The Low Cost of High Caliber Developers

Mike Hansen

SVP, Products and Engineering at Sonatype



"There is a vast difference in individual developer productivity. You could argue that for certain intractable problems that there is an infinite difference in productivity since some developers will just never be able to solve a certain problem in any period of time. Also, one of the hardest things in software is keeping everything as simple as possible and making the right tradeoffs around technical debt (i.e. short term trade-offs). It takes extremely capable engineers to do that well, the kind that are often orders of magnitude more productive than the average and that bake in extraordinary savings through long term productivity benefits (e.g. compact code base, easy comprehension, fewer mistakes, simple to extend etc.). Such technical debt prevention has hugely underestimated value over the life of a product."

The range in the cost of development expertise within and across the various models (e.g. in house, nearshore, offshore) pales in comparison to the range of productivity of developers. As with so much in life, you generally get what you pay for. This productivity spectrum is such that I would argue the costs are (almost) immaterial given the other critical factor: communication.

"Growth in team size leads to exponential growth in the lines of communication: n(n-1)/2. Things like huge timezone spreads introduce downside impacts to communication as do things like regionally distributed teams that must work closely on the same efforts. These regionally dispersed clusters of expertise lead to weak communication pathways across locations (and other social challenges) due to the strong communications that emerge within locations. Communications is the means to the real end: rapidly getting the right stuff done right. Things that negatively impact communication have disproportionately large downside impacts on productivity."

Actions taken

You, therefore, want to optimize on the following:

  1. Fewer lines of communication - by ensuring you have extremely high caliber software developers.
  2. The effectiveness of those lines - meaning, among other things, that everyone is either in the same place physically (along with the stakeholders) or virtually, where everyone is remote but with solid workday overlap.

Lessons learned

  • "These pursuits lead to significant cost economies, improved software quality and increased competitive advantage. The lower cost model comes, somewhat paradoxically, with the higher cost developer."
  • "With people that have the potential for 5X+ the productivity of a 'good' developer, you don't need nearly as many of them. These high functioning types will probably be in the top end of compensation but will produce significantly more than the 'cheap labor' you might otherwise be tempted to pursue (hint: a massive false economy)."
  • "Having fewer and more effective lines of communication lets you keep your team size smaller, enabling for exponentially improved communication and teamwork and a huge boost in net productivity. A small team isn't sufficient on its own to achieve the most effective communication, but it is required."
  • "There is another benefit to this communication clean up as well. When you need to scale further, you might still be below the 'two pizza' maximum team size, meaning you can add more capacity before you run into a work partitioning problem, requiring otherwise avoidable collaboration across team boundaries (hint: avoidable collaboration is worse than dreaded unnecessary software complexity). As scale increases, you still have dramatically fewer teams than you otherwise would which leads to extraordinary benefits organizationally."

Source: LinkedIn

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Mike Hansen

SVP, Products and Engineering at Sonatype

Engineering LeadershipLeadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementPerformance MetricsTechnical ExpertiseSoftware Development

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