For Whom the Bell Curve Tolls


As an IT executive, how do you make sure you consistently deliver good results and help the business innovate? How do you do it when you are relying on your vendors to get 80% of your work done? These topics were top of mind at the Forrester Sourcing & Vendor Management Forum I just attended. In the past couple years I’ve had many conversations with IT executives about vendor management, about productivity, about quality and overall about improving large app dev organizations with many moving parts. There are many become better programmerapproaches that come up – process improvement, better governance, introducing measurement, or replacing your vendor. This is not an easy problem and it’s not unusual for the conversation to land somewhere like: “we just need to get better people” or, “it’s all about the people running our projects” or “I just hired the vendor who’s known for paying a little more than the others.”

Wrong answer!

We’ve all heard about that mythical rock star developer who can do the work of 20 mediocre developers. We’ve all seen how incredibly effective a good project manager is, compared to a not-so-good PM. And, as managers, we naturally want to get the best team we can to work for us. Of course, if everyone could pay as much as Wall Street does for their software talent, then everyone would have their projects and their quality under control… Definitely wrong!

In statistics, we have this convenient little concept called the bell curve. If you’re reading this post, I’m sure you’ve heard of it. The bell curve is actually very powerful at describing most groups of things, or people. Yes, I know. Not everything in life looks like a bell curve – sometimes you have to find the right distribution based on empirical studies of past results. This is of course lots of fun, but when studying IT talent I posit that we don’t need to. As much as we all want to feel unique, most human characteristics can be modeled by a normal distribution. Want to line up US males by height? That happens to be a bell curve distribution. The mean is 5’10” and the standard deviation is 3”. That means that 2/3 of US males are between 5’7” and 6’1” in height. The average fastball speed in the Major League is 92 miles per hour, with a standard deviation of about 4 miles per hour. You get the idea.

The developer talent pool out there also follows a distribution. There’s little you can do to go against the laws of nature, or I should say too little that’s typically done to change that (probably a topic for another blog post). Nobody publishes developer capability distributions (yet!) but let’s take one very important input to developer capability: raw smarts. There is lots of data out there about IQ, and guess what!? That’s also a normal distribution. Here’s one such data point from a medical school up in Canada:

bell curve

We can probably make some assumptions that the guys at those bottom rungs of the IQ ladder flunk out of high school, can’t read, or get intimidated by the first “Hello World” program they have to write in Basic. You can also assume that Google, Microsoft and the NSA have the top end. So you can remove the light-blue and the grey “tails” of the curve and you and your vendors are recruiting from something that still looks very much like the bell curve.

Maybe you can pay a little more for some star developers, but I would venture to guess that any organization of more than about 50 developers starts to look like the picture above. So, most of the people touching the code that runs your business processes are somewhere in that big, blue middle of the distribution. If you’re lucky, that’s what your vendors look like too.

One of my more memorable managers used to say “the best team is the one you got.” It had taken me a while to understand what he meant. But, in the ADM world, all the talk about improvement by having good people, especially in the context of bringing on vendors, is all wishful thinking. As an IT manager, if you’re not putting some training, processes and measurement in place to help the organization perform better, you might be inadvertently placing yourself somewhere on the left side of the 'IT management' bell curve.




Lev Lesokhin
Lev Lesokhin EVP, Strategy and Analytics at CAST
Lev spends his time investigating and communicating ways that software analysis and measurement can improve the lives of apps dev professionals. He is always ready to listen to customer feedback and to hear from IT practitioners about their software development and management challenges. Lev helps set market & product strategy for CAST and occasionally writes about his perspective on business technology in this blog and other media.
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