In Praise of Memorization*

Pearl Leff:

I once worked at a small company of insanely productive engineers. They were geniuses by any account. They knew the software stack from top to bottom, from hardware to operating systems to Javascript, and could pull together in days what would take teams at other companies months to years. Between them they were more productive than any division I’ve ever been in, including FAANG tech companies. In fact, they had written the top-of-the-line specialized compiler in their industry — as a side project. (Their customers believed that they had buildings of engineers laboring on their product, while in reality they had less than 10.)

I was early in my career at the time and stunned by the sheer productivity and brilliance of these engineers. Finally, when I got a moment alone with one of them, I asked him how they had gotten to where they were.

He explained that they had been software engineers together in the intelligence units of their country’s military together. Their military intelligence computers hadn’t been connected to the internet, and if they wanted to look something up online, they had to walk to a different building across campus. Looking something up online on StackOverflow was a major operation. So they ended up reading reference manuals and writing down or memorizing the answers to their questions because they couldn’t look up information very easily. Over time, the knowledge accumulated.

Memorization means purposely learning something so that you remember it with muscle memory; that is, you know the information without needing to look it up.