Hiring a team of developers and techies that are smarter than you is inevitable. As a manager how do you cope with this and keep things on track?

I’ve always been a fan of hiring smart, and not necessarily the right people. It’s much easier to train a smart person to do an amazing job than hire an average person to be smart.

Successful rugby union coach, Rod Macqueen, took this approach when he took the reigns of the newly formed ACT Brumbies in the 1990s and successfully coached the Australian Rugby Union team to win the World Cup in 1999. Macqueen famously tweaked his team to include the best athletes, not the best structured team on paper. He was the coach that controversially moved Stephen Larkham from fullback to fly half. At the time the Australian team lacked a world class fly-half and had an over supply of talented fullbacks. Larkham went on to become one of the best fly halves Australia has ever seen. Macqueen took other similar calculated risks over his coaching reign and his record of winning 81 percent of international tests is simply amazing, especially considering the state of the Australian Rugby team in the mid 90s.

Back in the world of software development, things can be much the same. As a coach, aka manager, you’re probably in a similar position when choosing and managing a team. As a manager, you’re probably a bit past it to get your hands dirty with day-to-day coding, and if you are doing this it’s called micromanagement. You do, however, have a responsibility to keep on top of what is going on around you in the industry and look after your players, aka your team.

Once you’ve picked your gun team, the hard part is keeping them on track. Recently, I caught up with Jason Zander from Microsoft to talk about the launch of Visual Studio 2008 and what is in the pipeline. Zander is one of the original developers on the .NET Common Language Runtime (CLR) and is now the general manager of the Visual Studio team who looks after the VS IDE, C++, C#, VB, JavaScript, IronRuby and IronPython, Visual Studio for devices on the .NET compact Framework, Poply and Office Tools.

As you could imagine from these responsibilities, Zander works with a fair share of of rock star developers. In his team are the likes of Anders Hejlsberg and other incredibly smart software engineers, architects, and researchers at Microsoft.

“These are really smart folks. The best thing you can do is set some high level themes that makes sure all of our content is coming together but then step back and get out of the way,” Zander said in the interview.

“The key thing for me is letting everyone know what’s the value we are trying to deliver and aggregate that value together. If you look at Visual Studio then little features are good, but, it’s when those features start composing together to make and end-to-end story that things work well.

So for keeping people on track it’s about keeping people informed about the overall picture and how individuals are plugging into that. What’s the big goal and how will you make it work across the board?”

While admitting he sometimes puts his engineering hat on too much to ask too many granular questions Zander realises that while it is technically stimulating and interesting, he needs to let his team shine. Here is the video clip from the interview:

As a final note of advice, never, ever do the egregious and claim your team’s work as your own. As a manager you will be seen to cultivate talented people to perform well and at the same time earn trust amongst your team. To many smart people recognition for their ideas and trusting a manager to handle them correctly is central and it’s doubtful they will trust you with anything else if they can’t share their ideas without fear of poaching.