Modern View on Architecting Teams

What matters in building high performing engineering teams

Sometimes going down the Internet rabbit hole is not a waste of time. Sometimes it is a marvelous revelation as I discovered reading through a blog post this week.

The author made a compelling case that college degrees do not matter in hiring. What matters more is passion and what you can do. It’s a policy being embraced more and more by enterprises like Google. Apple, and Penguin for knowledge worker roles.

Tucked away in the middle of the post though was a mention of a Mary Kom. Not knowing who this person was, I spent the next hour learning about the life of this accomplished boxer. Magnificent Mary is not only the most decorated Indian female boxer, but one of the all-time greats and still competing at the highest levels for a spot in the 2020 Tokyo games.

From rural farm girl to a world champion athlete, it was not an obvious career path. The more typical career would be a farmer or teacher or something more “fitting” for a woman. She took the different path to pursue what she showed promise in and loved to do.

I was co-founder of a startup over a decade ago providing a solution to map skills to the goals of an organization. The idea was that by quantitatively measuring the skills of employees and rolling that up across an organization, leaders could see how an organization aligned to the work to be done.

Though the startup eventually folded, the data from initial customers was enlightening. It was clear that things like pedigree, schooling, and even past success had little predictive value on the success of an employee in their current role. We often scoffed that resumes were exercises in creative fiction, a trumped up version of one’s pedigree to simply go through the motions of the traditional, old-school recruitment process.

What did have predictive value? The alignment of skills of people to their role and their intrinsic motivation. In other words, passion and what a person can do, just as Rahul and many enlightened leaders in companies have observed but proven through data.

This was also the insight that led to the hiring for Skunk Works, the Lockheed program to create the most advanced military aircraft. Kelly Johnson had free reign to hire the best and brightest engineers across all of Lockheed. In the 40’s, that meant white and male. But there was one person that stood out among the group.

Mary Golda Ross was exceptional for the era in two ways. She was a female engineer and a Native American. She was also the only woman engineer on the Skunk Works team. For Kelly however, it was more important that the people on the team could do the work, and her work on critical aspects of the P-38 Lightning fighter plane earned her a spot on his elite team.

After World War II ended, Lockheed sent Mary for further engineering studies and upon her return was tasked to work on interplanetary space travel. She contributed to the Agena rocket project, designed preliminary missions to Venus and Mars, and was an author for the NASA Planetary Flight Handbook. She did not have the benefit of supercomputers, as she describes, “My state of the art tools were a slide rule and a Friden computer.”

Her pioneering work is still relevant to space missions today. The classified nature of her work however meant she had for many years been another “hidden figure” of the engineering world, much like Katherine Johnson’s contributions calculating flight paths for the US manned space missions.

Of the five characteristics that define effective innovation teams, diversity has the most influence in creating the most revolutionary breakthroughs:

“Working with people who are different from you may challenge your brain to overcome its stale ways of thinking & sharpen its performance.”

For organizations seeking to improve software delivery performance, the composition of teams plays a critical function. As described in the book Team Topologies, the team is the atomic unit by which work is executed and systems are architected. By designing teams that map to the desired product and software architectures, organizations can use “reverse Conway’s Law” to speed the delivery and quality of software.

The root of all effective software delivery starts at how you architect your teams. It is not just for innovation purposes either. I had a conversation with one bank that thought software delivery performance was correlated with the number of developers. If software were the equivalent of widgets on an assembly line, that might work. Experience however shows that adding more developers to teams impedes agility and speed because of increased cognitive load, weaker trust, and over communication.

The answer is not more developers and bigger teams. Instead, organizations would be better served using the hiring rubric of the five characteristics mentioned before and doubling down on diversity. In fact, a focused team aligned on purpose and bringing a diversity of backgrounds will run circles around larger teams. Great teams find talented contributors like a Mary Ross and create an environment for those talented individuals to coalesce as an effective team.

If you want to learn more about building diverse teams, I would recommend you listen to the Amanda Barkus episode of the Heretechs podcast. All episodes are now available to listen and subscribe to on Apple, Google, Spotify, or wherever else you listen to podcasts.

What are your experiences building a high performing software delivery team? What characteristic do you feel matters most for creating strong teams?

If you missed prior episodes of the Heretechs podcast with Justin Arbuckle and me, all six episodes are posted below. As an added bonus, we are now live on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts this week, so please subscribe and share a positive comment 👍

We plan to be back with new episodes this month, so stay tuned for more awesome contact on enterprise IT, culture change, and our witty banter!

We help IT leaders in enterprises solve the cultural challenges involved in digital transformation and move towards a community based culture that delivers innovation and customer value faster. Learn more about our work here.

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