Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Jet Engines

Creating high-performance technology in a competitive field? Managing your developers' weaknesses and ignoring their strengths may cost you.

Let me illustrate.

Iron accounts for 35% of the Earth's mass. And from iron comes carbon steel (iron and carbon) which accounts for 90% of steel production. As metals go, steel is cheap, abundant and easy to work with. Steel is versatile and good at most everything metals do. If steel was your employee, it would be a damn fine one. You might want all your employees to be just like steel. After all, compared to other materials, it has few weaknesses - but also few extraordinary strengths.

Steel can't do everything. It distorts at extreme temperatures. Steel is not brittle like ceramics but it's also not nearly as hard. It is much cheaper than titanium but weighs almost twice as much. It is a poorer electrical conductor than gold. And of course, steel's strength and hardness in extreme conditions doesn't hold a candle to the single crystal nickel-titanium superalloys* from which they carve jet turbine blades - albeit at enormous cost.

Every one of these other materials demonstrates incredibly high performance in a narrow space and is either prohibitively expensive or ineffective in other arenas.

Even so, it is impossible to build a modern, efficient jet engine with just typical carbon steel.

The bottom line?

Profound strength and profound weakness often come together. Yet without a spectrum of those profound strengths at your disposal, it won't be possible to develop cutting-edge technology at a competitive level.

I don't mean to say that a well-rounded developer can't also have profound strengths - I know several of these people. It's a no-brainer that you need to do what it takes to keep these gems. Reward reliable and well-rounded developers for their lack of weaknesses and, if you need their contributions, reward brittle, unorganized, high-maintenance, socially-inept (insert favorite weakness here) developers for their strengths. Or someone else will.


* Some of single crystal superalloys are nickel-iron alloys. If iron is the dominant metal in the alloy, these superalloys might be considered steel.

For More Information

Now, Discover Your Strengths

Rolls Royce Trent Aeroengine

Excellent PowerPoint of the Rolls Royce Trent Aeroengine series commercial jet engines
Rolls Royce Trent Aeroengine engine materials

Wikipedia: Iron Steel Ceramic Cermet Silicon Carbide Superalloys Complex Metal Alloy Composites

Development of Single Crystal Superalloys


Josh Carter said...

Nicely put. It's surprising how this should be obvious and yet many managers (and programmers, too) consider programming as one skill. It's a composite of many skills ranging from the very artistic (e.g. design) to very dogmatic (e.g. program correctness). Thus you can have several "very good programmers" who are very different in their aptitude on a specific task. Certainly the manager who considers programmers are plug-replaceable units won't run a team at its optimal potential. Neither are they likely to hire or retain optimum programmers.

FWIW, the best article I've read on this topic was "Managing Oneself" by Peter Drucker in Harvard Business Review, Jan 2005 issue. Unfortunately it's pay-only on their web site, but I'd consider it worth the trouble to dig up at the local library.

Senzee said...

Thanks - I'll have to see if I can pull that article up somewhere.

fazeel said...

Great post.

One other point is that people can grow more in their areas of strengths than in their areas of weaknesses. Whether it is because they are 'natually more inclined' in those areas.

So a company would get a better return on investment if it invests more on a person's strengths than on their weak areas.