Be Careful What You Measure

I came across this story of Tim Mackinnon recently. It provided a valuable reminder of the importance of looking at your vision of success and how you structure incentives to realise that vision.

You see, the reason that Tim’s productivity score was zero, was that he never signed up for any stories. Instead he would spend his day pairing with different teammates. With less experienced developers he would patiently let them drive whilst nudging them towards a solution. He would not crowd them or railroad them, but let them take the time to learn whilst carefully crafting moments of insight and learning, often as Socratic questions, what ifs, how elses.

With seniors it was more like co-creating or sparring; bringing different worldviews to bear on a problem, to produce something better than either of us would have thought of on our own. Tim is a heck of a programmer, and you always learn something pairing with him.

Tim wasn’t delivering software; Tim was delivering a team that was delivering software. The entire team became more effective, more productive, more aligned, more idiomatic, more fun, because Tim was in the team.

The Worst Programmer I Know

There is a concept on sports teams of a glue guy. Someone who isn't a star but provides the foundation for teammates to thrive.

Shane Battier was the epitome of a glue guy when he played in the NBA. He wrote of what it took on The Players' Tribune. One part that stuck out was:

One way is by never worrying about looking cool. (Not that I was ever mistaken for cool.)

I knew my value was helping us notch victories however I could. So there were certain things that I did to ensure that my team was always as prepared as possible. For example, I used to ask really basic questions during film room sessions.

“Coach, can we run through that last set one more time?”

“Hold up coach, which direction do I roll out of this pick?”

“Wait coach, which player is supposed to switch here if the point guard drives?”

“Sorry, can you run through that set just one more time?”

Yeah, I was that guy.

Nobody likes that guy. I know that.

But there was always a strategy behind why I did it: I always knew that if I had a certain question about a game plan, there was almost always going to be a younger, less experienced player on the team who had the same question but was too intimidated to speak up. Having that question answered could ultimately pay dividends during a game. If the moment of truth comes and that player is prepared, that’s a plus for our team.

Elite 'Glue Guys' 101 - Shane Battier (The Players' Tribune)

This is difficult to capture in metrics. It's more of an eye test or a gut feeling. The team plays better when they're on the floor. Sometimes it's providing support for less experienced colleagues. Asking the questions they're too afraid to ask because they're just getting started.

If everyone is trying to be a star then the team won't win. Players take possessions off on defence and are disengaged on offence when the ball isn't in their hands. People will look for credit in a win but avoid responsibility in a loss. They will expend time and energy blaming others instead of looking at how to fix the situation. The team will fall apart. They won't reach their goal.

The incentive of winning a championship provides the opportunity for people to find their role in the collective that will provide the platform for success. The incentive of "I need to put myself in the best position to get a new contract somewhere else" will lead to division and losses. A team full of stars rarely wins. Just ask Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden on their experience on the Brooklyn Nets.

You won't win a title without stars but glue guys need their flowers too.

Accountability is important and metrics can provide useful insights into what is and isn't working. But if your metrics miss someone like Tim Mackinnon then they need to be adjusted.

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