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In the same vein as this question, it seems like in every interview an engineer says that they're working with the smartest people. Well it's statistically impossible for every company to have the smartest people, so how do you identify smart coworkers if it's a promising, growing company that doesn't yet have the size and reputation of Google, Facebook, Microsoft, etc?

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"an engineer says that they're working with the smartest people" means that those are the smartest people that guy met 'till that moment:) –  Cristian Boariu Mar 18 '11 at 15:22
It sounds like marketing-speak to me... Are there many companies that will openly admit that their dev teams makes frequent and major contributions to thedailywtf.com ? –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Mar 18 '11 at 15:24
Trees are people too! –  muntoo Mar 19 '11 at 22:12
I'm trying to remember who's blog it was, but they had a good entry on how not everyone interviews at every company. So each company ends up hiring what they percieve as the "top 10%", but unless they are a company that truly attracts the top to apply it is just a relative statement. –  Chris Pitman Nov 1 '11 at 11:42

8 Answers 8

Talk to them about some interesting but unheralded new technology. If they are dismissive, bored or irritated, their relative intelligence is unimportant; they are not the kind of people who are going to make for a great workplace.

If they are curious, questioning and move to investigate it themselves, their relative intelligence is unimportant; they are the kind of people who are going to make for a great workplace.

Working with 'the smartest people' is an entirely neutral fact. It means nothing in terms of how successful the company will be or how eager you will be to get there in the morning.

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I'd have to disagree strongly with this. Willingness to jump blindly after new, untested, "unheralded" (read: no one's talking about it which means no one's actually using it) technologies is a very strong red flag IMO. It's a sign of a company with a really high risk of going under very quickly. –  Mason Wheeler Mar 19 '11 at 0:30
@Mason: I don't mean to say that working for a company that changes directions to follow the earliest of new trends is a good idea; you are quite right that the opposite is true. However, the question -- and my answer -- specifically relate to the people, the individuals with whom one would work. And I have certainly found that the best software engineers with whom I have worked are always open-minded and curious about new technologies, even if they don't fit into the immediate scope of their daily work. The bad ones, conversely, are irritated to even hear ab out new things. –  Adam Crossland Mar 19 '11 at 0:39
The company/team doesn't have to jump on the new technology, but any developer worth his/her salt should at least keep up to date and maybe experiment with it. If you ask about something fairly new or being pushed (e.g. Entity Framework for .NET) and you get a blank stare like "I've never heard of that", that is a red flag because it means the person is ignorant of anything outside of what they currently use. –  Wayne M Oct 31 '11 at 15:43
Curiosity and effort are an important factor, but being smart will always be important. Otherwise, to get any production, these people are going to burn them selves out. –  JeffO Oct 31 '11 at 19:06

Smart-est is highly subjective, sure you get that bit.

Your concern should be whether the people you would potentially work with are smart enough to inspire you.

There are couple of straightforward ways for that: check out the kind of products these people are building, thats a start. Also look at the kind of questions they are ask during an interview, their approaches to a problem etc.

1 tip: I have been in the business of coding for 10 years now, and I can tell you that just looking for the most intelligent people is probably a stupid thing to do. Look for good, happy and reasonably talented people who'd help you expand and extend yourself.

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You can get a very good idea of the organization's intelligence in the interview. A good interview is an interesting conversation, not just a list of questions from a sheet. If you find the interview superficial, then you will also find that your colleagues lack depth. Remember that you will be working with people who were barely able to pass the interview you just had. If you wouldn't hire someone on the basis of that interview, you won't want to work there.

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An interview is just as much about them finding out about you as it is you finding out about the job. You should ask the person giving the interview questions about what they do and how the company runs. They should be able to talk comfortably about what they are doing. Trying to dig a little deeper from what they first describe will give you more information about if they really know what they are talking about AND make you look very interested in the position.

You should end up interviewing with 3 or 4 people from the company, so you can use that to get a few data points about how the company works and the type of people that work there. It is not a perfect information system, but the people interviewing are dealing with the same thing. You just have to get as much information as you can to try and make an informed decision.

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If the interview is within earshot of developers working nearby, say to the interviewer something along the lines of "It sounds like you have really smart people here who know what they're doing". If frustrated sighs begin erupting, then you know. I did this at an interview with a very large insurance company, and never looked back.

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Working with the smartest people does have its benefits, but it should not be the main criteria.

Do you only want to work with the smartest people? Don't you want to work with people that motivate you, to challenge you and be able to grow with you. So don't just only look for smart people in the company.

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Every company that claims that they have the smartest people may indeed have the smartest people. Smartness is a subjective measure, and if each company has a different standard of "smart", then it is conceivable that each company has most of the people who meet their standard of smartness.

That is not relevant to you unless you understand their definition of "smart".

A smart person is often an apparently fast learner, solves problems quickly and elegantly, and answers questions with clear, succinct, and insightful statements. Of course, words such as "fast", "quickly", "elegantly", "clear", "succinct", and "insightful" are also subjective. And their smartness rubs off on you.

So, if you think your coworkers are smart and their smartness rubs off on you, then they are smart.

I wish that this answer was helpful.

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  1. Look at the product(s), it usually speaks for itself.
  2. Ask about the code base. If the volume for a single project exceeds even 50,000 lines, I'd doubt the company is run by smart people.
  3. Ask about the management and note the non-technical to technical staff ratio. You know you are in trouble if it's greater than 0.3 no matter how smart the techies are.
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You do realize that there are companies who work on systems that are bigger than a school project? You should also realize that the number of developers that can develop large systems is extremely small as a percentage of the developers out there, which implies that those people tend to be smarter than those who create projects less than 50,000 lines of code. –  Dunk Mar 18 '11 at 15:29
@Dunk I do realize that smart people split large projects into smaller ones. Large Systems Suck. This rule is 100% transitive. If you build one, you suck. - Steve Yegge –  mojuba Mar 18 '11 at 15:31
@Dunk / @mojuba - Lines of code and where a system/project actually starts and stops? How large is large? It's pointless. Companies with a large code base are immune from poor hiring practices? Doubtful. –  JeffO Mar 18 '11 at 18:26
I was going to vote a -1 for the LoC comment, but then I corrected myself after reading the No.3 ( too much non-tech staff in tech companies really does spell trouble). –  Jas Mar 19 '11 at 18:35
Does this mean a C++ Qt "Hello World!" with DirectX sound program is 50k lines of code, and a terribly complex program, since it has to go through the standard C++ libraries, Qt libraries, DirectX sound libraries, and must run on a Windows OS at the very least? –  muntoo Mar 19 '11 at 22:18

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