Getting Better vs. Passing the Test

Growth Sep 7, 2021

If you’ve spent any amount of time looking at software developer discourse in the last few years, you’ve likely seen a few memes dedicated to the mythical “rockstar”, “10x”, or “god-tier” developer. These terms have become such a cliche that they’re almost always used as a joke or a resumé red flag. However, I’ve noticed the mentality behind them is still taken quite seriously. Take, for instance, this popular piece of advice:

At first glance, this thread appears to be completely uncontroversial. Of course, you want to keep your best developers! But as we continue to examine what makes a team click and how we approach mentorship and growth, the obsession with “best” quickly becomes shortsighted. Overlooked talent is squandered by leadership in just about every discipline, so why would we assume our industry is any different?

If you’re old like me, you may have seen a cult classic 80s movie called “Summer School” with Mark Harmon. If you haven’t seen it, I don’t suggest rushing out and watching this movie because it’s actually bad, but there’s a relevant message in it that I’ve always loved. To quickly recap: a group of students fail high school, so gym teacher Freddy [Harmon] has to get them all to pass a remedial test or he loses a chance at tenure. Naturally, not all the kids pass the test, but Freddy is able to show massive improvements with each student and he ends up gaining tenure in the end.

Summer School classroom antics

Freddy’s teaching style goes through an evolution in the movie, but eventually, he lands on a style that I would roughly describe as ‘benevolent mentor’. He invests himself in each student, and they invest in him in return. He doesn’t just play favorites, he learns what makes each person tick and draws the best out of them. His intentions change as a result — he becomes less interested in the kids passing the test and more interested in how they can improve individually.

The framing of leaders as mentors and coaches is a really foundational concept behind what we’re doing at Botany, but we’ve come to realize that a lot of people have drastically different takes on what the role of a “mentor” or “coach” actually is. As such, we have some philosophical pillars that we use when considering processes and behaviors that we think are worth supporting. The pillar most relevant to this conversation is the idea that individual growth is more important than goals.

Passing a test, closing an issue, or carefully walking up a tower of stacked milk crates is a goal. Growth, by contrast, is improving or acquiring a skill or habit that will make a person more effective in their day-to-day life.

Becoming a better software developer through a consistent set of habits and behavioral improvements is growth. Learning to communicate better with your peers is growth. Our job is often filled with situations where it can take days of research and design to write a single line of code — understanding this reality and not simply looking at the result but rather the path you took to get there is critically important to us.

Many of the tools in Botany’s toolbox help with enabling growth and making it measurable. For example, our endorsements feature helps developers give feedback and praise for tasks that often get overlooked:

Nudges and “While You Were Away” help developers to keep their heads down and focus when they need to. Our behavior insights can help illustrate the different ways that team members can impact a team without simply checking in code to satisfy a quota. We think one of the biggest reasons managers set up arbitrary goals is because it’s hard to show growth without them. Botany can do much better — illustrating growth that’s fit for each team member according to their own strengths and impact.

People on a team will come and go, but when growth is built into the team’s process and culture, the benefits will be more sustainable and a lot longer lasting.


Botany.io is a smart virtual coach designed to help software engineering and managers professionally grow and improve their skills. We can help you get a handle on how you’re spending your time at work and show you how it’s helping or hurting your career opportunities.‌

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Andrew Cunningham

Botany.io CTO & Co-founder

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