallish/midsized company is probably a ham-fisted Clueless who thinks that this sort of grandstanding is just the thing that everyone does. But if you recognize that it’s not sustainable and you intend to hop around, then it’s probably a decent gambit. And you’re right about the flashes I had about people in my post here — none of them would be MacLeod sociopaths but rather losers and losers looking to… Read more »
Senthil
Guest

A well summarized post of the traits of Indian managers. Even I couldn’t have said this better.

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Pinky Poinker
Guest

This is so funny! Was it meant to be? Those seven points described a couple of the most irritating people I’ve worked with over the years 🙂 I wish I could send it to them.

karlkfi
Guest
There is something to be said for overcommunicating. I think what you’re complaining about isn’t that, but the parody of people trying to do it without knowing what it is. Overcommunicating is actually an attempt to avoid misscommunication by saying the same thing multiple times in different ways using different mediums so that the meaning and intent is clear to as many people as possible. It’s not a cure-all, and it can definitely be over-used to extremes that cause other problems, like wasted time, but that doesn’t mean the original intent of of the practice is wrong. Would you rather… Read more »
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Sebulba
Guest

I think number 4 is the most effective, every time you get invited to someone else’s meeting the moment he starts talking facts & numbers you divert the entire conversation elsewhere in order to change the subject;
That way you can keep on taking a central role in the meeting without anyone noticing you don’t know shit!! and even more important there will be no effective action items at the end of the meeting that way you will have to be accountable for.

I call it The PH way!

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[…] Office politics gone wild -> The 7 Habits of Highly Overrated People […]

Paul Hepworth
Guest
Don’t confuse those that do have a big impact with their communication and analytical skills. Sometimes the most productive thing someone can do is confront problems early through over-communication. To some engineers who pride themselves with the lines of code they write these people may appear to fit this profile. To others they are using pure talent that is critical in shipping the right kind of solution to a problem. False positives are likely to the jealous untrained eye. With that said, those who fake, pose, and lie about what they do deserve to be recognized for what they are.… Read more »
George
Guest

What is the name of the guy? Just curious lol

George's friend
Guest

G master

Erik Dietrich
Guest

I’d like to thank everyone for their comments. Apologies that I haven’t had a chance to address all of them individually, but this is a substantially higher volume of comments than I normally get in my posts where I do respond to everyone who takes the time to comment.

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hittheroadca
Guest

Holy crap, but am I familiar with this personality type….

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