Anders Brownworth

Technology and Disruption

What to do With Star Coders

I've been giving some though to what you do with star coders - those 10x - 100x people that are very valuable in any organization. The problem is there are no good measures for them. You know they are extremely high quality and productive by what they are able to accomplish but you can't put metrics around them. Counting lines of code doesn't work because good code can mean very few lines. Because they aren't generally quantifiable, I don't think corporations use them effectively. The corporate tendency is to put a few less capable coders around the star coders in hopes that they will bring everyone else up but what you end up doing is weighing the star coder down. His 10x when cut down to 2x might bring a 1x coder to 1.2x capability. There is a practical limit to how many coders can effectively work together so my hunch is the corporate desire to saddle these star coders actually makes the entire team less effective.

An alternate way to think about it is to look at other highly skilled professionals, such as a surgeon. The key for the surgeon is to get in there, do everything that needs to be done, deal with any problems that come up and sew up the patient before he dies. To accomplish this, the surgeon is surrounded by a highly capable and specialized workforce. There is an anesthesiologist, a highly capable nurse, perhaps an assistant with a specialty in a critical area, maybe a general physicians assistant, and a cast of characters to get things, prep the patient and move gurneys around.

I suggest we identify our star coders, surround them with a world class support staff and get out of their way. Make the goal of the support staff to get the star coder to zero downtime. Instead of dragging the star coder's pace, see how much he can get done if all the resources are at his fingertips. Get every expert he needs, access to every piece of info, and have a communicator that is capable of representing the star coder in meetings and batch up everything into efficient bites both ways. Make it so the star coder comes into the operating room, and there is a nurse there with his gloves and all his instruments all set out, and let him just crank.

Don't make the mistake of thinking a coder should manage people. Star coders are generally social misfits. They usually can't even get personal hygiene right, there is no chance they can develop people. Don't peg their salary to the number of people they manage. Aside from the demoralizing glass ceiling this represents, it doesn't comport with the reality of the impact the star coder has on the overall success of the organization.

The organization's job is to keep a pile of work worth doing in front of the star coders and their teams. Someone with real clout must have the mandate to run interference for these really talented people. Star coders shouldn't have to be constantly fending for their life in an organization. Currently, if you are mediocre but have good communications skills, you can do better than the star coder in an organization. That should never happen.

No star coder should be a lone wolf. They should be surrounded by a team of support that meet the star coder's level within each of their specialties and earn their trust. The support staff's mandate should be to make the star coder shine by supplying tools and removing obstacles. The whole group would be judged as one on their merits and great teams would earn reputation in the industry the same way a great surgeon does. If you need a spinal surgeon, people know who to go to. In the same way, a star coder and their team should be recognized and sought after.

Some surgeons work in pairs on particularly complicated tasks. Great teams should be able to get together if the star coders think it makes sense. Some support staff may be a member of more than one team if their specialty is demanded but for the most part teams function as close-knit units.

The ultimate success or failure of a team should be measured and members should be compensated with this in mind. Generally, the environment around the teams should be similar to an entrepreneurial incubator with projects around prototype stage handed off to the more traditional organization.

I would like to try this and see how it works in the real world. I think there are two ways to do it - within a corporation that has complete buy-in from the top and outside a corporation as a "tiger team" of consultants. The first is better while the second is probably easier. However, as the popularity of Entrepreneur in Residence roles within corporations grows, that will hopefully change.

So those are my thoughts. Leave a comment and let me know what you think. Would something like this work? How do you identify the star coders? Do you have any suggestions to the way this would be structured?

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