September 29, 2022
SOUTHWORKS serves our customers by deploying trios that we call Fireteams - but why is three the magic number?
SOUTHWORKS serves our customers by deploying trios that we call Fireteams. We’ve adopted the term from the military, where it refers to a small infantry subunit – in the same way, three is the smallest size for an engineering crew that can efficiently work together to solve the problems our customers face.
Our Fireteams comprise a lead developer and two software engineers. We also have architects who each oversee multiple teams, providing “unblocking support” when the project faces challenges.
The answer comes down to focus – in the past we experimented with many different team sizes, and looking back at our performance in those various projects, we discovered that the three-person Fireteam structure enabled the most focused performance, and therefore the best results.
Fred Brooks, author of The Mythical Man-Month, once wrote a paper where he likened the dev team to a surgical team – rather than each member doing their own little separate portion of the task, there’s one designated leader whose job is to approach the most complex aspects of the problem while the others support them to get the job done.
Even though Brooks’ thinking on this topic originated around 40 years ago, we still find that adopting this pattern fuels the success of our software teams because while the most senior member has time to focus on the bigger picture of the problem and break it down into manageable chunks, they can’t do it all alone, so the others can support with parts like testing, quality assurance, and building the pipeline. For bigger projects, the task can also be broken down into chunks for individual teams to tackle, with the architect leading the "mission".
Our way of working develops autonomy in our people, as we want all our team members to be ready to step in and take responsibility for the project leadership when needed, whether that’s due to the customer needing to prioritize other demands or because the team lead is unwell or on holiday. All team members must have a handle on everyone else’s piece of the job, not just their own – that way, we’re not at the mercy of one person’s availability, in the same way that if an airplane pilot becomes ill during a flight, the co-pilot has the training and experience to confidently take things from there.
Working in a Fireteam of three makes it easy to plan and distribute the work. It’s also the ideal size for scaling up as a project grows or the scope becomes more complex over time. Operating three-person Fireteams has proven effective for us and our customers, and we intend to keep working this way. We’ve found that our work is easier to accomplish successfully when we complete one thing at a time, with one person focused on how to do it and two others supporting – as it turns out, three really is the magic number.