Relay Race vs. Diving Competition

When you are evaluating how people are doing, it seems reasonable to focus on the business results they deliver.  In my previous team, we called this the relay race model.  What matters in a race is finishing, and finishing with the fastest time.  Nobody cares whether your running form was good or terrible – you are measured solely on the results you deliver at the end.  In most work environments, this is appealing, intuitive, measurable … and wrong.

A diving competition is almost the exact opposite of a relay race.  After all, everybody is going to hit the water, and it will take about the same amount of time no matter what you do.  The score is based on your form – how difficult a set of moves you undertake, and how gracefully and perfectly you do them.

Why the Diving Competition Matters

So what does this have to do with measuring job performance?  It’s the difference between assessing the pure business results that somebody delivers vs. the way they delivered those results.

It’s easier to measure (and talk about) the results that were delivered.  Did the product ship?  How much revenue did it generate?  Did you hit your sales quota?  Was the code quality where it needed to be?  Is the product performance hitting the ship goal?  It depends on your job, of course, but in many cases it’s relatively straight-forward to tell whether the person and/or the team achieved the goals that they were striving towards.

But there is another side of things – the way you behaved in pushing towards that goal.  Did you help build up the team?  Do people find you a good person to work with?  Do you help make the whole team better, smarter, and more capable?  I’ve worked with a lot of aggressive young engineers, and they sometimes are very impatient when I bring up these questions.  “Hey, I wrote the code, the product shipped, and it’s good.  I didn’t have time to humor those other idiots – we were on a tight schedule.  And I was right, wasn’t I?”  Often, yes.  But you are still going to get dinged on your review, because you may have been right about the issue, but you didn’t handle it the right way.  By running roughshod over the other person and leaving them feeling dismissed and mistreated, you blew it.  Why?

Well, for one thing, you are only responsible for part of the project.  Checking high quality code into the build is important, but the crucial thing we need to do is solve the customer’s problem.  Which means we need to understand their problem holistically, build a complete solution that meets their needs, test it, explain it and then sell it to them, support it, and integrate with other products.  That calls for a group of people to work effectively together.

Also, a particular deliverable is just one in a long succession of business results that we have to achieve together.  Sure, we shipped the product .. but that was just the beginning.  Even with packaged software, we have to ship patches.  We immediately start building the next version.  If it’s a service, shipping is the beginning of the hard work, not the end – now we have to run it 24/7 and manage the business that is based on it.

All of these ongoing business deliverables rely on the team working smoothly together.  When you are working on a problem that involves groups of people, no single person’s work alone can make the whole group successful.  If you achieve the goal you are focused on but leave a path behind you strewn with dead bodies, you can easily do more harm than good even if you do achieve what you set out to do.  Every team member has as much of an obligation to help ship the team as they do to help ship the product.  Given our ongoing responsibilities, the team is often the more important deliverable.  In the software business, if we create an unpleasant working environment and everyone leaves, we’ll be left with a big pile of code and no ability to run it, fix it, evolve it, support it, and sell it.

So for very hard-headed business reasons, I think it is necessary to evaluate people based on both the relay race model (the explicit results they achieved) and the diving competition model (whether they work effectively with others).  If you only focus on one, you aren’t encouraging and rewarding the behavior that yields the most value for the organization.  And on a more personal note, who wants to be on a team that’s unhappy and mistreats each other?

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

When I’m managing or mentoring somebody, this is one of my favorite questions.  It’s a good way to crawl into their heads a bit, understand their motivations, and figure out how I can help them.  It’s also not a bad question to ask yourself!

Framing

There are different ways to approach the answer – you might base it on:

  • A particular person’s abilities: code like Guy Steele, move an audience like Meryl Streep, or paint like Raphael.
  • A particular job: be the VP of your division, the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, or the founder of a growing startup.
  • An achievement:  win an Olympic gold medal in swimming, design a piece of software that millions of people adopt, or take a company public.
  • A state of being: be crazy passionate about your job, feel that you are living in perfect alignment with your principles, or devote your life to serving the community.

How somebody chooses to answer will tell you a lot about their values, ambitions, and self-image.  Be careful about guiding them too much .. we’re talking about their dreams, not yours.

Cheerleader or Critic?

In doing this exercise with many people, it’s usually at least imaginable that they might achieve their ambitions with hard work and some (or a lot) of luck.  However, now and then somebody will come up with a goal where you have to struggle a bit to keep a straight face.  Often it’s about personality and passion – if you are impatient and can’t stay focused on your own, writing novels might not be your best bet.  So what do you do when someone who hates math wants a Nobel Prize in physics?

I try to be a “pragmatic cheerleader”.  I don’t want to be a dream buzzkill – most people are surrounded by plenty of those already.  But I also don’t want to be mindlessly encouraging.  The next question often helps to get things more grounded in reality.

What Does it Take to Achieve That Goal?

Dreaming big is great, but you have to break down the goal and figure out what it takes to achieve it.  One approach I like: if the person wants to be an X, I get them to write down a description of what the absolutely perfect X would be like.  For example, when I was running a relatively large team, I came up with what I thought a perfect team leader should do .. I wrote about that here.

Often, the person doesn’t have a great answer.  They are attracted to the idea of being a CEO, but they don’t actually know much about what the day to day life of a CEO looks like.  After some discussion, we can usually rough out an outline of the skills and qualities needed, but we often agree that a key next step is to validate that list with people who actually have that role or are more familiar with it than we are.  That’s a great practical step forward on the journey.

How Do You Stack Up Today?  How Do You WANT to Stack Up?

The next thing I do is have them assess themselves against those ideal qualities or skills.  At this point, people sometimes realize that their supposed goal doesn’t actually make a lot of sense for them.  I was talking to one person who thought they wanted to be the CFO of a public company.  We talked about the skills you’d need to be a fantastic CFO, and then she thought about when in her work life she had been really happy and why.  And she realized that the things that really did make her passionate and inspired were not the key activities of that job at all.  So I think that was a helpful moment of self-revelation.

This exercise also tests self-awareness.  Sometimes, they are confident that they have some needed quality .. and you think they are wrong.  It’s tricky to handle this.  I tend to tread pretty lightly – the goal here is self-revelation, not a lecture on their weaknesses, which tends to bring the discussion to a halt in a hurry.

But if people have at least a basic level of clue about their true nature and abilities, this exercise can have quite a profound impact.  I’ve watched people realize that they were carrying around outmoded ideals foisted on them by authority figures from their youth, and realize that they have an inspiring path open to them in a quite different direction.  That’s what you hope for – an opportunity to enable somebody to achieve a profound moment of self-discovery.

How Does One Actually Get That Job?

Next, I like to consider how people actually get the job or the opportunity to achieve the goal in question.  If it is a well-defined role, then the answer is usually straight-forward, but many people don’t think about it very practically.  I’ve repeatedly asked, “how do you become a VP” (or whatever).  People go on about a demonstrated track record, a well rounded set of skills, and all sorts of worthy things … but none of those are the real answer.

The actual answer is, “somebody who hires VPs chooses you”!  Now why would they do that?  All these ideas about skills and roundedness are fine, but often the true reason is that the hiring manager has confidence in you to do a great job and trusts you.  They’ll almost always pick somebody with strong skills, whom they deeply trust, over an unknown with a potentially stronger resume but who might be a whacko.  And they trust you because they know you over a long period of time, and have watched how you handle many different situations.  So one of the things that might be necessary to achieve your goal is to deeply commit to a particular team or company for an extended period of time, rather than bouncing around all the time.

Alternatively, the goal might be something that has to be created rather than granted – becoming the CEO of a new startup is self-elected (!).  But they need to have enough money to survive without an income and perhaps to fund the company for a while.  They may need a network of people they can hire.  And so forth.  Pretty much any ambitious goal will require something in order to open up the opportunity.

What Are Your Next Steps?

Now they have identified the goal, what it takes to get that opportunity, what they need to be successful, and where they stand now.  For each skill or ability where they aren’t already strong and experienced, I’ll brainstorm with them about a specific action that will develop it.  For example,  they can often build up skills that aren’t a direct part of their job by volunteering for extra projects – what I like to call “hobbies”.  I’ve learned a ton from hobbies – helping to organize and run a large developer conference, participating in working groups considering radical new directions to take the team, teaching classes, etc.  None of those had much to do with my core job, but I practiced new skills, learned about new areas, met really cool people .. and had a lot of fun.

The goal is to finish the discussion by identifying very concrete steps that will build the skills they need to achieve their dreams.  And if you have an ongoing relationship, hold them to it.  If you can really help somebody achieve their dreams, that is one of the best feelings in the world!

We’re Living in Florence, in 1450 A.D.

If you work in technology, you have the amazing luck to be in the midst of one of the great transformations of human society.  There have been numerous times in history when technology has transformed the way we live, our understanding of the world, and the life we are able to experience.  I’ve had one of them on my mind a lot lately – the Renaissance.  I think there are very interesting parallels to be drawn.  It feels like we’re at the height of the first round .. which would put us in Florence, around 1450.

What Caused The Renaissance?

Many forces came together to enable that astonishing transformation of knowledge, art, architecture, and commerce, whose profound impact shaped the world and still fascinates us.

There were some key technology breakthroughs.  Gutenberg is famous for inventing the printing press in 1440, which greatly expanded our ability to distribute ideas.  But just as important, and less frequently remarked upon, was the spread of paper.  We take it for granted today, but it was a magical boost to our ability to capture and disseminate ideas.  Paper is far less costly to produce and can be manufactured in much greater quantity than alternatives like vellum, made from animal skins.  Invented in China in 100 AD, paper remained a closely held secret for several hundred years, but had become widely used by the time of the Renaissance.

The ability to travel and to trade was revolutionized by ocean-going ships (like the Portuguese caravel), which were capable of navigating the globe.  At the same time, the mariner’s astrolabe made it possible to measure latitude anywhere in the world.  With weapons like the arquebus, small groups were able to wreak havoc among less technologically advanced populations.

New technology called for new technique, as well.  The development of merchant capitalism, along with sophisticated means of tracking commercial activities like double-entry bookkeeping, allowed a modern system of banking to emerge.  It was banking that made Florence so wealthy, and that wealth enabled major investments in science and the arts.

In addition to a major infusion of money, the arts were transformed by new techniques as well.  Paintings became far more realistic using linear perspective.  Architecture took advantage of construction techniques both novel and rediscovered.  Grand new structures were created that finally matched and exceeded marvels (like the dome of the Pantheon in Rome) that had been built 1400 years earlier.

This confluence of breakthroughs in technology and technique allowed Europe to leap forward and become the dominant world power in a remarkably short period of time.  Businesses grew to previously unheard of scale and their activities reached across the globe.  Ideas moved much more quickly, too, because they were carried along by the people who were associated with this explosion of trading activity.  Control of knowledge moved from guilds to a mobile class of experts.  Liquidity, supported by precious metals imported from the New World, began to move the basis of wealth from land to capital.  Our world view also began to shift radically – from deism, centered on God, to humanism.  Our conception of the universe was rocked by the discovery that we were one of many planets orbiting around the sun.

The Modern Renaissance

Fast forward to today, and consider what is happening.  In technology, we are seeing two massive changes: devices and the cloud.  The cloud has transformed the cost and reach of computing.  By most estimates, Google runs well over a million servers in their data centers and handles something like three billion searches per day.  This is technology operating at a global scale that was absolutely inconceivable a few years ago.  At the same time, the programmable cloud has made it extremely cheap to build and deploy software.  For a few hundred dollars a month, a programmer with a laptop can take a program they have written and within minutes make it available to more than two billion people.

Smartphones and similar devices are also astonishing in their capability and their reach.  There are now around 1 billion smartphone users in the world with the Internet in their pocket and accessible at all times.  That number is growing rapidly – estimates are that there will be a billion net new smartphone users in the next few years.  The Apple App Store just crossed 25 billion downloads.  The pace of growth and the scale of what has already happened are just staggering.

As always, new technology encourages innovation in techniqueOpen source software has been around for decades, of course, but it has gotten a major boost from its intimate relationship to cloud computing.  A wide body of high quality components are available for free to anyone who wishes to build cloud applications, representing a dramatic reduction in the time and effort required to go from idea to product.  We’re benefiting from that tremendously in our startup.

Another key change is the move from on-premise software to software as a service.  It means that the latest version of every application is available to every customer, without their needing to deploy or manage it.  Services pair nicely with, and encourage, the shift from physical to virtual – instead of manipulating objects, increasingly we’re manipulating data.  We are doing research and developing new products using simulated environments.  We’re transporting knowledge and entertainment as packets over networks, not by sending boxes of plastic and paper around the world.  Increasingly, the basis of value is rooted in virtual goods and services.  I believe that is as profound an economic change as the shift from land-based wealth to capitalism.

Signposts of the Revolution

We have seen some dramatic evidence of the impact that these changes will have, but I think we’re just at the beginning.

  • Facebook has over 900 million active users, and is on track to hit a billion later this year.  It has grown to that size in .. eight years.  To put that in perspective, China’s population today is 1.3 billion; it took around 250 years to grow the last billion (and it took human beings about 12,000 years to hit their first billion).
  • Speaking of Facebook, they recently purchased Instagram.  This company, which serves 30 million users has .. 13 employees.  Two developers run the back-end service for their users.  A few years ago, it would have taken a big company with major resources to support that many users, and now it can be done with a handful of people and no capital expense at all.
  • Consider that icon of the industrial revolution – the car.  A modern premium automobile has something like 100 million lines of code to run the nearly 100 processors distributed throughout it.  It was simulated extensively on supercomputers, is supported by myriad online services, and the supply chain that delivered it to you only works because of massive amounts of software tracking every minute aspect of its progress in real time.

I could go on, but the point is that virtually every industry is in the process of being transformed by the combination of the cloud and the device.  The way we make discoveries and create new inventions.  The way we communicate.  How and what we buy.  How companies interact with each other and with their customers.  And this is all happening incredibly quickly – the cost and effort for new ideas to be tried, refined, and deployed globally has dropped to the floor.  We’ve seen some dramatic changes already, but that was just a warm-up – we’re in for quite a ride.

The Path Ahead is Uncertain

In 1450, Florence was unquestionably at the forefront of the Renaissance, and the city was dominated by the Medici family.  By 1500, the focus of the action had moved elsewhere in Italy and across Europe, and Florence never regained its dominance.  What happened?  Well, for one thing, Charles VIII of France invaded Italy in 1494 and kicked off the Italian Wars, a series of conflicts that involved various city states and several empires.  That first invasion forced the Medici to flee the city, though they returned and ruled it again later.  In the meantime, other parts of Italy and Europe took over and led the Renaissance forward.  I suspect that the fortunes of the early players in our current Renaissance will also dramatically rise and fall.

And worse than losing leadership, there is a darker side to change.  We like to celebrate the Renaissance and the great leap forward in human capability that it represented.  But it wasn’t positive for everyone; it was particularly brutal for indigenous cultures around the world who were now within reach of the Europeans.  Many of them were despoiled and enslaved.  The current changes will not be as violent, hopefully, but we have seen these forces help governments fall and companies be humbled, and there are industries filled with people whose economic future will be dramatically affected.

We can never know ahead of time how things are going to shake out for particular groups during times of great change.  But when transformative forces come along that are this strong, they cannot be denied – they will transform our lives, culturally and economically.

Leonardo Da Vinci.  Michelangelo.  Brunelleschi.  We are still inspired by what they accomplished.  They were amazing people … but they also had amazing luck.  They lived in a magical time and place in the history of mankind.  So do you.  How are you going to be part of this modern Renaissance?

Beware the Shining Paladin From Afar

Companies often fall into the trap of believing they can hire some external person to be their salvation – a shining knight who will lead them out of the darkness and into the promised land.  There are times when this works, but in my experience those are overwhelmingly outnumbered by the failures.  Why?  And can we learn something from the failures to try and avoid them?

The idea is very appealing.  If we as an organization are failing – maybe we are getting creamed by some competitor, or our formerly successful product is moldering into obsolescence and we can’t seem to get with the program on a modern reinvention of it.  Shouldn’t we invigorate the tired old blood in the team with a turbo-shot of new thinking?  Well, maybe.  But if we do, we’d better think about the many ways that this tends to fail.

Internal Pathology

We might be failing because of a systemic problem within the company.  This problem might be organizational (there is no team that cleanly owns the charter, so it keeps falling between groups), personal (somebody influential and passionate is preventing us from pursuing a workable strategy), failure of execution (the team that owns it isn’t healthy or effective), failure to focus (the team that owns the problem fundamentally doesn’t care about solving it), or strategic (the team gets pushed by company leaders into building overly general solutions that collapse of their own weight).

Fixing these problems can require a lot of organizational savvy and trust from the rest of the company; a newcomer is often much less capable of solving them than a seasoned employee.  Add to that the burden of expectations, and you have a situation designed to create failure.

Teacher’s Pet

Many times, I’ve watched a senior person get frustrated with a team, so they stick in some new blood and hope for the best.  The team can resent the newcomer as a teacher’s pet or “golden child” who hasn’t paid any dues.  Who are they to come in and start shooting off their mouth, without knowing anything about the team or the product?

For example, a friend of mine was hired by the president of a division to come in and shake things up in a new direction.  My friend gave an exciting pitch about the opportunities the team had and wasn’t taking advantage of.  He was put inside a group that had no buy-in to those new ideas, and which took its cue from somebody who had helped create the division and been responsible for some of its great successes.  Who also wasn’t bought in.  How receptive do you think the team was to my friend’s ideas?  Right, zero.  It was a massively frustrating experience for him and a waste of energy for the team, which of course went on to do exactly as it had before. 

Cultural Rejection

Teams can be a lot like the immune system, which “will try to destroy or neutralize any antigen that is recognized as a foreign and potentially harmful invader.”  People coming into the team, especially people brought in because they think differently and aren’t bound by the dominant assumptions shared by everyone else, are just bristling with antigens.  They use different language and terminology, they say things that seem off-key.  Often the instinctive rejection is so strong that their ideas don’t get a fair hearing.

Missing Key Skills

Having worked at both startups and large companies, I know how deeply different the success factors can be in those two environments.  People who flourish in a smaller community don’t always have (or value!) the skills to negotiate the internal landscape of a large company.  A big company might hire somebody who was winning, and the big company hoped that this person can transform its efforts.  If I’m that new person, why would I abandon my successful approach and adopt ideas from this team that has failed?  What could they have to teach me?

The problem is that the way you run an independent team for success, and the way you run a team inside of a big company, is quite different.  There is some overlap, but there is a lot of non-overlap.  As the new person, I have a lot to learn.  It’s very hard to figure out which traits I bring that are uniquely valuable and must be preserved, and which ones I have to supplement or replace in order to be effective in my new environment.

Wrap Up

I’m certainly not advocating that companies refuse to bring in new blood – it is crucial that they do.  But those people, especially if they are brought in to turn around a failing situation, have to negotiate a minefield.  The company needs to think hard about whether the problem it has is one that an outsider is really equipped to solve.  And it can’t expect that outsider to solve it alone – he or she is likely to need seasoned partners who can help translate that new perspective into a form that others can understand and act on.  Paladins seem like lone crusaders, but they wouldn’t have gotten very far without a host of supporters ranging from squires to armorers (not to mention the most important one – their horse!).  Before you try to hire one, make sure it’s what you really need … and don’t leave them unmounted and unsupported, or you are likely to have a bruised and grumpy knight on your hands pretty soon.