The Virtuoso Development Team – Myth, Legend or Reality?

“In nearly any area of human achievement – business, the arts, science, athletics, politics – you can find teams that produce outstanding and innovative results. The business world offers a few examples. Think of the Whiz Kids – the team of ten former U.S. Air Force officers recruited en masse in 1946-who brought Ford back from the doldrums. Recall Seymour Cray and his team of "supermen" who, in the early 1960s, developed the very first commercially available supercomputer, far outpacing IBM’s most powerful processor. More recently, consider Microsoft’s Xbox team, which pulled off the unthinkable by designing a gaming platform that put serious pressure on the top-selling Sony PlayStation 2 in its first few months on the market. We call such work groups virtuoso teams, and they are fundamentally different from the garden-variety groups that most organizations form to pursue more modest goals. Virtuoso teams comprise the elite experts in their particular fields and are specially convened for ambitious projects. Their work style has a frenetic rhythm. They emanate a discernible energy. They are utterly unique in the ambitiousness of their goals, the intensity of their conversations, the degree of their esprit, and the extraordinary results they deliver.” – Bill Fisher and Andy Boyton , Harvard Business Review

I recently sat through a presentation by Dr. Bill Stone, the parts of the presentation I can share that are not under non-disclosure are gleaned from public websites that I will reference.

Bill Stone goes to the moon and opens a gas station 


Watch the Presentation – start it at 10 mins 49 seconds in, you will be glad you watched it

Bill has a concept to make money and jumpstart large scale space exploration.  Instead of blasting off rockets from earth and carrying tons of fuel into orbit, make the fuel on the moon from resources there and use it as a Lunar “gas station”. That way the concept of “you can only go as far as what you can carry” goes away becoming a “paradigm buster” in how we approach space travel.

Okay so what kind of a team do you need to pull off a $15+ Billion project that is literally out of this world? You know the answer. A Virtuoso team is the only answer.

So let’s move the decimal place over two places to the left.  A $150 million IT development project.  You could think of this two ways.

  • Option 1 :  400 people @ $125K/ yr working for 3 years
  • Option 2:   A virtuoso team of 40 working for 1.5 years each member earning $500K per year and putting the other $120 Million back in the bank.

So is the virtuoso development team a myth, legend or reality?

Here’s are some facts.

  • Development virtuoso’s exist. They can conceptualize, analyze, design, implement and test at speeds that, independent of technology, would astonish people. Having worked with thousands of developers as both peers and subordinates, I can ,from an array of thousands, name … 13. (Ivan, Rules Rob, Good Bob, Evil Bob, Mukesh, Lance, Charlie,  Steve, Shawn, Brian, Roger, John and … Ian)
  • Development virtuoso’s are all highly opinionated, relentless, stubborn and cannot spell the word comprimise  (see what I mean?)
  • Oddly, they also all appear to be fans of Douglas Adam’s Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books though I am not sure how that is relevant.

Hence the problem. The most dangerous thing in any IT project is the lone wolf or wolfette. The one that doesn’t lead the pack, doesn’t run with the pack but instead is off hunting its own game. Most project leads are afraid and tend to ringfence the virtuosos (they use the word "focus") because they don’t have the capability/leadership to form them all into a coherent team. The reason we don’t see the Virtuoso Development Team  more often is that the missing element in the team concept is the leader. The guy or gal that will (to change metaphors mid-paragraph) herd the cats. These are not just your normal everyday house cats. These are the jaguars, lions, tigers,  panthers and occasional BOBcat’s (see above) all rolled together. It perhaps needs a Bill Stone or Bill Gates to do it.

There are a great number of similarities between opening a gas station on the moon and a massive new IT project. (sorry Bill but it’s true we just have O2 to our advantage) There are hundreds of unknowns, there are thousands of critical decisions to make, a mistake in the foundation will reflect itself many times larger on later stages and it’s intricate and complex.

So can the virtuoso development team exist? Yes. Do you see it happening?  Not yet.  Each time I come across a project that is perfect for the virtuoso team, I call  and they are at Stanford, projects in Illinois, Ohio, DC, making millions as an outsourcer in India, doing a startup, being king pooh-bah at MS, retired?, always engaged, saving the world or too busy writing a blog and a book. So yes, in theory, we can do it. In practice….. hmmm…

To get the virtuoso players to stop their silly day-to-day jobs and spend time on the moon-shot. That’s the key. To establish a vision that is so big, so compelling that every one wants to be a part of it. It’s real but …

Bring it on Bill…. your team awaits.

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