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NEW Book Review – ‘Team Geek’ by Fitzpatrick & Collins-Sussman – O’Reilly Publishing

August 17, 2012

History shows those who can collaborate most effectively prosper the most and no matter how good you are at your chosen craft  it pays to be skilled in working well with others. ‘Team Geek’ – authored by two senior members of Google’s engineering team  is an excellent, highly readable and useful guide for software professionals – on collaboration, leadership and team work. You don’t have to be a geek to read this book but it may help…

It Pays To Be A Geek. And Even More If You’re A Collaborative Geek…

The sub-title and simple summary of ‘Team Geek’ is ‘a software developer’s guide to working well with others’. And showing the sharp project management credentials of the authors, Brian W Fitzpatrick and Ben Collins-Sussman, it’s a book that even has a nice clear mission statement too; “The goal of this book is to help programmers become more effective and efficient at creating software by improving their ability to understand, communicate with, and collaborate with other people.”

The book lives up to its title. Scattered amongst the excellent business advice and tips are plenty of  intriguing insights into the workings of Google and more than enough techie jargon to keep any geek happy. This has been written by people who know what software engineers and developers are doing every day. From hackathons to API documentation – from PHP to C++ Style Guides.  But unless you are severely technophobic this detail does not distract from the key message. In fact, it gives the book great credibility and reinforces that the authors have a practical grounding in the  everyday grind & hard slog of real-world technical work. It’s the kind of realism that is often missing from more theoretical business books and pieces. And whilst ‘Team Geek’ is written from a strongly technical engineer and software team perspective – the wise lessons, smart advice and clear thinking of Fitzpatrick and Collins-Sussman are relevant for anyone who needs to build effective work teams and innovation projects in complex environments.  This is a really useful book for ambitious software engineers and project managers – but it’s also a great addition to the learning of marketers, commercial managers and sales people too.

Collaboration is a big topic of the moment and its now an agenda item for many senior executives.  It covers both operating well across the organisation and the ability to work effectively with critical suppliers, partners, key customers and allies.

Recent research and papers published by General Electric, Cap Gemini and Forrester have clearly and consistently highlighted that collaboration and partnership are the key to driving innovation. For those who have studied the history of entrepreneurship and successful development of ideas, commerce and science this is no surprise.  Writers such as Steven Johnson, William Bernstein, Scott Berkun and Tom Kelley all point out that innovation success extends from the smart exchange of ideas, technologies, networking and building of alliances. Team Geek is a very powerful addition to the work in this area and its unique in being written from a strong technical and engineering perspective.

The key chapters of ‘Team Geek’ paint the issues and dangers of being a poor collaborator and offer guidance and sensible advice to avoid common mistakes. Topics covered include; the myth of genius, the importance of culture, leadership, dealing with trouble and complexity – and working with outsiders too,  including those touchey-feeley, scope amending, suit wearing, launch demanding marketing types. A pleasing aspect of the book (at least from a marketer like me… ) – is that Fitzpatrick and Collins-Sussman acknowledge that marketers need to be understood by techies for their knowledge of the emotional and image aspects of business.  Likewise of course, this kind of respect needs to be reciprocated by non technical marketing and business development people to the coders and engineers who create.

Humility, Respect – And Trust

Most importantly – and very early on, Fitzpatrick & Collins-Sussman quite rightly run the sword through the heart of one of the most popular myths of innovation – that great technical breakthroughs are reliant upon individual brilliance of the lone hero saving the day. They point out that the best software engineers ‘play well with others’ and that having smart coding and developer skills do not guarantee your personal reputation or project success. Instead it is the ability to collaborate, influence and work with others that determines career progress.  This thinking reflects the views of authors such as Steven Johnson, who famously says‘chance favours the connected mind’.

Despite the increasing need for it, most people are not very good at collaboration. Fitzpatrick and Collins-Sussman point out that just executing your job well, whilst excluding the needs of everyone else will see fewer opportunities opening up. This is summed up by one of many memorable lines  when they say that ‘working in isolation leads to disappointment’.

Collaboration Means Working Smarter

Fitzpatrick and Collins-Sussman provide some useful tips and focus on the soft skills that are needed, which they summarise around three key pillars of teamwork and collaboration; HUMILITY, RESPECT and TRUST. To summarise, it’s a question of being more open to the ideas of others. Listening and realising you have to work with people from across the organisation. Success is built on connecting with others and building allies and supporters for your ideas. As they point out; ‘lose the ego and don’t come across like a know-it-all’. This is great advice for technically minded but I think a sound reminder for anyone else in business too. Whilst these  all sounds deceptively simple points of personal behaviour – these are easy to note but often difficult to achieve in highly competitive environments. It is also about leadership. Whereas management often worries about ‘how to get things done’, the leaders in the software industry and the best in organisations, focus on ‘what needs to be done’.  They focus not on being in control but on being a catalyst and a mentor.

The Rise Of ‘T-Shaped’ Talent

Fitzpatrick and Collins-Sussman finally examine the broader organisational issues and explain how collaboration and team work require patience and a degree of influence; such as understanding the politics and the cogs of the business. In this respect they mirror  the views and work of Morten T Hansen who brilliantly points out the need for ‘T-Shaped People’ in his book ‘Collaboration’. The valuable T-Shaped people are those who have both the technical depth of expertise PLUS the ability to work well across projects and network across an organisation, building the right focused conversations.

Overall – this is an excellent book, highly recommended to anyone with an interest in innovation, collaboration and leadership. Whether you’re a technical expert looking to build more influence, or a project manager or marketer who has to work with highly creative and talented people, this book provide some excellent guidance and practical tips to help you deliver more.

Click here for more information or to purchase a PDF or print copy of  Fitzpatrick & Collins-Sussman’s Team Geek.

Andrew Armour is the founder of Benchstone Limited and an expert in marketing partnerships, collaboration and innovation and the creator of the CollaborativeEdge Programme. He writes about marketing, innovation and collaboration at www.andrewarmour.com and you can follow his tweets at twitter.com/andrewarmour

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