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Building a Great Technical Team

The process of putting together a team of technical people once was largely centered around getting a group of similarly minded people. How people worked was valued more than how well they could accomplish their job. Finding people who could work together smoothly was a big focus when picking new team members, and was a very large part of interviews. This had the positive effect of producing teams that worked similarly and didn’t fight too much about the small stuff.

While it made things more harmonious, this also had negative effects. I want to discuss a few of these effects, but I do want to ignore one major issue for now…diversity of gender, race, etc. That can of worms is too large for this article and deserves its own discussion. Suffice it to say that excluding people due to their heritage or bodily organs had a similarly negative effect on a team’s output quality and an even more horrible effect on the excluded parties.

If you have a team of people who are all fairly passive, think alike, and behave alike, the life of management will be relatively easy. Fewer arguments will occur, because even if the members of the team are disagreeable, they will simply agree that things are terrible. If you tell them to build something silly (like a request I once got: “please implement a complex order processing system, but no more than 10 tables, that’s all we can afford”), they will complete the request and won’t complain. What a glorious life this will be, internally to the company. Their customers, however, will have a much less glorious experience.

A team needs to be made up of people of all types of personalities, skills, and thinking styles. I believe that the only personality traits that truly matter for every acceptable person on a team to possess are competence and confidence.

Competence is a key attribute for any person on a team. To do one’s part on a team, you need to have a certain skillset. If your job is to design the database, your ability to do this task should allow you to know that arbitrarily limiting table count is not the smart thing to do. You clearly don’t need to have a PhD in Database Design to build a proper database, but knowledge on what goes into building a proper table is required.

Next, one needs confidence. Each member of the team should have confidence in their abilities. This means you take a task, and go do it. It also means ability to stand up and tell teammates and managers that: “hey, this doesn’t make sense, and here is why.” Lastly, and of most importance, it means having confidence to bounce back when you do something wrong, to learn from it and not just weep in the corner and be afraid to try again.

What pushes a person to go from being an adequate teammate to a great one is a balance in confidence and competence. Both are required at some level because, with either traits missing, the team dynamic can be in trouble. Incompetent people cannot carry their own weight and drag everyone else into covering for them. Completely unconfident people will agree to anything, even if they are reasonably sure it is wrong, leading to disasterous output.

Unfortunately, having too much of a trait is just as bad, if perhaps worse. Being very competent, without confidence means less skilled people may overpower them, which minimizes one’s value. Imagine if Albert Einstein was competent enough to come up with the theory of relativity, but not confident enough to tell anyone. Science wouldn’t be where it is today. As bad as it sounds for great ideas to be left untold, the opposite is a complete disaster. Overly confident people that lack competence lead the team to disaster by pushing their flawed ideas with the confidence that may inspire you to follow them right off of the cliff they are jumping off of.

Finally, you probably are thinking that other traits are important, too, for example, respectfulness. You could add integrity too, and you certainly are  not wrong. However, I would suggest that having the characteristics of a generally decent human being should not need to be mentioned. If your team is balanced in competence and confidence, there will be arguments. These might be heated, knock down, arguments at times, but that is good because differing ideas often produce brilliance. Sometimes it highlights faults in one person’s ideas. It is all part of the learning process, and smart people believe in their ideas until they realize why it is wrong.

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