Star Power – Chapter the First

May 18, 2007

If you are blessed enough to be leading a team of developers or software engineers you’re in one of three camps.

You’re lucky and you’ve had an opportunity to hand pick each of your direct reports from your vast pool of previous employees, collegues, and friends. You know them, trust them and have picked them because you know they’re the best.

You’re somwhat lucky and you got to pick some of your crew, but the rest were there when you got there or were forced on you because the VP of Staples and Paper Clips thinks they’re the best possible fit.

You’re screwed (maybe) you walk into a team that someone else built or worse yet, a team that just came to be, but no one is really sure how or when it happened.

No matter which group you fit into, the following holds true (hopefully): You have at least some “Star Power” on your team. These stars are the best and worst people you can have working for you and whatever you do, DON’T LOSE THEM!!! The average team, in my experience, is made up more or less as follows:

20% Star performers – remember, these are the guys and gals you don’t want to lose.
70% Average performers – Well somone has to do the grunt work and even come up with a brilliant idea every once in a while. We’ll talke about these in a different post.
10% Bottom of the barrel performers – I was thinking of talking about these in a future post, but please do us all a big favour and fire them. you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble and save me from having to wite a long post that’s just going to conclude with… FIRE THEM!!!

Well, that was a rather long winded introduction, but lets jump right into it. So, who are these Star performers anyway? What makes them so special that they deserve a verbose post just for them?

These are the guys and gals that are brilliant on a regular basis. Programming and Software Engineering is what they do in their sleep. Innovation is routine for them and they leave the average developers scratching their heads trying to figure out exactly when and how they got left in the dust. The Starts are more then just developers, they also have a certain entrepernurial streak to them, most of the ones I’ve met seem to understand the inner workings of the business they’re in better then the VP of Product Development does. As an aside, these stars tend to intimidate business people, more on that later.

Great, so we have Stars and we’re going to keep them. “No problem,” say you “Confusement, you’ve made your point, but didn’t you get this across in the first paragraphs?” Well, yes I did, but I didn’t tell you HOW to keep them, now did I?

Good… That’s coming in Chapter the Second 🙂

People are complex

April 3, 2007

The nuances of leading a team of people often intrigues me. I’ve had the pleasure of leading several different teams now and the one constant I’ve discovered is that there are no constants. Allow me to elaborate. People are complex, individually, people are relatively easy to manage, when you take different people with different backgrounds that are easy to manage on their own and put them into a team you get a solution that is not only heterogeneous, but one that can have wildly different properties even with the most subtle of changes to the members of the group.

Know thy team: This is much more than knowing what each one likes, dislikes, and aspires to. You must know what motivates them, what demoralizes them, what scares them. The fact that some will bottle things up and others will try to impose their wills. That some will innovate quitely while others will publicise everyone of their smalles acheivements in order to get praise and recognition. When you take these free radicals and make them work together, you get a team.

Except in the very rare of cases, teams don’t just work together as a well oiled machine. It takes tinkering and prodding and encouragement to get a team to really become a model of efficiency. It also takes time. At times, you, as a manager get to hand pick your team members from a set of former co-workers, acquaintances or friends. You know them, you understand them and you know exactly how they will interact with one another. Other times, you go through the interviewing process and optimistically assume that you’ve picked the best person for the job based on about 3 hours of face time. It’s like trying do decide whether or not you’ll marry someone after the first date. That’s why we have the dreaded, try before you totally commit and are screwed period. This is where you get to take your new team member for a test drive. You get them to interact with the team and see what happens. Whether or not they have the technical skill is rather easy to assess, idiots tend to float to the top of the shit pile rather quickly, especially if your team trusts you enough to tell you what they really think.

The thing that gets most of us is that people try to bury their personal feelings at work and say “I’m not letting this get personal, I can’t stand this person, but at least we’re getting the job done”. WRONG!!!! If you can’t stand someone personally, how the fuck can you work with them effectively? If I can’t stand you, I’m not going to believe a thing you tell me, I’m not going to go out of my way to try and help you either.

Managers are often reluctant to let a person go if they are a decent programmer even if they do completely disrupt the team dynamic. You can’t keep a person on solely based on their technical skills if the expectation is that they must work withing a team environment. Technical skills are easy to teach to most semi-intelligent individuals, personalities don’t change.

If it’s a team environment you’re after, pick your players well, and don’t be afraid to let the touble makers go.

My crew

April 3, 2007

It’s been an interesting year and a half here at MCAP. I’ve built a loyal and happy team, or at least I’d like to think so. It’s an odd feeling to leave the people that you’ve come to consider as friends over time. But that is not what this post is about, this is about group behaviour.

It seems to me that my team is reacting to my departure in a similar fashion to a herd of gazelles that had a lioness come into their midst. Some panic and seem to scramble, afraid of what might come and fearing that the end is near. Others band together and wait for the dust to settle, knowing that life will go on. People are interesting, once you’ve led enough and seen some of the varied personalities, you can start to predict what their going to do.

A new leader has come in to replace me temporarily. He’s very outgoing and seems to want to hit the ground running. I think his approach is flawed, but I don’t really care. I’m going to spend my last couple of weeks here watching and learning. My next post on the subject will hopefully be more insightful.