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Posted on: Tuesday, 14 July 2009 by Rajiv Popat

Software Terror Cells.

Jeff Atwood at Coding Horror had a hard time understanding how open source projects work when he found out that the five thousand dollars he donated to ScrewTurn Wiki was lying idle and unused in the bank; while Dario Solera; the product owner couldn't think of one way to spend money in over four months.

John Galloway elaborates this phenomenon using a unique perspective on open source software development. John explains:

Open Source is to Traditional Software as Terror Cells are to Large Standing Armies. if you gave a terrorist group a fighter jet, they wouldn't know what to do with it. Open source teams, and culture, have been developed such that they're almost money-agnostic. Open source projects run on time, not money. So, the way to convert that currency is through bounties and funded internships. Unfortunately, setting those up takes time, and since that's the element that's in short supply, we're back to square one.

What's interesting; however; is the fact that these 'software-terror-cells' are now rapidly becoming a part of everyday life; and that dear reader; is a good thing.

The idea of guerilla warfare isn't something that is now isolated to open source. It is rapidly becoming; and to a large extent; has already become a part of everyday organizational life.

One 37Signals

It amuses me to just count the number of discussions revolving around 'how-does-37-Signals-make money' that I have with folks from multiple organizations around the world. As much as I enjoy these conversations; there are three things that are really amusing about these conversations.

  1. On one hand you have the whole wide world of software development and the organizations in it wondering how 37Signals is making money.
  2. On the other hand you have 37Signals who with their team of eight developers doesn't really 'have to' to make millions in order to survive.
  3. Every 'enterprise' out there; that needs a couple of million each year just to keep it's payroll moving; wants to be the next 37Signals.

What is amusing is that while the rest of the software development business world is busy trying to figure out the business model of 37Signals and how 37Signals makes millions; the guys at 37Signals are; maybe not through a deliberate strategy; engaging in what Joel Spolsky calls Fire and Motion. Joel talks about the basic idea using his experience as a Israeli Paratrooper. He explains:

When I was an Israeli paratrooper a general stopped by to give us a little speech about strategy. In infantry battles, he told us, there is only one strategy: Fire and Motion. You move towards the enemy while firing your weapon. The firing forces him to keep his head down so he can't fire at you. (That's what the soldiers mean when they shout "cover me." It means, "fire at our enemy so he has to duck and can't fire at me while I run across this street, here." It works.)  The motion allows you to conquer territory and get closer to your enemy, where your shots are much more likely to hit their target. If you're not moving, the enemy gets to decide what happens, which is not a good thing. If you're not firing, the enemy will fire at you, pinning you down.

Clearly; 37Signals is pretty much electing to be a software-terror-cell by choosing to grow by not growing. If you gave 37Signals a hundred programmers they probably wouldn't know what to do with them. Put simply; 37Signals is a self sustaining team of seriously kick-ass programmers or genuine builders and story-tellers rolled into one; who can organize themselves and function as a software-terror-cell. A software-terror-cell.

A terror cell that continues to confuse the rest of the world in general and their competition in particular by constantly engaging in fire-and-motion.

Six Thousand Microsofts

Early on in my career we did some work at the Microsoft silicon valley campus. During my short stay at Microsoft I learnt something which was later articulated by another Microsoft employee. The statement was profound and left a deep impact on me --- Microsoft isn't one company. It is just a collection of six thousand Microsofts; and a majority of these Microsofts happen to be successful.

How Many Terror Cells Does Your Organization Have?

Once you've gone out there and hired some seriously kick-ass programmers; your job as a CTO; Vice President; Manager or whatever fancy designation you hold; dear reader; is to get out of their way and let them form self-sustaining-terror-cells which can continue to fire-and-motion day after day.

Try to organize your genuine builder in large standing armies and chances are; you lose.

I don't care how big your organization is; how big your team is; or what 'vertical' of enterprise software development your organization deals with - if you aren't letting your builders organize themselves into small; low maintenance software-terror-cells specializing in genuine innovation with constant fire-and-motion; chances are that there is a huge body shop out there somewhere in India which can take your organization and all it's jobs sitting ducks.

Not to mention of-course that every time you try to organize a large standing army; you screw up your chances of building a remarkable work and fun environment; just a little bit more.

Now go hire some seriously genuine builders and story-tellers. Then once you've hired them go form your own software development terror cells and learn how to fire-and-motion.

I wish you good luck.

How many successful self-sustained software-terror-cells does your organization have?

How many large standing armies is your organization feeding?

Are you indulging in fire-and-motion on your competition or are you being taken down by your competition sitting ducks; dear reader?

Discuss.

Note: This article is a part of a Work In Progress Book. To Read connected articles read the Builders At Work category of this blog.