How tech teams should be run more like sports teams

I like lots of different sports and I don’t think tech takes enough notice of the nuances of how top sports teams are run. Tech teams could learn a thing or two.

You’ll see where this is going. Stick with it.

A bit about me… and purple lycra… and gymnastics

I grew up playing lots of different sports when I was a kid in the back garden and on the field over the road from our house with my two older brothers and with my friends. Football (soccer for you transatlantic readers) and cricket were our two big games, although the three of us had different talents.

My talent turned out to be gymnastics. At around the age of 7, because of having issues with my ears, and constantly bouncing around the house, my parents decided I should try gymnastics. I was good at it. So good, that by the age of 12 I was training 15 hours a week at a club 1 hour’s drive away and competing at national level. The club, unfortunately, decided that the boys kit should be purple lycra. I spent 4 years doing gymnastics wearing the most hideous colour imaginable.

I competed at the age group national championships (UK and Ireland) 4 times and came 22nd when I was 16. I also became a qualified coach, and judge. What scuppered my chances of ever going further was that I was 6 foot 2 inches. Physics literally made it almost impossible to take the next steps in gymnastics, so I was effectively forced to quit the sport.

Why do I say all this? Well, talent isn’t everything…

Because when you reach a certain stage with elite sport, you realise that it largely isn’t about talent.

Very very few things in life come down to talent alone.

Talent is pretty much immaterial except in identifying which of those young kids should be identified as possible future elite sports people.

It’s about training, support, hard work, rest, meticulous planning, identification of clear goals, significant amounts of teamwork and a whole lot more than that.

The person that ends up delivering the sporting performance, whether it is as part of a team, or as an individual, has spent years and years reaching this point.

Yes they have to work hard, and yes they have to want to deliver that performance, but talent is background. It’s the culmination of years…

Your parents let you go and play with a ball on the field.

Your teacher identified your hand eye coordination.

Someone suggested that sport might be good to try.

A coach spotted you at a competition and encouraged your parents to get you into a programme.

You competed and then got spotted by a scout for that team.

And… how many people are missed or don’t ever even start?

Tech, talent and the myth of the star

It’s the same in tech.

Most people who have been in tech more than a couple of decades have a story about playing with computers as a kid. In the UK it’s often a BBC B, or a ZX Spectrum or similar. In the US it’s an Apple II or a Commodore 64 or similar.

There’s always a story. There are a bunch of people who got that person in your team to where they are right now.

I always remember hearing a talk where someone said they had sent a physical thank you note to all those people who had been important to them on their journey (it wasn’t about tech, but the point is the same). It was important for them to acknowledge that journey.

All people in tech have had support from a wide range of people. If your team or company isn’t supportive, and raising people up, then it’s never going to be the kind of company that attracts new people except with money. Money only motivates to a point.

And the best kind of companies and teams, are those who care about meticulous planning, clear identification of goals, teamwork, training, hard work and a whole lot more.

It’s not so different.

People aren’t machines.

Having talent is not as important as being part of a supportive environment.

Give me a hard working motivated individual over talent, any day of the week.

Sports, teams and managing stress

Once a person is in a sports team, there is an amount of management and training that goes into making that individual the best they can be.

They may never be world champion, but as part of the team, they might be a significant linchpin of the team strategy that wins a league promotion.

Or they might be a brilliant mentor to younger team members coming through.

Or they might have unbelievable coaching or managing skills, whilst never quite being the most talented player.

It takes many different people to make a great sports team.

Sometimes you don’t find that out until after they have been a part of the setup for a while.

Sometimes they can get injured and have to switch to a different role.

Sometimes they simply are unable to do what they used to do so have to switch to something else.

Tech teams and managing people

All these same things happen in tech.

But we don’t really consider that. Often a techie is a techie is a techie. A career progression or switch doesn’t really make sense.

But it would be equally ridiculous to say “it’s just a footballer”.

People have experience, a role, they have skills and they have insights that nobody else can have. Expecting a person to act like a cog in a machine is insulting and ridiculous.

It is high time we started thinking of people in tech teams as significantly more valuable than they currently are.

Sports and teams in 2020

One of the things that I’ve noticed in, with a pandemic has been the disruption of sports teams. In Football, Cricket, Rugby, American Football, and many other elite sports, the normal cycle of season, end, rest, pre-season has not happened in the normal way, and it’s had consequences.

Looking at the English Premier League, the season stopped for several months, and then resumed relatively fast, aiming to finish quickly and restart the new season after only a few weeks. What the teams found was that while players had kept their stamina up by running on treadmills, they had not kept their match fitness up, their tackling, their bursts of pace etc. They found they got more injuries. And when the season ended, and then restarted without the normal period of rest and a pre-season, they found that players hadn’t recovered properly from injuries, and the condensed nature of the fixtures to try to fit the season in meant they got more injuries.

Looking at the NFL season in American Football, they didn’t really have a pre-season after coming out of lockdown, essentially a much longer pre-season. So they didn’t properly prepare the player’s bodies for play. They could get fit, but they weren’t match fit. It seems to have led to many players being unready for games, and bodies breaking down more in games than normal, at least early on in the season.

When an elite sports person is thrown into an environment without the right preparation and care, then they can often deal with it, but the risk of injuries and unexpected consequences is increased.

Better preparations means that unexpected consequences are reduced.

Essentially, sports teams know not to constantly put individuals under constant stress, because their bodies will eventually break down.

Tech, teams and the fact that we work in high stress cycles

There is a big similarity with technology teams and individuals and the fact that most tech teams that I hear about are built around constant high stress environments.

Most tech project management will involve some form of “what do we need to do?” process and some way of saying “when will it get done?”

Often this is done in the form of a “sprint” (or similar) and often this will be in the form of a few weeks, and 2 weeks seems to be a very common timescale.

If a team is constantly developing in “2 week sprints” then you have a relentless cadence, often supported by a project manager of some sort and pressured by upper management. Imagine spreading that out over a year?

Now, I’m not saying that you should not work hard. What I am saying is that there is a cost to constantly doing the same process over and over.

In the same way that a company is aiming for a release for a promotion or a specific date, maybe each company has a cadence, a season. I certainly know of companies that had times when they were working harder and times when they were not.

Maybe we should consider our tech teams as needing off-season, and pre-season just like a sports team.

Maybe managers need to look out for individuals in case they have the equivalent of an “in-season injury”.

And yes, this is more about a mental health issue rather than about breaking legs or pulling muscles (although, bad backs people and desks people!)

These are of course analogies, rather than complete ideas, and many companies will say that they have processes for something like this, but my experience is that many managers do not, and that is my point.

Tech is often a high stress world, and the delivery of technology projects is often at the sharp end of a business. It is often seen as the critical piece of the puzzle, and the stress levels of tech people are so often very high, and it’s why I see so much burnout.

Maybe, just maybe, there’s a better way to think about it.

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