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Why Small Software Teams Grow Large And Other Software Development Conundrums

Posted by Bob Warfield on November 27, 2007

Ever since I can remember there is a background noise in the software development community around a relatively small set of topics:

– Are small teams better than big teams?

– Does language matter?

– What’s the best language?

– How do we achieve quality?

– Is software art and talent driven, or is it engineering and process driven?

The list is probably longer, but you get the idea.  Lately I’ve been involved in some back and forth over team sizes.  For the record, I think small talented teams crush big teams with tons of process in terms of productivity and final results.  They build better software in less time.  It’s been a good discussion, but commenters on various threads bring up issues that are important to address.  Let’s see if we can’t tackle a few here.

Chris Winters’ post is a good place to start, as Chris delivers a lot of meat in a very few lines.

Don’t these small team pundits completely ingore the timeframe?

As Carmack said, “a team of 3 focused and creative people can accomplish almost anything” — given sufficient time. But time is the knob that many (most?) projects have little control over. Everybody has competitors, and everything needs to get out yesterday.

This is truly Mythical Man Month territory.  You can deliver a project sooner with more than 3 developers, but I have serious doubts about delivering a core module with more than 10.  The question is whether what you are building is amenable to being broken down into what are essentially very separate projects.  Sometimes this is possible, more often it isn’t.  To make it possible will require some architectural investment to keep the modules separate, and that investment is serialized into the schedule.

A much more effective knob to twiddle when it comes to time to market is scope.  Cut scope.  Cut it early and cut it again if the project is drifting off schedule.  It is amazing how much scope can really be done away with and still have a release that completely satisfies commercial needs and makes customers happy.  It is a mistake to go for the many-year feature abundanzas that result in products like our friends in Redmond like to ship once every 5 years.

Does “small team” include QA?  People to gather requirements?  People to write documentation?

Great question!  First, on the issue of QA, I have never found a point of diminishing returns, and I have had the luxury of spending a LOT of money on QA during my Borland days.  Simply put, it is extremely difficult to find all the bugs.  No matter how many we could find in a week with a huge team of testers, a small core team of developers was able to keep up.  We started with a ratio of 1 QA per developer and added more QA on top of that as we moved towards shipment.  Those days are probably gone, but boy did it ever help. 

We got a lot of mileage over mobilizing the company and customers to assist.  We paid bug bounties to these folks based on severity of bug, and I know of at least one case where a very talented SE paid for a kitchen remodel with the funds.  OTOH, I had friends working on Microsoft Windows XP where much larger developer teams were involved, and even more humongous QA teams.  According to one friend, they completely deleted the entire bug database and started over again multiple times during the project because the developers simply couldn’t keep up.

As a final thought on this, the number of resources you can bring to bear outside the core developers is a function of the communication load they put on the developers.  Communicating via a bug tracking system is pretty efficient, hence lots of QA didn’t bring down the team.  Having a doc or QA person want to camp out so the developer can educate them is not going to scale.

Isn’t there a huge distinction between creating something and maintaining/improving it?

No, not necessarily.  If your view of improving something is to canvas the user base for every possible feature, build a giant laundry list, and build all of that, you’re going to find it’s very daunting.  But you’re also going to find you quickly defocus the conceptual integrity of your product and wind up with bloatware that does not make your customers happy.  The art of great software is in understanding what’s important to the user experience versus what is merely urgent.  A small team can keep a product fresh and current for years if they’re good at this because they don’t waste time on a load of features that clog things up.

Exceptions?  Beware the things that require tons of code yet qualify as only 1 more feature on the checklist.  Platforms are the arch example of that.  Supporting many printers and display adapters was the old school.  Supporting many databases or app servers is more recent.  It’s not worth it and it is a huge sink on resources.

Aren’t all the great small team examples tools?

Linux, Delphi, and Quattro Pro are described by Chris as “generic tools built without regard for any specific business logic.”  There are two ways to think about this.  Chris takes the path that says the example is irrelevant because most software isn’t that way.  I take the path of saying that the example is spot on because all software should become a language if done right.  The benefit?  Your small team is enormously more productive as are your customers if you can actually make the language something they can grasp and use.  There is a reason these small teams built languages (though I’m not sure I view Linux as a tool/language).  In fact, Quattro Pro had no less than 18 interpreters buried in the guts.  Very few of them were surfaced for end users, most were there to make the code simpler and the product more powerful.

Do we know what we’re building?

Chris hints on another big problem when he says:

And doing all that for non-trivial businesses, with a small team, no matter what language, is a tough job. (Not even mentioning figuring out what it is you’re supposed to build.) In a short amount of time? Approaching impossible.

The one thing that will sink a project faster than too many cooks with not enough talent is poor requirements at the outset.  If you truly don’t know what you’re building, you’re doomed.  You need to see pretty clearly what it is before the first line of code is written.  If you must build a prototype to get there, consider it time and money well spent.

By the way, creating a DSL for your domain is a way of creating a formal specification.  It takes rigor to create a language.  Hand waving won’t get you very far.  Also note that a giant laundry list of use cases and feature requests is not a specification.  It’s a wish list.  You need to understand the commercial dynamics of what really matters to customers, why it matters, and have a pretty good sketch of how you’ll solve their problem.

Don’t kid yourself that a giant team running around gathering requirements and hacking out use cases in monolithic modules is building software, business or otherwise.  It’s creating an unmaintainable mess that makes nobody but the IT guys that assembled that laundry list happy.  Certainly the business uses who it lands on are going to find it isn’t what they thought they were getting and it is almost impossible to change it into what they wanted.

So then why do small teams grow large?

This is my own editorial, but I’m surprised it isn’t talked about more.  We’ve all seen teams start small and grow large as a product succeeds.  Why does this happen?  The prevailing wisdom seems to be that as you gain customers, their demands for new functionality outstrip what the small team could provide.  I don’t believe it.  I’ve looked at a lot of software releases, and by release 3 or 4, it’s all too easy to get caught up delivering much sound and fury signifying nothing.  Did that release 3 or 4 really turn out that much more functionality than 1 or 2?  Was it really revolutionary?  Were the features all of the same caliber as the original?

No, I don’t think so.

Another source is failed negotiations between VP’s of Engineering and CEO’s.  Most CEO’s do not understand creating software.  They come from fields like Sales and Marketing where throwing dollars and bodies at problems can make a difference.  So they want their VP of Engineering to do the same.  They don’t want to hear the team is running flat out and can’t produce more.  They want what they want when they want it, and they’ll write the check to make it happen.  I have not personally run afoul of this (I am stubborn about agreeing to do something I know will fail), but I have heard of it.  This is not the big issue, though.

In my experience managing multiple release cycles for something like 50 products, team growth almost always boils down to aspirations and career growth.  People get tired of working on the same code base.  They get tired of working on the boring parts of the code base.  They want new challenges.  They want career growth.  They want to be architects and managers.  Who can blame them?  It’s human to want these things.

Pretty soon, a person who was a senior developer is an architect or a manager.  We carve some subsystem off and hand it over to them.  Or, we hire someone incredibly junior to be in charge of some unimportant code that the senior guys want nothing more to do with.  A fiefdom is born and the big team is on it’s way.  This is a mistake!

We are better off to create entirely new products as a path for career development.  If we can’t justify a product, or worse, can’t justify giving a person a product, then we need to be honest about that.  You may lose the person as they seek opportunity elsewhere, but you may also need to get some new blood into your small team.

This points up something to look for in your hiring practices.  Beware too much naked ambition among developers.  The guys that push for promotion every year can be awesome, but they will be high maintenance, and they will try to push you into doing something that’s bad for the team and perhaps even bad for themselves.  Beware especially the talented developer who wants to move into management because they want to make the decisions on architecture.  The developers who are in love with the act of creation and who have great chemistry with their coworkers are the gems.  They will not push you for much more than clear and exciting direction on where to take the product next.  Don’t exploit these guys either.  Reward the heck out of them.  After all, it doesn’t take too many to work miracles.  Make sure they’re happy, whatever it takes.

Give me a few guys like that who are really good and there isn’t any piece of software I can’t get built faster and better than the big team.  We’ll also keep that software vigorous and cutting edge for years too, and we’ll run circles around the competition.

7 Responses to “Why Small Software Teams Grow Large And Other Software Development Conundrums”

  1. Why Small Software Teams Grow Large And Other Software Development Conundrums « SmoothSpan Blog

    Why Small Software Teams Grow Large And Other Software Development Conundrums « SmoothSpan Blog

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  4. […] increasing number of costumers and requests coming from them. Nevertheless, according to Warfield, team growth trend is much more related to cultural reasons. Many decision makers are not familiar with the specificity of IT projects and tend to believe that […]

  5. damonedwards said

    Great post, Bob.

    Just an extra thought for your readers to ponder…

    A troubling trend I’ve noticed is how the benefits of “rock star” software development teams (small, highly skilled, highly motivated) are increasingly neutralized by poor operations.

    In an ops heavy SaaS and on-demand world, the software development phase becomes an increasingly smaller part of an application’s overall lifecycle. Time and time again we see great code sitting behind the bottleneck of QA, staging, performance testing, and then production deployment.

    On the project plan, the “rock star” teams repeatedly deliver great code in record time… but at all but the smallest of enterprises, their “delivery” of code is a long way from where the business is actually realizing the benefit.


  6. […] even this can be broken into a few core parts.  I found a good arguement for small teams here that I have to agree […]

  7. […] “A much more effective knob to twiddle when it comes to time to market is scope.  Cut scope.  Cut it early and cut it again if the project is drifting off schedule.  It is amazing how much scope can really be done away with and still have a release that completely satisfies commercial needs and makes customers happy.” (Why Small Software Teams Grow Large And Other Software Development Conundrums) […]

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