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It’s about the team

First, a note:

I’ve been rethinking, due to feedback from friends and family, how I present the content of this trifle of a blog. I’ve been writing directly about my experiences while keeping the name of my company, and the names of my coworkers, obfuscated using nicknames and euphemisms. However, that isn’t really obfuscated enough to keep me out of trouble should this blog ever get connected to me by the wrong people. So, henceforth, I shall talk about my learnings without directly relating my experiences at work, so there will be no issue. You can make up your own story about what experiences I had which led me to be taught or reminded of whatever I’m imparting with my blog entries. Experiences outside of work, well, those I may continue to discuss directly as discretion permits.

 

Now then.

One quality of a development team, or indeed any team working together, that is often undervalued is how well the members of the team interact on a personal level. Teams which are comprised of even exceptionally talented people who do not have any affinity for one another will not work exceptionally well together. Teams of much more modest talent who have a strong affinity for one another will become more than the sum of their parts. It’s not hard to imagine circumstances where a less talented team with more mutual affinity will be more productive with better results than a more talented but less cohesive team.

A lot of employers understand that personal affinity is important; they interview for new hires by evaluating technical skill but also how well they believe the candidate’s personality will integrate with the team and/or the company. They call this ‘cultural fit’ usually, but I think they often don’t consider the full implications of how well personalities fit one another, and in particular the magic that can happen where a team comes together comprised of people who develop strong professional and personal bonds with one another.

Here’s a question: How many times have you seen a candidate for a job show strong technical qualifications, but is iffy culturally, and get hired despite misgivings over the cultural fit? Here’s another: How many times have you seen a candidate for a job who presents a superb cultural fit, but is more iffy in technical qualifications, and get hired anyway?

I bet most people in the development world would answer these questions somewhere between “occasionally” and “frequently”, and somewhere between “never” and “almost never” respectively. For me it’s “occasionally” and “never”. But let’s think about this, and consider that this is exactly the opposite of the way things should be.

Skills can be taught. Someone entering a job with some technical deficiencies can be trained to grow into the job. Anyone with development experience has witnessed this — most of us, in fact, have lived it. We learn, adapt, and grow to meet the needs of our jobs even if we don’t start with the necessary skills. If we can’t do that, we’re probably not in the right line of work. We can also learn ‘soft skills’ – leadership skills, communication skills, organization, etc. But we can’t learn to have a different personality.

Oh, sure, we can learn to fake it; learn to pretend that the Nerf gun war that breaks out among the development team isn’t an annoyance and is fun; learn to have detailed conversations about international cuisine like it’s interesting; learn to geek out about the latest episode of Doctor Who or The Walking Dead as if we are interested in either — but if you don’t love shooting your buddies with foam darts, if you don’t relish new dining experiences, or if you don’t giggle inside at the phrase ‘wibbly wobbly, timey wimey’, you aren’t going to change. And fundamentally, you’re never going to build that connection to people who geek out in ways that you don’t.

So why is it that hiring decisions are often made on the principle that trainable qualifications are more valuable than untrainable qualifications?

In the area where I live, positions available for highly skilled developers are much more numerous than developers are available to fill those positions. My friend and colleague Red, whom I’m now calling Mojo (because she prefers Mojo) has said that the best solution is to find a strong cultural fit who’s below the desired skill level, hire that candidate, and invest in that developer through mentoring and training. This course of action makes even greater sense in light of the above.

So with all that in mind, imagine that rare confluence of a great group of developers, designers, project people and leadership who have developed that strong affinity, mutual respect, and friendship with one another. This is a group of people who not only want to be successful as individuals but who want to see each other succeed as well. They look forward to seeing one another and collaborating together.

How much harder and with how much more dedication will this group of people work on a given project when they have that mutual bond motivating them? And what will they be able to accomplish together?

I’d sure as hell like to find out.

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