Tuesday, October 29, 2013

There's No Room for Heroes

I've been thinking lately about how to successfully grow & mature an engineering team. What are the changes and shifts in mindset and practice that need to occur, naturally or synthetically, to remain effective, productive, and happy? One idea that's caught my attention is the shift from a culture of all-nighter heroes to a culture of on-time delivery of 100% finished projects.

A culture of all-nighter heroes revolves around the star players. The ones who get all the glory consistently saving the day. Every startup at which I've worked has had at least one person like this. You know you can turn to them whenever there's a problem and be confident that no matter the issue, it will get fixed. These are the guys or gals who're answering questions in the chat room 24*7, know every intricacy of your architecture, and have memorized the root password. These are the people the whole team looks up to and for whom you say a prayer every night hoping that they won't quit.

In a bootstrapped startup, the time for long term thinking is brief. Solutions are slapped together and shoved out the door just in time to evade catastrophe. Work is never quite finished. Instead the Pareto principle of 80% good enough is put to the test. Tech debt is an ever looming, always growing shadow of which no one wants to speak. "We'll fix it later" is the general motto. This is the haven of the hero: an undocumented, uncontrolled environment in which only the native knows their way around. Business becomes increasingly reliant on your heroes' ability to keep the technical ship afloat and battle scars are signs of prestige.

Some might argue that this is unavoidable, and perhaps even necessary. Yet as business becomes more stable and clients become less tolerant of failure, this method of operation becomes unsustainable. Suddenly, 80%-done work isn't good enough, tech debt has become a substantial hindrance, and that missing documentation is causing daily problems. The architecture has reached a point in which no group of heroes can reasonably hold it together.

This is the tipping point.

Simply acknowledging this is critical, but the biggest challenge to survival is the cultural shift. The heroes of this new business environment are the types that recognize long term goals. They realize that good solutions aren't invented over night, but via healthy design, debate, experimentation, and measurement. They create simple solutions that eliminate tech debt and avoid gotchas. They share their approaches and engage the rest of the team. They automate every possible touch point. Ultimately, the heroes of this new field do everything they can to be replaceable.

So, your challenge is to embrace automation, celebrate diligently crafted and deployed solutions, and put a damper on rewarding superhuman efforts riddled with tech debt. In my opinion, this a major inflection point in the professional development of a young team of engineers to a senior team. It must be closely shepherded and properly incentivized.