CXO

Interview with Robert Nagle: IT teamwork lessons from extreme sports

A high-functioning team is critical in the software development arena, as well as in wilderness adventure racing. Robert Nagle participates in both and finds that the parallels between them aren't as far-fetched as you might think.


You might not believe that fighting starvation and exhaustion in the wilds of Borneo could help you understand the value of corporate team-building. But Robert Nagle—whose participation in extreme sports for the past six years has plunged him into life-threatening situations in remote parts of the globe—believes there are parallels between winning wilderness races and success in IT. His adventure racing team is extraordinary, he says, which has given him unique insights into the nature of teamwork at its best. He brings these lessons back to the workplace and shares them with us.
Since 1998, Robert Nagle has been director of software development at InterSystems, where he manages a team of developers working in several countries. A native of County Cork, Ireland, Nagle came to the United States in 1979. He has worked as general manager and vice president of Molecular Simulations, Inc., where he was responsible for the life sciences market and for research and development in technology. His interest in this field brought him to Harvard, where he spent five years researching molecular modeling and high performance computing.
TR: Since you have a lot of direct reports, what kinds of people challenges have you experienced?
Nagle: Here at InterSystems, we believe in having a small number of highly talented people. Rather than having an extremely large organization, we’re trying to really skim off the top and just have very powerful people who are able to achieve a lot. I found that is a much more successful way of developing software than having huge teams where you don’t have the same level of quality and the same caliber of individual involved.

We have a very distributed organization. I’m in an office here [Cambridge, MA]. A lot of people work from home and, for some of them, home is in a different country. So I’ve got a worldwide development organization, with people working in Spain, Brazil, and the United States. [My challenges are] ensuring that communication is working correctly and that people have the information that they need. That’s definitely a challenge, but it’s also proving to be very successful in terms of having very highly productive people.

I think that the most important thing for people is to know where they’re headed. We tend to select the kind of people who, once they know what the direction ought to be, are able to figure out a lot of things themselves to get there.

TR: Is there a crossover from your experience in sports back to your work?
Nagle: There are a few things that I really enjoy about my sport that mirror themselves in my work environment, such as:
  • Know where you’re going
  • Trust your teammates; be non-judgmental
  • Trust your decisions now, but…
  • …Review them later

Know where you’re going
Nagle: It’s a very simple maxim: Know where you’re going. In our racing, it’s really important to have a clear objective for the team. Also, it’s very important to have a clear set of circumstances in which you’re trying to reach those objectives. A lot of software development falters because the objectives aren’t there, and the people don’t know where they’re headed. So I really stress that, and try to emphasize what the goal is.

Have a high level of trust in your team; be non-judgmental
Nagle: I also think that having a high level of trust in people and a non-judgmental attitude towards people is very important. Our racing is very stressful, a very intense kind of experience. We are sleep-deprived, and we don’t have any food. So we get really grouchy and angry. If you’ve ever worked around the clock for 24 hours, you probably know how hard it was to make decisions under those circumstances. Now extrapolate that out for 48 or 72 hours or 96 hours, and have yourself climbing mountains, and moving down through big white water rapids, and making all those kinds of decisions. You can see how intense an experience it is.

Trust your decisions now, but…
Nagle: What we found is that you have to be able to make decisions. You have to be able to put trust in other people to make decisions, and just move forward. Yes, mistakes will be made, but you have to treat each situation that you find yourself in as the problem to be solved right now. [It’s] not an opportunity to trace back and say, ‘Who the hell put us into this stupid situation?’ That happens in racing. ‘What idiot was it that said we should come around this side of the river? Look where we’ve ended up.’ It’s the same way in software design. ‘What moron said we should use this particular algorithm?’ It just doesn’t work. Having the kind of perspective that says ‘what moron’ [is what] destroys teams. The way to be successful is to say, ‘Okay here’s the circumstance that we’re in right now. We need to move forward. What are our alternatives, and what’s the right path? Making those decisions, moving on, and pressing forward quickly. That’s what it’s really all about. That and keeping going. That’s what I do when I’m racing, and that’s what we do in our development as well.

…Review them later
Nagle: There is a time to come back and analyze what happened—and it’s very important to do that analysis—but usually not in the pressure of the situation. When the project is completed and when the race is over, sit down and look at the decisions that were made. What were good decisions? What were bad decisions? How is your process working? How is it not working? Where is somebody strong? Where is he or she weak? Take action appropriately then, but not under the stress of the competition. We do that in our racing, and we find it as a very positive reinforcement mechanism. And I do that in software development too. If we make a mistake, that’s fine. We’ve got to deal with it now. But, at some point, we’ll come back and analyze what our processes were and make sure that they’re improved so that doesn’t happen again.
Approximately six times a year, Nagle and his adventure racing team, called Eco-Internet, participate in grueling international races that include such sports as mountain climbing, white-water rafting, running, canoeing, and biking. His team is a two-time champion of the Discovery Channel’s Eco-Challenge, having defeated dozens of other teams, including one made up of Navy Seals. Eco-Internet recently competed in Raid the North Extreme, a four-day Canadian event made up of trekking, biking, canoeing, and climbing. The team finished 29 hours ahead of everyone else. Their next challenge is Raid Gauloises. It will take place early spring in the Himalayas.
Extreme racing: From rivers to mountain peaks and all that’s between
TR: Tell us about the races you have been involved in.
Nagle: Our races are multiday, multisport, wilderness races. We set out at some point in the backwoods. We’re given a map and a series of checkpoints. In other words, there’s no strict racecourse. We have to get from Point A to Point B, and it’s up to us to figure out how to get there.

TR: What is the remotest place you have been to?
Nagle: I’ve raced across the Sahara. I’ve been on top of a 20,000-foot snowcapped volcano 50 miles south of the equator. We’ve been in tremendously remote places.

TR: How big is your team?
Nagle: Teams are usually four people; sometimes three, sometimes five, but typically four. It varies a little bit from race to race. The teams are always co-ed. Our races last anywhere from three to ten days. When I said they’re multi-sports, that means they can involve pretty much any non-motorized discipline. We always run. We always have some biking—usually mountain biking. We always have some paddling—we might paddle canoes, kayaks, or white-water rafts. We’ve paddled native boats in China and [others from] all over the world. It almost always involves some form of climbing or mountaineering. The list is endless. So we have to carry all of our equipment and all of our food and get from Point A to Point B. It’s up to us to decide when we’re going to sleep and when we’re going to move. It’s up to us to figure out what the racecourse is all about.

TR: Is it up to you to decide whether you paddle a canoe or a kayak?
Nagle: No, but it may be up to us to decide to jump in and swim down a river rather than travel along the bank. That’s totally up to us. These races take place usually in very remote areas—the outback of Australia, British Columbia, China, the Andes.

So they’re very intense experiences. Our team has been very successful at these kinds of races. There are some really big races around the world, and we’ve won all of the big races. We’re generally considered to be the most successful squad ever at this kind of competition.

The success in these races requires strong physical skills, but typically it’s a measure of how good a team you are [and] how well you work together. That’s because none of these races can be planned out in advance. All kinds of things happen. The weather changes. You’re swimming across a river, and you lose a pack. You lost a critical piece of equipment, but you’ve got to go on. How do you deal with it? You lose your way. Someone always gets hurt. There are always minor injuries, and people get sick because you’re drinking the local water. So how do you nurture your team through all of these stresses and tribulation, and do it better than any other team? That’s what it’s all about.

The story behind the winning team
TR: Do the team members stay the same?
Nagle: More or less. There are three core people who have been members of the team all the time. As I said, there are slightly different formats in the races. Some are three-person teams, most are four, but some are five. So we have a squad of about eight people, and we put together the team based upon what people’s individual commitments are for the year because not everybody can go and do these races all the time. We do about six races a year, and we put together the teams based on people’s availability and interest. The squad members are in Australia, New Zealand, and different parts of the United States. We prepare for all the events using the Internet, and then we just get together at the race. We have a window cleaner in New Zealand. We have a firefighter in San Diego who also happens to be the American female Judo champion. We have a doctor. We have an entrepreneur. We have a mechanical engineer.

TR: What makes your team work so well together?
Nagle: We have found a way of working together that really harmonizes our strengths. We have an understanding about how each of us thinks. We did an interesting psychological profile of all the team members to understand our dominant methods of making decisions and evaluating situations. This was after we’d been successful for a while. We discovered that [our personalities] were quite scattered, but, within the team, we represented all kinds of modes of thinking. We represented them all redundantly. So everyone on the team wasn’t unipolar. They didn’t have just one way of thinking about problems. They weren’t purely analytical. They weren’t purely intuitive. They weren’t just always concerned about the organizational things. They were firing on two or more of those [at once], and so as a team, we covered [the entire] spectrum. So when we make a decision, we tend to have a lot of input from different thinking modes, and more important than that, we listen to one another. Everyone has an equal voice, and I think that’s very important.
Founded in 1978, InterSystems is a vendor of high-performance database management systems for the client/server and Web-based application development market. InterSystems is located in Cambridge, MA.
Do you have an interesting story to tell?
Does your IT group have a serious athletic endeavor (not just Wednesday night beer and volleyball, please!) that you’d like to share with us? If you do, please send us a note. Or if you’d like to make a comment on this article, please post it below. We’d like to hear from you.

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