Talent Code Applied

Talent Code is a book where Daniel Coyle describes deep learning through short repetitions and feedback loops. I have applied this approach in coaching sports and in business.

Talent Code’s REPS approach (Reaching/Repeating, Engagement, Purposefulness, Strong, direct feedback) can be applied in software development, and it can also grow the talent in your business / engineering organization This is referred to in The Lean Startup as the Build/Measure/Learn feedback cycle, and though the focus there is on learning, innovating and improving on customer needs, the same applies to the teams iterating through the process of finding the best way on executing delivery to that end.

I applied this approach on a ski trip with my friend Joe for whom it was his second time on skis. Instead of doing a few runs on the bunny slope, we went to the top of the mountain is did very many, very short traverses going down the hill. That approach resulted in well over 100 falls on that day, but after each traverse that initially ended in a fall, there was opportunity for very immediate and relevant feedback.

Talent Code - REPS on the Slopes

Talent Code on the Slopes

Not everyone learning to ski would have followed me to the top of the mountain in near gale force winds for their second time skiing ever. Most who have heard this story tell me they don’t want to learn to ski with me. However, Joe trusted me and followed me up there, was willing to fall, get up, listen to what I had to say, and he would go again knowing full well the most likely outcome would be another fall.

Joe got up from each fall, and he didn’t think about the last or next fall even – he was thinking about getting feedback on what went wrong so he could do it better on the next stretch. Not everyone has the perseverance and courage to do that, and I give Joe a lot of credit for that. It does also help to have established a relationship of trust that I was solving for his learning and growth. That foundation of trust is vital if you hope to guide individuals into trying new things they may not be comfortable with.

Talent Code - Tim Ferris on skiing

I later came across an interview with Tim Ferriss included at the end of The Art of Learning – An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by chess and Tai Chi world champion Josh Waitzkin. Josh relates his experience skiing with ’60s Olympic legend Billy Kidd. Billy asked him:

“Josh, what do you think are the three most important turns of a ski run?”

Billy points out: “if your last three turns are precise, then what you’re internalizing on the lift ride up is precision.” We did many short traverses instead of a couple of long runs, and we reviewed each one. He was able to internalize what he did right and what he needed to improve after each fall.

Range – David Epstein’s Perspective

In his book Range – Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein sites a longs list of examples across multiple fields that demonstrate the value of not focusing on becoming an expert in one field and that leads us to see things from a narrow perspectives. He writes of musicians and athletes that benefits from having learned multiple instruments or sports before settling on one to perfect. The notion is that we learn to learn even better when the patterns we are discovering vary greatly.

In Joe’s runs down the expert slope, each traverse was different in what skiers and snow-boarders crossed his path when, how steep it was, how many moguls lay in the path, what lay at the end of the traverse, etc. Next time we may try snow boards, then wake-boarding and surfing, etc. Combining multiple, short iterations of learning along with variation reinforces our ability to recognize and master patterns in a world of ever changing paradigms.

See Also:

Coyle’s Qualities of a Master Coach

Daniel Coyle describes four qualities of a master coach when coaching within a specific sport or field.

  1. The Matrix:  Coaches with deep, task-specific knowledge utilize innovative responses to a student’s efforts to evoke deeper learning. These coaches had typically spent many years mastering their craft and myelinating their own circuits.
  2. Perceptiveness: Master coaches are curious about individuals and leverage insights about their students to tailor their coaching.
  3. GPS Reflex: Coaches reflexively give immediate feedback to help students navigate challenges as they practice.
  4. Theatrical Honesty: Coaches with theatrical flair leverage drama and character to give honest feedback to their students while being morally honest when pointing out errors.

Talent Code’s REPS

Daniel Coyle also describes four aspects of coaching/learning: REPS: R – Reaching/Repeating, E – Engagement, P -Purposefulness, and S – S – Strong, Direct, Immediate Feedback. These REPS also lend themselves well in the filed of software development.

R – Reaching/Repeating

  • MVPs Developing Minimal Viable Products that you deliver to customers gets fast feedback, and you can learn and improve in small increments and the heightened importance of delivering quality to a customer can also serve as a primal cue.
  • Agile Sprints Iterating in short development sprints further shortens the cycle.
  • Discrete Tasks
    Breaking sprint objectives into discrete tasks that are followed by tests runs can further tighten the feedback loop.
  • Microservices Deploying new functionality incrementally in the form of independent micro-services also increases the ability for tighter, more focused loops, and this speeds up learning and establishing processes that are continuously being improved and optimized.
    Uber employs their Micro Deploy cycles to leverage microservices for Continuous Delivery in their application of the Talent Code.
Talent Code applied to software engineering
Uber Engineering’s Micro Deploy: Deploying Daily with Confidence
The REPS cycle as a metaphor for the software development cycle
DevOps and Microservices – Symbiotes

E – Engagement

  • Autonomy Don’t provide your engineers with the technical solution they implement, but rather with a clear statement of the problem. Allow them to arrive at the best solution, and this will empower them through the Multiplier approach. Providing the solution is a dis-empowering Diminisher approach.
  • Challenge and Mastery Engineers love to improve their craft, and if you focus first on time to delivery, you’re sending a message that time trumps quality. Instead lead them with the objective of finding the most efficient, elegant and sound solution, and you’ll feed their drive.
    Dan Pink underscores that Autonomy, Challenge and Mastery motivates people much more that monetary gain.

P – Purposefulness

  • Clear Problem Statements Provide a clear understanding the value to the business, and the customer will empower and motivate engineers to come up with the best solutions in striving to solve for an understood purpose.
    Dan Pink refers this as the “Purpose Motive”

S – Strong, Direct, Immediate Feedback

  • Feedback from MVPs to Customer Deliver MVPs and incremental improvements to your customers, and you get the fastest real feedback on how well your solutions are received by your customers. Sometimes, this can result is very strong, clear feedback that allows us to learn and course correct before we invest further down an errant path and we learn more quickly.
  • Sprint Retrospectives One of the most valuable aspects of doing Agile Sprints is what a team can learn from a retrospective. Here the team decides what worked well – to keep, what – didn’t – to stop, and what could be improved – to change. When I ran Yahoo!Games, I brought the release cycle down from months to releasing at changes at the end of every sprint. The learning of the loop came through adding customer feedback to the retrospective at the end of a sprint, and we then continued to tighten that loop to daily releases to production.
  • Running Tests After Each Completed Task A fast way to get strong, clear and immediate feedback is to break work down into discrete tasks that include tests written to stress and break the code that was just written. This can enable a feedback, learning cycle that can occur on a daily basis and it is another reason to break down work and not leaving the testing and validation to the end of a lengthy product development cycle.
  • Code Reviews on Each Submit Another very fast turn-around can come in the form of code reviews any time an engineer submits a change.

Applying The Talent Code at IMVU: Methods of Rapid and Continuous Feedback

Continuous Deployments at IMVU
When I joined IMVU (The Lean Startup), we were not only doing MVPs (Minimal Viable Products), but we were deploying code to production in incremental changes every ~40 minutes. I helped bring that down under 9 minute cycles, and those pushes were typically in the form of A/B experiments where we could quickly learn which were more effective at improving customer experience. We also had an Immune System which would automatically rollback changes that went out of bounds in terms of memory or disc usage, customer sessions times, etc.

5-Why’s in Blameless Post Mortems are another key aspect of a Lean Startup. Learning is also greatly enhanced when things go wrong and we as quickly as possible do a Post Mortem where we get to the root cause of what went wrong with the objective of learning (not blaming). This too facilitates learning through a feedback cycle, and it serves to make individuals and the team stronger. The energy right after a major issue can also serve as a primal cue to help ignite deep learning.

Talent Code - as applied in The Lean Startup
The Lean Startup by Eric Ries as per StartupLessonsLearned.BlogSpot.com as depicted by Visually.

Kaizen as it Relates to Talent Code

The notion of many small, incremental improvements is known as Kaizen from lean manufacturing, and it also works well with the approach of many small reps with lots of opportunities for small incremental improvement also aligns well with the REPS described in The Talent Code.

John Boyd’s OODA Loop

Boyd’s “Observe, Orient, Decide, Act” also underscores the benefits of repetitive learning cycles/loops similar to those in The Talent Code

John Boyd's OODA Loop

Firing Bullets then Cannonballs

In his book, Great by Choice, Jim Collins uses the following metaphor (backed by lots of real world examples):

Talent Code Applied: Fire Bullets, then Cannonballs

Excerpt from Great by Choice: Picture yourself at sea, a hostile ship bearing down on you. You have a limited amount of gunpowder. You take all your gunpowder and use it to fire a big cannonball. The cannonball flies out over the ocean…and misses the target, off by 40 degrees. You turn to your stockpile and discover that you’re out of gunpowder. You die. But suppose instead that when you see the ship bearing down, you take a little bit of gunpowder and fire a bullet. It misses by 40 degrees. You make another bullet and fire. It misses by 30 degrees. You make a third bullet and fire, missing by only 10 degrees. The next bullet hits—ping!—the hull of the oncoming ship. Now, you take all the remaining gunpowder and fire a big cannonball along the same line of sight, which sinks the enemy ship. You live. 

Referring back to the example of Joe at the top of the hill. We could have chosen to point our skis straight downhill and just go for it. That may have been the fastest means to get to the bottom of the hill, much as starting by firing the cannonball. It likewise could have ended in demise or serious injury for Joe. The short traverses were the equivalent of firing bullets first. “First, you fire bullets (low-cost, low-risk, low-distraction experiments) to figure out what will work—calibrating your line of sight by taking small shots.

Build, Measure, Learn

Another perspective on the feedback cycle is that of “Build, Measure, Learn” (BML). “BML is a process of building a product, measuring consumer metrics and learning from them to better respond to customer needs and improve the product for the ultimate sustainability of the company.” See: Definition: Build-Measure-Learn (BML).

Talent Code, OKRs and the Superbowl

If you start a season with winning the Superbowl as your big Objective. You can break that objective into Key Results of winning games against competitors each with unique strengths and weaknesses.

With each game win as an Objective, each possession becomes a contributing Key Result. The Objective of scoring on each possession is broken down into Key Results of gaining yards on every play. Each player contributes in their own way to the effectiveness of the play.

Now, you’re down to the level of quick iterations with learning potential – the huddle can serve as a quick retrospective or post mortem on what worked and didn’t in that play as a means of Strong Feedback. Likewise, each player can apply their learnings on the last play to be more effective on the next.

Now, your team is applying Talent Code’s REPS approach (Reaching/Repeating, Engagement, Purposefulness, Strong, direct feedback)


See also:

Talent Code – Building Myelin 

Rapid Iteration in Software Development

Drive – What Motivates us

Multipliers – Leaders that Empower Others

Outliers and 10,000 Hours of Practice

The Talent Code provides an alternative to Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule.

OODA (Obeserve, Orient, Decide, Act) Loop

John Boyd’s OODA Loop is another parallell to the ideas present in Coyle’s The Talent Code


Beyond the Talent Code

Applying the Talent Code by itself is of course only one ingredient for everything to come together to make an effective learning environment and success business.

  • Villains – turning the villains that might challenge success into wins
  • Leaning Out – creating a supportive culture to multiply strengths
  • Radical Candor – creating an environment of open communication
  • 10x Engineers – understanding what makes people excel