Good vs Great: Hiring and Maintaining Engineering Organizations

Richard Hamming gave an interesting talk at a seminar in March 1986 called “You and Your Research.” The entire talk is worth reading and rereading, but one particular section is very relevant to my interest as a hiring manager whose goal has been to build the best possible organization.  In it, Dr. Hamming poses and answers a question: If it is so easy, so why do so many people, with all their talents,  fail?

Well, one of the reasons is drive and commitment. The people who do great work with less ability but who are committed to it, get more done that those who have great skill and dabble in it, who work during the day and go home and do other things and comeback and work the next day. They don’t have the deep commitment that is apparently necessary for really first-class work. They turn out lots of good work, but we were talking, remember, about first-class work. There is a difference. Good people, very talented people, almost always turn out good work. We’re talking about the outstanding work, the type of work that gets the Nobel Prize and gets recognition.

This ties back to a fundamental thesis that it is necessary but not sufficient to be smart. Getting things done is equally important.  When hiring and building a team, you have to hire people who are sharp and and can get down to the block and tackle of execution – people who are committed to seeing their work come to fruition.  How do you find and hire these people? Ideally, first hand observation of their work – folks you have worked directly with. There is simply no interview cycle that can substitute for first hand experience.  Go over a list of people you know, pull out the contact information, call the top performers. Talk to the team, ask them to pull out some names of people they have worked with. Follow up with them. As a hiring manager, recruiting a top notch team is top of the list. Even if you have no openings right now, keep current with what insanely great people are doing. An unexpected need  may come up at any time. This leads to my second point – for top level design and engineering work, it is sometimes better to leave the position open than settle and hire out of desperation for any reason. “My headcount will get taken away” or “Someone is better than no one.” The penalties for bad hires will be worse than the work you have to drop because you did not have a candidate in place.  Stack ranking existing work will often prove to be quite illuminating – some of the must-do projects turn out to not so when examined with the critical eye that dispassionately judges projects on merit, stripped of egos tied into work. Bad hires will not only sap morale from the group, lead to people covering for the work not being executed to standards expected and often frustrate your top performers. They will also sap valuable time and energy from you that could be spent more productively  on the top performers.

This may be controversial, but I have always felt that the top performers should get the bulk of your attention, because they will flourish and produce disproportionately more. A simple exercise may help clarify the point:

Assume you have 1 unit of attention to spend and you will gain a result that is proportional to the ability of the person you spend it on.  Now, you can choose to spend it on someone who is 5 times better than the average person, or someone who is average. If you spend that attention on the top performer, you will gain 5 times the result you would if you spent it on the lower performer. As Joel has pointed out here, the top performers are sometimes 10x better than the average.  They should get the bulk of your time and attention. Spend the time and treasure to make your best people insanely great.

Spend time working with the lower performing people (in their current positions) to find out what roles would suit them better and then get them into those jobs where they have a better chance of flourishing. Not everyone is going to be successful in all roles, play to their strengths rather than trying to shore up their major weaknesses. This does not mean do not round them out, but do not expect someone weak in a particular area to thrive in a role that has a great deal of emphasis on abilities that are not their core strengths. The best thing for everyone involved is align strengths with roles.

Assuming you have done the above – hired great people who can get things done, and made sure the organization is firing on all cylinders – now you need to get out of the way. Do not specify methodologies, only directions. Make sure results are measured and known. You’ve hired insanely great people, trust them to do the job. Your job at this point is to make sure they are not distracted, remove obstacles, listen to their griping, and ease the way so they can get stuff done. Oversee, make sure the big picture is communicated consistently, trust and keep your team in the loop and occasionally nudge them back on the rails and in cases of logjam – arbitrate fairly. One great technique I’ve picked up here is that if the team cannot decide between different approaches, a decision will be made in a week: I will pick one of the alternatives at random. This has done wonders for the team reaching a consensus.

Note that consensus doesn’t mean unanimity – waiting for unanimity is a good way to make sure that productivity goes to zero. Consensus means that once there is a decision, the entire team rallies around the decision and then focuses on getting things done. Which is what they are good at, so you’re in the clear there.

Make no mistake – this is all very hard work. Hiring, keeping your contacts in place, working with the top performers, arbitrating and keeping the way clear to allow your team to execute will not be easy. However the reward of watching  your team go above and beyond what they thought, grow and stretch and work miracles will be worth every review, every meeting, every phone call at dinner time to a potential candidate in a different time zone.

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2 Responses to Good vs Great: Hiring and Maintaining Engineering Organizations

  1. director of content says:

    Great post. You hit all the right points here. Unfortunately, many organizations hiring managers and HR representatives are more focused on filling a spot with mediocre candidates that can do some portion of what is needed. Most organizations don’t have the time or clue to properly evaluate a candidates skill sets. Even the ones that could simply do not understand the difference of an excellent performer vs. an average one within an organization.

    If you fill your team with top notch people and manage them properly (not micro-manage), the results will show for themselves.

    Fill your organization with 10% good people and 90% filler, and be prepared to have an overworked, frustrated and tired 10% and a 90% that’s watching the clock.

  2. Bit Chaser says:

    Excellent layout of how to build and lead a great team. Too often time is burned on the people who never will produce and the top performers are left to themselves. Just a little support makes all the difference.

    Your point of getting out of the way and providing guidance is critical. I had a previous manager describe managing his team as herding folks back onto the path if they wander too far off. He had a really eclectic team that did some amazing work.

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