Swizec Teller - a geek with a hatswizec.com

Senior Mindset Book

Get promoted, earn a bigger salary, work for top companies

Senior Engineer Mindset cover
Learn more

    What's more productive, a team or a talented soloist?

    engineers hate it when you say it doesn't matter how good they are because a team will outcode them any day.

    They like to cite The Mythical Man Month in their outrage. "Two women can't make a baby faster than 9 months" ... "Adding people to a late software project makes it even later"

    You can tell they never read the book. Brooks starts with "Communication introduces overhead, but it would take a single programmer 50 years to build something like an operating system."

    A soloist can move fast

    We started chatting about the response to our Junior to Senior podcast episode with David and he emailed this example:

    I've built a lot of cool stuff I don't think many of the devs I oversee could do (e.g. rambly.app, robotvj.com, generative art, etc...). And just now over the weekend, I built videodownloadtool.io, and I did it in about a day. I spent a few hours at night and then another few the next morning. I showed the demo to one of my managers and asked how long it would take for 5 of his devs to build it, and his estimate was 10 days

    David is right, you can get a stupid amount of work done when you get in the zone and bang out code uninterrupted for a few hours. And it's fun!

    I've written before Why Senior Engineers Get Nothing Done – they don't get the chance! It's all tiny spurts of coding between other obligations.

    David continues:

    At the end of that single day, I did not have something that resembled a public-facing product. If both I and the team of 5 started from that demo/prototype and we raced each other to get to a "finished product" I'm sure I would lose. After my initial prototype is working, most of the work is time consuming and doesn't benefit from my unique Node.js/ffmpeg/streaming/UI skills anymore, and I'm not going to be much faster than "normal" devs.


    That's the rub. You can bang out a prototype to test an idea or play with your special skillset. That's the first 90% of the work. Now you're left with the second 90% and that shit is a slog.

    Teams excel at that part.

    Surgical teams do best

    David ends his observation with a question:

    was my real value "coding" or could I just have told the team how I wanted to approach the problem and saved myself a day of coding and them a week and half of figuring out the best way to do it?

    David can't write code any faster than you or I. Typing is typing. What he can do is write the right code. His value is the expertise.

    You could even say writing the code himself was a waste of time. Rather than a whole day of typing code, he could Own the project like a senior engineer:

    1. Grab a team
    2. Explain the correct solution
    3. Ensure everyone understands
    4. Oversee the execution
    5. Validate the result

    And while everyone's busy building something David could build in his sleep, he can focus on solving (or finding) the next gnarly problem.

    That way he can be the engineer who sells their expertise instead of their hands and increases the leverage on his time. 1 hour of solving a gnarly problem instead of 12 hours executing the solution.

    And the best part πŸ‘‰ Others can now maintain and understand this code, even build from scratch next time a similar problem comes up. David can thus move on to bigger and better problems.

    Being special is fun, but let others play lest you get stuck.


    PS: in a "true" team, the surgicalness is fluid. Sometimes you're the expert, sometimes you're the code monkey. That way everyone helps everyone and you're all getting better.

    Published on October 15th, 2021 in SeniorMindset, Teams, Leadership

    Did you enjoy this article?

    Continue reading about What's more productive, a team or a talented soloist?

    Semantically similar articles hand-picked by GPT-4

    Senior Mindset Book

    Get promoted, earn a bigger salary, work for top companies

    Learn more

    Have a burning question that you think I can answer? Hit me up on twitter and I'll do my best.

    Who am I and who do I help? I'm Swizec Teller and I turn coders into engineers with "Raw and honest from the heart!" writing. No bullshit. Real insights into the career and skills of a modern software engineer.

    Want to become a true senior engineer? Take ownership, have autonomy, and be a force multiplier on your team. The Senior Engineer Mindset ebook can help πŸ‘‰ swizec.com/senior-mindset. These are the shifts in mindset that unlocked my career.

    Curious about Serverless and the modern backend? Check out Serverless Handbook, for frontend engineers πŸ‘‰ ServerlessHandbook.dev

    Want to Stop copy pasting D3 examples and create data visualizations of your own? Learn how to build scalable dataviz React components your whole team can understand with React for Data Visualization

    Want to get my best emails on JavaScript, React, Serverless, Fullstack Web, or Indie Hacking? Check out swizec.com/collections

    Did someone amazing share this letter with you? Wonderful! You can sign up for my weekly letters for software engineers on their path to greatness, here: swizec.com/blog

    Want to brush up on your modern JavaScript syntax? Check out my interactive cheatsheet: es6cheatsheet.com

    By the way, just in case no one has told you it yet today: I love and appreciate you for who you are ❀️

    Created by Swizec with ❀️