They Might be Giants

Don’t let’s start. This is not an article about music from back in the day, but about the elusive “20X” developer who is 20 times as productive as “normal” engineers.

I recently read the recently blogged guide Recruiting Your Next Anakin by “The Sith” Recruiting Training and Retaining Giants (pdf file) whose author (who calls himself “The Saint”) has earned a fair amount of bad buzz on the web. The TLDR is that you should look to hire people with “a calling” who don’t want “balance” in their lives and then work them 80 hours a week to “season” them (i.e. accustom them to working 80-hours a week for less salary than they’re worth). The guide comes out of the video game sector, where there seem to be a number of horror stories of exploitation. It’s a sector which attracts some programmers who have more talent and passion than maturity and who are thus easy prey for exploitation. I’ll leave it to others to criticize the guide in detail – for a sane perspective on recruiting talented engineers, I recommend Joel Spolsky’s approach.

Here I would rather discuss one of the ideas behind the article in question. The article states: “GIANTS can be worth 10X-20X ordinary engineers”. This is not a new idea, and it sounds very “truthy”, but has it really been scrutinized?

When I think of a GIANT who might be worth 20-times the ordinary people in his profession, rather than any software developer, I tend to think of this tall gentleman:

Madison Bumgarner
In software development, while I’ve seen some great engineers, the paradigm does not seem to apply well.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s assume that there’s some objective measure of individual developer productivity and worth in the context of software teams (I doubt it), that it can’t be “gamed”, and let’s assume there are some 20X giants and that there’s way to hire them, and that (as the afirementioned pdf guide seems to assume) 20X giant-ness is an inherent quality of a young developer which can’t be taught to “normals”.

Imagine that you in a team of “normals” and you are then joined by one 20X giant.

Imagine the sprint planning. The first 200 sprint points go to the giant and then everyone else gets 10.

It’s as if your cellar-dwelling adult-league basketball team just got Stephen Curry. You’re no longer playing basketball – on offense you just give the ball to Steph and maybe (if you get past half-court before he’s drained a three) set a pick or box out in the low post. If you play any defense at all, it’s a box-and-Steph.

Imagine the daily stand-up meeting. The part which gets everyone’s attention is when the giant has an obstacle (probably caused by one of the “normals”).

Kind of demoralizing for everyone, but the assumption inherent in the thinking around 20X giants is that developers, once hired, can’t be improved (except by making them work longer hours if they’re willing and able to).

Fortunately, this is a ridiculous fantasy. In reality, with some effort and intelligence, teams and individual developers can improve. And in reality, if someone in your team is accomplishing 20 times as much as anyone else in the team, something is horribly wrong. Maybe the others are busy cleaning up messes left by the “giant” or decrypting unreadable code written by the “giant” at 3 a.m. when the effects of the energy drinks have worn off.

The software craftsmanship movement embraces the idea that not all developers are at the same level, but part of a software craftsperson’s job is to help the rest of their team to improve. We value the quality of our work as much as the quantity, because software is never really done, and going too fast now will force us to go much slower later. We strive not to be giants among Liliputians but highly competent professionals on teams of profesionals and in a larger community of professionals.

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