Finding database geniuses
Oracle Database Tips by Donald BurlesonMay 1, 2015
The nature of genius
I've always been fascinated by the whole concept of
"intelligence" and how it's measured and applied within the scientific
community. Today's measures of intelligence are sadly lacking, and the
standard Simon Binet IQ tests only provide a rough guestimate of functional
The average IQ is artificially adjusted to 100, and the
average college student has a SB IQ of 120, while the typical graduate student
clocks-in between 125 and 135. The threshold for genius is arbitrarily set at
For below average intellect, clinicians used to use the
terms moron, imbecile and idiot, but these terms have become offensive over
time, and have been replaced with more politically correct labels:
141 > - Genius or near genius
120 - 140 - Very superior intelligence
110 - 119 - Superior intelligence
90 - 109 -
Normal or average intelligence
80 - 89 - Dullness (Moron)
70 - 79 - Borderline deficiency (Imbecile)
< 70 - Definite feeble-mindedness (Idiot)
The long tail of the IQ bell curve
In my line of work (guru-level computer consulting), it's my job
to find the most intelligent people in the industry, but identifying genius is
fraught with challenges. At BC, we have one of the most difficult
job screening processes in the database industry, and we look for evidence
of genius (graduating from schools that have a high number of geniuses, evidence
of extraordinary achievement), but we must balance this with the social and
interpersonal skills that are often lacking in extremely smart database
Some indicators of genius include:
- Getting accepted into a selective school:
Those who work hard to achieve entry into a top-tier university tend to be
- High achievement: Publishing
papers, getting awards from the community are all positive indicators of a high
It's not an exact science, and I've noted that my staff is
over-represented by left-handed people, and people with "idiosyncratic" (read
"eccentric") hobbies and interests. It seems to come with the territory.
Highly intelligent people are rarely
well-balanced emotionally, and emotional immaturity is a very common
problem among super-smart people.
Intelligence is easy to spot, but
very difficult to formally define, and I remember my Psychology
professors ridiculing the 19th Century technology of
Phrenology (measuring bumps on the skull) with mocking disregard, while
introducing current intelligence testing, which struck me as being not
that much farther ahead.
Even today, we don't understand the
machinations of the human brain, and we have not come far since the
I'm extremely proud of my experts, and while not all of them score genius-level
on traditional IQ tests, they all possess areas of undeniable genius.
The irrational genius
It's long been noted that human intelligence is not always
perfectly "reasonable" which creates a confounding challenge for researchers in
the area of artificial intelligence. For example, B17 pilots in WWII made
"irrational" decisions when confronted with the prospect of saving their own
In 1943, the 8th Air Force was losing more than
one-half of their bombers to the Luftwaffe, and it was noted that lives could be
saved by engaging in one-way trips to Germany, with half the fuel and double the
bomb load. In an irrational decision, the airmen chose to avoid the
certainty of a one-way trip to Germany in favor of the higher risk (and more
irrational) approach of everyone flying . . . .
1942 air combat photo by Louis F. Burleson
In the geniuses I've known personally, they often suffer
from a variety of neurotic disorders including borderline personality disorders,
obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and
I had a cousin with a 180 IQ who scored a perfect SAT score
and was offered full scholarships to a variety of Ivy's. Unfortunately, he was
extremely obsessive with weird hobbies (he collected photographs of traffic
intersections), and he was emotionally immature, anti-social and unable to
function in society.
One of my favorite books about genius is Dr. Oliver Sack's
Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat', a great investigation into the
mysteries of the human intellect.
One of my own skills is the ability to 'size-up' people, a
job that I learned as a teenager. Here is how I make
quick observations about people, a critical skill for determining the needs
and motivations of my staff and clients. I also have notes on using
traditional testing to tease-out genius.
For complete details, here are my
notes on the
personality characteristics of successful computer professionals:
But not all intelligence is created
equally, and my job as a hiring manager is to tease-out the genius using
Intelligence is also area specific,
and this is especially true for genius. I've known some geniuses and
along with the amazing intellect skills it's not uncommon to find
Different types of intelligence
In my work in animal psychology I note that animals have
evolved distinct classes of intelligence. Horses have a 'prey intelligence'
which allows them to remember dangerous situations for many years, while dogs
have a 'predatory intelligence', where they display cunning. The same is true
- Engineers and computer systems architects have an uncanny ability to
'visualize' a working system, and this ability to create virtual mental
models makes them fantastic database administrators.
skills - IBM used to hire from the ranks of Music majors, ignoring the
computer science students. IBM believed that music majors were trained in
logical thinking, and made great computer programmers.
skills - Canadian Moe Norman was widely known for his obsession with
golf, and despite his lack of social graces, he was one of the world most
Everyone is familiar with the 'Idiot Savant' (Like Dustin
Hoffman played in the movie 'Rain Man', and it's quite true that exceptionally
brilliant people have accompanying neurotic issues, ranging from mild antisocial
disorder to profound retardation.
In the controversial book 'The Bell
Curve', the author notes the normal statistical distribution of
intelligence, and the controversy began when they began comparing racial
differences in intelligence.
It's also well-known that extremely
smart people can often suffer from a failure in the 'common sense'
Even though this approach was statistically sound (less
lives would be lost) and airmen chose to take the higher-risk approach rather
than draw straws for a guaranteed one-way trip to Berlin.
Testing for Genius
I have many unobtrusive tests for intellect, but one of my favorites is the
Hall test, where job candidates must explain counterintuitive results. In
this probability analysis, contestants have two choices "stick" or "switch":
1 - Contestants are shown three doors.
2 - Behind one door is a new car, while the other
two doors have a "booby prize" (a goat).
3 - After the contestant picks a door, Monty Hall
reveals a door that he knows to contain a goat
4 - Monty then asks the contestant if they should
switch doors of stick to their original choice.
To fully understand the underlying probabilities, see this
YouTube description of the Monty Hall Problem.
Upon its face, the "switch" or "stick" choice offers a 50/50 probability, and
a great many debates have taken place over this counterintuitive result.
To play the game and see the outcomes, see this
UCSD simulation of the Monty Hall problem reveals that a player has a 66%
change of winning if they switch.
Finding geniuses is an important job for me, and the more that I learn about
really smart people, the less it seems that I understand.