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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

Practical programmer: Software teams

I have often heard the phrase, “We see what we know.” As technicians, we concentrate on technical ways to manage complexity: abstraction, design techniques, high-level languages, and so on. That is what we know best. But when the tale is told of a project that failed, the blame is often laid not on technical difficulties, but on management and interpersonal problems.In the last six months, I have seen firsthand how attention to the social organization of a software team can make a big difference in the success of a development project. I work in a “Research and Development” group. “Research” means that some aspects of the project are experimental—we do not know for sure what is going to work. “Development” means we are expected to produce high-quality software for real users. So while we want to encourage creative thought, we must pay heed to the lessons of commercial software developers in quality assurance, testing, documentation, and project control.Our all-wise project leader decided we also needed to pay heed to the lessons of sociology. In particular, we began to apply the ideas found in Larry Constantine's work on the organization of software teams. Our efforts have resulted in a team that is productive, flexible, and comfortable. I thought these qualities are unusual enough to merit a column on the subject.

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