Fewer people are faster

Smoothspan writes: To Build Better Software, You Need Fewer People. He talks about the problem that larger teams tend to be slower because of all the communication issues between them. 10 Developers seem to be a reasonable limit for a software team, but I think there are tasks where the limit is even lower. I’m currently working on a team trying to develop a new architecture for a whole software system. We started with about 8 engineers, and it was impossible to even reach a conclusion about the requirements for the new architecture. When the team shrunk to 4 people. with 2 sharing the main work, it was a matter of a few days to get the ideas flowing. We still have the larger team in the backyard, and we will need to defend our result in presentation, but the main work is not restricted to all the goals these people are trying to reach. With 2 people sharing their ideas on a daily basis (while working on different layers of the architecture) we were able to define not only the goals in a nice way, but also to define the architecture in a comprehensive and understandable way - something which a committee will never be able to to (think about all the WS-Deathstar mess). It helps that we are standing on the shoulders of giants, and reading papers from Richard P. Gabriel and Alan Kay was a huge inspiration.

But back to the team size - the limiting factors are communication and the different goals. There is no simple way to have all the ideas of 8 or more people flowing smoothly between all of them, discussing and criticizing them. This is even problematic with 4 people, like in our team. The other limiting factor could be solved by a (maybe benevolent) dictator who just decides what the goals of the project are. But if you want to reach a coherent set of goals in a committee you will need a really long time.

So, for development 10 people may be the upper bound for a working team, but for doing creative work like designing a system architecture, I think 3 is the best size. One person can run into all the wrong directions, and 2 person could be stuck because they cannot resolve their differences. But 3 people can communicate effectively, and should be able to resolve all problems in a short time.

Posted by Hendrik Lipka at 2007-10-21 (Google)
Categories: development work