On Hiring Exceptional People,

published at 12:07am on 07/09/11

A few weeks ago, I came across an HBR blog post boldly titled “Great People Are Overrated.” There was such a kerfuffle over the first article, that a second one, backing up the first, was subsequently posted. And the main thrust of both articles centered around quotes from the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Mark Andressen expressing in their entrepreneurial wisdom that to a business, those who are exceptional in their roles are “100 times better” than those who are not (Zuckerberg) and that “five great programmers can completely outperform 1,000 mediocre programmers” (Andreessen). More specifically, in the rush to the top, are companies losing sight of what it means to have a “team” and focusing more on hiring star players who will ultimately burn out?

While I already think that the two approaches are not mutually exclusive, I think that the articles miss two larger points:

First, all teams need leadership

There are actually two things worth mentioning here as they relate to team structure. The first is that any team that wants to grow to any significant size needs to have effective leadership. Not only does there need to be corporate leadership, but in a given team (and from here on out we’ll be talking about engineering teams), once you grow past a handful of developers, there needs to be an individual whose job it is to keep the team motivated, to keep them on schedule, to keep them abreast of the business priorities as they pertain to the product at hand. Namely, the team needs a manager.

The interesting thing that happens when you find exceptional people is that you get to punt on the manager problem. Great engineers will seek to understand the problem space, they will work hard to come up with interesting solutions to the problem that are not only technically correct but also fit within your business model. They will motivate themselves, they will ask hard questions of their leaders, they will build great products and they will improve your business. Your average engineer will not do that. Period.

In addition, having a smaller team of high-quality engineers will keep the organization much flatter, which again lets you defer the problem of managers for a little while. With smaller teams, the managerial indirection to get a concept from a product lead to the developer doing the execution just isn’t needed.

Second, most teams do not need to plan to grow that large

The truth is that you can get a lot done with a small team of very talented individuals. Even Facebook, with its hundreds of engineers operates with very small teams working on each of their individual products. With the trend of companies building single products that do one thing very well, a company’s hiring practices should be focused on hiring the very best people who can build the very best product as fast as they can.

When we made our first hiring push at Indaba Music, I remember having conversations with my partners wondering about the the point at which we were going to have to start hiring engineers simply to fill the seats to get people churning out code. That was four years ago, and while I would love to have a larger team in place than we have now (as it turns out, it’s difficult to hire software developers in New York City right now), we still have not gotten to the point where we’ve needed to hire just to get people in the door.

While it’s tempting to look at a company like IBM that has been around for a hundred years, and to look at the teams that make them tick, it’s also practical to see this as a premature optimization for a business problem that may never actually manifest.

Ultimately, filling your team with star talent is not about celebrating the individual over the collective. Rather, it is about making sure that every single person at your organization is helping to drive your product vision out the door as quickly and as effectively as possible.

Filed under: Observations, Technology

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