The REAL reason why developers need Soft Skills

Developers like to code.
All day, sometimes all night, too.

Developers like playing around with things.
New frameworks, yeah. New tools, whoopie.
We like to see a one-liner have big effects, or a small piece of configuration dramatically change the behavior of a program.
We look for that Arthur C. Clarke moment when “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

When it comes to Soft Skills, well, that can wait for later when none of the IMPORTANT stuff is left.

Picture a new development project.

You do some analysis, some solution design and you get a rough idea about how much effort it will take.

Let’s say the effort needed is 2,100 person days.
So if 1 person does all the work, and we assume 21 work days per month then this 1 person will need 100 months to finish the project.

That’s 8 years.

The processes will be super-efficient, though, – no overhead whatsoever!
But you’ll need to wait 8 years before anyone can use the software.
Just think of the major versions of your favorite programming languages, application servers, operating systems, tools, libraries etc 8 years ago and you know how outdated the software will have become by the time it’s done.

And what about that poor guy or girl hacking code on the same project for 8 years using stuff that has become outdated years ago?
Unless you find a way to legalize slavery, odds are that this developer will quit at some point during the project.

OK, new idea.
Let’s have 100 developers work on the project.
This should make the project get done in only 1 month!
I guess you already know that this is a fallacy. Planning, coordination, integration, QA, communication paths etc, well, overhead will explode instead.
And how many of those 100 people did you have in mind when you estimated the 2,100 days?
Probably you were thinking about the effort it takes to design, implement and test the software but chances are you weren’t thinking about all the additional overhead needed to make 100 people work together.
I’m, of course, referring to “The mythical man-month” by Fred Brooks.

So what is the ideal number of people to work on such a project?
Well, it’s more than 1 and less than 100, this much we know by now.
As a matter of fact, our industry is too young to know that number for sure, based on hardcore scientific research at least.

There’s one rule-of-thumb, though, that I stumbled upon some years ago and I like to use in such situations. (I think it originates from the works of Brooks, Rausch-Schott and Retschitzegger but I can’t find the reference, sorry).

The math goes like this:
${ideal number of people on the team} := square root of ${number of person months}
In our scenario the effort was 100 months, i.e. √100 yields 10 people.*
If that was my project I might suggest setting up a team of 10 and let them work for something like 1 year. (Actually, I prefer slightly smaller teams.)

When 10 people work closely together for 1 year straight then they’d better know how to get along with each other.
They’ll need commitment, empathy, respect, reliability, team spirit, collective ownership and focus on the domain. They’ll need the ability to help, criticize and take criticism, make rules and follow them and most importantly:
They need the willingness and the skills to communicate about the project every day. Well. A lot. Even face-to-face.
That’s the Soft Skills required for such projects.

What if you don’t have these skills?
Well, according to the rule of thumb you will be able to work only on projects that can be done by 1 person.
Do the the math, allow some rounding and you’ll get 2 months max. (√2 months => ~ 1.4 people)

So if you don’t take Soft Skills seriously you will be limited to projects that require up to 2 months effort. Maybe 3 months; it’s a rule-of-thumb after all.
But still, if you like to evolve into more complex challenges, well, there aren’t that many projects that are complex, challenging and take just 2, maybe 3 months to get done.

Frameworks, tools, libraries come and go but good communication and team skills will permanently add to your profile. They are the really important stuff you need for complex tasks.


What do you think?
Please leave a comment and let me know.

If you like this post then please share it.

Happy hacking!

* And minus 10 people, of course.
But, personally, I don’t think that firing 10 people will get the project done in 10 months…

Leave a Reply