Isobar: A Community of Free Electrons

Back in 2005, when the technology community lived in the comment section of blogs like joelonsoftware.com and blog.codinghorror.com, I came across a post from Rands about managing a very special type of overachiever developer: the free electron

The free electron is that hyper-smart hands-on technologist that can single-handedly finish a project that has been dragging a full team for months in just a weekend. The type of people who build your company’s resource planner in their spare time, just so they can tinker with new technologies.

I immediately recognized a few of my colleagues and friends in that category and empathised with the the possible consequences of mismanaging them. Free electrons will fix all the problems in your code — even if it means rewriting half of your application in the process. While that can be great, it can also be very disruptive if you are trying to ship a product on a deadline. That hyper-focus on problem-solving can also be troublesome for the team dynamics.

I have run into a few free electrons since reading that article and its lessons proved to be very valuable managing them.

Rands makes the point that, if you are lucky, you will be able to hire one or two free electrons in 20 years. They are that rare. And, although I agree, I have to also say that companies chock-full of free electrons do exist. As a matter of fact, Isobar is one of them.

At the risk of sounding self-promotional,  I can safely say most of our projects have a free electron on them. Some even have more than one at the same time.

When I first joined, over five years ago, I kept scratching my head in disbelief. How can a company attract, let alone function effectively, with such a high count of highly talented yet potentially disruptive technologists?

Free electrons are highly opinionated and very hard to motivate with anything other than exciting problems.  Therefore, it became apparent that our strategic positioning and culture were the answer. Our business was built on signing up for the most challenging problems, tasking very smart people to solve them and giving them all the freedom they need to thrive. Obviously there is more to it than freedom. You also need creative and user experience teams that are constantly pushing the boundaries, creating those challenges, and a business organization that is always  on the lookout for clients with unique problems to solve.

As experience and marketing technology matures, the software we build and the tools we use is slowly graduating to enterprise-tier. This has been the driver of consolidation from the main players (Adobe, Salesforce, etc.) and has brought a new breed of competitors from the technology integrators and business consultancies into the creative agency world.

In this context, the problems we are solving on a daily basis are only getting harder. Our vision of building meaningful experiences for a better tomorrow calls for uncompromising quality, only now we 

have to build them on enterprise platforms. We have more constraints than ever and constraints are the creative energy free electrons use to propel their thinking.

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