A legend of the notorious Black Team

Historia_IBM_plakatIn my last post about teams I claimed there is no universal recipe for breeding a jelled team. A few days ago I came across a great book Peopleware, first published 20 years ago and then updated a few times. The authors explain what it takes for the team to jell. In order to illustrate the team creation process I would like to tell the story that was told in their book. This is a story of The Black Team-a legend in the computing industry who changed the fate of IBM forever.

The beginning

Back in the 1960s computers were enormous and every time the new model of a computer was made it required a new operating system and all software to be developed from scratch. At that time, customers were not used to accepting the product with bugs like they do nowadays. They considered such computers defective and refused to pay. Consequently, these software bugs cost IBM a lot of money and so the Management decided that the programmers were supposed to test their own software prior to delivery. It didn’t work as the developers trusted their code to much and there were still too many bugs undetected. Then, the Management noticed that some testers were better and more effective than others so they put them on one team, who were responsible for testing the most critical system components. That’s how the legendary Black Team was born.

The Black Team

They were slightly better than other testers, a bit more motivated and they tested the code written by somebody else which didn’t cause any internal struggle and allowed full objectivity. Soon some magic kicked in. The testers who were in a team were not exceptionally talented but they enjoyed testing together and soon started spending lunches together and some free time trying to think of ways how to better detect bugs. They became merciless. They were not testing software they were breaking software. They would run nasty tests that made the code fail. ” They did monstrously unfair things to elicit failure, overloading the buffers, comparing empty files, and keying in outrageous input sequences. Grown men and women were reduced to tears by watching their programs misbehave under the demented handling of these fiends. ” They were considered real destroyers and even began coming to work wearing black, hence the name. Some colleagues said they went completely crazy but IBM loved it and tolerated what was happening. The bottom line was hat software quality was significantly improving.

bug feature

What happened there?

The team of slightly more talented people who were assigned to a job that many people would consider unglamorous achieved great success, exceeding company’s expectations in every way. They became a legend in the computer industry. Why is that?
  • they took pride in what they were doing
  • they were dedicated to the ultimate goal, their goal – improving the quality of software
  • they felt a sense of eliteness
  • they felt they are a part of something unique and added real value

Goal is the most crucial factor

A jelled team doesn’t have to be motivated since they enjoy what they are doing and they like being together. But for this to happen they need some common goal, but not some arbitrary company’s goal like “let’s make our turnover this year reach 1 million dollars thanks to a better quality, debugged software.” That’s what the business owner would say. The above is strictly a company goal- not theirs, so this argument may not have appealed to anyone really. Can we always expect that employees will identify with the company goals? If yes for how long? From the employee’s perspective, can making more money be the goal in itself? According to the authors of Peopleware, sometimes team goals do not overlap with the company goals and “the purpose of the team is not goal attainment but goal alignment”. Managers should be really careful while setting goals. We shouldn’t forget that great employees apply for challenges and opportunities rather than merely ” a job”.


The prescription for a great team

In great teams the chemistry must appear but for that to happen we need to provide some basic conditions, like trust and competence mixed with mutual respect. De Marco and Lister later present the list of elements of a chemistry-building strategy for a healthy organization:
  • Make a cult of quality.
  • Provide lots of satisfying closures ( “successful finish of the work as assigned, plus perhaps an occasional confirmation along the way that everything is on target, maybe a milestone achieved or a significant partial delivery completed, something that gives internal satisfaction”)
  • Build a sense of eliteness (“when it jells the team begins to feel elite in some way or other, with all members of the team sharing in the sense of eliteness”)
  • Allow and encourage heterogeneity. (team is not a combination of identical clones, bring in some diversity)
  • Preserve and protect successful teams.
  • Provide strategic but not tactical direction.
The authors write in the conclusion: “You can’t always make it happen, but when a team does come together, it’s worth the cost. The work is fun, the people are energized. They roll over deadlines and milestones and look for more. They like themselves. They feel loyal to the team and to the environment that allows the team to exist.” What are your experiences with teams? What made them jell? Feel free to leave a comment below.