Nucleic Teams

A nucleic team is one with small core group of permanent employees, usually just 1 to 3 people, that is supplemented as needed by contractors. The core in a nucleic team is too small to do the anticipated work, even during slow periods of development. The core teams job is two fold, first it implements stories that are particularly complicated, risky or architecturally important. The second role of the core team is to manage a group of contractors by creating statements of work, doing code reviews, etc.

The nucleic structure should provide a lot of advantages from a business stand point. You get many of the benefits of having an in-house development team. Advantages like developers that have the time and incentives to become domain experts. A consistent group of people with which all the stakeholders can build a rapport. A group of people that work together long enough to build the shared vision it takes to create systems with conceptual integrity.1

Those advantages are combined with the advantages of pure contracting team, at least in principle. The primary advantages of a pure contracting are that you can scale the development organization, both up and down, rapidly and cost effectively. Many organizations with in-house development teams end up having to maintain a sub-optimally sized development team. Work loads and cash flow tend to vary a bit over time. It takes a long time to find and hire skilled developers. Once you do, it really sucks to have to lay people off, either because of the lack of work or lack of money. Resizing development teams is so costly and disruptive that most organizations tend to pick a team size that is larger than optimal for the slow/lean times but less than optimal for the plentiful times.


This structure is not without it risks, though. Finding talent contractors is not easy. Contractors, by their very nature, cannot be relied on when planning beyond their current contract. Most importantly, though, contracting usually has an incentive structure that favors short term productivity. All of these can threaten the long term success of project if not managed correctly.

To counteract the risks inherent in contract workers the core team must be committed to the business, highly talented and fully empowered by the executive team to aggressively manage the contractors. The core team members must be highly skilled software developers, of course, but this role requires expertise in areas that are significantly different from traditional software development. The ability to read and understand other peoples code rapidly it of huge importance. As is the ability to communicate with both the business and the contractors what functionality is needed. The core team also needs to be able to communicate much more subtle, squishy, things like the architectural vision and development standards.

The core team will not be as productive at cutting code as they might be use to. The core team role is not primarily one of coding. A significant risk is that the members of the core team might find that they do not like the facilitation and maintainership role nearly as much as cutting code. It is necessary to set the expectations of candidates for the core team appropriately. One other risk is that the core team will get so bogged down in facilitation and maintainership tasks that they actually stop cutting code. The “non-coding architect” is a recipe for disaster, and should be avoided at all costs.

While this team structure has much going for it, it will be challenging to make work in practice.


I think this team structure is developing in the Rails community out of necessity, rather than preference. Rails is a highly productive environment. That can make it a competitive advantage for organizations that use it. However, the talent pool for Ruby and Rails is rather small. Additionally, many of the people who are highly skilled at Rails prefer to work as contractors. The percentage of the Rails talent pool that prefers to be independent seems quite high by comparison to any other community i know of.

This raises a problem for organizations that would like to create an in-house development team using Rails. Most of the talent would rather not work for you, or anyone for that matter. However, if you can build a small core team to manage the development and hold the institutional knowledge for the project you can utilize the huge talent that exists in the Rails contractor community to drive the project to completion.

I am not sure if this structure and the reason behind it are good, or bad, for the Rails community as a whole. The nucleic team model might turn out to be a competitive advantage in itself because it embodies the benefits of both internal and external development teams. On the other hand, it is bound to be a bit off putting for organizations that are not use to it.

  1. See Mythical Man Month by Fred Brooks for more details on the importance of conceptual integrity.

Comments 1

  1. Jud wrote:

    Nice post. Thanks for the insight.

    Posted 28 Mar 2009 at 4:51 pm