Previously, we looked at the two main career tracks that engineers can work towards. These were the individual contributor (IC) track and the management track. ICs mainly stay hands-on with technical work and spend their career becoming deeper experts, whilst managers relinquish their technical reins and apply themselves to the leadership of people, teams, and departments. It’s very difficult to do both of these responsibilities fully and with a high level of competence: they’re mutually exclusive jobs that require the application of one’s time and resources in different ways.
When I was reading Radical Candor, an excellent insight stood out to me: in addition to an individual deciding which track they want to work towards in their career, that individual must also decide what their intrinsic motivation is towards variety in their work and their depth of expertise. This choice of motivation exists for individuals in both tracks and can steer their choices when deciding how to spend their time through to which new opportunities to consider. In the book, Kim Scott argues that there are two types of high-performing individual: rockstars and superstars. As the names suggest, they are both stars and are therefore of huge value to the department, but as we’ll explore in this article, they are motivated in very different ways.
As a manager, it is important to identify whether your high performers are rockstars or superstars. Knowing this, and in turn exposing your staff to the conditions that motivate them, can have them perform brilliantly whilst also making them happy and fulfilled in their roles. Win-win.
First off, rockstars. Now, we’re not talking about employees that can clear their desks, whip out a guitar and then melt everyone’s faces; although depending on what sort of day you’re having, that could be nice. Instead, the emphasis is on the word rock. These are the employees that are motivated by being consistent, focused experts. They are the cornerstone of your team and will always perform exceptionally well given they are comfortable in, and very knowledgeable of, their remit.
For rockstar engineers that are on the IC track, their main happiness is drawn from the fact that they can go exceptionally deep in their chosen areas of expertise. These are the people that live and breathe a particular piece of technology and draw great strength from being the go-to person for that difficult question or project. I’ve found that rockstars are more visibly prevalent in the teams working on the infrastructure of your applications: those that have over 10 years of experience in a storage technology such as Postgres or Solr, yet never tire of working with it or educating others on it.
For rockstar managers, they are best when working closely with their team. They enjoy the never-ending cycle of improving their current staff, supporting their growth and identifying areas for them to move into, even if that area is another team or company. Product managers are always thrilled when their next project ends up with the rockstar’s team because they know that they are a great unit who work well together and have the track record to prove it.
In addition to knowing what motivates your rockstars, you also need to know what they find unsatisfying. Rockstars can be deeply frustrated by changes in circumstance because it distracts them from fulfilling their desire to go deep. Moving them around on to different projects and teams on a regular basis can burn them out because they can never perform to the best of their ability. As a manager, you need to understand which of your staff are your rockstars and make sure that you offer them the environment in which they can meet their needs. Protect them and they will perform.
The second profile is the superstar, and it may come as no surprise that they are somewhat the opposite of a rockstar personality type. Whilst your rockstar is deeply frustrated by change, your superstar finds it extremely exciting. Instead of going deep in a limited number of areas, your superstar performs best when they have the opportunity to satiate their need for variety. These employees love new opportunities, new teams, new projects and new ventures. They hoover up new knowledge.
For superstar ICs, variety is key. They could think of nothing worse than building the same thing for years on end; they would probably leave the company. Instead, they are inspired at the start of a new project where there is a new technology stack to consider, a new market to build for, and new colleagues to work with. They’re less detail-focused and may possibly leave some bugs in their wake, but their ability to get excited and rally others around their enthusiasm is contagious and extremely useful.
Superstar managers want new opportunity. For those that are extremely high performing and talented, unfortunately, they probably want your job. Keeping them happy involves delegating more of your responsibilities to them. For those that aren’t ready to climb the org chart just yet, they can find reward in moving across to manage a different team in a new area.
Like the rockstars, you need to understand what makes them frustrated and bored. For superstars, stagnation is the enemy. Their greatest impact is at pivot points of change, so you need to make sure that they are exposed to as many of these as possible. Are you pulling together a team for a brand new project? Identify your superstars who haven’t moved for a while and get them on it. They’ll fly.
Have you talked about this?
While I reckon that many have had a discussion with their manager about the IC and management career tracks, I would posit that far fewer have broached the personality traits that we mention in this article. I would encourage that you do so in your next one to ones. Some may not have thought about it before, and thus are able to give some reasoning as to why a particular project or team is rewarding or not.
Also you, as a manager, may also find that your preconceptions about some of your staff could be completely wrong: maybe Bob was underperforming recently because he needs more variety, and you thought it was best for him to stick with what he knows. That was wrong! Maybe Alice is happiest when she can stay inside her comfort zone, and the new challenge you gave her actually doesn’t motivate her as much as you thought.
By knowing what drives people, you can better place them in upcoming projects and teams; both for their happiness and for the best performance for your business.