The Shift Towards Leaner Software Development Teams

The days of massive software development teams dominating the IT workforce are coming to an end; to put in simple
terms. Not so much in the sense where large teams no longer have a use, but in the sense where studies have shown a
noticeable shift in development team sizes. Today, even the smallest of teams can build incredibly successful
products that rival even the largest of teams. How is this possible?

This is due to evolving programming languages that streamline coding, and the emergence of different Agile
methodologies that help teams collaborate on projects more efficiently. However, these tools are accessible to all
development teams, not exclusively to smaller ones. So why are smaller teams producing such great results?

In a recent Atlassian report surveying 1,300 of its users regarding team size, a staggering 80% responded saying
their teams consisted of 10 or fewer members.1 Clearly, companies are realizing a trend in the IT workforce — and
we’ve determined that it’s the way leaner teams are able to use their small size to their advantage.

Less Can Lead to More

Naturally, the leaner the team means the leaner the resources. With limited resources, a good developer will resort
to more calculated methods of working on a project. The best way to ensure resourcefulness is by working with the
product owner on building an easy-to-use, simple, and intuitive product upfront.

Simple products typically function well because the code can be written with careful attention without wasting
valuable time. Simple products can also be marketed and tested as you’re building them, allowing you to quickly
confirm or reconsider the market throughout the project. Lastly, once your market is confirmed, a simple product
will give you enough financial breathing room towards to invest in improvements.

This is where leaner software development teams thrive. They make sure that every dollar being spent and every team
member being applied to a project is allocated correctly.

Leaner Teams Launch Faster

Atlassian’s recent study also revealed that leaner software development teams are actually able to launch products
faster. In just four hours, 37% of smaller organizations ranging from 1-100 team members were able to push code to
production — comparing to 23% of medium organizations and 17% of large organizations.

What does this mean? Launching a product faster allows a development team to test the market faster and gauge what
improvements need to be made to the product. Staying ahead of the innovative curve, especially in the highly
competitive market of app development where time is so valuable, is the difference between a successful product and
a failure.

Communication is Invaluable

Although communication software tools like Atlassian’s JIRA and Confluence are available to teams of all sizes,
leaner teams are able to use these tools more efficiently. Imagine the flow of conflicting ideas and project roles
on a team of 100 developers. Now compare that with a team of only seven developers. It’s easy to see how leaner
teams are able to prioritize tasks, distribute roles, and sift through a product backlog quickly.

Mike Cohn, one of the founding members of the Scrum methodology, stated in his book Succeeding with Agile that
the accepted rule is a team size of anywhere from five to nine members on a project.² Cohn recommends, more
informally, that the rule is “…a team that you can feed with two pizzas.”

Making the Financial Case for Leaner Teams

A 2005 study by QSM made an interesting case for smaller software development teams. Researchers had compiled a
database of over 4,000 software projects from 2002 to 2005. This specific study looked at 564 IT projects in that
time period, and separated the results of those projects in two categories — small teams of 5 or less, and large
teams of 20 or more. Small teams averaged out to four members, large teams average out to 32 members.

The baseline of the study was to complete projects of 100,000 identical source lines of code. In the end, QSM found
that large teams took 8.92 months to write this code, while small teams took 9.12 months — just over a week
difference to complete the same tasks.

In terms of financial resources, this can be the difference in millions of dollars used to cover the cost of 32
developers on a team as opposed to four. Now, can your company justify that week?

Flexibility of Leaner Teams

Software development projects are complex and require a collaborative team effort to provide the proper solution.
However, as many software developers know, there’s never a “one size fits all” solution for every project. A team
can apply the same methodologies and use best practices, but unexpected problems can always arise that affect the
time, cost, and scope of a project.

In the event that this happens, it’s important that you’re working with a flexible team that can make quick and
calculated adjustments. This harks back to the importance of code simplicity and the tendency of leaner teams to
build simpler functioning products that allow for much more flexibility. Larger teams are prone to
“over-engineering” a product, which can actually lead to more complications if adjustments are needed to be made.
Another problem with over-engineering means the product owner is now left with fewer resources, which can inhibit a
large team’s ability to be flexible.

There are considerable advantages to hiring lean software development teams; and if you need to implement more
developers on a project, smaller IT companies can usually accommodate. Start lean, and build outwards if necessary.
As the data has shown, smaller teams don’t always mean “smaller” results.


  • Atlassian report surveying 1,300 of its users regarding team size.
  • Mike Cohn’s Succeeding with Agile book,
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