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High-performance software development teams

By Anujah Bosman, CEO

Johannesburg, 07 Sep 2020
Read time 6min 00sec

A group of people does not become a team because management assigns a rockstar developer to an existing team or because skilled software developers are assigned as a group to a project. Nor do they become teams if management sends the group on team-building exercises. So, how do you shape or build a team into a high-performance team? Chillisoft has been actively developing high-performance teams into Chillisoft’s competitive advantage for the last 10 years. This article shares some of our practices and the lessons that we have learnt in actively developing high-performance teams.

High-performance teams are deliberately and actively developed by leaders. Running a successful software development company requires an integrated, values-based and performance-driven culture that is set by the company’s leadership. The culture must incorporate quality-driven, conscious behaviour, because the leadership’s perspective on quality and performance shapes the team’s performance levels. There is a direct correlation between trust, value sharing, team cohesion and co-ordination of skills and expertise on a teams’ performance levels. These critical factors must be present to form a conducive delivery environment. The manner in which a team functions and produces software on a daily basis reinforces these factors, which impacts on software delivery and quality.

Figure 1, below illustrates the dynamic forces that are present in Chillisoft’s environment. It illustrates the structure – agency impact on an individual in the team, within Chillisoft. This model can be used to examine the competing forces that are at play in any software production environment. Chillisoft uses it to analyse the complex, evolving world of software development where it helps us to grasp the business of software development systemically as a whole.

Figure1: CHAT (Cultural Historical Activity Theory) model illustrating the dynamic forces within Chillisoft’s production environment.
Figure1: CHAT (Cultural Historical Activity Theory) model illustrating the dynamic forces within Chillisoft’s production environment.

Chillisoft’s strategic practices and rules consists of us choosing to work a four-day production week, for the last 10 years. We call the dedicated day of learning, Deliberate Practice. Deliberate Practice is a focused activity to allow our teams to learn together. It is an example of one of Chillisoft’s keystone practices that helps the team to learn how to integrate performance and learning. The ability to juggle these opposing requirements is a key element of being a professional software developer. It also teaches our teams how to respond to a common goal and purpose, helping our teams to develop and practice working together. These practices build trust, team cohesion and enables mutual accountability for delivery.

Chillisoft also actively ensures that our developers work on different business domains and technical disciplines, honing our team’s skills to learn and understand business domains and technical patterns quickly. Each project is underpinned by the same knowledge building and sense-making activities that makes great leaders, that is reflection, observation, the space and courage to try new things. The focused software delivery in different domains develops and hones a software developer’s intuition.

Understanding the affective behaviour, such as mood and the ability to focus, will temper rule-based, irrational company processes and red tape. It’s a fine balance where operations must ensure that the developer’s available time to focus and write software is protected, while providing real-time feedback. Both the team and managers must understand the importance of managing their attention and must understand how to focus consistently, how to improve the quality of their focus and how to recognise when the quality of their focus is not optimal. At a company level, this requires a collective understanding of what knowledge work entails. Operationally, it requires tolerance, self-awareness, trust and an individual’s commitment to be productive consistently. Daniel Graziotin and Fabian Fagerholm’s research on “Happiness and Productivity of Software Engineers”, Science Direct, 2018, accessed 20 August 2019, is noteworthy because it identifies external unhappiness factors, which management can directly influence.

Developing high-performance teams is the polar opposite of “body shopping”. Body shopping” is the “resource based” model, where performance and productivity are highly variable and unsustainable, because it depends on an individual’s commitment, skill level and their ability to shoulder the stress of projects on their own. Business assumes that that skill levels between individuals are predictable, consistent, maintainable and transferable, where there is little to no buffer or contingency for failure. This model may provide fast relief and is easy to implement, while developing high-performance teams takes time, and it is a deliberate long-term investment. Developing high-performance teams calls for a hands-on, quality and performance driven management style. It requires a consistent approach that values individuals and the collective identity of the team. It consists of developing technical practices and processes that creates a consistent physical and emotional environment spanning recruitment, training, production, continual learning, career progression, alignment of purpose within a dynamic, highly competitive industry. Developing high-performance teams is difficult and is not for the faint-hearted, but it is sustainable and becomes your competitive edge.

Chillisoft understands the huge investment it takes to build and maintain a high-performance teams. It is for this reason that one of the key revenue streams is the provision of managed teams for outsourced software development projects. A managed team is a high-performance team that is mature and cohesive. The team is trained in Chillisoft’s practices and have worked together on numerous projects. Each team consists of a maximum of six developers and is led by a delivery manager, who is specialist with more than 15 years of software development experience. The delivery manager creates and maintains the enabling environment, ensuring the team delivers great software on time. Chillisoft’s culture is performance-driven and we focus on the collective. We value long-term partnerships and sustainability of being a high-performance driven company. It is the team of individuals that performs as a unit that allows a company to face unrelenting, increasing competition, threats and the demand for speed to market. It for this reason that Chillisoft continues to thrive during stressful economic times such as recessions and, more recently, our current lockdown.

Companies can reduce their technical (software delivery) risk by engaging a well-functioning managed team. A conscious decision to hire a managed team recognises that the smallest unit to improve software delivery and organisational performance is a team, not an individual. The decision to hire a managed team signals a conscious decision in risk reduction, where the software delivery risk is largely relegated to the technical domain. For more information and team rates on managed teams, please contact info@chillisoft.co.za.

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