The NBA season is upon us, and I couldn’t be more excited! A big part of my lifelong basketball obsession has been seeing how players with widely different skill-sets and personalities can still come together to become an effective team. At the risk of sounding self indulgent, it really does remind me of the different roles on the engineering team in a tech company. Just like on a great basketball team, a great technical team should have a mix of “All Stars”, “glue guys”, “specialists”, and other roles needed to accomplish the goal. Here’s a list of six typical technical jobs and the NBA baller(s) most similar to their job role.
Chief Architect: Jordan / LeBron / Kobe
This one’s pretty straightforward. The Chief Architect is like the Michael Jordan, LeBron James or Kobe Bryant of the team. The lead architect is usually someone who understands the entire project through and through, knows how the entire system should be implemented, and could even jump in and do some coding themselves whenever necessary. They’re the ones really driving the project forward and influencing the vision. In the same way, star players like Jordan and Kobe are the ones leading their team towards the championship. For LeBron, the comparison is even more apt because of the way he uses his passing to direct his teammates to the right place on the court, quite literally using his vision to enact great offensive plays.
DevOps Ninja: Scottie Pippen
Every good technical team has that engineer who just seems to know all the moving pieces. This person can write code in at least half a dozen different languages, and is usually writing scripts to automate the compile and build flow for code written in all of them. Come crunch time, this person suddenly turns into a Swiss Army knife, using their versatile coding knowledge to help out whichever part of the project needs more manpower. In software companies, these people may have job titles like Director of DevOps, while in hardware companies they may have titles like Director of CAD Engineering. Their across-the-board versatility and ability to understand how all the pieces of code work together make them like a tech company’s version of Scottie Pippen: ready to contribute wherever they are needed in a multitude of ways. Just like how Scottie Pippen fit in next to Michael Jordan, these engineers may lack the Chief Architect’s sheer genius and vision, but their all-around ability gives them the next best understanding of how the project needs to come together.
Triage / Debug Engineer: Robert Horry
There’s a reason they called Robert Horry “Big Shot Rob.” Anytime it was crunch time in a game he was always there with a key three pointer, like that time he nailed a three pointer against the Kings after the ball got tipped right to him in the Western Conference Finals. Then there was that three pointer he made against the Pistons to win in overtime which brought the Spurs to their third NBA title. Big Shot Rob made countless others that have been immortalized in YouTube compilations.
Just like Big Shot Rob, Triage and Debug engineers come through in the clutch. By the time they’re working on a project, it’s usually late in the game, and any problems that are found could threaten the entire future of the project. Their job is to figure out exactly what is causing the problem, and find a way to fix the problem — by hacking the existing design, removing some key features, or even redesigning an important subsystem late in the game. The stakes are high, and succeeding at the job requires the kind of ice-water-in-your-veins ability to determine under pressure that defined Robert Horry’s career.
That Guy Who Knows One Design Library Insanely Well: Steve Kerr / JJ Redick
Anyone who has worked in Silicon Valley for a few years has met that one engineer who knows one specific coding library or tool a little too well. Maybe they’re a Game Programmer who worked at Unity for a few years and knows everything there is to know about their design library. Maybe they worked at the Node.js foundation and know every last intricacy of optimizing the event loop. Or maybe they’re a hardware engineer who worked at one of the big electronic CAD companies, or a mechanical engineer who worked at Autodesk, and know better than anyone else how to get the most out of their CAD software. Often times, engineers like this jump around until they find that one company that desperately needs their incredibly specialized skill, and cash in big once they find it. At one point, that one skill becomes their calling card, and sometimes their other skills atrophy (if they even bothered to develop other skills at all). It’s like how NBA three point specialists like Steve Kerr and JJ Redick manage to translate their one very refined skill into lucrative and successful careers, in spite of limitations in other aspects of their game.
Machine Learning Engineer: Stephen Curry
For a long time, research on neural networks seemed to be going nowhere, with no major innovations since the late eighties. As a result, interest in the area languished, the domain of only the most hardcore Computer Science nerds in academia. Suddenly, with the recent development of Deep Learning enabling much faster training of neural networks, people who have been working on Machine Learning for years find themselves incredibly in-demand on the Silicon Valley job market. The incredible potential posed by recent innovations in Deep Learning has companies scrambling for Machine Learning talent, with some top candidates receiving million dollar offers. In short, the game evolved to a point where the skills they’ve been building for years is suddenly incredibly valuable.
Steph Curry’s game has benefited from a similar evolution in the way basketball is played. Until recently, highly skilled point guards with seemingly unlimited range were seen as novelties capable of the occasional made for SportsCenter scoring explosions. But then, a perfect series of events lead to Warriors coach Steve Kerr trying a small ball lineup that unexpectedly became the most effective offense in the NBA. All of a sudden, the entire league was going through a three point revolution, and Steph Curry’s skills were exactly what a modern NBA team needs to win championships. Just like Machine Learning engineers, Steph Curry is living through the perfect time to leverage his unique skills.
Quality Assurance: Tyson Chandler / Ben Wallace
Every basketball fan has heard a sportscaster talk about a player who “brings his lunch pail to work”, who gives his team lots of “hustle plays” and does the unglamorous “dirty work” needed to win championships. In the NBA, that comes down to grabbing rebounds, diving for loose balls & steals, and blocking shots — doing all the little things that add up to great defense. The tech world, the equivalent of defense is quality assurance, and its’ best practitioners have job titles like “Software QA Engineer” or “Hardware Design Verification Engineer.”
Like the great defensive players in the NBA, the quality assurance engineers in tech companies often go unappreciated. After all, isn’t the final goal to design and ship a great product? Aren’t the quality assurance guys just supporting the developers and architects doing the “real” work? Just like great defensive basketball players such as Tyson Chandler and Ben Wallace, the engineers working in quality assurance and bug finding take pride in doing the unglamorous aspects of engineering. They know that just like every contributor on a basketball team can make an impact, the “defensive players” on a technical team are also able to make an extremely important impact. Like the best NBA defenders, they take pride in honing their underappreciated craft and relish those moments when they find nasty bugs in their products.
Just like in a basketball game, creating tech products requires people with a number of different skills coming together towards a common goal. Having worked in Silicon Valley for more than 10 years, I’ve seen firsthand how each and every team member can bring value to the table. That being said, a playoff basketball game is a bit more viscerally exciting than the day to day grind of creating tech products, and I’m not sure I’ll be playing “Fantasy Tech Startup Employee” anytime soon!
*** Final Note ***
What do you think? Have we matched the players correctly? What would you add? Feel free to comment and share your thoughts below. This article is dedicated to my friends at Flow House. They run a stellar set of homes made for cohabitating with some of the most amazing individuals from all over the world. From software engineers, to researchers, fortune 500 counterparts, startup founders, interns, directors, PhD candidates, post-docs, designers, investors and more… Flow House is a new way of common living created for those on a mission to get things done in Silicon Valley and meet amazing people along the way. Check it out: https://flow.house/