What makes an engineer an all-star? Hint: It’s not being a star

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Ever “super chicken model?” Heard about? Entrepreneur Margaret Heffern chicly and humorously in her TED talk “Forget packing orders at work.” As the title suggests, Heffernon advises companies to remove the hierarchy at work where the people at the top turn the chain you know.

Hefernan explains that most manufacturing companies are not staffed by a select group of high-performing employees – who receive the best pay, the most resources, and the lion’s share of power. No, it is the company that embraces helpfulness at its core that is successful. The All-Star or Super Chicken team, on the other hand, nurtures a competitive culture where a packing order emerges and the only way to stay on top is to keep people at the bottom. That doesn’t mean you have fewer artists – it’s more about the collaborative mindset that enables talent to work together.

As Chief Technology Officer at Aetion, I have been in charge of building the best engineering team for our company, and I often find myself thinking of super chicken models. Wanting to hire the brightest, brightest engineer with the highest pedigree is exciting. And when it comes to hiring someone who meets those standards, I’ve also come to realize after decades in the industry that an engineer’s soft skills – communication, teamwork and other interpersonal skills – are even more important than an engineering degree. From Ivy League University. These skills allow engineers to form teams that participate equally in the work, and this results in a culture that is collaborative rather than cutting throat.

The super chicken model is not a new idea. The model is based on an experiment by Purdue University biologist William Muir in the 1990s. Muir found that if most early egg producers, known as super chickens, were grouped together, they would lead to the death of weaker people over time, leading to a drastic reduction in productivity. Google famously spent years trying to figure out what made the whole team, known as Project Aristotle, and found that the really best teams worked well together.

The sum is larger than the parts

Some years ago, when I was head of engineering at the e-commerce company Jet.com, my boss assigned me the task of creating a timely geo-replication system for the shopping crowd on Black Friday. A project like this usually takes a year and Thanksgiving was six weeks away.

We assembled a multidisciplinary team and rallied around the general goal of ending geo-replication before Turkey Day. Since there was no space, we completed it on time. It was an impressive feat, and it wasn’t done by the Ivy League team. We were a rag-tag group of engineers who were willing to work together, listen to everyone and focus on the strengths of the team members. Most importantly, we all wanted to roll up our sleeves and dig inside.

The lessons I learned during those intense six weeks up to Black Friday have served me well at Aetion, where I recently received a call from our head of engagement asking if we could study COVID-19 using the data collected and synthesized. Inside our platform. We needed to deliver preliminary results in less than 24 hours. In healthcare research, doing complex studies with a 24-hour turnaround is almost unheard of. Once again, with multiple disciplined teams, we came together around the goal of the project rather than the ego of one person. After reconfiguring the server to track many more analytics for this particular study and to optimize in real-time, we were able to complete preliminary results within 24 hours.

Tech startups live or die through their engineering teams

Engineers are a major part of most tech companies, but a startup whose success is tied to its technology lives or dies through its engineers. They are a team that shows impact and production direction.

Engineers should not only solve very difficult technical problems but also identify the problems and then explain to the business team why it is a problem and why it needs to be solved. To do that, I look for engineers who are good at coding, can play well with their team, and communicate effectively throughout the organization.

My job as CTO is to foster a culture where employees feel empowered and secure to share ideas so that collectively we can influence change. I can’t accomplish that if I only hire A players. I don’t want a high performance person, I want a high performance team. And that is reflected in the culture of the organization, not in the capacity of the individual. A team of super chickens will probably kill each other, and I can’t put a bunch of dead chickens on my conscience.

John (Moose) is the Chief Technology Officer at Turek Aesan.


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