Can you Handle an Elite Performer?

Employers ask for elite performers, but they should be careful – they could get what they ask for… If they find an elite performer, do they have the elite organization required to match the new hire?

I recently read a great post by Kelly Sommers: Challenge Addiction. I’ve been following Kelly on twitter for some time and I do read her blog posts. To me it is clear that she really is a challenge addict, but not only that: She’s probably one of the smartest programmers on this planet. She should be a dream for any team to hire. Unfortunately I think many teams would quickly find it a nightmare to have her on the team. That’s not because of Kelly – but because of the team.

I’d better make it clear that I’ve never met Kelly and definitely not worked with her. I can’t even say that I know her online, more than what I get from following her on Twitter. Nevertheless her post is what inspired me to write this one. This post is not specifically about her, but rather about what it means to bring a challenge addict on the team.

Extremely Fast Learner

Reading Kelly’s tweets when she’s spending a weekend coding on an issue is indeed a journey. She starts out on Friday night with newbie questions, trying to get the stuff to even compile and understand the core concepts. During Saturday she covers the basic theory and by Sunday she’s already pushing the limits to what’s known to be possible.

To most people, such a fast learner is a confusing experience. On Friday, they are flattered by being asked the newbie questions. On Saturday they look in awe as the basic theory is mastered. On Sunday they feel utterly threatened by new concepts and questions they cannot answer – because they never even figured out that there could be such a question.

Such a fast learner should of course be a major asset for any team, but only if the team accepts that there are people that learn a year’s worth of studies in a few days.

Threatening

A fast learner can be really threatening. In a team there are fixed roles and hierarchies. Among developers the roles and the hierarchy is mostly based on competence. Newbies entering a team (especially when they openly confess they are newbies) are automatically placed at the bottom of the hierarchy. If they learn faster than the others, they will overtake them in the hierarchy. One by one until the top of the team hierarchy is within reach. When the top dev/architect/whatever sees his (yet it’s nearly always a he, especially if the new expert is a she) it is of course a threat. A severe threat to his position.

From reading Kelly’s tweets I think that this has happened a few times to her. Unfortunately I think that it’s more common to her because she’s young and she’s a woman. That’s a very sad side of our industry.

New Challenges

Another thing that Kelly mentions in her post is the need for continuously being challenged. That’s really an asset for any organisation: An employee that always wants to push the limits, solve harder problems, bring the company forward and leaving the competitors behind.

But only if the organisational culture is to push the limits. Far too many organisations are tired. As long as they are good enough, they feel that it’s better to stay that way without taking on new challenges. Because new challenges means more work. It might even require that new leaders emerge based on the new competences required. That’s a major threat to any manager mostly keen on keeping his own position, rather than focusing on the organisation.

If the organisation doesn’t continuously challenge itself, a challenge addict will quickly get bored and leave for another company (you did read Kelly’s post on that repeating pattern, didn’t you?)

Perfect Hire?

To me, someone like Kelly is the perfect hire. Kelly: if you ever plan to move to Sweden and Stockholm I’ll order my boss to hire you on the spot. I think that we are the kind of organisation where an elite performer and fast learner would be recognised and get new challenges.

To those organisations that wouldn’t hire someone like Kelly, I have one thing to say:

You’re wrong. You have to change. Accept the challenge, or you will be run out of business by someone who does.

  • Lars Wennerholm on 2013-04-22

    Interesting! Agree with your conclusion.

  • Pia Fåk Sunnanbo on 2013-04-26

    I think there are perfectly valid and rational reasons not to hire someone like Kelly. One super-bright team member does not make up a team. One super-bright employee does not make the success of a company.

    As you actually write in your post: You have to have an organization to match her abilities. You have to have challenging tasks for her. You have to have hoards of testers to match her productivity. You have to have co-workers bright enough to grasp her ideas. Otherwise she’ll leave the company with some half-finished super-bright framework which nobody understands and nobody will be happier.

    To those organizations that wouldn’t hire someone like Kelly, I’d say:

    You might be right. If you cannot gather a team to match her, you’d better leave your not-super-bright-but-good-enough organization alone.

  • Jeremy on 2013-05-04

    We have someone on our team who is indeed a fast learner, but I’d like to point at another conclusion other than “you’re wrong, just deal with it”.

    The problem with ‘fast learning’ is oftentimes knowledge of the material, say what was learned over a weekend, is the narrowest sliver of a very wide topic. No one, I repeat no one, “learns” Java, or REST, or NoSQL, or whatever in a weekend. No one. However, the guy on our team takes this knowledge and runs away with it, and thinks he a subject matter expert.

    We’re not threatened because he learned so quickly, we just seem threatened because his overconfidence and cocky attitude leads him to unknowingly make terrible decisions and write dangerous or unmaintainable software because he just doesn’t have the experience to know that he is doing so.

Software Development is a Job – Coding is a Passion

I'm Anders Abel, a systems architect and developer working for Kentor in Stockholm, Sweden.

profile for Anders Abel at Stack Overflow, Q&A for professional and enthusiast programmers

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