Star chart or how to balance knowledge in a team under the influence of Soft Skills

Many development teams are faced with the bottleneck problem, when too many issues related to different aspects of development rest on one, the most qualified specialist. At the same time, less experienced team members do not know where to grow, and what technologies or team-specific industries they need to go deeper to be more useful for the team. And by itself, when an irreplaceable employee nevertheless takes a vacation or sick leave, the team’s productivity drops significantly, and in the worst cases will be almost paralyzed due to lack of expertise in any areas.

Today I want to tell you about a method called "Star Map" for a phased solution to these and other problems, as well as about the pitfalls associated with the implementation of this tool. There are many subtleties, because we will focus on the approach to teamwork.

I'll start with the simplest thing - what is the Star Map and what types of employees can be divided based on their skill set.

A little about the star map

I must say right away that this term was not coined by me, I first heard it at a training from the Unusual Concepts team and trainer Sergey Dmitriev. Something similar also occurred to me in different companies under the name “competency matrix”, but there the instrument is more heavy. And not about the history of origin, but about the application later in the article we will talk.

A star map is a table where the columns with the skills / knowledge important for the work of a particular team are located horizontally, and the employees are vertically. At the intersection of the column and the column, each employee gives himself an assessment in a simple gradation:

0 = I don’t know anything or I know very little
1 = I know enough to cope on average with tasks on this topic, but not an expert
2 = expert, I can not only solve problems on my own, but I AM READY TO EXPLAIN OTHERS.

It is important that by giving himself a rating of 2 by any parameter, the employee not only indicates his expertise, but actually subscribes to sharing his knowledge on this topic if asked. Do not want to explain to others - put 1, be you even the most qualified guru in this topic. Also, for ratings 0 and 1, you can additionally set + or -, depending on whether the employee wants to delve into this technology or prefer to avoid the tasks associated with it. For grade 2, it is assumed by default that a person is ready

Some tips for compiling and maintaining a map:

  • The card should be known and open for viewing to everyone in the department, not just the boss.
    This will save the boss from the constant role of the router between the employees in the spirit of “I know who you need to ask”, in addition, the assessment of the skills of each employee will be balanced by the opinion of the team. Overestimated and understated employee ratings raise questions from the rest of the team. This can be discussed in retrospect and adjusted together.
  • Only the skills / knowledge demanded in the team’s work
    It is important that the listed knowledge, such as the intricacies of specific technologies or the specifics of the work of any internal component, be claimed when working in this particular team. If someone knows React or Node JS, and all the components of the department use Angular frontend and backend Java, then it makes no sense to indicate unused in the star map, this knowledge is not required for anyone in the team for the foreseeable future.
  • Limit the number of columns to 20-30, no more.
    A fairly common mistake is to create a monstrous exhaustive list of skills for 200-300 points. Of course, it’s good if there is one, but most likely the employees will avoid searches in this bulky table and simply ask questions to someone who, in their opinion, knows the answers to all the questions.
  • Detail and revise this map regularly.
    Over time, people tend to forget something due to lack of practice, or vice versa, to build up their knowledge. Some technologies and components lose their relevance and are replaced by new ones. Compare the list of skills with the tasks really solved in the department, for example, every 1-2 sprints.

Types of employees (idealized)

So, the map is compiled, an example is given below. Next, different types of people will be considered, depending on their hard-skills. Each of the types in the art prototype has traits by which you can identify these employees.
NicknameSQLJS (Frontend)RESTJava (Backend)Team Component 1Team Component 2Team Component 3Specific library 1Specific library 2
Chuck Norris222222222
Sherlock Holmes211220020
Van dam111211111

Chuck Norris - these people in your team you are well recognized. They know everything that is required for work, their knowledge on all (or almost all) points is maximum (2). Their authority in the team is extremely high, they are most often approached with questions or problems, because it seems that Chuck Norris can solve any problem. All the code revisions that were passed from the first attempt by this reviewer are perceived as a feat, as well as the architectural solution approved by him is not disputed by almost anyone and never. Like Chuck Norris or not, but when on Friday night everything suddenly breaks / burns / falls, everyone else is waiting for a solution to the problem from him. But the main problem is that this person is always busy, because everyone needs it right away. If he goes on vacation or leaves, the team begins to experience difficulties.

Sherlock Holmes is also quite an experienced employee, but his knowledge is not so comprehensive. In some areas of interest to him, he can compete with Chuck Norris (or even in rare cases surpass him), while in other areas he is a complete zero. The original Sherlock Holmes was an expert in everything related to detective affairs, but for example did not know basic things from astronomy. “I don’t care, the Earth revolves around the sun, or the Sun around the earth, it’s not important for my work,” such statements most often come from the lips of the Sherlock Holmes.

If you give Sherlock Holmes only tasks in his profile, these tasks can be considered completed in advance, and a lack of knowledge in related fields can remain in the shadows for many years. If you remove Sherlock Holmes from the team, then the stability of the team will fall as much as his narrow knowledge was in demand, and he alone can cope with the project in his own element, not burdened with questions from newcomers. But if, inadvertently, he is given a task from an area that is not of interest to him, it will be carried out for a long time, especially since Sherlock Holmes’s pride often does not allow him to ask other employees questions. “To know infinitely much about the infinitely small necessary in work” is the principle of its development and training.

Van dam- this is the so-called "universal soldier", and when applied to IT, such people are often full stack developers. Full stack developers in teams with highly specialized back and front often fall into the same category. A particular team may not have front or back development in principle, then they will not have a full stack, but Van Dam may still be there. They in all areas necessary for their work have the necessary minimum of knowledge and only in a small area of ​​their knowledge are above average for the team. Often these are employees who were put on bug fixes and support for a wide range of components and willy-nilly they managed to get to know all of them, as well as related libraries. The depth of knowledge was often determined by the needs of the department and the complexity of the task being solved by Van Dam right now.

The main strength of Van Dam is that even if you leave him with a couple of less experienced employees, it will still be a full-fledged team, ready to solve any problem (albeit slowly at times). The problem is that this is a team player, and allocating it to an isolated task greatly reduces the effectiveness of the rest of the team and Van Dam himself. If he is removed from the team, then newcomers will suddenly cease to solve their problems just as quickly, and he alone will have to prove himself in a narrow area where half of his knowledge is not needed. “To know enough about everything that is necessary in the work, and only then to delve into the details” is their teaching principle, which in many respects echoes Sherlock Holmes, but from the other end.

Piglet- This is just a novice employee. Perhaps this is an experienced developer who recently came from another department or company, with a different technology stack. It is possible that he has a deep store of knowledge in areas that are weakly related to current activities, but more often than just a basic set of knowledge, everything is limited. Piglet likes to ask questions with common sense and can become an excellent specialist if you leave him paired with a more experienced employee.

So what is there to do with all of this now?

Using a star chart (idealized)

Identify weaknesses

Team Component 1Team Component 2Team Component 3Specific library 1Specific library 2Specific library 3
Everything is very goodFineMinimum requiredModerately intenseDangerEverything is already bad

First of all, go through the columns of skills and see that each column has at least one 2 and 1. This means that there is someone in the team who can solve even a difficult task that requires this skill, and there is another a person who will insure the first, and in case of his departure on vacation, though not perfect, but will be able to do this task. If in any column there are only a couple of units, then the situation is already worse. Perhaps someone should be sent for further education. If there is a column with a single digit other than 0, this is a good reason to sound the alarm, even if it is 2 and the knowledge of the employee in this area is extremely deep. This means that there is only one person in the department who understands this technology or component, and it is worth crossing his fingers, if only his knowledge was not required when he becomes inaccessible. Finally,

We increase the stability of the team

Having identified weaknesses, it is necessary to distribute tasks based on closing holes in knowledge / skills, if possible taking into account the wishes of the employees themselves (remember the + and - with which they indicated their desire / unwillingness to develop something). Even minor bug fixes or code improvements can raise knowledge from zero to 1 and close vulnerabilities in a first approximation. Ideally, we will be able to finish up novice team members in the most critical areas for the team in advance, while more experienced employees can share their knowledge. In this case, the question does not arise, why this is studied, and not another, because by the star map everyone can see what is now necessary to develop.

Balancing the load on experts

Typically, employees like Chuck Norris answer a large number of questions and deal with a large number of tasks, so it takes a long time to wait for an answer from them. Instead of always asking anyone for any reason and tasks hanging on them, everyone else can look at the star map and choose “ask Chuck Norris” only when it is really necessary. So experienced employees get unloading from a heap of small questions, and the team interacts more actively within themselves.

Please note that a person with knowledge level 1 in any technology can count on help and ask for advice not only from people with knowledge 2, but also from people with the same 1, because their knowledge most likely contains some other disjoint areas. Theoretically, the holder of knowledge of level 2 can ask for help from a colleague with level 1, but this will be required only in rare cases of critical problems, where the expert’s skills are not enough and any help is valuable.

But all this happens only in an ideal world where the team works like a clock, and each person in it is a motivated professional whose interests completely coincide with the interests of the team. This system takes into account only the hard skills specified in it. Now let's see how everything changes with the advent of the mysterious soft skills and the dark side of each type of employee.

The dark side of each type of employee

A set of technical knowledge does not determine how an employee behaves when communicating with colleagues, and even if each individual team is technically perfectly prepared individually, this does not mean that together they can do more / better than a well-coordinated team of less experienced employees.

The main difficulty with soft skills, unlike the previously considered hard skills, is that it is harder to test. Formally singling them out in several columns and openly submitting the rest of the team to court usually goes beyond ethics, leads to conflicts and does not give an objective assessment of what is happening to management. HRs often approach this issue, alas, also quite one-sided, limiting themselves to formal communication with an employee once a year or no less formal testing on outdated tests. Even if they were lucky with HR, they most likely do not know the work of the team from the inside, and the department employees do not have HR competencies to correctly assess these skills. Probably, the solution to the problem already exists in several versions, but I will not swindle here at an exhaustive solution to this problem, but for starters I just want to highlight the fact of its presence.

Consider an alternative, dark version of each type of employee and see how even a single employee with a low value of soft skills is able to turn the work of the entire department inside out and significantly reduce overall efficiency.

NicknameSQLJS (Frontend)RESTJava (Backend)Team Component 1Team Component 2Team Component 3Specific library 1Specific library 2
(+) Chuck Norris
(-) Gregory House
(+) Sherlock Holmes
(-) Sheldon Cooper
(+) Van Dam
(-) Ostap Bender
(+) Piglet
(-) Winnie the Pooh

Gregory House- A distorted version of Chuck Norris. Exactly like his good alter ego, Chuck Norris, he knows almost everything that could be required for his work and even more. But, unlike the first, colleagues (and most often subordinates) Gregory House, although they respect his technical knowledge, would prefer not to have business with him. This expert is distinguished by the fact that he morally humiliates and puts pressure on colleagues, using any means to downplay their merits, constant jokes and incriminating them in ignorance of anything. He knows that with his technical baggage, almost any tricks and liberties in communicating with less titled and reputed colleagues are forgivable. Knowing about the stability of the position of Gregory House, he rarely meets resistance from colleagues and he is often preferred to simply endure or silently leave the company with such an employee,

This type of employee is especially egocentric and in upholding his point of view and authority can go far beyond the limits of common sense, because in his mind he is the only indisputable embodiment of common sense in the team. “There are two opinions - mine and wrong,” - almost all discussions on how to solve this or that problem with the participation of House come to this. Gregory House is held hostage by vast sections of code and entire components, all the merits and advantages of which House relates to his account, and he pushes all problems and failures to subordinates who climbed into our beloved estate of our hero for at least a couple of lines. As an example, if the task that a pair of colleagues did together for a week is being reviewed by House, then he can cross out all their achievements made by him in a couple of days, committing them without review from the rest of the team immediately to the master brunch. In a dispute, whose code will cause further errors and endless corrections, House has an advantage in the eyes of his superiors, he will always find a way to keep his laurels and belittle / cross out the work of others.

Sheldon Cooper is a distorted version of Sherlock Holmes. As in the case of Sherlock Holmes, whose skill set is extremely narrowly tailored, Sheldon Cooper is interested only in a couple of adjacent areas, but his main principle is to consider dust under the feet of anyone who is less tech savvy in these areas than he is. The original character from the series “The Big Bang Theory” lived with several fellow scientists, erudite in other sciences, but didn’t even take them close to their peers and regularly belittled them. There is a similar situation.

Ostap Bender is an evil version of Van Dam. Whatever you ask him, he seems to have heard about it, knows this and knows how, but in fact he always exposes others as extreme, although he always seeks to work together with colleagues to solve problems, whose knowledge he can parasitize.

Winnie the Pooh- In exactly the same way as Piglet, he is not very technical savvy, but unlike the first, he behaves in a team like a real pig, self-confidently making stupid mistakes and refusing to plead guilty to their consequences, constantly demanding help from the others, like something due. He draws conclusions from his actions reluctantly, repeats the same mistakes several times, while stubbornly collecting in his memory reasons to blame the rest of the team for something in the best traditions of double standards. Sometimes he digs in silently in his problems and prefers later to reproach the rest for the lack of help, rather than in time to indicate to the team his problem and his own ideas / thoughts on it.

The position of the Dark (Sheldon, Ostap Bender, and especially Winnie the Pooh) in the company cannot be called as stable as that of Gregory House, and the longer they stay in the team, the more actively they devote their main time to serving the authorities. Winnie the Pooh can leave the company for his affairs, if only information about him is collected from the team, and not 1-2 employees.

The Dark Ones are served just before those who make a decision about them, and the boss, deceived by serving the Dark Ones, can:

  1. not ask others and make a separate decision (ideal for the Dark)
  2. Do not believe the criticism of other employees, forgive the Dark One for mistakes and ask him to correct himself (he disowns, puts dust in his eyes and comes true).

Remember that a trial period is one of the tools that allows you to dismiss a toxic employee on time. So you can solve the problem before it is compounded by the need for this Dark.

The methods of all dark ones are not much different from those described for Gregory House (taking the code hostage, belittling the merit / knowledge of the rest, disclaimer of mistakes and assigning laurels), but in practice we will consider them below.

Of course, poor software skills can mean something else - lack of communication, silence about the problem, inability to take criticism constructively, inability to receive information from colleagues - redundant or incomprehensible questions. Thus, an employee with good skills spends a lot of time in vain and this buries even more, but at least it does not slow down the rest. I think it makes no sense to describe all the options for the toxic behavior of employees, the dark side of human nature has no boundaries.

Now, mentally place a person with low soft skills in a cohesive team of employees with normal and good communication skills. Sheldon Cooper manifests himself most comprehensively here, because he has both skills in which he needs help from the rest, and those in which he is considered an expert and could answer colleagues' questions.

One saboteur in the field, a stranger among his own

How will a toxic employee interact with other colleagues if he is the only one with low soft skills in the team?

It is worth remembering that for such an employee there are no sprint priorities, there are only his own tasks (priority) and everything else that does not matter to him. When Sheldon / Bender receives a task for which his skills are not enough, he is likely to plunge into a state of almost continuous phoning with Chuck Norris. It’s a win-win tactic: if he copes with his task, he will do well and take laurels for himself, and if not, he will just shrug his arms “even the help of Chuck Norris didn’t help, it's not my fault”.

He dismisses requests to Sheldon / Bender from colleagues under the auspices of developing independence in them, also blocks Chuck Norris from answering requests for help from other colleagues and thus further increases the likelihood that by the end of the sprint his task will be completed better than everyone else. At moments when Chuck Norris refuses to help Sheldon / Bender, he switches to parasitizing others and most likely it will be Van Dam or Sherlock Holmes, if his specialization is suitable. Moreover, the likelihood of criticism and clean water is higher in the case of the interaction of a toxic employee with Holmes, as a less team player, than with Van Dam or Chuck Norris. In the general stream of questions, Chuck Norris may not pay attention to the fact that he has to consult one colleague more often than everyone else. Moreover, Sheldon's questions are still more advanced than the usual questions from beginners. Van Dam, too, due to his broad outlook, will not blame Sheldon Cooper for not knowing anything, answering his questions, because he himself is not perfect. But Sherlock Holmes, an expert in his field, will most likely criticize Sheldon Cooper's incompetence and unwillingness to solve his problems on his own. Therefore, the toxic Sheldon is most likely to play it safe and, in case of such risks, will gather evidence that help did not help him very much and he reached the point himself, and Sherlock Holmes simply distracted him. an expert in his field will most likely criticize Sheldon Cooper’s incompetence and unwillingness to solve his problems on his own. Therefore, the toxic Sheldon is most likely to play it safe and, in case of such risks, will gather evidence that help did not help him very much and he reached the point himself, and Sherlock Holmes simply distracted him. an expert in his field will most likely criticize Sheldon Cooper’s incompetence and unwillingness to solve his problems on his own. Therefore, the toxic Sheldon is most likely to play it safe and, in case of such risks, will gather evidence that help did not help him very much and he reached the point himself, and Sherlock Holmes simply distracted him.

What will happen at each status rally and as a result of the sprint?

The tasks of Van Dam, Chuck Norris, Sherlock Holmes and all the Piglet rookies are delayed in time and only Sheldon Cooper, the only hero in this whole apocalypse, is on time or ahead of schedule and is happy with everything, unless criticized. In retrospect, Sheldon will downplay the participation of others in his success and remind others of organization, because who should be responsible for the problems of other people, if not themselves, is it Sheldon? If the team is not dissolved for some time and the situation repeats itself regularly, then our hero, having earned enough karma on other people's heads, will feel the moment for shuffling before being exposed and will be asked for another activity. There the situation runs the risk of repeating itself.

Toxic leader and well done to himself

It is also interesting that if Sheldon is placed in conditions when he is the most experienced employee in the team, then on the one hand he will regularly send inexperienced colleagues to independently solve problems instead of help, while the management will complain about how much time it takes him to communicate with these unfortunate fools. The tactic “any team successes are my successes (even if I have no relation to them), and any failures are not my problems” will become the most basic in the behavior of such a Sheldon / Bender.

If suddenly Sheldon finds himself on any activity alone without a team, the only one responsible for the result, then with a high probability he will prove worse (because there is no one to parasitize) and turn into an ordinary employee, just with a set of hard skills. If the task is research, Sheldon will blame the technology itself and the field of research for its failures (in order to prove the groundlessness of such accusations, another expert in the same technology is needed, but there is none, otherwise the task would not have been given). If the task of implementing business logic is to blame, for example, the neighboring department, which will refine the other part, as well as business analysts, testers and everyone who is responsible for the infrastructure (servers, accesses, etc.). In general, the adjacent links in the general chain of solution to the problem, with a reputation in the eyes of the authorities that were previously spoiled by past incidents.

Meanwhile, the rest of the team, from where they pulled out this splinter, started to improve, despite the seemingly decline in the number and overall level of hard skills. Because there are fewer disputes, undercover intrigues, a more balanced exchange of knowledge, no one pulls the efforts of the whole team without a compelling need.

A spoon of honey in a barrel of tar

This situation is often faced by bosses who judge employees solely by their knowledge and technical skills, ignoring their bad reputation and inability to work with people. It would seem that here is a dream team assembled, where everyone is, if not an expert, then at least a specialist in several areas related to the upcoming work, everyone behind them has successful experience in other teams. But the work begins and everything breaks loose: the two main specialists cannot agree on the technical details and the technology stack, a couple more employees buried themselves in their tasks and each status meeting can hear the same thing: “I continue to do task No. XYZ” without any visible progress, and the only newcomer still can’t completely set up even his working environment.

According to the results of the sprint, the usefulness of the team’s work tends to zero, everyone with everyone in continuous confrontation and especially dissatisfied with the scrum master, partly deserved. Of course, this state of affairs testifies to the ineffective work of the team, and hence the scrum master, as the main person responsible for this indicator, but the main conclusion: the high arithmetic average of technical skills in the team does not guarantee its success. A GROUP of more technically savvy specialists can even in the long run be inferior in productivity to a small, well-coordinated TEAM of motivated employees of average skills.

If there are several toxic employees in the team, then adding a couple of people with a more reasonable approach to communication will most likely lead to their quick burnout and can affect the rest of the team only if there is public support from the authorities, and even then a ball of snakes can come together to get rid of them or transformations in oneself like.

Proper organization of work requires considerable patience and the ability of the scrum-master and the desire of everyone else to develop, which is why scrum and agile are gaining momentum.
What to do with all this?

There is no ideally working solution for all cases, for some teams some methods are suitable, for others - others, but here are some ideas for solving:

  • Formation of an open and accessible star map.

    Partly, the formation of such a star map already reduces the effect of toxic employees, because if they do not share the rest of the knowledge, the team may rightly demand that they lower all their indicators from 2 to 1. The star map does not give praise their knowledge without sharing with others and helping others. Also, questions arise about the declared competence in any field of knowledge, if the imaginary expert constantly seeks help from others or cannot regularly answer the questions posed to him.
  • Open prioritization of tasks and the well-known clear goal of the sprint

    If everyone knows that tasks A and D are the highest priority in this sprint, then a toxic employee with his task B can be given a turn from the gate when seeking help, or even forced to help other colleagues, whose tasks are prioritized in this sprint.
  • Regular communication and retrospectives in different formats.
    Two-sided openness (of superiors and subordinates) usually reduces the ability of toxic employees to manipulate in murky waters of omissions. Starting up communications in the team, albeit temptingly simply for the boss, is fraught with problems.
  • Tie each person’s salary (or bonuses) to the team’s overall success

    Most often, toxic employees are quite selfish and ambitious, so the restrictions in the spirit of “no one in the team receives bonuses if the sprint goal is not achieved at least 50%” become a real blow for them. This means that for everyone the progress of the others becomes important and there is no guarantee that in the interests of the sprint it is the task of this employee that will be brought to an end if its priority is lower than that of the others. This makes it difficult to curry favor.
  • To tie everyone’s bonuses to the attitude towards him within the team, and not just the boss.
    The idea of ​​an open discussion of the distribution of premiums based on the results of the sprint is quite revolutionary, not all organizations have the guts to implement this. It is worth warning that this approach has many pitfalls and can have a negative effect, for example, if a new employee is introduced into the team or an informal leader is present. But the habit of walking over the heads of others in such conditions definitely goes sideways. Even the periodic application of this practice increases the desire to justify their actions to other members of the team and makes it possible to get well-deserved bonuses to those who are more in favor of overall success.
  • In time to notice resistance to the implementation of previous tips.

    It is toxic employees who will be the first to notice for themselves the risks associated with this approach, therefore they will explicitly or secretly sabotage the process of introducing this practice, try to discredit it in every possible way before it reduces their opportunities for parasitizing others.

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