On Layoffs, “Jelled Teams,” and my new job status

I don’t think it’s possible to over emphasize the importance of developing teams in software companies. Software production is a group activity, and Brooks, Lister, Demarco and Weinberg all announced this same thing in various ways. And they have been saying it for a long time. The Mythical Man Month, The Peopleware Papers, and The Psychology of Computer were all written over a quarter century ago.

But, in spite of 30 years, and thousands of pages written, people still don’t get it.

Up until Monday I was working on a suite of fantastic applications for patient data and hospital management. I was part of a small, but very talented team of developers doing amazing things. Sure we had great tools like Python, Ext.js, TurboGears, etc. But the fundamental reason we were so successful is that we had a great team that worked together really well.

How do you know you’ve got a great team?

Chad Fowler’s very good (but very poorly titled) book My Job Went to India: and all I got was this book has a chapter explaining how before he became a programmer he was a musician, and someone gave him this powerful advice:

“Always try to be the worst player in the band.”

If you seek out people who are better than you, people who will push you — people who will make you grow just to keep up — you won’t have the option of stagnating. You either get better, or you get out. That’s how I felt on this team, and I know it’s how we all felt.

We knew each-other, knew our strengths and weaknesses, and we knew that together we could make things happen. We knew how to challenge one another, and if something went wrong, we would take action to fix it as a team.

Great teams are a huge asset

I can honestly say that it was the best team of people I’ve ever worked with, and we were producing products with real revenue attached — in other words, we were making money, and lots of it.

But as you can probably guess, after the acquisition came layoffs. And the team was chopped in half. Even though the team consisted of the best developers in the company, even though we were the most profitable part of the company, even though things were going amazingly well in our little corner of the world — we were still torn asunder by layoffs.

There may be some higher corporate logic behind this. And perhaps at some level it was the right thing to do, though I doubt it. I am convinced that Lister and Demarco are right is arguing (via peopleware) that a “jelled team” is an incredibly valuable resource for a company. They get stuff done, and get it done quickly, because they already know how to work together well. We cared about one another, cared about our work, and cared about our company, we were motivated, skilled, and we got things done. Loosing that is loosing a lot.

I got lucky

I was fortunate enough to be the newest member of the team, and was one of the folks that was let go. Why fortunate? Because I don’t have to sit around every day trying to get stuff done without the rest of the team, because I don’t have to be reminded every single day of what once was, but is no more.

And because I can take this opportunity to take a breath, look around and try to find a job which fits my long term goals. I don’t know exactly what I want to do yet, but I do know that I want to do something good for python, something good for the world, and something where I get to work with great people.

So if you’re interested, feel free to drop me an e-mail (mark.mchristensen@gmail.com).

Please hire these guys — they are amazing!

But more importantly there are some other great developers who are also looking for jobs. I’ve seen them perform miracles in C#, Java, Python, and any number of other languages. And I know them well enough to know that they would each be a huge asset to any company who’s looking to develop a great team.

One of the things you need the most in team development is someone who has a picture of how it could be better, of what’s possible, and the will to make it so. In addition to their technical skills, I know that’s something they all have. So, if you’re looking for one or more highly skilled software developers in the Atlanta area (or you’re willing to work with remote people) I can’t recommend them highly enough. Please send me e-mail if you’re interested and I’ll pass the info on to the right people.

3 Responses to “On Layoffs, “Jelled Teams,” and my new job status”

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more Mark. I was so sad to hear that my old team got completely dismantled. Its very difficult to find good people, and its even more challenging to put those people together into a productive team. That being said, culture is difficult to change, and when you’re a part of a company where negativity and politics are the norm, and cooperation and teamwork are considered caustic… its hard to keep things sane.

    I’ve already started looking for leads for all of the great people who’ve had to move on, and will do my best to keep in touch with you all.

  2. 2Don French

    Mark, I agree with you that the team was the best. I have been in the software business for over 30 years and this was the best team I ever managed. Having to lay of these quality people was probably the hardest thing I have ever done. Even though my position will also eliminated, my job right now is to be sure the remaining team has a good foundation to move forward with the company.

    As for as the ones I had to let go, I would also highly recommend them to anyone looking for extremely talented developers. If someone is interested in a detailed reference to some great programmers, they may drop me a line at dhf0820@gmail.com.

    It was a great team and someday I hope to bring it back together in any new venture I create. I would hire them in an instant.

  3. 3Aaron Bickell

    It’s quite a tragedy that a team that worked so well was dismantled, and I’m staggered by the loss. The only silver-lining I see in the situation is I’m positive that as people go their separate ways, they will be the strongest members on whatever team they end up on. It has been an absolute privilege to work on this team, with such smart and cool people.

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