A funny discussion is going on at HBR Blogs:  Management-type blogger Bill Taylor suggests our culture wrongly celebrates the super-stars, and claims great people are overrated, on the cost of well-functioning teams (via Igor Sutton). But, to illustrate his example he uses software engineers as an example. Cue outpouring of frustration – Bill’s getting hammered in the comment section.

So what’s the problem?

First, try to look past that Bill skipped 30 years of research and experience in software engineering and stamps into it like a PHB-cliche, seemingly assuming his opinion is as valid as any research on the subject. That alone probably ticked off the defensive reaction in any software developer accidentally stumbling into the Harvard Business Review blog section.

The main misunderstanding is the assumption that there is only one type of talent. And both Taylor and a fair amount of the commenters makes this mistake and applies their experience with basic bell-curve measured skills onto a type of talent that is ruled by other laws.  Nassim Nicholas Taleb discusses this distinction in great detail in The Black Swanthe environments of “mediocristan” and “extremistan”. The first which you can understand using the bell curve and gaussian distribution, the latter where differences are of an order of magnitude and are qualitative or disruptive differences.

For example, in most manual labour or production line work, a practitioner can get good or even excellent, but mostly within a range that can be measured safely with standard deviations and the differences between average and excellent performance does not differ in it’s nature, but it’s output. Here throwing more people at the problem can solve it – maybe your top salesman makes ten sales a week while your average makes 4. Well, throw in 3 averages and you’re just as good. That’s not necessarily good economy or a good idea, but it can get you where you want.

In contrast, in the world of “extremistan”, a difference in skill can be of such a magnitude that it makes a qualitative difference. In the comment section of Taylor’s article, someone asks, “Would you want a Shakespeare or 100 Bill Taylor’s?”, and countless variations on the theme. And software engineering is that sort of talent. A “superstar developer” doesn’t necessarily a programming Shakespeare make, but he or she can make something a lesser qualified individual can never do, or do it so fast it makes the difference between staying in competition or not. Or just connect the dots and save the day.

Throw in the special problem of software engineering that putting one more person on a task tends to double the time it takes to solve it, and the effect is even larger.

But then, the Bill Taylor’s take their experiences with the “mediocristan” type of talent and applies it on the very different world of software engineering. It comes out, as is well pointed out in the comment section, as commoditization of something that can not be commoditized. Software development can’t be reduced to the number of lines written per day, in any meaningful way. Even business people who really, really want to think about it in that way, will still be wrong. It has been discussed and demonstrated countless times. The classic “The Mythical Man-Month” explains how you can’t just think of your software engineers as burger flippers.

When the original blog post received so much vitriol, it comes from every software engineer in the world’s experience with clueless managers who approach development in the Bill Taylor way. Today’s successful companies are ran in a different way, by Zuckerberg’s and Steve Jobs’ who are playing in a the-winner-takes-it-all world of the Internet. It doesn’t take that many, as long as you have the right people – Facebook has 2000 employees serving over 600 million users.

So what makes a super star developer?

I believe in the old truism that the difference between developers can be of the 100x magnitude – I actually think the Net Negative Production Programmer is a reality, so accordingly a top developer is infinitely better than the worst… However, unless you think the superstars have their skills handed down to them by divine intervention, something must have brought them to this. Here’s some points I believe are what makes up the super star:

  • It’s knowing the codebase well. The superstar is often the guy who knows the codebase to the last semi-colon. It’s not about being the smartest guy in the room, but just knowing exactly where to hack in that little change, and that little change, and that little change, and that little change…. before lunch.
  • It’s content knowledge. The superstar is the guy who also knows the content of what he is coding really well. If you’re making a chess bot, the developer who is also a chess grandmaster knows all the elements, the edge cases and the purpose of what he is trying to do. He will have a working prototype running while the developer without any chess background is still trying to understand all the implicit assumptions in the instructions he got from his Scrum Product Owner. I think this one is essential, and so often overlooked. Knowing the thing you work with, and working with what you find interesting is not only making development work into a whole other ballgame, it’s also does wonders for motivation.
  • It’s situational. You can’t throw Linus Torvalds, Larry Wall or Bill Joy into your hack app shop and expect to have the next Angry Birds in a month. You need the right person and the right setting.
  • It’s knowing programming well. The superstar developer doesn’t have to be a superstar in the inner working of his programming language – but he knows it well enough that it’s not in the way of him reaching his ultimate goal.
  • It’s practice, practice, practice. Yeah exactly! No one is born into superstardom. This is written about a lot, and Malcolm Gladwell’s thesis of the 10.000 hours of practice rule really applies the software engineering too. One complicating factor with this point is, as I wrote about in accelerating your Perl learning, that most developers are on a lifelong learning mission anyways. They (we…) always look to learn something new, so what puts the superstar apart from the average? It’s not that easy to pick out, but in his article about the 10.000 hours of practice, Gladwell touches upon the differences of training and learning. It’s a large field of research and I hope to post more about it later.
  • It’s a high level of intelligence. But not necessarily an extreme level of intelligence. However, a certain level of numeracy and ability of thinking in abstractions is necessary.  Maybe at some point we’ll find that super developers are able to hold more variables at the same time in their working memory, or something along those lines, and that turns out to explain the differences. But I have yet to see any research like that.

And it’s motivation… and the right management… but these things are also things external to the superstar, that you one move around to find. The brain finds it’s ideal setting..

So there, that’s what put the superstars apart from the average. I’d love to hear others’ take on it.

The sad thing is…

..that reality is that a well functioning team can usually match the lone superstar or even has it’s own advantages. It’s actually a good message: let’s not just celebrate these few people, they’re brought forward on the shoulders of people going through the daily grind of facilitating it and cleaning up the mess. Or we can achieve great things just by working together. It’s just presented so boneheadedly wrong.

Finally, Bill followed up with a clarification of some sorts, basically that IBM is made up of average people and see how long they have lasted, while Enron was full of superstars, and look how they crashed.  I wonder what IBM thinks of his base assumption there.

One thought on “What makes a superstar developer?

  1. where should i begin my learning process to be a software developer ?

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