Beyond Hiring Biases to Build Great Teams - David DeWolf

Challenging the Typical Hiring Biases and Building Great Teams

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A recent article in Forbes challenged entrepreneurs to limit their hiring to senior developers, a practice that runs counter to the conventional wisdom of so many organizations.

While good intentioned and directionally correct, the piece falls short on logic.

The foundation for the argument seems to be based upon “the method that he implemented five years ago when he launched Smartling with cofounder Jack Welde: ‘find the right people and keep them motivated’.”

There’s no doubt that getting the right people on the bus is essential to any business. I agree wholeheartedly. But when did “the right people” translate into “senior developers”? I see two flaws in this thinking.

Seniority (years of experience) plays a role in one’s capabilities, but it does not tell the whole story.

My first management job was two years out of school. I took over the leadership of a small, high-performing team of “senior” developers. One teammate, in particular, had 20 years of experience, a PhD and a resume that boasted of her “seniority.” I learned the hard way that this seniority didn’t translate into her ability to produce. Within six weeks it was obvious that there was one team member not pulling her weight and I was forced to let her go from the team.

On the flip side, several years ago, near the beginning of the 3Pillar run, I hired a junior developer who was one year out of school. This individual may have been one of the most talented, productive and innovative team members I’ve ever seen in action. He literally pulled the weight of multiple developers. He was inexperienced but had wisdom beyond his years.

Seniority is not the only measure of talent.

A group of “senior developers” doesn’t translate into a high-performing team.

You don’t field a baseball team with nine shortstops. All nine shortstops may be the best athletes, but they won’t win the ballgame. You don’t field a basketball team with a bunch of veterans. You need to mix in some youth to make sure you have the legs left to get through the season.

The same goes for building software products. The right mix of talent, experience, creativity, passion, and, yes, even wild-ass, crazy, naive ideas is important.

I have seen teams struggle to innovate because everyone wanted to lend experience and nobody wanted to think outside the box. I have seen teams struggle because everyone wanted to make design decisions and nobody wanted to implement new configurations. The right mix of folks is essential.

So, what is the right mix?

There is no cookie-cutter answer, but it’s likely not an entire team of “senior developers,” nor is it the traditional “leveraged triangle.”

In my experience, the most innovative product engineering teams require a well-led team with deep experience – a small handful of senior developers to collaborate, lend their experience and challenge assumptions, a sprinkling of productive developers to fuel throughput, and a sharp, passionate all-star that’s a little wet behind the ears.

What does your experience tell you? How do you create high-performing teams?