Alex Weinstein
On Growth, Product, and Leadership
Avoid The Sea of Mediocrity

I recently wrote about motivational issues associated with large teams. In this post, I’d like to explore organizational aspects of this issue.

Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle, is known for a curious approach to solving problems in the product teams. If he sees a team that’s struggling,  he pulls a person from this team – reassign them – until they “stopped useless meetings and started shipping.”

Steve Jobs of Apple, said that “a small team of A players can run circles around a large team of B players.”

The famous book Mythical Man-Month that shaped generations of engineering managers explores one side of this issue – inefficiencies related to communication, where every new engineer needs to talk with all the other engineers in order to be successful. Communication costs grow exponentially with the addition of every new team member.

Joel Spolsky, another brilliant mind, speaks of “best engineers being ten times as effective as average engineers” in his famous essay. He backs it up with very curious research.

Guy Kawasaki says that “A players hire A players; B players hire C players.”

All of them are really saying the same thing: if you think you need a large team to solve the problem, think again. If you think you can hire a lot of OK developers to solve a large problem – by splitting the problem into small chunks – you’re going towards failure. If you think that compensating your engineers at the 66th percentile is going to bring you the best talent, try again.

There’s a simpler way. Instead of hiring team of 20 mediocre developers – and paying them 20 “industry average” units – hire 2 SUPERSTARS and pay them 2 units each, way at the 99th percentile of comp. Take the issue of salary completely off the table. Create the best possible working environments for them, with free on-site massage, best tools money can buy, and most importantly, colleagues they can be proud of.  There’s one important point to this rhetoric: the superstar you hire has to be AMAZING. Not just good, but head and shoulders better than you as an engineer. They have to be a true “free electron.”

One single moron in the office, and every superstar that ever interacts with them will ask “what does it say of me that I’m working in this office? This guy is a developer just like me; he’s probably bringing in the same cash home. Am I stupid? Are the managers here not understanding who’s good and who’s not? This guy wastes so much of my time..”

What, you’re telling me that you can’t afford to pay your developers twice the industry average? But you CAN afford to pay ten developers that are doing the same amount of  work?.. I’m literally talking about saving FIVE TIMES the cash. And gaining the efficiency – because that one guy will not have the useless meetings every day just to align the schedules.

I’ll say even more – if you bring in someone average, you’re making a NEGATIVE impact on your company’s bottom line. Over the long term, you’re assuring its place in the sea of mediocrity. A brilliant friend of mine – a true free electron – once shared a story about working at a large company. He and a friend were superstars on a SWAT team, kicking serious butt and attracting positive attention of the executive team. They wanted to bring in a third person to their tiny group to help scale their efforts. Both of them were amazing engineers; those that are 10 times as productive as the rest. They wanted someone at their level of output. Their request was blocked by HR, who suggested that “you should get an underachiever to transfer to your team; by working with you, they’ll get better!”

What do you think they did? Did they agree to bring in an underachiever? Did they stay motivated? Were they convinced of the HUNGRY PASSION of the company to succeed?..

I once personally was a part of an organization where someone truly incompetent was brought in. After a few weeks in the office, it was obviously clear to everyone that the hire was a mistake. There was just one little problem, though: it took a painstakingly long time to fire them. 18 months. This was the time it took to build a case and convince HR that there is enough documented failure and no possible lawsuit coming, so they could fire them.

What do you think was the impact on the morale and output of the team?..

Avoid the sea of mediocrity. Avoid hiring average people like the plague. Hire PASSIONATE, HUNGRY people that are SUPERSTARS in their field. Compensate them in a way that makes them forget about other jobs – and never interview externally because of pay.