Sporadically delivered thoughts on Continuous Delivery

What Makes a High Performance Development Team?

| Comments

The difference between a typical development team and a high performing team is that the typical team tries to deliver quickly by working in ways which turn out to add “drag” into its workload.

The harder the typical team works, the more baggage they pile onto themselves, and the harder it becomes for them to deliver. They spend more and more time on maintenance - bugfixing, working around production issues, working around their workarounds, etc. - and they find that even simple change requests and features are unreasonably complex, time consuming, and risky. The team is always busy, and endlessly discuss the refactorings and improvements that would make everything easier, if only they had enough time.

The truth is, even if the code brownies came in one night and completely refactored the typical team’s code so that it was sparkling clean and completely bug-free, within 6 - 12 months they would find themselves back up to their necks in technical debt. This situation is the inevitable product of the team’s working habits.

The high performing development team routinely uses practices like TDD, pair programming, Clean Code, and similar. The specific practices may vary, but generally speaking, there are many things that almost all developers know they probably ought to be doing, but generally don’t.

Most teams find these practices impractical. They may try them out, but they find them awkward to do, and it takes longer to get work done using them. The pressure to deliver (this is a business, after all) forces them to be pragmatic, so they refocus on getting functional code out the door. They dismiss these nice-sounding practices as a luxury, fine for consultants, coaches, and book authors, but impractical in the Real World.

The high performing team, on the other hand, has been doing these things long enough that they have become a matter of habit. It doesn’t slow them down the way it does a team which is just learning.

It’s important to note that very few of these practices necessarily make a team churn out code faster. Rather, they reduce the amount of drag produced along with the code, so more developer time is spent writing new code rather than coping with existing code.

The code is more thoroughly tested (it’s fully retested on every build) so fewer bugs make it into production, which means the team spends less time dealing with production issues. Their applications handle and communicate errors more clearly, so issues that do come up are rapidly identified and fixed. The codebase is structured and written more cleanly, so making changes and adding features is simpler and faster.

The difficulty is that getting from A to B - from a typical team uncomfortable using TDD and the rest, to a high performing team which does them without thinking, requires practice, time, and work, that most teams aren’t given.