Last time we talked about the darker side of building a development group: dealing with the toxic engineer. Well after you have dealt with your toxic problem – or maybe during – you should probably be trying to make your people feel less like interchangeable parts and more like they are part of something.

We twenty first century technology types don't like to admit it, but people still have one foot in the stone age. A software development team is a sort of tribe, a tribe that is usually thrown together on short notice, a tribe that is supposed to start bringing down design deer in the first week, a tribe that is required to graduate to functional mastodons before the deadline. Tribes thrive on tradition, on things that bind them together and set them apart. If you are leading a development tribe group, it is up to you to encourage the little traditions that make people feel like they belong.

Gumby builds a team

Back in the 80's I worked with a small development group, a tiny satellite office of a very large and impersonal corporation. One day one of our engineers, a woman who had this very striking, asymmetrical haircut brought in a life size (well person size anyway) inflatable Gumby. Apparently someone had given it to her as a commentary on her hairdo and for some reason she didn't want it in the house. So Gumby was shuffled off to the corner by the table where we all ate lunch. Eventually Ms Asymmetry left, but Mr G remained.

What none of use had really considered was that Gumby was standing right in front of the most prominent window in the whole building. You could see the Big G from the sidewalk, from the buildings across the street, and, if you happened to look up, from your car as you drove by. After a Gumby had been installed about a year, there was about 5% chance that any new acquaintance would, on hearing where I worked, say "Oh, you're the people with the Gumby!" It was accidental, but Gumby helped define us as a group. We were proud of him. Someone suggested that he should get his own email address. After a while Gumby acquired an (inflatable) electric guitar. By pure accident, Gumby became our semi-official mascot. Gumby didn't show up on the headcount reports, but he was the key guy (Gumby is a boy, right?) in building that team.

Could you move your elbow so I can swallow?

Many jobs later, I was part of a development group that got moved into some of worst office space that I have ever experienced. Twenty four desks jammed into a big open room, every personal phone call a matter of public record, every trip to the bathroom a reason for the whole team to look up.

There were a couple of conference rooms and somewhere around the end of the first week I took my lunch and escaped into one of them. I didn't have any great plan for building group spirit. Far from it. I just wanted to get away from my desk for an hour. After a while, someone else stopped by and asked if they could join me. Sure. The next week there were four or five of us and in a few months most of the group was eating lunch in that room. If you think about it, it was a little crazy: for eight or ten or twelve hours a day we would work, elbow to elbow at our desks in the crowded office that we all hated. Come midday and what did we do? We jammed into an even smaller conference room, to eat lunch together. Sounds silly, but it worked. It was what we did. It helped us deal with that terrible office. And it pulled us together.

Does this mean we have to start over?

Years later, I was working with a new team that was just beginning to use Subversion. One morning one of the senior engineers came by and said that he had made a small subversion mistake. Just a very minor thing you see. He had accidentally deleted some stuff. In fact, well, he had deleted everything. Down to the last byte, every line of code was gone. Well the magic of subversion is that nothing is ever gone forever and in 10 minutes we had everything back to normal.

At the next team meeting, I presented that sheepish engineer with the first official Subversion Devastation Award – just a paper plate with those words at the top and a drawing of a stick of TNT in the middle (motto: "All your source code are belong to us"). It was just a silly little taunt, but other paper plate awards followed. People seem attached to them: I still see them pinned up on the walls here and there.

Little things like Gumby and the conference room and the paper plate awards are important. They define a team, make people feel like they belong to something. You should be doing what you can to make these things grow. Look for the goofy, the off-beat and see if you can't just push things that way. It is also important not to try to force this stuff. A little nudge goes a long way – try to push this sort of thing too fast and it will seem artificial and stupid. And folks will recede back into their separate little worlds. But do look for things that are developing and try to give them a very gentle nudge. The tribe will thank you.

Next time let's talk about the unthinkable: what happens if you make a bad decision? What am I saying 'if'. When.

– Russ

PS I would like to dedicate this article to all of the paper plate award winners out there. You know who you are