The Smartest People in the World Don’t All Work for Us. Most of Them Work for Someone Else

Bill Joy? George Gilder? Bill Gates? Dan Gillmor? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Bill Joy is a top computer scientist who helped to develop the UNIX operating system and co-founded Sun Microsystems. He formulated an important insight now called “Joy’s Law” about the distribution of expertise in organizations. Here are three versions:

  • No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.
  • The smartest people in every field are never in your own company.
  • The smartest people in the world don’t all work for us. Most of them work for someone else.

Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match within a direct quotation located by QI occurred in “Fortune” magazine in 1995. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1995 December 11, Fortune, Volume 132, Number 12, Section: Information Technology, Article: Whose Internet Is It, Anyway? Author: Brent Schlender, Start Page 120, Quote Page 130, Column 2, Time Inc., New York. (Verified with scans)[/ref]

Says Joy: “The idea behind our Java strategy was that the smartest people in the world don’t all work for us. Most of them work for someone else. The trick is to make it worthwhile for the great people outside your company to support your technology. Innovation moves faster when the people elsewhere are working on the problem with you.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In December 1994 technology pundit George Gilder published “The Bandwidth Tidal Wave” in “Forbes ASAP” magazine.[ref] 1994 December 5, Forbes ASAP, Article: The Bandwidth Tidal Wave, Author: George Gilder, Start Page 162, Quote Page 169, Column 2, Forbes, New York. (Verified with scans)[/ref] The piece was reprinted in the collection “Telecosm” in 1996. Gilder believed that the operating system platform created by Microsoft had enticed an army of hardware and software developers from different organizations to concentrate their efforts on improving the attractiveness of the platform. Gilder presented a different phrasing for Joy’s observation:[ref] 1996, Telecosm by George Gilder, Chapter 10: The Bandwidth Tidal Wave, Quote Page 136, American Heritage Custom Publishing: A Division of Forbes Inc., New York. (Verified with scans)[/ref]

All this gear works together to extend Microsoft’s long mastery of the science of leverage, getting most of the world to drive costs to ground—or grind costs into silicon—while the grim reapers of Redmond collect tolls on the software. Exploiting another of Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy’s famous laws—“The smartest people in every field are never in your own company”—Gates has contrived to induce most of the personal computer industry, from Bangalore to Taiwan, to work for Microsoft without joining the payroll.

In 1999 a message posted to a French newsgroup on Usenet included the following instance:[ref] 1999 January 28, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: fr.petites-annonces.divers, From: Maurizio de Cecco, Organization: Ircam, Paris, France, Subject: VDS Synth JD-800. (Google Groups Search; Accessed January 28, 2018) link [/ref]

No Matter Who You Are, Most Of The Smartest People Work For Someone Else (Bill Joy).

In March 2001 an article by George Gilder and Richard Vigilante in the magazine “American Spectator” included another instance:[ref] 2001 March, American Spectator, Volume 34, Issue 2, Article: It’s Techno-Horror!, Authors: George Gilder and Richard Vigilante. (MasterFILE Premier Ebsco)[/ref]

Most remarkable for a man long immersed in the intricate arcana of computer software, Joy is a voluble and polymathic intellectual. Joy has a law—“Most of the smartest people are never in your own company”—that inclines firms to create systems open to the smart contributions of people outside the corporate firewalls.

In November 2001 technology journalist Dan Gillmor shared another version of the saying:[ref] 2001 November 18, Green Bay Press-Gazette, Power of the edge is the key to our defense by Dan Gillmor, Quote Page E6, Column 1, Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

As Sun Microsystems’ Bill Joy has said so memorably, the smartest people don’t work for any one organization. Tapping the power of everyone is the way to accomplish things — and technology is giving us the ability to do more of that.

In 2010 Dan Gillmor published “Mediactive” which contained the following passage:[ref] 2010, Mediactive by Dan Gillmor, Chapter 8: Entrepreneurs Will Save Journalism, and You Could Be One of Them, Quote Page 116, Publisher by Dan Gillmor, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. (Verified at[/ref]

While large enterprises can innovate, in the digital media world they may be better off buying or licensing from startups. Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, put it best when he said, “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.”

In conclusion, Bill Joy did make this statement, and QI suggests that the direct quotation in 1995 currently has the best support. The 1994 version from George Gilder occurred earlier, but it was an indirect formulation of Joy’s expression. Future researchers may find an earlier version spoken or written by Joy.

(This article was not inspired by a request. QI was simply investigating a saying he had heard on numerous occasions including a 2014 lecture by Peter Diamandis.)

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