Monday, October 26, 2009

Org Charts

There are a lot of different ways to set up an engineering organization. Generally, they fall into one of two categories: function-oriented, and team-oriented.

A function-oriented structure says that people with similar skills and responsibilities should be a team. That team then provides their collective services to other teams. A team-oriented structure says that everyone working on one goal (project, product, feature area, whatever) should be on the same team.

A Function-Oriented Organization

This is a simplistic example of a function-oriented organization. You have your basic disciplines (development, test, product management) as separate groups, and within those groups you have different breakdowns based on the projects that you do.

  • In-discipline learning is easier and more fruitful. Devs will feed off what other devs are doing, testers will see test innovation and build on it - all because you're working with people who are thinking about the same things you are.
  • Allows dynamic resource allocations. If you need an extra tester on a project, great, we can add a tester.
  • Explicit thought leadership. You have a head developer who is explicitly charged with improving architecture and development practices. You have a QA manager who is explicitly responsible for evaluating and refining test practices.
  • People are serving multiple masters. They're trying to help their teams and also to conform to their (function-oriented) organization structure. This leads to some conflicts of interest.
  • Higher risk of silos. If it's a separate group, then you're more likely to have problems with communication.
Use this when:
  • You lack predictability in your projects. This happens in consulting a lot, but it can happen in other places, too. If you can't predict how many devs you'll need, it helps to have a pool of devs to draw from.
  • You have unusual requirements on one or more of your groups. If you're doing some really unusual testing, for example, you may need to keep your testers together so you pick up the learning and innovation effect.
  • Avoid this if you're attempting to embrace SCRUM or some other cross-functional team ownership mentality. The "multiple master" problem will get you in this case.

A Team-Oriented Organization

This is a simplistic example of a team-oriented organization. Each team is a group, and contains members from all relevant disciplines.

  • Unity of purpose. The team is all working toward the same goals. There is no secondary or other goal.
  • Breakdown of silos. If you can get true team ownership, you start to find developers testing, and testers helping with product management, etc.
  • No need for functional management. The role of "QA Manager" goes away here. Instead you have team leads.
  • Harder to drive functional change. When you have several teams with a few testers each, it's a lot harder for testers to innovate or learn from each other. The same goes for developers. The groups are simply too small to get that kind of momentum.
  • Hard to handle changing needs and moving through software development phases. You run the risk of having idle testers as you start an effort, and idle developers at the end of an effort. This is something that can be overcome, but you have to encourage cross-functional work, and be sure to plan appropriately.
Use this when:
  • You're using SCRUM.
  • You can have generally stable teams. This implies your projects (or products) are pretty consistent in size and resource needs.
  • Avoid this if you have a particularly weak functional area (or more than one). There's a large risk that isolation within a stronger team will make them even weaker.

So Which To Use?
I've seen organizations of both types - functional and team - work great. And I've seen them both fail spectacularly. The trick is to align your teams with your development and business philosophies. Have you embraced SCRUM? Are your projects generally consistent in size and skill sets needed? Cool - you probably want a team-oriented structure. Do you have highly specialized needs in one or more areas, or an extremely lumpy (in terms of resources wanted) plan? Consider a functional-oriented structure.

In the end, pick the structure that works for you. Just do yourself a favor and pick a single structure. Trying to mix and match will lead to heartache, but pick a single way and you'll give yourself a good chance at success.


  1. Great descriptions - at Microsoft we use both of these models. The pros and cons aren't exactly the same, but very close.

    One thing I would add is that another clue to which model to use is to use whatever model the person at the top of the org chart is most comfortable and experienced with. A good leader at the top knows the pros and cons of their org structure, and knows how to mitigate the cons and take advantage of the pros (leadership preference is the most likely reason why we have both models in place).