T-shaped smart creatives

What do they bring to the table?

May 2, 2019 - 5 minute read -
software-engineering

In How Google Works[1], they describe smart creatives as “impatient, outspoken risk-takers who are easily bored and change jobs frequently”.

The term “T-shaped person” is, quoting straight from wikipedia[2], “used to describe abilities of a person, where the vertical bar on the T represents the depth of related skills and expertise in a single field, whereas the horizontal bar is the ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas and to apply knowledge in areas of expertise other than one’s own”.

The traits of T-shaped smart creatives are apparent by now. Although they specialize in certain skills, they will not limit themselves to tasks in their bucket. That’s what the horizontal bar on that T represents. They tend to work for short focused hours to get in the zone and solve deep technical problems, which leads to growth in the vertical bar.

For most startups, the two most important factors from engineering point of view for their product are: speed and reliability. They ought to get a couple of these T-shaped smart creatives on their team early on. Why, you ask? Let’s see what makes this species and how you spot them?

We often come across the title fullstack developer, often misused; in my personal opinion, I like to describe them as engineers who can build a full fledged web/mobile/desktop app with a reliable backend and frontend from bare mockups, with ability to deploy and manage future deployments with ease. Don’t worry, in a few days’ time, they will bore out of the daily deployments and create automated processes or integrate a CI/CD tool.

They are business savvy and will not start with development until they understand the product in its entirety and how it’s going to make the target audience’s life easier. They will become the user and that’s how they think beyond the product requirement docs. They realize the importance of flexible and robust backend architecture and the deeper understanding of the product helps them build a system which can accommodate unaccounted requirements with low effort.

Once the product understanding is checked off the list, they step on the gas and build the independent parts with the team. After the initial setup, they will probably write generator scripts for most of the repetitive parts of the code or convert them in generic form so as not to repeat them at all, thus saving them time to invest in acquiring more knowledge and expand the horizontal bar on that T. For example, if you’re working with React.js and Redux, you’ll end up writing a script that generates initial boilerplate files and code for your components.

In their minds, the job is not finished when the product is deployed. They love to see the results. What other way to measure success, or failure, than by measuring user behaviour? Looking at metrics is gratifying to start the day. If the decisions taken by gut during execution were validated by data later, that’s reassuring. If they don’t, they now have data that directs them towards the right path. Although, the scope of managing a product is slightly out of purview of this individual, this approach will get the startup through till MVP and could even work till product market-fit.

They are expressive and do not shy away from positing their opinions. And boy, aren’t they strongly opinionated! However, as they gain experience, they learn to hold them weakly. In fact, if you hold frequent conversations with them, sometimes you’ll find they might contradict their own opinions with time, the frequently acquired knowledge helps them change their views. It’s always a good idea to not confine them or shut their opinions. Those conversations will in turn generate more ideas and possibly the next big innovation in the company.

They may hate meetings, definitely the ones without a solid agenda because such meetings sometimes last too long without any concrete outcome. But if an insidesales executive asked them to hop on a call to observe a totally new user use the product for those first 10-15 mins, they will love to live through that fresh perspective again because working for last 6 months has made them so comfortable with the product, they probably access every page of the product by typing in the url now.

They will not wait for users to report issues with the app. They will capture error logs and raise loud alarms for them to fix the issue. There will be times, when the issue will be fixed in the production before the CXO forwards the support ticket to dev mailing list. They realize that if the issue has a minor fix and something can be done in 5 minutes, better do it right now rather than scheduling it.

Beware, as the first line of the post says, they are impatient, easily bored, and will question status quo. They will be the first ones to leave if they are not challenged, or are confined, or their productivity is hit by management processes. And the traditional management team will find hard to manage them. Do not expect them to follow step-by-step instructions. Tell them what you want and then let their thoughts and creativity take over. They uphold high moral standards and create a culture where every one of them trust each other on their word. This weeds out possibilities on internal politics and management has to make sure the culture is preserved with every new hire.

In most resume screening processes, a candidate with frequent job hops may not make the cut; neither the one having experience in multiple domains/skills as that may indicate that the candidate holds expertise at none. If we think from the company’s point of view, there’s risk in first investing time in interviewing and training for about a month and then watch the candidate quit less than a year later because of any of these common reasons: too slow for gratification, bored with no challenging work, not able to fulfil their curiosity to acquire new knowledge, monotonous work, need a fresh product to work on.

Large companies become more and more risk averse as they grow and it’s in the best interest of both parties to screen such candidates out if these reasons don’t sound concerning. However, startups are courageous by nature. At an early stage, co-founders wish their employees work as if they own the company, people who get things done, who they can blindly trust when they say “We’ll figure it out”. And if groomed well, these T-shaped smart creatives are the future CXOs in line.

[1] How Google Works by Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg
[2] T-shaped skills

Thanks to Abhinav Sharma and Parth Panchal for proofreading the drafts of this post.

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