For those who are unfamiliar with the term: a ninja is somebody who is really really good at his/her trade within IT. It wouldn’t be excessive to refer to this person as “amazing” or “awesome”. If you give this person a challenging or difficult task, it will just get done, no problem. No, wait. It doesn’t just get done, it usually turns out great and people are impressed. It is pretty common for a ninja to exceed expectations.
Every company (with computers) wishes it was staffed with a small army of ninjas. However, most places are lucky if they can get or keep 1 or 2 ninjas. There are a few factors that constrain the ability of any company to find and keep ninjas.
First off, ninjas are a little rare, as you might imagine. They are not as rare as real (karate) ninjas. That is only because real (karate) ninjas are practically invisible until the moment before they kill you. There might be one behind you right now and you wouldn’t know it. In contrast, if there was an IT ninja behind you right now, you would probably know it (and he wouldn’t kill you, so please relax).
The second factor is a result of supply/demand. Since ninjas are somewhat rare, and always in-demand, they tend to be a little pricey. Price and availability of ninjas are the 2 primary factors why most companies lack ninjas.
Another, more subtle factor is the psychological make-up of ninjas. They don’t like to stay-put for very long. They have a hunger for challenges and a thirst for adventure. If a ninja can’t find challenges where he is, then he will become increasingly miserable or agitated. Eventually, one of two things will happen: 1) the ninja will seek challenges elsewhere or 2) you might break the ninja’s spirit and he will become an ordinary person. Rarely, does this result in a domesticated ninja. Usually, you end up with an ex-ninja. Such a person is useful for leading programmers, or maintaining legacy systems. I die a little inside when I think about ninjas being broken like this.
The final factor is that ninjas tend to be quirky individuals. Think back to high-school. Which people seemed to have an advanced or superior knowledge with computers or electronics or science? Were any of them, um, a little weird? I’m sure they’ve grown up by now and they are able to act like adults, but you need to be realistic too. Not all of them went to “manners school”. Some ninjas require some level of “handling”. These ninja-handlers usually get jobs as “sales reps” (or informally: “IT pimps”). Successful pimps are as rare as ninjas.
So, considering the nature of a ninja, most companies find that it is best to rent a ninja instead of buying one. To understand this rationale, consider the following: If you choose to buy (hire) a ninja instead of renting, keep in mind that this is what is required for the care and feeding of a ninja:
- You need to present the ninja with a constant queue of challenges, each being progressively more interesting and difficult. This exercise keeps the ninja sharp and healthy. Also, “idle hands are the devil’s workshop”. You don’t want that.
- You need to have a trained/experienced handler (project manager, sales rep, etc). Keep in mind, I am not talking about an ordinary manager. An otherwise savvy manager, who is not trained/experienced at handling ninjas will probably find it difficult to get productivity out of a ninja and can end up creating conflict instead of harmony. A trained handler is like a steering wheel for a car. You don’t want that horsepower propelling you in some arbitrary direction. Think of the damage that can be done. You need a steering wheel that fits the car, not every steering wheel will fit.
- Keeping a ninja is going to require money. We already discussed the economics of it (supply/demand).
- You need to offer perks. This is an interesting and effective alternative to money. Some places have some odd or surprising perks that end up saving them a lot of money and truly captivating a ninja. If you embrace the idea, it can be fun for you and the ninja. A happy ninja is a loyal and productive ninja.
Some people find this regimen to be exhausting. Providing all of these for a ninja just seems like more work than it is worth. Or worse, some people make a half-hearted attempt at these things and expect that the ninja won’t know the difference. Right. A ninja. He won’t notice the difference. Really?
The best place for a ninja to work is at a consulting company. The pimps gravitate to consulting companies, where they reel-in exciting challenges and good rates. The pimp does the talking and then the ninja goes out and makes the magic happen. This environment is actually ideal for a ninja because it inherently has all of the factors that I just mentioned. Plus, any social/behavioral quirks (from the ninja) can be tolerated for fixed periods of time. 3 months of Beavis and Butthead cranking Metallica in a server room: your server gets awesome-ized and then “b’bye. keep in touch”! Win-win.
Most of the work in a regular company can be done by regular people. Regular people are easy-going, affordable, obedient and loyal. They don’t knock your socks off, but most of the time, you don’t need your socks knocked off. Your socks are fine where they are. With the money you save, you can rent a ninja for a few months to bust-out some magical awesomesauce and then set them free (to help the next company). Your staff bakes the cake and the ninja puts frosting roses on top. Your staff builds a car and the ninja chrome-plates it. You get the picture.
So, you can see that it makes sense for most companies/corporations to hire good people (non-ninjas) and rent a ninja periodically.
This is even more true for small companies. If you work at a small company, your IT budget is tight. Even hiring “regular people” might be a bit of a stretch for your budget. You still need good IT to help you grow, but you will find that things go smoother if you rent some help, periodically. Just watch-out for fake ninjas/paper-tigers (who don’t really know much, but hope you don’t notice the difference) or a sales rep in disguise (who will try to sell you 100,000 worth of IT services or some kind of open-ended contract). All I can say is “do your homework”, check up on them and always be suspicious. Remember: “perfect paranoia is perfect protection.”
If you find a real ninja, you will know it. Keep his/her contact information around. Ninjas are always interested in a challenge.
Final advice: Keep your contracts short, your standards high and your wallet concealed well. Good luck.