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Superstar

The Truth About Engineering Talent

People who are sports fans often watch in amazement when a superstar athlete gets a contract worth tens of millions of dollars. “Why,” they ask, “is kicking or throwing a ball worth that kind of money? And with millions of talented people who spend their entire lives practicing this sport, why is this particular one deserving of that kind of compensation?”

We all wonder this.

Then, we realize that, in many cases, most of the crowd gathers primarily to watch the performance of that one superstar. Take him or her away and it’s just another game. To prove that, watch what happens in the US when a professional sports league goes on strike and the teams bring in temporary “replacement” players. The audience leaves in droves. People don’t watch on TV – except perhaps from schadenfreude. Even though the replacement players are top-notch professionals in their own right, they don’t bring the superstar magic to the performance. The result is simply ordinary excellence, with all too many tell-tale signs that even skilled professionals are just human after all.

The truth is, superstars are very special. Sports stars are rewarded with compensation sometimes two orders of magnitude more than normal, high-quality professionals because they are actually worth it. It’s a hard concept to wrap our fairness-conditioned brains around – that one person could be more valuable than hundreds – at least when it comes to a particular endeavor. 

It’s perhaps easier to accept and understand the superstar effect in, for example, a case like Beethoven. We can accept that, if there had not been Beethoven, there would be no Ninth Symphony. No number of talented musician-composers could have stepped in and pulled off “Ode to Joy” if the big guy had come up short. 

The same thing is true in engineering.

In over two decades of managing engineering teams – directly supervising some 3-digit number of engineers on a wide variety of projects, I experienced this firsthand. There would sometimes be one engineer who was the “make or break” contributor. Like the “franchise” sports player, everything rested on what that one engineer was able to accomplish. If they succeeded, the project succeeded. If they fell short, the project failed and nobody else on the team had any power to save it. 

I once heard it explained as “No number of 130-IQ engineers can replace one 160-IQ engineer.” While IQ is a dubious metric, the message is the same. Engineering is not a blue-collar endeavor. As hard as we try to build schedules, draw pert charts and Gantt diagrams, estimate project timelines and hold people accountable for timely deliverables, the truth is that we engineers are solving problems and inventing things, and you really can’t “schedule” invention. Likewise, there is often a requirement for a single conceptual leap – a spark of brilliance that is needed to span the final gap in the superstructure of an engineering solution – and that’s where we need our superstar. 

The rest of the team is doing essential work, to be sure. There is a “99%” of any project that actually is completely comprised of more predictable, schedulable, task-oriented engineering. We put the numbers into the formulas, turn the crank using established best practices, double-check our answer, and plug it all together. If we’ve executed our duties to professional standards, the system will work and our value will be felt. We will have earned our keep.

But we are not the superstar.

Those of us who do the 99% are still 100% dependent on the star for that elusive last percent. When the time comes, they are completely alone. Like domestiques in the peloton, we have done the hard work and the heavy lifting. We have exhausted ourselves to put our champion in the best possible position to succeed. But, when the time comes to make the move, all attention goes to them. In their moment, they will either succeed or fail, and our collective fates are inextricably tied to theirs.

Today’s corporatized, humanly-resourced, fairness-driven, engineering culture doesn’t have a place for the engineering superstar. In our world of management-by-objective, annual performance reviews, salary matrices, and structured compensation, we don’t allow for the reality of the franchise player. We wish, somehow, that the movement of the big ‘ol company boat was simply a product of all those equal oars in the water, being similarly and conscientiously pulled by dedicated, talented professionals – working to the beat of management’s incessant drum. The world would be simpler if that were the case.

Of course, most companies have something like a CTO or Chief Scientist position. Certainly these individuals are among the most talented and qualified technologists in the company’s employ. They are usually given superior compensation packages and better accommodations. They are lavished with praise and recognized for their achievements. Often, they are given lofty assignments where they are asked to gaze knowingly into the future and to divine some wisdom from the tea leaves that will set the company on course for success. But true brilliance seldom inhabits those quarters.

More often in engineering, superstardom emerges where it’s least expected. Many superstars create their own opportunities, of course. Rather than plugging themselves into the corporate matrices, they do their own thing. The startup world is full of engineering geniuses – both real and imagined – whose sparks of inspiration may or may not be the roots of the “next big thing.” The market and the fickle winds of capitalism will conspire with circumstances to determine which of these deserves our recognition and reward.

Maybe someday there will be a draft system for talented engineers emerging from educational institutions. Perhaps talent scouts will scour senior university project presentations looking for the signs that magic may be present here. The rest of us may watch with anxious anticipation as the chosen few jockey for the best assignments in the most prestigious engineering teams. It would be fun to watch.

For now, though, we simply need to recognize that sometimes genius really does walk among us. We should acknowledge that – despite the diligent application of prescribed, formulaic, established engineering procedures, our project will not yield the desired results unless that special person steps into place, finds their inspiration, and delivers the magic. 

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