Chefs and athletes—where do you need them?

I sometimes use a version of the following analogy to describe two types of people I commonly meet. Imagine a spectrum of software engineers (yes, I, and many others likely, are on many different types of spectrums, but focus for a moment please as I talk about a particular type of spectrum).

The following are INTENTIONAL STEREOTYPES. They are not meant to be offensive. If you are offended by reading this, well, stop reading (and also, c’mon, you are missing the POINT!).

The spectrum is describing two caricatures of engineers that I meet: the first is the engineer who LOVES front-end/design/thinks about speaking on stage one day to talk about new “React Frameworks” and has a fancy computer monitor (and probably fancy shoes, glasses, and coffee). Let’s call this person person A—the CHEF. This person is a craftsperson first. They care about the details. They care about the details behind the details. They could give a ted talk at any moment about anything they are working on, because anything they are working on has been intentionally thought through to the degree that they are mentally capable of not just explaining the WHAT but also the why and how. Now, just to clarify, said individual would likely not opt for giving the ted talk unprepared, especially if it was recorded, because they lean towards doing things EXTREMELY WELL rather than getting things over the line.

The second persona—let’s call Persona B (the athlete!)—is that of the engineer who is really a BUSINESS PERSON who uses CODE as a tool (just like you would use, say, design as a tool or sales as a tool or writing as a tool). Now, I know it will be offensive to use the term business person to describe an engineer (I will clarify that I do not mean to refer to the proper noun: Business Person. When I use the uppercase forms of Business Person, I am referring to the “professional character”—who does business for the sake of doing business. Not quite the business, man, man, NO, the businessman, whose aspiration is to be a business man. Said person is CAUGHT. More on this in a few paragraphs. But focused now on person B again, they are not particularly opinionated when it comes to the _how_—they care far more about the WHAT, and making sure that _we_ get to the what in time! You may have a few questions from this last statement: yes, I said WE. Because person B, in the best case at minimum, tends to be so exclusively OUTPUT ORIENTED that they care so little about THE I, or at least the I winning in a silo, that they often put the we first. And then another ~not super clear remark I made was I added this time constraint. I said: “in time” but I had previously made no mention of time. Well, I said it to make the point that person B is open to _any_ types of constraints. There are no religious beliefs in their way. They just do what will get the outcome.

Now…as you are reading these stereotypes, what is your brain thinking? Do you know people who fit any of these subjects? Are YOU in fact on one side of this spectrum? Or perhaps you are a blend of both?

You can apply these stereotypes to ANY career, field, industry. You know the coworker in each category. There is no best category. There is no most effective position to be in. It ALL depends on what you are doing and what you are trying to achieve.

I will also call out that the above spectrum is certainly a false dichotomy. It is very very possible to have both qualities of craft and qualities of outcome orientation. I would say that this mixture, while rare, is immensely powerful. You rarely find it in one person. Even most successful founders and leaders do not possess both qualities. But…some do. And in organizations, even if you cannot find it in one individual, you can build a team that meshes together these ideologies (or you can keep it separate and pick one). There are certain companies where all the best craftspeople want to work. There are other companies where all the best commercially oriented people want to work. Both can be immensely valuable. There is no “one way of doing things.” There is likely, though, a best way of doing things, FOR YOU (based on both what you—YES YOU—are trying to achieve and also who you—YES, YOU, THINK ABOUT WHO YOU ARE AND WHAT YOU ARE GOOD AT AND WHAT YOU ARE BAD AT AND WHAT IT IMPORTANT TO YOU)—are as a person.

I identify a bit in both camps. There are certain things where I gravitate towards QUALITY, just because and there are others where I do not care much about the craft, and would prefer to just focus on “what will get this out the door.” On the first part—quality—I think that for a long while I have carried around what we can call “the quality hammer.” At work, I would often approach other people’s stuff and “push it on quality.” No detail was too small. It does not matter if you are designing a feature or sending an email to a customer or writing our terms of service page, my bias was to hammer home quality.

And, as I have matured my technique has evolved but for the most part, I have been a bit direct about using my hammer.

I would say that I used to think that HAVING THE QUALITY HAMMER, and applying it to _everything you do_ was the right decision. I now think this is A) not likely to be effective and B) very very very likely to cause problems in your organization. This was not intuitive to me, at all, for a very long time. A big part of me still fights this urge _all the time_. When people would tell me: “you have to choose your battles.” I would say why.

Now, I do not say why out loud but my internal monologue still throws a little fit: “ugh, I just wish I could tell people what I would think about everything!” Is being authentic a trump card for telling everyone what you think, all the time? My answer to that, with confidence, is no. Authenticity is not a precise term. It does not mean complete and absolute transparency.

How do you define quality? What makes something good? For a long while, I would try to answer this question in different ways—sometimes with math, but then you lose the art, and sometimes with art, but then you lose the math. It is a bit like the spectrum I described above. There are tradeoffs to both sides, and in my head, I wrestle back and forth. Because, well, at minimum, my brain can see both. I think some people cannot. Some people, and this is an analogy I used to use often, cannot appreciate the weight of the fork. They cannot see the intentionality behind the weight of the fork at the restaurant. They cannot appreciate the lighting. No matter what you say. You tell them the whole story. They do not care. And that is okay. But they will not see the light. You cannot force them to drink type of thing. But I can see both. I can see the appeal of getting the details right. I can see the vision of the frank lloyd wright building. I get the entrance being intentionally short and opening up to a massive ceiling. I GET THAT.

But how do you define quality? And is the unlimited quality hammer _actually_ effective for building things?

The answer, depends. DEPENDS ON WHAT YOU SAY?

Well it depends on what you are trying to achieve. And I think that in the company building sense the single most valuable thing you can do to accelerate the answer to this question (of how and if and when you should use the quality hammer) is in understanding YOUR BUSINESS EQUATION. If you are not applying this to say running a company, you could apply this to your particular role within an organization or you can apply it to your LIFE SATISFACTION EQUATION. Whatever it is, there is an underlying equation.

The equation generally includes all the variables you need to make your thing a success. You can define what that is. I am not the arbiter of success and truly truly truly there is no right answer in my book. There is plenty of room in the world for many definitions of success. (Aside, we should build a new dictionary, that would be a cool project—but that is a separate thing for a separate time).

Once you have your equation, there’s a few things to do: 1) make sure you add a variable for UNEXPLAINED EMOTIONS OF BEING A HUMAN. I have made the mistake before of not including this in my equation, and have spent (really, wasted) SO MUCH TIME trying to figure out why my “seemingly logical” equation was not working. It turns out that humans have, well, unexplainable (or at least not extremely rationally explained) human behaviors and simply leaving a variable in your equation that can handle that margin of error will remind you of this. The 2) second thing you should do with your equation is to figure out your explanatory variables of sorts. What are the biggest drivers of your equation? What variables matter most? Stack rank them? What have the biggest impact on the line? And 3) the final step is to figure out your highest return bottleneck based on the conditional probability of you solving for it today (and the opportunity cost of solving it instead of other variables. Amongst all your variables, then, stack rank the priority.

Once you have the priority list, go through them and write out a table.

What would a 10/10 craftsperson do in this position? What would a 1/10? What would be the impact of each? What would the cost of each be as well?

And then CHOOSE THE CATEGORIES where you want to be A CRAFTSPERSON and choose the qualities where you want to be an athlete.

This exercise will show you where you need the chefs and where you need the athletes.


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