Application developer talent: Time to play moneyball

A few tips to note while assembling application development teams: Computer science degrees are overvalued, get people who can talk to business folks and monitor chemistry.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Michael Rosenbaum, founder and CEO of Catalyst IT Services, thinks software development could be quantified in a way akin to the moneyball tactics in baseball.

Rosenbaum's company rounds up teams of developments for rapid deployment where enterprises need to be aligned with the business and move in a hurry. Catalyst can deliver teams of developers within 24 hours and is often used for high-value projects.

At the Gartner Symposium ITXpo, Catalyst and Nike presented a case study highlighting how team selection can boost the metrics and returns of application development. Catalyst teams worked on the technology for Nike's Fuel Band as well mobile applications, APIs for partners and a unified e-commerce and Web experience.

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The typical Catalyst client also uses offshore outsourcers, but has stumbled managing high-value work from afar because there's often a lack of understanding about the business goals.

Catalyst's analytics engine for talent selection and team assembly was started when Rosenbaum was a fellow at Harvard University. Increasingly Catalyst is being seen as a way to move development work onshore. We caught up with Rosenbaum to talk about building better development teams.

And Rosenbaum has tested his talent algorithms. He will hire 150 people over the next nine months and sort through data on 10,000 developers to find those folks.

Here's the recap.

Knowing the business matters. Application development is becoming critical in every company. Development teams need to understand the business and objectives on multiple levels. If developers don't understand the product and consumer experience, they don't deliver strong returns, said Rosenbaum.

Pick developers who don't have computer science degrees. Rosenbaum has fond that the market for IT talent places a premium on higher education degrees, but he's found that "there is no significant correlation between higher education and software development talent." Rosenbaum is happy to play the other side of the talent trade hires developers who have worked in retail and served in the military. "I look for developers from backgrounds you wouldn't expect because the market undervalues them," he said.

Indeed, a developer with retail experience knows the customer experience and shopping process better. That knowledge rubs off on the team deployed by Catalyst. Military personnel bring invaluable life experience and discipline. Ten percent of Catalyst's staff has military experience. "These people inform how people actually use technology," said Rosenbaum.

The metrics. Rosenbaum said there are multiple factors to track with software developers and he's surprised how little moneyball is actually played with talent. Some metrics tracked include defect rates, velocity, time per piece of functionality, keystrokes and hours per task to name a few. Rosenbaum looks at those metrics on individual and team levels. For instance, development teams can be carried by one or two developers. Rosenbaum also looks at mean and median averages on teams to level-set performance and highlight whether one or two rock stars do all the work.

The returns of devs without computer science degrees are measured in turnover. Catalyst has a 5.8 percent turnover rate compared to offshore providers who are often in the teens or higher. That low turnover rate is at least partly attributed to the fact that the talent market undervalues developers from non-computer science backgrounds. "Because they're undervalued they're hungrier and out to prove something," explained Rosenbaum.

Chemistry matters. When assembling dev teams Rosenbaum looks at team composition. Measuring chemistry comes down to the performance of a team. A team that has velocity and can deliver projects on time should stick together. "We break teams apart and put together in different ways," said Rosenbaum. In addition, teams are composed differently based on the client. A team deployed to a large enterprise needs people who can navigate an organization and play be corporate rules. Developers who want to push boundaries might be better suited for a team deployed to a startup. A developer working for a midsized company needs to get by with limited resources.

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