Zone coverage

When my kids were little, one of them played soccer in a kindergarten league. If you’ve never seen a kindergarten soccer game, it goes like this: There are twenty kids on the field. Sixteen of them (eight from each team) are all in one crowd, inches away from each other, kicking at the same ball (in no particular direction), one goalie at each end, and usually two kids daydreaming, picking flowers or bugs or something. It is a stark contrast to professional soccer, where each player has a zone to cover and generally sticks to that zone.

If you don’t know much about the game, it doesn’t really seem like a big deal. After all, it’s not if you win or lose, it’s how you play the g… Wait for it…

Zones are important. They are important because if the players don’t cover their zones, the opponent could simply kick the ball to an area where there is no coverage and own that part of the field. Even the kids eventually realize that if they can kick the ball away from a crowd, they can get a break-away and run it into the goal with little resistance. As they get older, they learn to stick to their zones better and the game becomes much more challenging for the opponents.

A good IT team is always organized into zones as well. Of course, it takes a lot of discipline, and you need teammates that you can count-on to cover their zones properly. In fact, most well-functioning IT teams usually use double coverage (2 people for each zone). That way, people can maybe take a vacation sometimes, without leaving a zone completely uncovered.

When I started my career, there was so much to know and so few people. I found myself doing nearly everything. As time has passed and the IT industry has matured, I have found that I needed to let-go of the notion of doing everything myself. In fact, I have found that trying to do everything myself is actually a bad idea.

Since there is so much to know, it is nearly impossible for one person to be good at all of it. Maybe if you only work with very-few technologies and keep your standards low, you could actually do everything, but you would do it poorly. Obviously, this is not a good strategy. If you have any integrity, then you know that you want to raise your standards and broaden your company’s horizons. So, if it all rests on one person’s shoulders, then that person will end up holding-back the IT and probably the rest of the company, as a consequence.

No, clearly, a much better plan would be to look at your technology stack and form zones that a) leverage your strengths, and then b) reinforce areas that are under-supported. Eg. If we can’t find a more appropriate person to support the “b” zones, then what? somebody has to cover it. While I’m doing that, I’m not covering another zone as well.

If you find yourself, or one of your teammates rushing to cover one person’s zone, too often (ie, the same person, repeatedly), you might have to do something about it:

  1. There are some people who will not grow as long as you are doing their jobs. You think you are helping them, but you are not. Once they face a challenge and overcome it, they might be inspired to conquer other challenges.
  2. [Acknowledging responsibility] is a learned-trait. If you treat people like kids, they will behave like kids (avoiding responsibility). If you treat them like adults, they will act like adults (require/demand responsibility). If this needs to be fixed, it will take some time. Be ready to give it some time.
  3. Allow some failures. Some people ONLY seem to learn from their mistakes. Now you are thinking: “What?! Are you suggesting that I set someone up for failure”. No, I am not. You are only “setting someone up for failure”, if you let them fail without learning something from it, or if you place blame and blindly punish them. If a person makes a mistake, the proper reaction should be “okay, let’s get past it. We will fix it (and by “we”, I really mean you will fix it and I will encourage you). Then we will look at how to prevent this from happening again”. Encouraging words are useful, such as “I know you can do this. Can I count on you?”

Having one awesome player is great. Think of famous athletes like Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Terry Bradshaw, Jeff Gordon or Pele. Each of them has been legendary in their sports. However, they couldn’t have done it without their teams. Look at equally awesome athletes who were on crappy teams and never really got anywhere: Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordon (Washington Wizards), Billy Sims (or anyone else who has played for the Detroit Lions), David Beckham. All of them were talented but not talented enough to be the entire team.

Winning isn’t everything, right? It’s how you play the game, that really counts. Don’t lose sight of that. So, don’t do it all yourself. Set up zones and mind your zones.


About Tim Golisch

I'm a geek. I do geeky things.
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