What to consider when growing a software team

A few weeks ago, we had the chance to do Myers-brigs at our office. As it turns out I am an INTJ. You can find your own type on this site human-metrics.

As a base rule, mixing individuals from different personality types leads to better creativity albeit at the expense of efficiency.

Developers, in particular, have an even more nuanced environment. Fred Brooks famously said:

The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible, so easy to polish and rework, so readily capable of realizing grand conceptual structures....

This means as you grow your team, there are certain things to look out for. In this entry, we will be exploring the factors I think are the most important.

Does the team structure compliment individual’s strengths?

We perform best from a position of strength, yet somehow team leaders assign individuals to tasks optimised for the organisation rather than for the individual’s strength.

A simple test such as the MBTI can help you easily see who would work best with who.

As Wegner proposed in 1985 the greater intelligence born of the group mind which comes about from great collaboration is guaranteed to benefit your organisation.

Is anyone multitasking?

Human’s can not multitask. The illusion feels so powerful that the team leads don’t even need to push this agenda, the developers will take it upon themselves to do it!

Despite numerous studies, including this one Who Multi-Tasks and Why? Multi-Tasking Ability, Perceived Multi-Tasking Ability, Impulsivity, and Sensation Seeking we still assign developers to multiple projects.

Two projects are optimal for an individual developer, in this way, they can switch to a different task to give their mind a break and some room to chew on the project. Anything more is likely to lead to reduced productivity as the mind becomes too clouded.

Have you limited the team size?

We have limited cognitive ability in terms of the number of individuals we can maintain in our circle. Known as Dunbar’s number, it is shown we can actively keep at most 150 active social contacts.

I believe working groups are even smaller. Once the team size gets to more than 5, communication issues start sipping in. It becomes that much harder for the team to build and maintain a shared mental model.

Mike Cohn has an even simpler rule, no team should be so big it can’t be adequately fed by two pizzas!

What is the team’s purpose?

Shortly after joining Moringa, I was having problems getting the team to work together let alone towards any goal. I explained my dilemma to the CEO. She asked me, “Have you carried out a values exercise?”.

This question changed how I think about teams, yes we can impose what we want to the team, but the team just like any other complex system will work towards its own goals.

The only way to get your team to succeed is to imbue them with a sense of purpose which aligns with the organisation.

Can the team deliver the product from end to end?

A basic tenet of the scrum and agile methodologies, in general, is the concept of the cross functional team. The simplest definition I could find of such a team was:

A cross-functional team is a group of people with different functional expertise working toward a common goal.

Cross functional teams are the killer feature of agile. They bring about diverse views to the teams enabling good ideas to be quickly tested, built and shipped.

How long do the teams stay together?

In a previous entry, Stop killing your teams now! we discussed the tragic fate of most teams.

I believe now as I believe then, teams should be built for the long term. Like the tired cliche of the good wine, good teams get better as they mature.

How do you grow teams in your own organisation?


Core technical practises for your scrum team


Scrum is a fast moving development style. There is obviously a lot of advantage to this, but just like a sports car needs a better technical design to function at top notch, so does your code.

In this entry, we will be looking at the top three technical practices that you must adopt to ensure you are moving as fast as you could be.

Test driven development

A few days ago, our team was faced with the challenge of stress testing one of our applications. One particular use case proved particularly hard to do, the only way to run it was to literally have an actual human run through the steps!

This might be fair if we were doing UX testing, but in this case, it proved to be a big red warning sign on our architecture.

We have since worked to correct our process, but the point here is TDD helps you unravel problems before they become Problems.

By writing the test first then the code, you are forced to think through what it is you actually want to do. This makes your code clearer as well.

Not to mention, by having a “second opinion” on the validity of your code, you can deploy far faster knowing another system is checking the integrity of the entire product.

Continuous improvement

If you have ever struggled with your weight, I am certain this thought has ever come up in your mind at one point or another

Let me just eat this burger, I will work it all out later in the gym

A fantastically bad idea! Not because you will procrastinate later and not visit the gym, thou this is likely, but because you essentially threw a good chance of working towards your goal and worse compromised your future self.

In the same way, almost every day you jump into your code, you will come across an opportunity for improvement perhaps a better design pattern to adopt or even just to maximise on an opportunity to reuse code. Here you have the choice of either saying you will just do a patch now and fix it in the future or just fixing it now.

The formal term for it is refactoring and there is a wealth of knowledge out there on how to do it.

By continuously improving your code, not only will your code not rot but you will have code that gets better with age.

Collective ownership

Open source software tends to be of a much higher quality than propriety code.

We all care more about what we know someone else will look at than what we are sure only our eyes will see.

The long and short of it is you want as many eyeballs on your code as possible. Obviously open sourcing your code may not be the ideal solution, but what about having your team members work on the code together?

There shouldn’t be a part fully designated to only one developer, this gives you two key advantages:

  1. Not everything goes to hell if the developer goes on holiday
  2. Everyone cleans up their code just a bit better

Continuous delivery

In 2001, Paul Graham wrote one of the most prescient essays I have ever come across, it is titled The Other Road Ahead.

One of his key arguments revolves around the fact that faster code-test-deploy cycles lead to higher quality code.

I fully agree with this argument. Continuous delivery is guaranteed to significantly reduce if not eliminate the stress which comes naturally with software development.

No longer will demo day be a day of panic. For all intents and purposes, it will just be another day in the life of the boss developer.

I hope these pointers will help you towards a better scrum experience.

Which practices here do you use in your own practice?


Where do unrealistic schedules come from?


This situation is so common, it is by now something of an industry standard. There is almost no project that I have stepped into that had an appropriate amount of time scheduled for it.

You have to wonder why after all these years we still suck at allocating enough resources to get the project done in time.

In this entry, we will be looking at some of the common factors that lead to unrealistic schedules.

External deadlines

Development happens in a context. Unless it is a hobby project, you can be sure that whatever you are working on, someone else is depending on your work output for them to do their job.

A special case would be where the bid specifies the timeline in which the product must be built. In this case, submitting a longer timeline, even if justifiable may mean losing the project.

Since the project is still of interest to the team, the team takes it on knowing full well how tight the deadline is in the process displaying a mix of childish optimism and wishful thinking.

Best case estimates

Murphy warned us:

    Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong

Scrum and other agile techniques give us robust estimation tools. But even with those, we more often than not end up with a range, say 3 – 5 months.

Unless you don’t like promotions, who wants to go to the boss with the higher estimate?

Of course, the problem with the lower estimate is that it holds the implicit assumption that everything will go right.

This is a dangerous assumption, you take it for granted that you have the best tools, language, physical environment, skills etc. When something does eventually go wrong, you find yourself with an unrealistic schedule.

Feeling up to a challenge

For reasons that are beyond me. Some developers prefer working under insane conditions. Something about an all-nighter makes them feel like heroes.

Whether inspired by cut throat work environment or personal bias, teams in these kinds of environments will consistently underestimate how long the project will take.

Even if the pressure is acceptable in the short run, the effect on the team morale and product quality are bound to suffer. Better to have a reasonable schedule and spend any extra time beefing up the quality.

Belief that developers work better under pressure

Authors of the Design Sprint state:

    Times of need can be artificially manufactured by creating deadlines. Our brain doesn’t know the difference. When you create deadlines, your brain stops procrastinating and gives you what you need.

It is easy to extrapolate this kind of thinking to the entire project.

While you do need to pace yourself, you need to be very careful of the kinds of commitments that you make. In a previous entry Estimates, Targets and Commitments. We looked at the dangers of confusing the terms.

You don’t want to make a commitment to your client based on the belief that somehow the deadline will boost productivity if you must make such a commitment, let it be internal.

Scope creep

Inevitably, new ideas will come in. Change is a core part of the software development process.

The problem arises when new changes are introduced to the project but nothing is removed from the backlog. As new features are added, eventually the entirety of the work pushed the project to an unrealistic one.

We have looked at this problem in greater detail here Managing scope creep. The TL;DR is any new change is also a chance to renegotiate commitments.

Have you faced unrealistic schedules in your own practice? How did you handle it? Talk to me in the comment section below or on my twitter @jchex


How effective is your application?

One of my colleagues at iHub has an interesting work philosophy. He usually says:

    I will not work on any project that is obviously a waste of time no matter how much I am paid.

This obviously reflects a great craftsmanship ethic. Such a philosophy does remain useful throughout the entire organisation. No one wants to waste resources on projects that are not going to bear any fruit.

In this entry, we will be looking at how you can test if your application is fit for its purpose.

That is, does your application generate value for your users?

Are your users able to achieve the stated goals?

User stories are a potent way of expressing requirements. I have previously talked about them in more details here Invest in user stories.

They specify what a user is trying to achieve and why.

As you are developing your application, you need to continuously reflect on your user stories and the emerging application asking yourself the following questions:

  1. Can the user meet their goals?
  2. Are there any barriers?.

An example of an issue that may be noted is particularly slow load times. If a user has to wait more than a few seconds to say input a new item on their shopping list, they may quit the application having not met their goal.

How are users using the application?

A software application is a type of system and thus displays systems behaviour. In particular, no matter the goals of the designer, once the system is live it starts manifesting its own goals.

This will be evidenced as users using the application in ways that were not envisioned by the designers.

For you, this is a great learning opportunity. The new uses can be detrimental to your own interests or they can be beneficial and thus help shape the product roadmap. Either way, you gain value from observing how people use the application in the wild.

How are the users already solving the problem?

Evolutionary biologists have a saying:

    Evolution is cleverer than you are.

Humans are incredibly creative. Your target user has probably found a way of solving their problems in some other way. It may not be as effective or efficient as yours but be assured that it is there.

Before word processors, there were text editors and before that there were notepads. More generally, ideas are conventional, they have a history that you can track to gain the deeper understanding of the problem and how the solutions have evolved over time.

By looking at how users are currently solving the problem, you can minimise the learning gap and have your users being productive in your application ASAP.

Can you test competing ideas?

In the course of development, you are likely to come across two or more viable ways of solving the problem. If they both seem to have equal weights, why not let the users decide?

For web applications, this is particularly simple, you can use A/B testing.

In this method, you go through the following steps:

  1. Define what you are trying to test eg Home page with carousel of your products or one with your latest offers
  2. Define what metrics matter to you eg click through rates
  3. Develop the MVP for both pages
  4. Roll it out randomly assigning incoming users to the pages
  5. Monitor your metrics on both pages
  6. Make a judgement call based on the data

This simple method gives you unambiguous feedback on how to proceed with development.

How do you gauge the effectiveness of the applications that you build? Talk to me in the comment section below or on my twitter @jchex


Factors in selecting iteration length


Development in Scrum happens with iterations or sprints. An iteration is a time-boxed period within which development is done. During an iteration, the team transforms one or more imprecise requirements statements into coded, tested, and potentially shippable software

Iterations are a core part of Scrum. They allow for the development team to quickly converge towards building what is of most value to the customers.

The iteration length is typically 2 – 4 weeks. This is not a hard figure. Some teams have iterations that are as short as 1 week and others have 8 weeks sprints!

In this entry, we will be discussing some of the factors that lead to variability in iteration length and what you should be considering as you are deciding on your own iteration length.

Length of the project

Projects tend to vary in length. I have worked on projects that lasted only a month and some multi-year.

Longer projects offer the luxury of a window of correction. That is if after the end of an iteration the client discovers what was built is not what they expected, there are a number of other sprints that are available to the team to correct the issue. Shorter term projects lack this kind of luxury.

Thus the length of a project acts as an important factor in choosing sprint duration. The longer the project length, the longer the sprint length you can afford have. In fact, if you already know how many reviews you want to have, you can derive the length as follows:

    Duration of sprint in weeks = Total project length in weeks / number of reviews

For example, if the project is 2 months and you want at least 4 reviews then the duration of the sprint will be

    Duration of sprint in weeks = 8 weeks / 4 = 2 weeks

In addition to allowing for more review periods, longer projects can also more easily afford the “costs of iteration”. The costs of iteration refer to the extra time used to facilitate iterative development. This would include such things as:

  • Iteration planning
  • Retrospectives
  • QA
  • Convergence

This means that for longer term projects, you can afford longer iterations and associated time costs. For very short projects, the costs can also influence the length since you don’t want to spend all your precious development time on this supporting activities.

Clarity on product and team

Some projects are simple even if they are not easy. This means that it is easy to communicate what is required and changes are not likely to come during the development phase. These kinds of projects are very rare to come across, most projects are messy especially at the beginning.

Thankfully Scrum thrives in the kind of complex projects that exist in the real world. It does this by ruthless application of Palchinsky principles.

    First, seek out new ideas and try new things; second, when trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable; third, seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along.

You see, iterative and incremental development is about generating feedback, learning from it, and then adapting what we are building and how we are building it. Sprints provide teams with the mechanisms for doing this.

Thus the more uncertainty you have in your project, the shorter the sprint should be.

Uncertainty tends to come in two distinct flavours. First one is, what are we building?. This is the product question and relates to meeting the client’s conditions of satisfaction. The second one is, how are we going to build it?. This relates to the team’s development practises. You may, for example, want to run short sprints at first both to quickly show the client what the product will look like and establish the team velocity.

Since for highly uncertain projects the priorities change quickly, shorter iterations ensure that what you are currently working on is what is most important.

Stakeholder availability

At the end of the sprint, the development team needs to do a demo to the stakeholders. Your stakeholders maybe extremely busy or important individuals whose time is hard to secure. In this cases, it may be wise to plan your sprints according to their schedule.

For example, if the executive team meets once every month, it may make sense to schedule your sprints so that a demo day falls on that day. This way the hard work of convening all of them is already done for you.

You, of course, don’t want to vary sprint length from sprint to sprint. Thus you don’t want to unduly sacrifice your process in service of the demo day unless a good synchronisation opportunity exists.

Stress levels

What iteration do you think induces more stress, 2-week or 4-week iteration?

I have asked this question to a good number of my friends, the answer is almost always 2 weeks. They are wrong.

It may not seem like it, but longer iterations tend to induce more stress than shorter ones. This is because longer iterations have well defined, beginning, middle and ending points. Naturally, the team is a bit more laid-back at the beginning and gets more stressed as the deadline approaches.

Shorter iterations smooth out this effect, the team can then settle into a manageable tempo.

See this masterful piece by Tim Urban

How do you select iteration length in your own organisation? Talk to me in the comment section below or on my twitter @ jchex