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I Want The Jacks Not The Balls

October 22, 2013

The best developer to ever work for me did not come highly recommended. Sure, he was recommended, but frankly the recommendation came with a caveat, “Great developer, spotty work history.” The fact was he had never stayed at a company for longer than a few months. I think his shortest stint was actually measured in hours.

Dave (www.heartmindcode.com) came to work for me when I was the Executive Vice President of Agile Studios. RESMARK was our biggest client, but we did lots of other projects as well. We had a President, I was the EVP and we had a guy, Bob, in charge of the developers. Dave was hired as a code monkey. He jumped in and started making a difference right away. I started pulling him more toward the RESMARK development. Now, technically Bob was in charge of all our development projects, but Bob was a little distracted.

Actually, he was a lot distracted. We were committed to rolling out the Beta for RESMARK in January. We’d worked on the project for more than a year. I think we picked January because it was the rafting industry’s slow period. I would never willingly schedule a release for January. It screws up the holidays too much. Anyway, anyone who has ever been involved in a development project knows that things get really tense and busy right before a release. This was no exception. As we pushed to get the code stable enough to roll out to our customer, I spent many late nights and then weekends at the office. And Dave was right beside me.

Bob? He had scheduled a vacation and didn’t want to change his plans. I think he was in Boston.

Dave and I were putting in 12 to 14 hour days. He was coding, I was testing and writing bugs and some documentation. We worked Christmas Eve. Christmas Day we spent the morning with our families and then came into work around noon. We eventually got the code stable and made our beta date in the first week of January.

The reason I tell that story is that it reminds me that you should hire people for the skills you actually want. Likewise you should evaluate people on the skills you want and care about. I call this concept “Jacks and Balls” for the childhood game of jacks.

I’ve been in plenty of big companies in my career. Most of them have very similar evaluation processes.

Rodney, you’re communication skills are excellent and your technical skills are good. You’re a little lacking in your organization. I’d like you to work on that this next quarter. Set some goals around it. Maybe take a Steven Covey course or something.

That sounds reasonable doesn’t it? Who doesn’t want to be more organized? Well, possibly ME. It depends on my job responsibilities. Is organization a core piece of what I do? Should I ignore the things I do well so that I can focus on the thing I do poorly? Or should I simply ignore the parts I don’t do well and focus on what I was hired to do? This effort to form a “well rounded” employee is what I call “the ball.” Everyone wants you to be the ball. But, to be the ball, you often have to literally ignore the things you are good at and focus on the stuff you aren’t.

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(Photo Credit: relationshipplaybook.com)

Instead, I want the jacks. You know, the miniature caltrops. Police agencies could use those things instead of spike strips. I want employees that are good, great, the very best at what they do. Like the pointy end of a jack, I want the things they do to be done very well. If I’m hiring programmers, I want the very best Java developer I can find. I’m less concerned if they have a degree, or social skills, or own an alarm clock.

When we spun RESMARK off as its own company, I asked Dave to come with me. I asked all of Agile’s best programmers. . . Well, that’s not true. I didn’t ask Bob. Bob was a good coder, but he wasn’t great and he didn’t have the killer instinct that said, “I’m going to finish the project on time even if I have to work Christmas!” But, I recruited the rest of the best developers. Dave was a tough draw.

What’s the issue? I can actually offer you more money if you join RESMARK.

It’s not the money. They’ve made me Director of Development and my mom really likes the fact that I have a title now.

Seriously? That’s it? You can call yourself the Grand Poobah for all I care. Pick your own title.

Dave joined me.

The team worked together really well. We were convinced that we were changing the world. I hadn’t realized yet that I’d lied on the Pro Forma (My Brother Wouldn’t Lie for Me.) Dave thought he understood the Jacks and Balls concept. He told me he got it, but I wasn’t sure.

Rodney, I need some management help.

Hey, the programmers are yours.

Yeah, I know. It’s Mindy. I can’t get her to be on time for our morning Scrum meeting?

Okay.

I told here we are having it at 10:00am, but she consistently comes in at 10:30. It’s really causing some problems with the team.

Does she leave early?

No. She’s here until 7 or 8 every night.

She’s a good developer, right?

Yeah. She’s probably the best we have besides me.

The solution seems pretty obvious.

Really? What is it?

Move scrum to 10:30. Do you want someone who’s punctual, or do you want someone who’s a fantastic coder? Jacks and Balls.

I can’t believe I didn’t see that.

Dave moved Scrum to 10:30 and the problem was solved.

We worked through the summer cramming everything we had into trying to meet a September 1st ship date. My biggest concern was that our investor kept adding features. My weekly meetings with him were becoming more and more contentious. After our beta in January we had 9 customers who signed up to be part of the Beta. Each put down half the $10,000 purchase price to be part of the Beta program.

We had to make quite a few compromises but it looked like we were going to come very close to meeting our ship date. You’d think that I’d be excited. Not really. The stress of working with the investors was starting to get to me. We had a trade show coming up that would be our coming out party.

Just when things were at their busiest, our investor started asking for weekly reports: How many customer contacts? How many hours put in on different parts of the business.

Dave saw it as an ominous sign:

Dude, you’re going to get fired. . .within 6 weeks probably.

He was just being paranoid. . .I hoped.

This is the second in a five part series about the birth and death of RESMARK, describing my time as president. Here’s how the rest of the week will look.
– Yesterday: My Brother Wouldn’t Lie For Me
– Today: I Want The Jacks Not the Balls, How I assembled our team and managed to not screw up their careers too badly
– Wednesday: Stealing The Show, how we launched the program to incredible good press
– Thursday Being a Management Sandwich, When your customer is also your investor
– Friday: You Can’t Fire Me, I’ll Quit. . .When I’m Good and Ready, know how many bullets are in your gun before you go in

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.

Follow him on
Twitter (@rodneymbliss)
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LinkedIn (www.LinkedIn.com/in/rbliss)

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3 Comments
  1. I agree that in early stages hiring only A players can really win as a strategy. And when Mindy can’t drag her butt in before the crack of 10:30, because she’d awesome you work around it. But at some point in growth, Mindy’s quirk and Jeff’s funkiness and Brant’s weirdness and … well, at some point it sure seems like you need to build an A team, and some of those players need to balance their quirks with the overall team’s needs.

    • Yes, and that’s where the art of managing comes in. If I had another employee who was as straight arrow, always arrives 5 minutes early, great team player, looks out for coworkers, bought into the company vision, etc, but he couldn’t code as well as Mindy? I’d still take Mindy. We were producing software. And that was the over riding skill set I was looking for. Had Mindy’s job been something that required doing something at a particular time, like unlocking the office for her coworkers at 8am and she was consistently late on it, that would be a problem.

  2. Reblogged this on Rodney M Bliss and commented:

    Management Rules That Make No Sense #7

    It’s not what you think.

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