"A" Players Are High Maintenance

“A’s hire A’s. B’s Hire C’s” – Steve Jobs

Let’s face it – “A” players are high maintenance. They have ideas. Even worse, they have ideologies. They don’t like to sit still. They struggle to suffer fools. If you’re managing “A” player’s you’ve got your hands full. So why on earth would you want them?!

Imagine you’re the general contractor, having a house built. One carpentry crew manages to put up 3 studs each day. Another carpentry crew, the “A” team, puts up 3 rooms each day. The “A” team engages you and the architect early and frequently in the project, builds jigs and tooling, knows how to subdivide the job. The “A” team is making progress fast, causing work for you because they are moving fast. You have to keep materials supply in stock, get other sub contractors ready to execute their tasks, review work being completed to ensure it aligns with what is desired, sort out details of design in the work to be completed. On the other hand, at 3 studs each day, the former team will give you plenty of time to relax, leave work early, enjoy two hour long lunches as nothing is occurring with speed.

So everyone wants “A” players – and “A” team, right? After all, it’s great to move into one’s house 3 months after construction. In the case of having one’s house built that may very well be true. In the case of software it is more true with product companies and small companies. The rest of the great expanse of IT, not so much. Why?

When needing a place to live, one is truly motivated to get the work done. There is a compelling goal – get the a house built over one’s head before the money runs out. That will get most people’s attention. A software product company is in a sprint: little money and a market that barrels ahead full of competitors and changing landscape, irreverent of the company’s grand plans. Even a small services company having only a few clients and a month of work backlog: if the customers are less than very impressed, the small company will quickly have no income as work vanishes into thin air. Both of these situations are compelling for its participants. Most of these folks know the only way to play against such odds is by stacking the deck with “A” players.

In the vast land of IT, there is a fair bit of “kick the can down the road” / “cost containment is priority one” perspective. Hardly the place for people that will ferret out problems, raise them for the purpose of solving them and drive change in otherwise static or at-equilibrium environments. If you’re a CIO shepherding such an environment, read no further.
So what are the characteristics of “A” players in software development? They typically exhibit a significant number of the following characteristics:

  • Motivated. Evident by their accomplishments. Don’t make the mistake of just focusing on their professional career. See the next characteristic.
  • Multi-disciplinary. “A” players are curious. They typically have significant expertise in other fields. Not a passing fancy – but significant expertise, to the point that professionals in other fields would consider them worthy of employment in that field.
  • Research and Explore. Delving into subjects, “A” players achieve expertise by knowing how to leverage the work of others. Legends in their own minds are rarely to be considered “A” players – their facsimile of “A”-hood will ultimately backfire, often at significant detriment to the endeavor. That said, there are legends worthy of engagement – but one must have significant technical management chops to employ such characters.
  • Opinionated. Everyone has ideas, but “A” players are often ideological – they have “a way” and they can tell you at length why that way is the better way. This isn’t about being pigheaded or myopic. Rather it is about a contextual grounding in deep experience from which they operate.
  • Curious. They ask questions. They may not agree with the answers, or they may probe further. “A” players are inquisitive and engaged. Not necessarily extraverted. In fact often not.
  • Collective. “A” players tend to hang out with other “A” players. This matters because often the chain of contacts can be worked to discern the “A” players. Even “A” players that have different ideologies from the person in question will acknowledge another’s capability regardless of that ideology. This collective is important – in a craft, people don’t define themselves as experts – the greater community defines people as experts.

What can one count on, with “A” players?

  • They will attract other “A” players. They will want to remediate or shed “B” players from the team. They will outright open an offensive on clearing out “C” players.
  • They will get work done. You had better be engaged as they will run ahead based on what they understand should occur. They will also make you look bad when they’ve accomplished all the work on hand and you’ve not stepped up your game to line up the next set of compelling needs.
  • They will leave when either no compelling achievements lay ahead or their presence is aggrevating an otherwise complacent work environment.

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