Structure of Development Teams

I just came across another interesting statement about the size of development teams:

The good systems that are presently working were written by small groups. More than twenty programmers working on a project is usually disastrous.

What makes this so interesting is its origin. It was said in 1968 during the famous NATO Conference on Software Engineering. Fifty years later I think this is still remarkably true. But why?

In my post on the size of development teams I was aiming at complexity and scope as drivers. The interesting question, though, is whether there are additional points to consider. Having worked pretty closely with some other projects in the meantime, I came across another influencing factor: availability of qualified staff.

You can look at this in several ways. The first hurdle is obviously to have enough developers with the required experience at your disposal. The second is how to allocate their capacity to the portfolio of activities you run. Or put differently: How do you deal with the shortage of know-how you face? Because, let’s be honest, there is always more demand for highly skilled developers than can be supplied. (I am having a déjà vu with my “beloved” macro economics lecture 😉 back in 1996.)

If your organization is above a certain size, chances are that overall a sufficient numbers of good people work there. Does that put you in a better position than some poor fellow working for a small company? Not really. Because your project competes for these folks with all the other work within the organization. And what is the difference compared to competition with an external market? Yes, if you have really goof connections to higher management, you can escalate things and possibly get additional people. But you will also burn bridges in the process, which is usually too high a price.

So instead you probably end up with the usual mix of folks: Very few rock stars, many middle-of-the-road folks, some promising newbies, and the occasional looser that nobody wants. Can you deliver something really great with such a mix? It will be difficult in a typical corporate setup where you have to somehow involve everybody. And this involvement of the less qualified half of people will slow down the “upper” half.

It is a very delicate subject and there are many fine lines, some from a legal perspective and many more from decency-to-others point of view. Also, the organization needs to think about tomorrow and therefore must have a “funnel” of to-be-rockstars, which need the best training they can get. And the latter is always working on a difficult project with experts and learn from them. But what few organizations do, is look at competence levels in detail and factor them in.

In other words: You can learn a lot from someone who is one, two, or perhaps three levels above you. But if someone is ten years ahead of what you currently know, the difference is just too big. You will only grasp a small fraction of what they teach you, and even that with a considerable risk of misunderstandings. And they honestly cannot understand why you are not following their great advice. Mutual frustration and dislike are usually the result.

Whether you take competence levels into account or not, considerable effort needs to be spent on non-development activities. If you have a taste for management and leading people that will be a great opportunity for you. But if your primary concern is getting something great and possibly visionary delivered, you should seriously consider a totally different approach: an underground project.

Flying under the radar can really be liberating. This must not be confused with idling around or working on some obscure pet project. It is truly about delivering what the organization needs but cannot accommodate in its own structure. Of course you should be certain that your boss will not fire you, if he or she finds out. But as you probably already guessed, driving an underground project does not mean that you are freed from politics, lobbying etc. On the contrary! You must prepare upfront quite carefully how you counter resistance or outright attacks. And yes, you are running a personal risk. But there is no reward without risk.

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