Technology heroes are always difficult subject. As an engineering manager, I remember the first time I participated in a “life boat” drill where you have to produce a stack rank of your engineers. Someone explained the process saying, “The task is to figure out if you had to throw out one person from a lifeboat, who it would be? After you figure that out, then you decide who would the next one be, etc. until you have a fully ordered list.” I chewed on that a bit and asked, “How many people are going to be left in the lifeboat?” When they asked me why, I replied “Because if there is only one person left in the lifeboat, it would be Mark but if there was more than one person left, Mark would be the first one I’d throw out.” Mark was a technical hero. Able to accomplish a great deal but at a great cost to the the organization.
I’m reminded of a story in Storming Norm Schwarzkopf’s autobiography where he was frantically trying to stand up forces in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. At some point during the buildup, someone asked him where he wanted to deploy Special Forces and Norm replied something along the lines of, “keep them the F*** out of my theater!” (Norm is a colorful character.) Shocked, the person responded along the lines of, “these are the best of the best, the most capable warriors in the history of the world, what do you mean you don’t want them in theater?” Norm explained, “Look – this is all about a couple hundred thousand guys killing a couple hundred thousand other guys. If your Seal teams can kill a couple hundred thousand guys, great, I’ll send everyone else home. If they can’t do that, then keep them the F*** out of my theater.”
What clarity of that thought! What it basically comes down to is that it doesn’t matter how good you are if you are wrong for the mission. Windows (any OS really) is about a couple thousand guys writing a millions of lines of code to deliver lots of scenarios. If a few heroes could accomplish this, we would pay them a lot of money and send everyone else home. They can’t but let’s just say that they could. If you build a plan around a hero and then that hero gets hit by a beer truck, you’re screwed. Hero-centric planning is fragile and ultimately irresponsible. But superstar technical individual contributors do exist and they do occasionally change the way the game is played. So while it is folly to plan around heroes, it is also folly to ignore them. Norm understood that.
After Norm got a critical mass of forces in the Gulf and had a plan he was comfortable with, he revisited the idea of using the Special Forces and used them to great effect in the war. Navy Seal teams were some of the first to engage and served with great distinction. But let’s be clear about it. They were optional elements to a plan that would succeed without them. They enhanced the plan, in some cases dramatically but Norm needed a plan to succeed even if they didn’t exist.
In the same token, there are tasks that require a hero or small group of heroes and would be screwed up with a couple hundred thousand guys tried to do them (think hostage rescue mission). At Digital we used to say that a Consulting Engineer was someone that could solve a class of problems that other engineers could not solve no matter how many of them there were. There were times that you just had to bring in a Consulting Engineer and cope with whatever that entailed or you would not get the problem solved. The best Consulting Engineers were those that would roll up their sleeves and help while keeping their egos in check.
One of the problems with a hero-centric world is trying to get the hero’s to add up. Bill Gates used to say this all the time, he talked about how we had dialed-in the ability to hire the smartest people in the world but still hadn’t figured out how to get their IQs to add up vs. negate one another. Look, we’ve all worked with heroes before so let’s just say what we all know; they can be egotistical buttheads or prima donnas. They don’t have to be. Certainly Jim Gray wasn’t a butthead. Not only was he one of the smartest guys in the world. He was also one of the nicest, most helpful and approachable guys as well. More often than not, the characteristics that allows someone to think dramatically differently than other people and the courage and tenacity to put that idea out there and fight to make it come to fruition are the same characteristics that make them difficult to work with. (NOTE: My experience is that a senior technical IC must be a butthead at times to make things happen. The distinction is whether they are motivated by concern about the customer, the company, the technology or are they motivated by their ego and status.)
Said another way, many heroes find it hard to be followers. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with an awesome mentor at Digital, Mark Storm. Mark was a Consulting Engineer and had worked with 4 or 5 other rock star Consulting Engineers in the database team. I said something along the lines that it must have been awesome to be a team with that much talent. He shook his head saying that it would have been much better if there was only one or two of them there because they spent so much time competing with one another about what to do and how to do it. Nietzsche one said that if you had to have virtue, have only one because as soon as you have two, they start to conflict. Sometimes it is that way with heroes as well – but not always. There are plenty of heroes that will lead but are also able to follow. And not just follow but commit and execute with the same passion they would have if they were executing their own ideas.
Technical heroes can be both a blessing and a curse. An organization, needs to be super clear about what type of problem it has and whether it is one suited for a hero or an army and the have the courage to make the appropriate decisions.