Sunday, November 22, 2009

Small Teams, Big Results

How big a team do you need to deliver big results?

When my partners and I created this startup a few years ago, we made the decision to staff the development team with people that we knew, strong developers and test engineers who we had worked with before, people who we trusted and who trusted us. There were a lot of unknowns in what we were trying to achieve, could we secure enough funding, would our business model succeed, did we choose the right technologies, did we have the right design, could we handle all of the details and problems in launching a new market, could we deal with all of the integration and service needs, the regulatory and compliance requirements, …. and all of the other challenges that startups with aggressive goals face. So we wanted to take the risks out of development as much as possible, to assure stakeholders that we could deliver what we needed to, when we needed it.

We were lucky to put together a strong team of senior people: many of them we had worked with for several years, and some of them on only one project. But they were known quantities: we knew what to expect, and so did they. They understood the problem domain well and came up to speed on our design, and they came together as a team quickly of course, re-establishing relationships and norms – so we could hit the ground running. And we’re even more fortunate in that the core of the team has stayed in place from the start, and that we have been able to carefully add a few more senior people to the team, so that we continue leverage the experience and knowledge that everyone has built up.

There are tremendous advantages in working with a small group of experienced people who know what they are doing and care about doing a good job, people who enjoy challenges and who work well together.

In 10x Software Engineering, Construx Software examines the key factors that contribute to exceptional performance in software development: the factors and good engineering practices that drive some individuals and teams to outperform others by up to 10x. Some of these key success factors are keeping teams small, keeping teams together, and leveraging experience: that small teams of senior people, with a strong sense of identity and high levels of trust, staying together through projects, can significantly outperform the norm.

The value of small, experience-heavy teams, and especially of senior people who are deeply committed to doing a good job, committed to their craft, is explored in Pete McBreen’s excellent book Software Craftsmanship: the New Imperative. Pete shows that developers who have worked together in the past are more productive than teams created from scratch: that it is an important success factor for teams to be able to choose who to work with, to choose people who they know they can depend on, and who they feel comfortable working with. He especially emphasizes the importance of experience: that a jelled team of experienced people, working in an open and trusting way, can amplify each other’s strengths and work at hyper-productive levels, and that in a hyper-productive team of experienced developers who are playing at the top of their game, there is little space for beginners or “warm bodies”.

Pete also looks at the issue of team size in Questioning Extreme Programming, a skeptical but balanced review of XP practices which deserves more attention. Pete suggested at the time that
"XP is best suited to projects with a narrow range of team sizes, probably 4 to 12 programmers. Outside that range, other processes are probably more appropriate. The good news, however, is that a great many projects fall into the range of applicability. Indeed, there is some evidence that XP-size projects are predominant in the industry.”
Although my focus here is not on XP practices, the idea that most problems that the industry faces can be managed by small teams, following lightweight but disciplined practices, is an important one.

Back in March 2008, Steve McConnell asked a question on the Construx Forum about how to scale up a development team quickly. My answer would be to keep the core team as small as possible, add people that other people have worked with before and know and trust, and add fewer, more senior, experienced, technically strong staff.

I have worked a lot with large technology companies like IBM and HP, and I was surprised to find out how small the core engineering teams are in those big companies. Where a company like IBM might have a big distributed first-level and second-level support organization, trainers, offshore testing labs, product managers, marketing teams, technical writers, pre-sales support engineers, sales teams, vertical industry specialists, integration specialists, project managers and other consultants: all of these people leverage the IP created by small, senior teams of engineers and researchers. These engineering teams, even at a company like IBM, have a different culture than the customer-facing parts of the organization – less formal and more inward-focused on technical excellence, on “alpha geekdom” – and were more free to come up with new ideas. Google, of course, is an extreme example of this: a large company where lots of software is created by very small, very senior teams driven to technical excellence.

It makes sense to follow the same model in scaling out a team: start with a small, senior core, be careful to add a few senior people, space out your hires, and scale out primarily in supporting roles, allowing the small core engineering team to continue to focus on results, on excellence.

One of the many advantages of small teams is that they spend less time and make fewer mistakes communicating with each other, you can use less formal (and less expensive) and more efficient communication methods. This lets you move faster, and adapt faster to change. If the team is made up of mostly of experienced, senior staff, they can get maximum value out of lightweight “small a” agile methods, take on less unintentional technical debt, again reducing cost and time, and by making fewer mistakes and writing better code in the first place, create a higher quality product, further accelerating results in a virtuous circle.

The key here is to have enough discipline, to follow enough good engineering practices, without weighing the team down too much.

In Nailing the Nominals, Eric Brechner, in charge of engineering excellence at Microsoft, sets the limit at 100,000 lines of code and 15 people. Below this line,
"you can…use emergent design, have a loose upfront design bar, rewrite and refactor the code endlessly while the customer looks over your shoulder. When your code base and your project is bigger, it's solid design and disciplined execution or it's broken code, broken teams, and broken schedules."
In another related post, Green Fields are Full of Maggots, I.M. Wright, er, I mean Eric, goes on to say that
"the regular refactoring and rework needed for emergent design isn't a problem for small code bases. However, when you get above 100,000 lines of code serious rework becomes extraordinarily expensive. That's why customer-focused, up-front architecture is essential for large projects.

This was researched by Dr. Barry Boehm, et al, in May 2004. They found that rework costs more than up-front design on projects larger than 100 KLOC. The larger the project, the more up-front design saves you."
What’s of particular interest to me is that we work right on the edge of these limits, in terms of size of code base (although we also have a lot of test code and other supporting code) and total team size. Our extra focus on discipline and controls is necessary because of the high standards of reliability that we need to stand up to, and the complexity of the problems that we solve. While we could move even faster, the risk and cost of making mistakes is too high. So the challenge is to achieve the right balance, between speed and efficiency and discipline.
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