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We’re Not Hiring A Bunch of Quarterbacks!

“Sumbry’s Philosophy on building a great engineering team.”

“We’re hiring a team of rockstars!”

Every time I hear that quote, I cringe. Now while that phrase normally compares hiring at a startup to starting a band I’m going to adjust this analogy to a sports one, specifically American Football since I’m a huge College Football fan. Anytime I hear that a company wants to hire a team of rockstars, I immediately translate that to:

“We’re hiring a team of quarterbacks.”

… which sounds absolutely ludicrous! Let’s just look at what a typical football team, specifically its offense, actually looks like and all the different positions it entails:

These are highly specialized positions.  You only have one quarterback on an offense and they are charged with controlling the ball and calling the plays. Guards protect the quarterback.  If the quarterback decides to run the ball he will hand the ball off to a running back who are protected by tackles.  If the quarterback decides to throw the ball he will pass it to a wide receiver.  There are only eleven people on an offensive team. Each has distinct roles that allow them to develop and execute an effective strategy and score points against the opponent's defense.

Now imagine if you will, for one second, that the team consisted of all quarterbacks:

This would be an absolute unmitigated disaster.  You’d have a team of folks where everyone was trying to call the shots, they’d all be fighting for control of the ball, no one would be available to run or catch the ball — and who the heck is going to defend you from the rather large individuals playing defense for the opposing team and barreling down towards you?

So the reality is that you’re not trying to hire rockstars but are building a team —  a team with room for folks with different skills and experience that collaborate, develop, a strategy, and work together as a unit to execute and ultimately score points and win the game!

In the example above, and a failure mode that I’ve seen when you hire too many rockstars onto a team, is that it actually causes a lot of churn on the team.  The team finds itself unable to make decisions, often finds the most senior folks jockeying for projects and positions, leaves no room for less experienced folks to take on tasks or find space to grow, and usually results in a bunch of unnecessary projects and an over-complicated solution to problems to satisfy the egos of all the rockstars — and all rockstars have Rock Star Sized Egos.

When I joined Upbound as the VP of Engineering, developing a strategy and building out a great team were the first things I immediately set out to do.  We had a wonderful team of people that helped get the company to where it was, but my focus was now on how to scale the engineering organization and do it in a thoughtful way.  We have huge product ambitions, have a popular open source project and great technology and have many paying customers that want the best from us and need us to meet all of their needs while continuing to deliver value for the company.

So I set out with my own strategy for how I think about team building.  I’m not trying to find a bunch of quarterbacks, but rather folks I think can fit in the various positions required on the team and how we can make that entire team an effective unit.

One of the things I really want to outline about this strategy is that a team should be able to operate on multiple fronts at once, and should usually be around seven to ten people.  You can think of a team as having smaller sub-units, that are capable of driving projects on their own and are usually a triad or quad that maintains a healthy ratio of staff engineers to everyone else.  This allows the team a bit of autonomy and flexibility to execute independently without having to always collaborate with everyone across the entire team directly all the time.  It allows space for individuals on the triad opportunities and space to grow and execute technically, while not bogging down the entire team in all the minutiae.

So as I set out to execute against this strategy and start hiring, I wanted to make sure that I avoided the mistake that I see many new hiring managers make — trying to find a person that fits too specific requirements for the role.  You really want to look for good people, and mold roles and opportunities around them.  In reality, you’ll probably only get an exact match to what you’re looking for about 30% of the time.  So you need to allow room for what I call growers and pivoters to round that out.  

Growers are folks that tend to be earlier in their careers and are hungry and looking for opportunities to join a company and quickly iterate on their technical learnings while also getting the opportunity to grow in their careers.

Pivoters on the other hand tend to be more seasoned folks that may have been working in a related industry, usually have a solid background, and are looking to pivot their career towards yours.  Pivoters tend to bring a unique perspective and viewpoint, so all teams should definitely have them.

This strategy does not build teams of quarterbacks, but recognizes that a high-functioning team is also a diverse team that includes folks with different levels of experience, different ambitions, different skillsets, specific roles for individuals with a certain amount of flexibility, and an operating model that allows growth and autonomy.

It’s how we’re doing things at Upbound, and I’m proud of  all the progress that we’ve made to date.  We’ve got some awesome folks here.

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