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Lower Your Standards and Build a Better Team

In the 2008 essay “Most Likely to Succeed” that appeared in The New Yorker magazine, Malcolm Gladwell looks at NFL quarterbacks, high school teachers and personal financial advisors in the top firms.  College quarterbacks experience rather high failure rates in the NFL.  School teachers see rather high retention even with varied results; the worst teachers cover ½ of a year’s material in an academic year while the best cover 1 ½ years material in the same amount of time.  Compare both of these with North Star Resource Group, a personal financial advisory firm, which has had over 56% of its advisors recognized by the industry as top advisors.

Gladwell paints a picture of recruiting with NFL quarterbacks on one end and teachers on another.  NFL recruiting is entirely experiential, with performance being personally observed by scouts.  The problem in this arena is that the game is different – the NFL has better, stronger and faster players and the play of a quarterback can’t be determined by simply watching what is fundamentally a different game (college).   Teachers, on the other hand, almost entirely without observation and based almost solely on their academic resume.  It turns out that the complexities of teaching is such that academic prowess is only one skill and others like personal interaction, emotional intelligence, and “withitness”, the ability to control the classroom, are just as important.

North Star Resource Group does their recruiting a little differently.  They interviewed 1,000 candidates, hired 49, put them through a four month training camp where only 23 graduated and then over the next three to four years expects to keep only at most 9 individuals from the original group. While this may seem harsh as we mentioned above the North Star Resource Group consistently gets great performers.

One implication for us as hiring managers is that perhaps the standards for hiring shouldn’t be raised but rather lowered.  Learning from both the NFL and teachers, perhaps we should lower our “offer” standards and evaluate more people on the job with the foreknowledge that we will cut them quickly.  We are clearly unable to predict future success based on past performance in a different environment (different employer, different culture, etc) and academic prowess alone isn’t likely to be a good indicator of job performance.  Clearly a couple hour interview will not net a better result.  Perhaps we should approach hiring, especially in “right to work environments” such as we have in the US more akin to the way we purchase cars:  take the employee for a test drive.

Said more simply, we should hire more people but make the cuts way faster. If you have read and implemented our model of seed, feed, and weed then you’re actually on the right track.  If you’ve allocated 33% to each phase, Gladwell’s hypothesis is that you might get better results with a ratio more like 10% seed, 45% feed, 45% weed. Continuing with the gardening analogy it would be like spreading a wildflower mixture of seeds, providing them with plenty of fertilizer and water, and removing the ones that don’t thrive in your garden.


Practice, Practice, Practice

We wrote a post back in July 2008 about how in order to get better you must practice. Since that time we’ve seen a lot of interest in this concept of how much must you practice in order to master a skill.  This interest is primarily due to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers in which he showed a number of examples of why you must have about 10 years or 10,000 hours of practice in order to achieve mastery. I’ve come across many variations of this recently and wanted to revisit the topic from a non-programming perspective to show that this is applicable to every aspect of your life and career. If you want to become a better parent, teacher, runner, programmer, leader, or technologist you must practice. If you want to master those skills you must practice them a lot.

One of the more interesting variations is from the 1976 book by William Zinsser, On Writing Well. If you are interested in writing I highly recommend this book and for everyone else you can draw inspiration from his devotion to the craft of writing. In the first chapter William Zinsser talks about an interview he participated in discussing writing as a vocation along with a certain Dr. Brock who was a surgeon that had recently taken up writing. Dr. Brock started by expressing how “The words just flowed.” And when asked what he did when the writing wasn’t going well he said he’d just stop writing. Zinsser countered that “writing is a craft, not an art, and that the man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself.” He continues with “If your job is to write every day, you learn to do it like any other job.” Zinsser concludes the section with a thought that if writing for a surgeon was so easy he’d consider taking up surgery on the side. This was a bit tongue-in-cheek with the point being to get better you must persevere and do so with a critical eye for how to constantly improve.

An interesting theory on how to produce sustained and desirable change is the Boyatzis’ Intentional Change Theory. This is five step process that enables individuals to achieve change and maintain it. If you have ever tried to stay on a diet or start an exercise regime and have found it difficult, you should be able to relate to this. One of the keys to this process is practicing the new behavior in order to build and strengthen neural pathways.  This eventually leads to mastery of the skill and sustained change.

An MIT Computer Science grad student has an interesting list on his blog of posts that cover this subject of dedicated practice to master a skill.  In MJ fashion, he calls this list “Thoughts on living a remarkable life”.  Two of his most interesting from that list are book reviews On the Value of Hard Focus about Murakami’s book on distance running and The Steve Martin Method about the comedian’s life.

Another story comes from Dave Ramsey’s book More Than Enough. Dave tells the story/parable of a professional golfer being approached by a fan saying “I’d do anything to hit like you” and the golfer says “No, you wouldn’t”, to which the fan replies “Oh, yeah, I really would.”  The golfer goes on to explain his secret “Get up every morning and hit 500 golf balls. Hit them until your hands are so blistered they bleed. The next morning, tape over the blisters and do it again.”

A final example comes from Jason at 37Signals on making money.  He postulates that as an entrepreneur you need to practice early and often making money; learning the skills of negotiating, pricing, and selling.  This is why he recommends entrepreneurs not take outside money, in order that they learn to make money quickly. Tim Ferris would probably agree that negotiating can be practiced and Seth Godin would certainly agree that selling takes practice.

So now with all the overwhelming evidence that we need to focus and practice to master a skill, what will you do today to become a master at something?

A final example comes from Jason at 37Signals on making money.  He postulates that as an entrepreneur you need to practice early and often making money; learning the skills of negotiating, pricing, and selling.  This is why he recommends entrepreneurs not take outside money, in order that they learn to make money quickly.  Tim Ferris would probably agree that negotiating is a practiced art and Seth Godin would certainly agree that selling takes practice.

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How Technical Should The CTO Be?

One of our earliest post was the Path To CTO/CIO, where we focused on not only the “path” but the path that would make you successful once you arrived in that position. One of the necessary skills that we mentioned you must gather along the way is “great technical experience”. We promised to revisit this topic in a later post so I thought I’d come back to this question of how technical does the CTO/CIO need to be? This is especially relevant for those individuals coming from a non-technical background but I think it is a question often asked by technologist as well. Do you need to have engineering and operations experience? Can you come from QA and become a CTO? Do you have to know how to code?

CTO and CIO jobs come in all shapes and sizes. In some businesses the CTO is the chief architect and not a manager, in others it is the VP or SVP of all technology teams. For the purpose of this discussion I’ll define the CTO/CIO as the role that has the technology organizations (such as engineering, quality assurance, operations, etc) reporting to them.

To be upfront about answering the question in the title of this post, I think a CTO should be very technical. I don’t think there is a prescribed path to the top technology job in a company and you don’t necessarily have to come up the technology ranks. I do, however, believe that possessing certain technical skills and experiences are far more likely to land you in that role than if you do not have them. More importantly, while these skills and experiences won’t guarantee your success in that role, they lack of them almost ensure problems or even failure. The skills and experiences that I mentioned fall into two categories, broad and deep.

Deep experiences and skills are ones that are most likely gained early in your career and should bring you proficiency in a subject area. For some this might be programming in a specific language, automating testing on a specific tool, or administering an operating system. If you believe Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers this process takes about 10,000 hours. Thinking of this in terms of travel or language, these deep experiences and skills are the kind you gain by living in a foreign country and becoming immersed in the culture and able to speak the language fluently. Deep experiences and skills are important because they develop in you a strong knowledge foundation that can be built upon when broadening your experiences. This deep foundation allows you to learn other technologies easier, similar to how proficiency in one foreign language makes the next one easier to learn. These deep experiences also give you a base of confidence that when peered with other experts provides credibility and when faced with uncertainty provides a history of solutions.

Broad experiences and skills are ones that are somewhat superficial but serve to give you a general understanding. Continuing our travel and language analogy, broad experiences and skills are the ones you acquire by spending a few weeks in another country and being able to get by asking for directions and food. The broad experiences that a CTO/CIO should have are working with multiple technology disciplines (engineering, quality assurance, architecture, operations, etc.) as well as business disciplines (marketing, finance, legal, etc). These experiences should serve to give you an understanding of their responsibilities, their day-to-day jobs, and most importantly their perspectives on technology and product development. You don’t have to have a job in each of these departments to gain this experience. Other ways to gain these include, acting as a liaison, serving on joint boards, working together on special projects, or volunteering to stay late to help the other teams accomplish their work.

Perhaps not prerequisites but rather as identifiers that will set you apart and prepare you well for the top technology role, look for establishing first deep skills and experiences. Once that foundation is firmly built then begin to broaden those through interdisciplinary work. Don’t forget that this is focusing of the technical skills and experiences. There are still other skills such as leadership, management, communication, and business that must be developed as well if you not only want the top technology job but want to keep it and do a great job while you are there. It’s not unusual for the most technical CTO’s to be the ones who need the most management and business coaching.

Having thrown down the gauntlet that a CTO must be technical it is only fair to address those who didn’t rise up through technology roles and are currently CTO’s or desire to be CTO’s.  We’ll save this for a future post but in the mean time break out a coding book.