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My experience with Master Craftsman Teams

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Uncle Bob” wrote yesterday about Master Craftsman Teams.

The thing that struck me most about this article is how closely it matched the way my own team of coworkers, who came and went, contributed and moved on, helped me develop two significant software build systems over ten years.

Without a doubt I had the role of “master”, and as Peter Naur would say, had the theory of the program in my head. I developed the build system from empty directories twice, to build products for two different software systems. Each time I had key responsibility to fit the system to customers’ needs, and decide how it would involve internally. (I’ve also been programming for thirty years, since BASIC on my first computers in grade school.)

I delegated what I saw fit to a handful of people who grew in responsibility as they demonstrated they understood and could make creative improvements to the system (journeyman). One of the journeymen became committer when I recently left. Since no-one had the theory as well as I did, architectural responsibility devolved from my fiat to a change control board, so that everyone could bring bits and pieces of their expertise to together make better decisions.

Hundreds of small changes were made over the years by a few dozen people who did not really grasp the principles of the system, so needed a significant amount of guidance. I reviewed every line of code in the system, and know how it all works together. I expect that some of this efficiency will suffer in future, at the advantage—to the organization that owns it—of not having “the keys to the kingdom” in one set of hands.

I’m not sure how well this approach would sit with people as a formalized organization chart and pay scale, but I’ve seen it work very well in practice with a software project I managed. Further, I believe that if you look closely most software projects in practice run this way (eg Linux has Linus, Alan, various subsystem committers, and a hoi polloi of patchers.) Even further, a single person may be an apprentice to one project, a journeyman to another, and a master to a third.

Perhaps the thing to do is to compensate people outside the company by bounties for the code they contribute; set up a contractor arrangement for journeymen; and actually hire only masters. This keeps companies small, focused on their core competencies and most valuable people. Even better for the community of programmers, this provides a structure for programmers to put food on the table while contributing to as many projects, and at the levels of depth, as suits their inclinations and abilities.


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  1. […] a person progresses (or not) through a career, but in my experience this classification applies between a person and each of many projects. Apprentice. The apprentices write a significant amount of code—most of which is discarded by the […]

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