Disclaimer: Work In Progress. This is a very one-sided argument at the moment, it needs balance. It also needs to be framed in terms of delivery capacity and discuss other options for increasing it. Probably also needs some pictures. Read at your own peril.
What if I told you that you could increase the weekly output of your Lead and Senior Engineers by 10-20%?
I’m not talking about the new joiners who have only just finished onboarding.
I’m talking about the tenured ones who have been with you for years. The ones who know the company inside out. Who are sought for their expertise and institutional knowledge. Who can do in a single afternoon what it would take a new joiner weeks of context absorption and hair pulling to do.
How much would you pay me for a tool or technique that could achieve that productivity increase? How much would that be worth to your business? What results could you deliver with that extra capacity?
I’d wager that you’d pay a hefty sum to me because the impact on your business would be huge. It’s a no-brainer.
Sadly, I can’t do that. But let me propose a more nuanced scenario which I’m confident I can pull off.
I let you pick one tenured Lead Engineer and one tenured Senior Engineer from your team. You sacrifice 10-20% of their weekly output for the foreseeable future. Every month we toss a coin.
If it’s Tails, you lose. You have to keep the output sacrifice going to toss the coin again next month.
If it’s Heads, you win! No more output sacrificing, for now. You get to put the Senior into my SeniorEngineerClonerDeluxe Machine (tm). The Machine pops out a clone of the Senior.
Those are decent odds. After 3 months of sacrifice you’ve got a 87.5% chance of getting to use my machine. After 6 months, there’s a 99% chance you’ve used my machine, stopped sacrificing output, and got yourself a shiny new Senior Engineer.
Let’s do the maths for the pessimistic case. You’ve sacrificed about 6 weeks (roughly 20% * 1 month * 6) of tenured Lead and Senior Engineer time over 6 months. In total you’ve lost 12 valuable Engineer-weeks. But now you’ve got new capacity! You’ve got a clone of your Senior. She’ll pay the sacrifice back over a mere 3 months and then you’re into positive return on investment.
The optimistic case of 10% sacrifice over 3 months looks better. 10% * 1 month * 3 * 2 = only 3 Engineer weeks. So your payback period is a single month!
Optimistically there’s a 9 in 10 chance that you sacrifice a month of productivity, and get a new Senior Engineer after 3 months.
Conservatively you sacrifice 3 months of productivity to get a Senior Engineer with 99% certainty.
You have to think about this one a bit more than my original proposal. It might not be the right time for your business to do this. You’d have to plan around it. But it’s still definitely worth it in many cases.
Unfortunately, I forgot to mention something about my machine. I built it as a Proof Of Concept, not a Minimum Viable Product. It’s not quite production ready. Still some bugs to iron out.
There are some side-effects for the poor cloned Senior Engineer.
Firstly, she comes out of the machine in a deep sleep. She won’t wake up for 1-2 months. Ouch. That’s pushing your return on investment back further. Ok, we can plan for that, but there’s more to think about in our decision.
Secondly, she’s lost all memory of her time at your company. That valuable institutional knowledge has been wiped. Skills specific to your company are forgotten. Relationships reset back to day one. She’ll need to spend time re-learning knowledge and skills. Re-building all those relationships.
That hurts, but, ok. You know she’s got the potential to be awesome again. It will just take time. Your return on investment moves back further. More to weigh in your decision.
Thirdly, there’s a weird psychic link between her and your two tenured Engineers. As soon as she wakes, she starts to drain both their weekly output again! Ahh! You thought you were done sacrificing. The drain starts out very intense, and then fades over time. But it never goes away. Though you’ve got more overall capacity, the individual output has dropped by 5-10%. Repeated cloning makes the problem worse for the whole team by an extra 5-10% each time.
More to weigh, more planning. Can we afford to disrupt that key initiative in a few months’ time?
Your decision has become more complex.
Using my machine is definitely still a high leverage activity over the long run. But you’re trading short-to-medium-term output for medium-to-long-term extra capacity.
My machine isn’t going to move the needle this quarter: this quarter it’s all up front cost. If you’re lucky you’ll get your clone in 1 month, she’ll wake up 1 month afterwards, and the psychic drain will begin.
The odds are that you’ll see the impact next quarter. In the worst case, the quarter after that. You have to weigh whether that up front cost and uncertainty is worth it for the extra capacity months from now.
Let’s strip away the allegory. Just in case the title left you any doubt, my cloning machine represents hiring a new Engineer.
Hiring is often the first thing companies reach for when they want to speed things up. We have lots of things we want to do and can’t get them all done. We don’t have enough Engineers! Hire more Engineers so we can get more done!
What’s often unappreciated is that hiring has a real, front loaded cost. It then has significant follow on costs when the new hire joins. Hiring trades short term delivery capacity for long term delivery capacity.
Every company needs more Engineers. Google needs more Engineers. Ignore the short-term to long-term trade off at your peril. Google definitely has a long term. Does your start-up? Is it the right trade off for your business?
You might argue with my cost numbers above, so I’ve justified them in an appendix (Oops, not done this yet. I told you, WIP.). I think they’re reasonable, but they seem surprisingly high to some people. To debate the exact numbers misses the larger point, though. Hiring has a cost.
You could represent the time devoted to hiring every week in a ticket for your team. If you used Scrum, hiring would be a Chore, like refactoring tech debt. No value to the end user, beneficial to increasing future delivery capacity.
When thinking about how we can focus to deliver results, time devoted to hiring is often ignored. Hiring is not an inevitable cost. It is an active choice that requires consideration. It should not be left “always on” without thought. Deciding not to hire and instead to focus on delivery can be a sound strategic or tactical choice.