Blog 2024 05 22 Do engineering teams really resemble sports teams?

Do engineering teams really resemble sports teams?

“We are one big family!” - so many developers have heard that at various workplaces. Some people like the comparison, but probably many more don’t. And no matter whether you like it or not, it’s simply a lie.

You as a family member don’t interview at other families for more appreciation or especially not for greater challenges, or growth opportunities. But your family - hopefully - won’t let you go in a layoff if times are difficult. Even though the Grimm brothers did write a story where kids were left alone in the middle of the forest when there was not enough food… Yet, even that story teaches us that you don’t do such a horrendous thing in a family!

On the other hand, you do change employers from time to time and your employer will dump you without hesitation if they think it’ll be better for them without you.

So obviously the family narrative is false. I’m somewhat surprised that nobody - that I’m aware of - has come up yet with the narrative that a relationship between an employee and employer is like an early-stage relationship. There is a fair chance that you as a boyfriend or a girlfriend look into other relationships and as soon as you think it’s better without the other, you move forward. Whatever.

There is another emerging narrative, originating from Netflix, if I’m not mistaken. According to them, teams are more like professional sportsteams. Nobody’s place is granted, you have to earn your place. And you earn your place by being really good in your given position. There are no family ties - normally. I like this analogy, at least more than the family one.

At the same time, it also has a problem.

It’s about reorganizations.

How do these two analogies stand their place when it comes to reorganizations or simple internal moves?

The family analogy fails. Families are not reorganized in a way that one moment you’re the father in one family and the other moment you’re a father in another one. Well. Individual moves might happen in so-called modern families, but they are not reshufflings of many families by someone above. And especially it won’t happen that one day you’re a father in family A and the next day you’re a daughter in the other family because someone who merely knows you thinks that it may be a good fit for you. Moreover, even if you say that these things can happen they would happen at your will and not because someone else who merely knows you decided so.

What about the sports team analogy?

We can approach it from different perspectives.

First, compare reorganizations as moving from one club to another within the same sport.

Such individual moves are a natural part of sports teams. Some people like to stay at the same club throughout their careers. Think about Giggs, Maldini, Puyol, Totti, etc. They are quite the exception. Some players will rarely move, only if it’s really necessary for their careers or if they are forced to switch clubs (think about Puskás, Raúl, Messi). And there are others who will move whenever they wake up with the wrong leg. But it’s important to note two things:

  • the moves won’t happen without their consent. You might be terminated at one club, but you must accept the new one, they cannot force you to join another club. Yes, it might happen that you end up without a club without playing, without getting paid.
  • You will not sign to a new club from the position of a striker to a goalkeeper, or from a defensive midfielder to a winger. That’s just not how it works with your accumulated skills in a given position. It might happen though that you either move from a central attacking midfielder to a winger or a striker position where your new head coach tries to transform you a bit. But once on a professional level, they won’t just put you in a completely different position.

After a reorganization, assuming you were not fired before, you can be forced to just any team without your consent. Of course, you can resign, but with that, you potentially lose all the benefits you could get from the state in case you were fired. And by just any team, I mean whatever tech team. A hardocre developer can even end up in an operations team or the other way around. Even the skills, the experience don’t make you a good match.

Speaking of such a conversion, can you imagine that they convert a basketball player to a baseball player? That’s not gonna happen right?! Maybe once in a lifetime. In a corporation, you can easily end up in a completely different domain.

But what if we compare reorganizations as changing positions within the same sports team? That happens sometimes, usually in the beginning of your career or even before you become a pro. If the head coach has a good eye. Just as we discussed a couple of paragraph earlier. In a corporation, comparable changes are much more often.

I think the case of a reorganization is the point where the sports team analogy so often fails. Even in companies, where in normal times internal moves are well-thought and respectful, bigger-scale reorganizations can completely lose any human sense. Engineering and product managers end up in teams they have no experience with and it’s even worse for individual contributors who not only end up in positions they are not skilled at, but often they don’t even want to be there which further decreases the morale.

It’s part of the professional sports team analogy that you are good and proven in your position. But big-scale reorganizations don’t respect this fundamental requirement of the analogy, so it goes only as far.

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