What makes an engineer a star? Hint: it’s not being a star

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Have you ever heard of the “super chicken model?” Entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan unveils the concept with eloquence and humor in her TED Talk “Forget the pecking order at work”. As the title suggests, Heffernan advises companies to ditch hierarchies at work where the people at the top roll the you-know-what down the chain.

The most productive companies, Heffernan explains, aren’t those staffed by a select group of high performers — AKA super chickens — who get the best pay, the most resources, and the lion’s share of the to be able to. No, it is the business that embraces utility at its core that succeeds. A team of stars or super chickens, on the other hand, breeds a competitive culture where a pecking order emerges and the only way to stay at the top is to keep people at the bottom. It doesn’t mean you’re underperforming – it’s more about the collaborative mindset that allows talent to work together.

As CTO at Aetion, I’m responsible for building the best engineering team for our company, and I often find myself thinking about the super chicken model. It’s tempting to want to hire only the brightest, brightest engineer with the highest pedigree. And while I want to hire someone who meets those standards, I’ve also realized after decades in the industry that the soft skills of an engineer – communication, teamwork and other interpersonal skills – are even more important than an engineering degree. from an Ivy League university. These skills allow engineers to build teams that share the work as equals, resulting in a collaborative, not hard-nosed culture.

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 the highest early egg producers, dubbed super chickens, were grouped together, they would eventually peck weaker ones to death, which would significantly reduce productivity. Google spent years trying to figure out what makes the perfect team, dubbed the Aristotle Project, discovering that indeed the best teams were those that worked well together.

The sum is greater than the parts

Several years ago, when I was head of engineering at e-commerce company Jet.com, my boss tasked me with building a geo-replication system in time for the Black Friday shopping rush. . A project like this usually takes a year, and Thanksgiving was six weeks away.

We assembled a multidisciplinary team and rallied around the common goal of completing geo-replication before turkey day. With little space, we finished it just in time. It was an impressive feat, and it wasn’t done by an Ivy League team. We were a diverse group of engineers who were willing to work together, listen to everyone, and build on the strengths of team members. More importantly, we all had the willpower to roll up our sleeves and dig in.

The lessons I learned during those intense six weeks leading up to Black Friday served me well at Aetion, where not too long ago I got a call from our engagement asking if we could conduct a COVID-19 study using the collected and synthesized data. within our platform. We had to deliver the first results in less than 24 hours. In health care research, performing a complex study with a 24-hour delay is almost unheard of. Once again, with a multidisciplinary team, we united around the goal of the project, not just anyone’s ego. After reconfiguring the servers to track many more scans and optimize in real time for this particular study, we were able to get the first results in 24 hours.

Tech startups live or die by their engineering teams

Engineers are at the heart of most tech companies, but a startup whose success is tied to its technology lives or dies by its engineers. They are the team that generates the impact and direction of the product.

Engineers are not only expected to solve very difficult technical problems, but also to identify the problems and then explain to the business team why it is a problem and why it needs to be solved. To do this, I’m looking for engineers with coding skills who can play well with their team and communicate effectively within the organization.

It’s my job as CTO to foster a culture where employees feel empowered and safe to share ideas so we can collectively effect change. I can’t accomplish that if I only sign A players. I don’t want a high performing individual, I want a high performing team. And this is reflected in the culture of the organization, not in the capacity of the individual. A team of super chickens will probably peck each other to death, and I can’t have a bunch of dead chickens on my conscience.

John (Moose) Turek is Chief Technology Officer at Aetion.

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