Why the big teams can’t hit the right notes David 25 Jul 2005

20 comments Latest by Joe

Joel hits a high note himself documenting the 1:10 productivity difference between crap and rock star programmers in Hitting the High Notes. But what’s even more interesting about his argument is the thesis that its not just about productivity, it’s about making a different class of software. The best programmers don’t just make the same software faster, they make a different kind of software:

The real trouble with using a lot of mediocre programmers instead of a couple of good ones is that no matter how long they work, they never produce something as good as what the great programmers can produce. Five Antonio Salieris won’t produce Mozart’s Requiem. Ever. Not if they work for 100 years.

I’m going to liberally extend the argument to include the difference between small and big teams in general (which Joel already kind of alludes to). Small teams working under healthy constraints can simply produce a different kind of software than the big teams working without constraints can.

They can dare take productivity-enchancing drugs, they can say “Most things actually work!” and give a hoot about pissing off the easily offended, and they can release less software with fewer features and still be bullish about it!

When Philip Greenspun took on the VCs that would eventually destroy his company, he thought that he had to do it or someone else would enter his domain, outspend him buying programming muscle, and beat him out of business through shear force. In hindsight, he would probably see the correlation that Joel makes about Winamp vs Windows media player teams:

If you threw a bunch of extra programmers onto the Windows Media Player team, would they ever hit that high note? Never in a thousand years. Because the more people you added to that team, the more likely they would be to have one real grump who thought it was unprofessional and immature to write “Most things actually work” on your website.

And that’s of course why small teams that embrace their constraints don’t need to fear the big guys nearly as much as they think. They’re playing a different game that produces different software and can simply do and move like no 800 lb gorilla ever can.

20 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Ryan 25 Jul 05

Rails is a drug? I thought it felt kinda funny.

JF 25 Jul 05

I agree, Mark, a healthy dose of fear is a good thing to have. And we have it, but I think David’s point was not to be afraid of entering a market because the big guys dominate it. There’s a lot of room on the fringes to establish a great position and get disruptive.

David Heinemeier Hansson 25 Jul 05

I think your quote left out the most important part of the sentence “…nearly as much as they think”. That is I’ve heard from a lot of people who has an unreasonable fear of entering a market because some bigco might do to. Or Philip thinking that he needed to VC it to compete with the other guys in his space.

So yes, a little fear is a good thing. Enough to keep your eyes and ears open. But not enough to deter you from the pursuit.

Ryan Henesie 25 Jul 05

Small teams are obviously more agile than an 800-lb big-team gorilla like Microsoft. But when a big company like Apple DOES turn out to be agile enough to steal the thunder from a small company like Odeo, they may become a threat to small teams. Apple threw their financial clout and enormous iTunes user base at the podcasting market and beat Odeo to the punch.

I’m too busy to lose a whole lot of sleep worrying about this, but it’s out there, living in my Threats column. My job is to make sure my Opportunities column is longer. And to make sure that I’m doing things that capitalize on my strengths, and that I leave behind the things that I can’t compete with.

But what do you do if you find out that Apple (or some other rule-breaking big team, or a small team for that matter) is coming after your market share? Is the only option to beat them to market? How can a small team recover from having their rug yanked out from under them?

Mark Gallagher 25 Jul 05

David and JF,

Right, good points.

I agree with most or your opinions about the advantages of small teams.

But I have seen big teams in big companies do some great work. If you have a great project manager partnered with a business owner that is creative and understands the customer, and you add a number of skilled programmers / developers ……. this big team can do some great work. Add a big marketing / sales team and you can kick butt.

But big teams and big companies can become very slow to innovate for the many reasons you discuss (too much process, lose touch with the customer, etc) creating opportunities for the little guy.

Good discussion. Thanks.


Mark Gallagher

Tony 25 Jul 05

I’m not sure I really see any evidence that Apple will or has “beaten” Odeo in the podcast market. I think it is a bit off-topic to get into here, but there are some key advantages that Odeo has over Apple, including standards support, synching multiple machines (like work and home) accross multiple operating systems, ease of use for content creators, and soon-to-be-launched content creation tools. I definitely think it is too early to call Odeo dead in the water.

JF 25 Jul 05

Apple is definitely one of those rare huge companies that can act like a small company. What makes them even more special is their ability to deliver great products quickly. They strike a lot of fear for sure.

Ryan Henesie 25 Jul 05


Right, I was actually trying to make the point that Mark made much more clearly than I did: that great work can still come from well-managed big teams just as it can come from small teams.

I think you’re right about Odeo though - I’m extremely curious to see how they play it.


Phil Boardman 25 Jul 05

Five Antonio Salieris won�t produce Mozart�s Requiem. Ever. Not if they work for 100 years.

But 1000 monkeys working for 1000 years could!

Alex Van Halen 25 Jul 05

Forget Odeo, think Oreo (david— Oreo is a popular brand of cookie in the USA). Most people think that Oreo was the original chocolate and cream sandwich cookie, and that Hydrox was a poor knock-off. The reality is the reverse, but Oreo was made by the National Biscuit Company, and they quickly came to dominate the market (while selling an inferior product, IMHO). The reason is that Nabisco had superior marketing, production, sales, and distribution muscle, and they didn’t have to bother with product development or testing (Hydrox had already figured out the magical combination of chocolate cookie with creamy filling).

Phil Greenspun a) worked with crap VCs and had a bad CEO b) had a product that it doesn’t seem anyone has managed to build a successful business around. Saying that bigger, better-financed companies don’t have a huge advantage in virtually any market is seriously delusional. I mean, yeah, there are good things about being small, but in general, the guy on a short stack is at a real disadvantage as soon as he sits down.

Also, it’s easy to act small, impossible to act big. MS has managed to dominate almost every product category they’ve gone in to, in part by acting small (Didn’t the IE4 team have like 5 coders on it?). What little company has been able to do the reverse?

Bear in mind, I say this as an employee of a very small software company. I’m rooting for our guys. I think we do have some advantages, but I think this post (and Joel’s original article) are crazy-talk.

Michael Koziarski 25 Jul 05

That’s why the most satisfying careers, if you’re a software developer, are at actual software companies, not doing IT for some bank.

Hmmm…. Seems Joel’s onto something here

Chris Carter 25 Jul 05

Ahh, but there is a difference between making cookies and making software, and that is the fact that software (especially web based solutions or application services) can be replicated for next to nothing by EVERYONE, not just the big guys. Joel talks about this in his article. This evens out the playing field and reduces the big guys’ advantage to marketing, something that is in the process of evolving in a direction that will even the field even more, with blogs being read more by average folks and online communities playing a larger role in the online consumer’s mind.

It’s much harder for the big guys to turn that boat as well, what with budget approvals, 10 meetings a day, and the contraints of a risk-averse culture. There’s a concept in economics called “Creative Destruction” (http://gongol.com/research/creativedestruction/) which outlines this situation very well. To sum it up in a short amount of time: a 2% change in market share for a company the size of Microsoft is so much smaller than a 2% change in market share for a company the size of say, 37signals. Therefore, risk/reward ratio is so much higher for 37signals that they will be more likely to take a potentially highly profitable risk than Microsoft, and thus achieve a much more significant (for them) reward.

Now, when you talk about things like the little guys being the best and what not, you have to keep things in perspective. I don’t think Joel or David are thinking about surpassing Microsoft any time soon. To do that, you’d need a few more than 5 - 15 people (unless you’re Warren Buffet) due to simple physics. However, small companies CAN and DO beat the big guys in the small to mid and niche markets every day. A billion a year in revenues may be out of reach for most companies, but 5 to 10 million isn’t so bad.

That 2% sure goes a long way when you’re a small business ;)

Chris Carter
Vice President, Application Development
Confluent Data Systems (A small, independent ISV and ASP)

Jake Tracey 26 Jul 05

Wow Derek, Tom Peters is really great. Thanks for the link.

One of the biggest advantages that smaller teams usually have over large ones is passion. Without a passion for the work you’re doing it’s extremely hard to create something that stands out from the crowd, especially when the competition is so fierce.

Apple is a great example of how being passionate about your products also leads to consumers feeling the same way. For a huge company like Microsoft there is no passion - just cold, calculated bottom line thinking. How can they ever elicit the same type of response as Apple from their customers without the same level of excitement from their own offices?

Don Schenck 26 Jul 05

Hydrox are superior to Oreos?


In any endeavor, nothing beats passion. Passion might not keep you in business, but it will let you look back at a “success” rather than a failure. Passion lets you say, in your mind, “It wasn’t me fault that they didn’t ‘get’ it”.

I’m not talking about fixing blame; I’m talking about success as it should be defined: doing your best and enjoying it.

Alex van Halen 26 Jul 05

Jake— Do you really think the hackmasters at microsoft lack passion? I know a lot of extraordinarily passionate people who work at microsoft, in product development, product management, and at msr. They are just not extremely passionate about designing products that self-destruct in 18 mos (ipod). How do you think a person lacking passion would make it through their notoriously ludicrous hiring process?