The Nolan-Tabb software engineer inspiration chart

What if you were managing a team of superheros instead of a team of programmers?

A recent First Round Review article argues you should be doing just that. You should stop thinking of your engineers as a group of engineers with different functional capabilities (front end, back end, devops, etc.). Instead, software engineering managers should think of their engineers as superheroes with different capabilities, weaknesses, and managerial considerations.

According to Christopher Nolan and Lloyd Tabb, there are four superheros on your team:

  • Aquaman is inspired to dive deep to solve difficult problems.
  • Flash moves quickly and relishes in speed — might write messy code but creates solutions to demonstrate quickly (“exposure speed” on my chart) while everyone is busy handwringing.
  • The Priest is inspired by beauty at the code level, the craftsmanship, or the API.
  • Spielberg is, by contrast, inspired by the beauty and quality of the end product.

But what if you didn’t actually hire a superhero and you only have humans on your team?

I’ve never been a superhero fan. And I don’t even like comic books. So let’s talk about real humans in real life. Homo sapiens are more complex and possess varying levels or combinations of superhero powers, so I took a minute to riff on the article and propose the following (Westin took no part in this analysis, btw). 

You might find the scatter-chart variation easier to spot whether you’ve got over-weighting or under-weighting in a particular capability or even a missing capability.

How do you probe to figure out where your engineers land on the chart? If you don’t already know or you’re interviewing, here’s a question to start the conversation:

“Describe the best day at work you’ve had in the past year.”

What isn’t clear from the article, and might be worthy of its own post, is how you should configure the team. Do you want an equal balance of capabilities? Do you want to overweight in a specific capability? The answer surely turns on what you’re trying to accomplish. Maybe you want a team of Priests. Maybe you want a combination of some Priests and some Flashes… Maybe you need a bunch of Aquamen…

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