Addressing a superstar culture

Do you have one or two employees who seem to work on all the critical projects you have going on? Your execs and stakeholders stress about them leaving, they always pick up the rewards and recognition and they have their fingers in every pie. In the midst of a million projects these people are your superstars smashing through the work and making you look good. Sound familiar? First things first you need to be aware of the impact this will have on your broader organisation (resentment, demotivation, perceived lack of opportunities, lack of collaboration) and also assess the impact on your superstars (burn out, loss of work life balance, perception that other team members aren’t pulling their weight). You also have to be honest with yourself as a leader – am I seeing an issue and not acting because it might make my life harder?

Assessing the cause

Why have you got to the point where a small number of individuals handle such a large volume of work? From my experience there are two factors in play

  1. The team lacks capability and skills meaning the more highly skilled individuals take on extra work and with it don the superstar cape.
  2. Your highly talented individuals lack softer skills such as collaboration, team building, communication and create their own superstar status because they like to work alone or believe it will make them indispensable.

Taking action

If you suspect point 1 is driving the behaviour you need to act fast. If your team lacks the skills required you are massively at risk that your superstar(s) will move on (probably due to burn out) leaving you exposed. You will need to look at restructure options which will require consultation with HR and will be impacted by budget availability (restructures can be expensive) and potential IR risk. My advice is act fast – nothing will destroy morale like fear of job cuts, treat your staff with honesty and respect, consult with HR and external specialists to manage risk. You also want to have new roles approved, job descriptions ready to go and potential candidates in mind to minimise risk.

If point 2 is driving the superstar culture the good news is you already have a highly skilled team so the impact of losing a superstar is mitigated. The bad news is your other staff members aren’t getting the opportunities they crave and deserve. Again my advice would be to act fast and the best place to start is regular 1-1 meetings with you superstar(s). Some probing questions to gauge how they feel about their workload and what opportunities they see to make the team more efficient will help tease out the underlying issues. If you have superstars you are also likely to have mistakes as too much is being done by too few so conducting regular retrospectives when things go wrong will help to identify that work is not evenly distributed and make it easier to achieve consensus that change is needed.

You can also consider organisational changes to force a more even distribution of responsibilities but you risk disenfranchising your superstar(s) who may have the best intentions at heart. Another option may be to identify development opportunities for superstar(s). For example could you move them into a more strategic role that will enable operational work to be shared across the team? It goes without saying that this should only be considered if the individual has the necessary skills and  is motivated to succeed in this role.

Other factors

Review your rewards and recognition approach and ensure you are rewarding the right behaviour. A superstar may jump into a disaster and work around the clock to fix it, however if the disaster was avoidable you are rewarding the wrong behaviour. Look long and hard across your team and identify the behaviours most closely aligned to your organisational values. Focus rewards on team members who collaborate and share information and those who innovate to solve problems.

Also look at peer review as to drive behaviour change. Let your team provide anonymous feedback on each other to identify superstars who deliver but achieve success without being good team players. I’m a strong believer that 360 degree feedback and peer review should be a formal part of the performance review process.

Recruiting ops engineers

In an earlier post I talked about the high calibre operations team we have assembled at realestate.com.au. It’s fair to say that we interviewed a few ‘less suitable’ candidates along the way. We started off with an unstructured interview process that was time consuming and inefficient. The process made it difficult to compare one candidate to another, time consuming with multiple interviews to get all the necessary people involved and candidates getting through to the final stage before we identified major deficiencies in technical skills. After wasting many hours we went back to the drawing board and worked out a simple, efficient process that has been extremely successful. Here are some of the highlights:

Know what you’re looking for – Sounds basic I know but you really need to understand the minimum requirements for the role. Define the technologies the role will support, the level of expertise needed, and the kind of experience you are looking for. Prioritise the most important attributes of the role to ensure you measure all candidates against the same yardstick.

Make the most of your network – leverage your existing team by encouraging referrals. Some of our best hires have been through referrals, while having a financial reward system for referrals helps, your staff are more likely to be motivated by bringing in great people rather than making extra cash. Advertise all your roles internally and get the word out via internal communication channels, twitter, linked in, facebook etc

Make it a team decision – involve your team all the way through the process from reviewing CV’s to telephone and face to face interviews. You want your team to accept new hires and the best way to achieve this is to involve them in the process

Getting the best out of recruitment agencies – if you are using a recruitment agency you can’t expect them to get the technical assessment correct every time. The agency will have to rely on what they are told and this often means you end up wasting your time interviewing someone who lacks the tech skills for the role. Try conducting a brief technical screening over the phone before a face to face interview. We pick some of our key technologies and have the candidate rate themselves, we then ask a few probing questions to validate their answer. The process takes between 15 and 30 minutes and will help you ascertain if they have the technical chops required to continue through the process. If you do select them for a face to face interview the screening will help determine the technical areas to focus on plus it will also give you an indication of their personality and cultural fit – e.g if they spend the entire call telling you how awesome they are at everything alarm bells will be ringing!

Invest time in making sure the recruitment agency understands the cultural fit you are looking for with tangible examples. There’s no point saying we want someone who is passionate about technology – ask a candidate if they are passionate they’ll say yes. Find other ways to assess passion; who do they follow on twitter and why? do they participate in the open source community? do they attend hack days, dev ops meetups, etc. Getting the cultural fit right is where the recruitment agency should earn their keep so if you spend time explaining what kind of person you are looking for and they keep sending you candidates who don’t match ditch the agency.

The face to face interview – You want to make a decision after one interview so make sure you have the right attendees (senior technical staff to gauge tech skills and cultural fit, HR if required). Use the results from the telephone screening to drive the technical assessment, prepare some specific problems for them to solve and set the difficulty based on their self rating.  If you want them to walk through complex problems choose a meeting room with a whiteboard and encourage them to use it. Don’t just focus on the areas they rated themselves high, you may find some candidates are more modest and rate themselves lower than they really are. Try to make the candidate feel comfortable; offer them a glass of water, encourage some small talk. There’s nothing to be gained from stressing them out.

Don’t burn all your time on the tech side – allow plenty of time to find out what they are like outside of work. What do they do when they’re not a sys admin? Are they going to spark with the team and energise their peers?

Act fast – If you like them make an offer on the same day subject to references. It’s a great feeling to get a call back when you’re still on your way home saying ‘we want you!’ This comes back to making sure you have all your ducks lined up so get the decision makers in the interview. I don’t understand why a second interview is ever needed – it smacks of red tape.

Other resources – I came across this list of questions for webops engineer candidates on John Allspaw’s blog http://www.kitchensoap.com/2010/05/26/some-webops-interview-questions/ These are a great starting point when drawing up your technical questions

Amazon Web Services @ realestate.com.au

To say there was a lot of interest in the first Amazon Web Services (AWS) events here in Australia would be an understatement. How many vendors could put on an event without a glamorous new product launch, strategy update or market specific announcement and pull in close to 1,000 attendees in both Sydney and Melbourne? I guess that’s the difference between a market maker and a market follower, there’s no disputing AWS are the most powerful player in cloud computing and when they talk everyone wants to listen. I presented a customer case study at the AWS Melbourne event and provided an overview of our cloud strategy and the key role AWS plays in delivering this strategy. I’ve attached my slides to this post, here’s a summary to provide some context.

As a growth business we are scaling rapidly and IT has undergone significant growth with a 50% increase in our development headcount over the past 12 months. To be productive these developers need to test their code in an environment that looks, feels and behaves like realestate.com.au and we need a highly efficient deployment pipeline to move code from developers brains to our sites as fast as possible.  As an ops manager I want my resources (dollars and people) focused on optimising our production environments and not on dev/test.

To address this we migrated dev/test environments from on-premise to the AWS cloud and developed a deployment pipeline that enables push button application deployment. Our deployment toolset leverages the fog ruby project which enables you to control a number of cloud services through a unified API and hooks into our Chef and Gitorious artefact repositories. Now any developer can push a button and have an end to end development environment to test their code against and, from a management perspective, I’m confident our deployment toolchain is cloud agnostic – if we decided to switch to Rackspace tomorrow we wouldn’t need to redevelop the tools and processes.

We recently invested in VMware’s Vsphere and Vcloud products to build a ‘private cloud’ across our global DC’s. We want to be able to deploy code to AWS or to our VMware environments using the same deployment processes. Unfortunately the Fog library didn’t support Vcloud so we decided to add it ourselves, check out our techblog for details on how to use this.

With the recent establishment of an Australian sales presence and the AWS cloud tour events there has been a lot of speculation that an Australian availability zone is imminent. The timing of an article published in the Australian the day of the Melbourne cloud tour event added even more fuel to the fire. Whether there’s any truth to the Australian article or not the general consensus within the industry is that it’s a matter of when rather than if AWS will have a physical presence in Australia. From my perspective this will have a huge impact on the hosting industry within Australia, AWS would become the first heavyweight global cloud provider to land on Aussie shores taking away many of the risk / data jurisdiction concerns that prevent large corporates and government from embracing cloud services today. It would also put significant cost pressure on some of the more established Australian hosting providers and drive a more rapid rate of innovation across the industry. However the biggest opportunity I see is to provide the catalyst for a new era of online entrepreneurship within Australia, there are so many Aussie success stories – think Atlassian & Freelancer.com – that underline the tech savvy entrepreneurial culture within this country however getting these ideas off the ground is a significant challenge with the high cost, inflexible hosting market. Local players like Ninefold, Interactive and Telstra are all making moves in this space but the arrival of AWS would turn the industry on its head.

Judging by the 2,000 people who attended the AWS cloud tour events in Australia, I’m not the only one that sees this as something big.

Amazon Web Services @ Realestate.com.au

Building the team ops brand

I’ve said it before and I will say it again I’m so excited about the ops team we are building at realestate.com.au. Our latest recruit joined us today and brings with him bags of technical knowledge and a collaborative, warm, fun personality. We’re now at the point where the technical skills are taken as given, it’s the passion for technology combined with team building and collaboration skills that make the difference. Finding individuals who possess both the technical and interpersonal skills we are looking for is a challenge and we can’t fill the roles we need through referrals and agencies alone.

One of my objectives this year is to build the realestate.com.au team ops brand. By blogging about some of the amazing technologies and projects we are working with, by tweeting when we’re having issues and how we fixed them, and by contributing to the open source community we can hopefully reach talented engineers and make them as excited about our ops team as I am.

We have a first cut of our engineering blog ready for review and I’m hoping the twitter feed will follow shortly. Our approach is to use a technology like Planet to aggregate existing blogs rather than trying to manufacture something just for the ‘external’ world. We will publish some basic guidelines on usage and leave our teams to get on with it – we don’t want to moderate content. As soon as we have this ready to roll I’ll share a link here and I’d love to get some feedback. I should also add that one of our most talented developers has been pushing for an engineering blog for ages and was the first to post! He was also the first person to comment on my blog so tip of the hat to Mujtaba Hussain – The IT world needs more people like him! Check out his personal site and blog at http://blog.mujtabahussain.net/about/