I once found myself sitting across a conference table from an interesting applicant. His resume was strong, but quite varied, and difficult to categorize. We’re always looking for an A-player to hire, but I needed help seeing where he’d fit. So I asked him what his strongest trait was.

“I’m an athlete,” he replied.

And he was, at that. After playing ball for a Division 1 school, he’d then gone on to the Pros, putting in six or seven years as a professional sports star before retiring. Oh, and he was a two-time Olympian, as well. If anyone I’ve ever interviewed could make the claim to be an athlete, it was he. But ironically, that’s not what he meant.

Most people with any knowledge of basketball know the story of Michael Jordan’s draft day in 1984. Legendary basketball coach Bobby Knight had coached Michael, then playing college ball, through the 1984 Olympic Gold Medal run, and had seen genius. On draft day, he urged his old friend Stu Inman, General Manager of the Portland Trailblazers, to draft Jordan. Unfortunately, the Trailblazers didn’t need a shooting guard.

“But we need a center!” Inman shouted to Knight.
“So play him at center!” Knight famously shouted back.

For those not familiar, bear in mind that most centers are in the seven-foot range, and so his opponents would tower over a 6’6″ MJ. But Knight knew that an athlete of Jordan’s caliber, whom he later described to Larry King as, “the best player in a team sport that’s ever played anything,” would transform whatever team he was on, no matter what position he played.

Of course, the Trailblazers didn’t draft Jordan – they drafted a solid center instead, who went on to have a long, if injury-ridden career. Michael Jordan was snapped up the next minute by the Chicago Bulls, going on to lead them to a record-breaking three consecutive world championships, and becoming one of the most iconic basketball players of all time.

What my interviewee meant was that he wasn’t a shooting guard, or a center, or a designated hitter, or even a pitcher who couldn’t field, or throw, or hit. He was someone that you could put in at whatever slot you needed filled, and he’d pick up the role, play that position, and excel. He wasn’t described by a position, but rather by his ability to play.

To me, that’s a more important selling point than someone’s specific skills with any technology. Sure, sometimes you just need a DBA because you have that specific need – like the ’84 Trailblazers. But more often than not, the better hire is the one who can master whatever role is needed.

This is especially true in technology. I’m old enough to remember life before Java. I remember a co-worker downloading one of the first versions from Sun and starting to teach himself this new web language. Before that, there were no Java programmers. The point is, our world moves fast, and if you’re keeping up with technology at all, people on your staff will invariably have to learn the latest thing at some point.

As a case in point, Calavista Software designs applications for other companies. We don’t just use the same technologies over and over – we have architects whose job it is to recommend the most appropriate solution for the customer’s problem. They spend most of their time keeping up with new languages, changes to frameworks, third-party solutions that can be integrated, and more. They’ll start with a dozen or so approaches, then winnow that list based on known features and requirements. And then they’ll take the remaining contenders and actually prototype solutions with each, so that they can see exactly what sort of capabilities and performance they’ll get in this specific case.

They’ll decide if they think the developers will be able to use it effectively. They’ll evaluate whether the documentation is robust enough for the customer to be able to pick up the technology and take the project over when we’re done. Then they’ll make a recommendation based on dozens of data points, and be able to walk the customer through the choices they’ll need to make.

That kind of work requires both enormous breadth and depth. It requires an athlete, not a position player. Which leads me to this caveat:  Note that I’m not suggesting you should hire the guy who’s equally mediocre at everything. Or even “pretty good” at everything. A company is defined by its ability to execute, and one that consists of jacks of all trades, and masters of none, would be underwhelming, to say the least. You must have excellent talent in every position. So you need to hire people who excel in the roles you need.

But when you have the opportunity to hire a real athlete – one who is truly gifted – you need to do that, whether or not they’ve got the exact skill set you’re looking for. Draft Michael Jordan, and play him at center. Because those guys can transform your team. Not just because they’ll learn to play whatever position you give them well, but because their excellence is contagious. I’ve never played basketball with Michael Jordan, but I have spent a lot of time with exceptional people – in academia, in the military, and in industry. And I can assert from experience that when you’re around extraordinary people, you come to expect extraordinary results from yourself.

And who doesn’t want a team of people who expect the extraordinary?