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How to be a STAR engineer

December 31, 2018 • 6 min read

This is a summary of ”How to be a STAR engineer” by Robert E. Kelley. It’s a roundup of the research committed at Xerox PARC more than 30 years ago with the goal to figure out what really makes software engineers effective and top-performing.

The path to stardom

Most people have preconceptions about what causes star productivity, and most of their notions are as wrong as can be.

Workers and their bosses tend to disagree on who the star performers are.

There were no quantifiable differences between star performers and other workers based on 45 factors (cognitive, psychological, social, and organizational characteristics) that managers and star performers close to the action believed led to outstanding performance.

Most engineers come to the workplace with more than enough potential to succeed splendidly, but most end up as run-of-the-mill. The stars were not standouts because of what they had in their heads but because of how they used what they had. The productivity mystery lay in learning how to transform their talents into high productivity — much like turning potential energy into kinetic energy. Stars, we saw, are made, not born.

Nine work strategies

We found that you need to change how you do your work and how you work with others. Star performers in fact do their work quite differently from the pack. They weave their starring strategies into a consistent pattern of day-to-day behavior. But any engineer with the necessary smarts and motivation can acquire their power.

Stellar performance is based on a set of nine interlocking work strategies. They are ranked in order of importance and synthesized into an expert model.

1. Blazing trails

Average performers, imagine initiative is coming up with ideas for doing their job better or volunteering for little extras in the workplace, like planning the annual picnic or recruiting people for the blood drive.

Star-quality initiative means:

  • Seeking out responsibility above and beyond job description, while still completing your core assignment.
  • Undertaking extra efforts for the benefit of co-workers or the larger group.
  • Stepping willingly into the gaps between job descriptions where important work often pops up, grabbing your share of it, and doing a bang-up job on it.
  • Sticking tenaciously to an idea or project and following it through to successful implementation.

Average performers suppose that only big initiatives worth the effort, while star performers always looking for day-to-day efforts, that had the same impact over time.

Star performers also believe that initiatives will increase their experience.

Any newcomer in a unit of professionally skilled, competitive workers must demonstrate initiative. Such behavior impresses managers, but more importantly, it impresses your co-workers and customers. Co-workers look for people who do not lock themselves within a rigid job description. They want colleagues, who are willing to step into the gaps between jobs because they know that if the new worker does less than her or his share, the rest of them will have to carry more of the load. They need people who extend themselves — whether it be to their colleagues, to the customers, or to the changing needs of the marketplace.

2. Knowing who knows

Average performers think networking just means building a grapevine for learning the latest office gossip, or socializing with people in their field and with executive head hunters who can help them in future job hunting.

A star knows it is vital to develop ahead of time dependable two -way streets to the experts, who will help each other complete the tasks critical to the bottom line. The goal is to minimize the knowledge deficit that every engineer discovers as she or he measures up to a new job.

Stars’ networks differ from typical workers’ networks in two important respects. They have the right people in them, and they are faster.

3. Proactive self-management

Average performers believe self-management means managing time and projects better. If their work is done within schedule, budget, and specifications, then they must be good self-managers.

Star producers know that much more than time or project management is at stake. These requirements you are expected and paid to meet. Their work strategy helps them proactively create opportunities, direct work choices, perform extra well on the job, and carve out a career path. It enables them to develop a portfolio of talents and work experiences that increases their value to the company.

4. Getting the big picture

Average performers suffer from tunnel vision. They see the world from their viewpoint only and keep pushing the same points over and over again.

Stars, in contrast, step outside their own viewpoint and adopt a variety of perspectives: “How do my customers think about this? What do my competitors think? How about my colleagues? What about top management or the shareholders?” Because they can evaluate the relative importance of a variety of viewpoints, they are able to improve on the product or develop better solutions to problems.

5. The right kind of followership

Average performers believe that followership — that is, the relationship with people having organizational authority and power over them — means showing managers and co-workers that they know how to toe the line, take orders without question, and not threaten the leader.

Star producers learn very early the importance of a more positive form of followership, of being a good No. 2 — that it is often more important to make the assist than the score. They are actively engaged in helping the organization (and usually the leader) succeed, while exercising independent, critical judgment about what needs to be done and how to do it. Star followers work cooperatively with a leader to accomplish the organization’s goals even when there are personality or workplace differences.

6. Teamwork as joint ownership of a project

Average performers think teamwork means working cooperatively with others on a project or problem and doing your part on the team.

Star producers take it to a higher level. They see it as a complex series of skills that involve taking joint “ownership” of goal-setting, group commitments, work activities, schedules, and group accomplishments. It also means being a positive contributor to the group’s dynamics — helping everyone feel part of the team, dealing with conflict, and assisting others in solving problems.

7. Small-l leadership

Average performers are fascinated by leadership with a big L: Big Vision, Big Charisma, Big Success. To them, leadership seems an in-born trait whose owners can flaunt their egos by being in charge, having the power to make most key decisions, and delegating whatever does not interest them.

Star performers, on the other hand, view leadership as a work strategy that builds on expertise and influence to convince a group of people to unite on a substantial task. The undertaking can involve a range of efforts — helping the group create a clear vision of where they want to go along with the high commitment and trust necessary to get there; finding the resources to accomplish the task; and shepherding the project to successful completion.

8. Street smarts

Average performers focus overly on ingratiating themselves as the surest way to get ahead in the workplace. They also pay obsessive attention to office politics or patronizingly ignore it.

Star producers know that any large organization has legitimate competing interests. Organizational savvy enables them to steer their way amid these clashes, to promote cooperation, address conflicts, and get things done. It can involve expertise in managing individual or group dynamics, understanding when to avoid conflicts and when to meet them head on, and knowing how to make allies out of potential enemies.

9. Show and tell

Average performers think Show-and-Tell means getting noticed by upper management through slick presentations, long-winded memos, and public displays of affection for their own work. They focus primarily on their image and their message, not on the audience.

Star producers use a series of skills involving selecting which information to pass on to which others and developing the most effective, user- friendly format for reaching and persuading a specific audience. At its highest level, Show-and-Tell involves selecting either the right message for a particular audience or the right audience for the particular message.

Becoming a star

Becoming highly productive does not require magic. When engineers produce at undistinguished levels, it is seldom because they are less capable — it is because they never learned the work strategies that lead to high productivity. Once these engineers are given access to the star strategies, their productivity takes off.

Star Performer productivity is not the result of innate traits — like IQ, personality, or character. Productivity depends on how they do their jobs. The everyday work strategies of the star performers, not gimmicky products or working long hours, make the difference. When certain star performer strategies are systematically integrated into everyday work routines, then productivity improvement rates can double. For those groups excluded from the “old boys” network, like minorities and women, productivity improvement rates can increase 400 percent.


Stepan Kuzmin

Stepan is a software engineer and GIS specialist with 10 years of experience in solving problems with technologies.