IDF and Army Lessons for Startup Team Growth

Quick Summary - Many Israeli startups and businesses share similar challenges as the Israel Defense Forces. Israel has a Top 20 military despite having a population of just 9.3 million.

IDF and Army Lessons for Startup Team Growth

We don’t mean to compare software development to military service. But, the military can provide businesses valuable lessons for structuring and developing teams capable of punching way above their weight.

8 mins read

Developing teams of teams

The military has struggled throughout history to find the right balance, composition, and structure for units of all sizes – from the squad to division level, and beyond. The challenge to find the right mix includes factors like the availability of personnel, training, leadership, availability of equipment, and type of mission, for starters. A similar challenge applies to the structure and optimization of software development teams – partly owing to a global shortage of qualified IT specialists.

As Vered Netzer, a former Major for a communications unit in the Israeli Defense Forces, believes the Army is “200% Agile.” In her interview with the Business Agility Institute she noted, “The Army is like a start-up, you have limited resources and must adapt fast when the reality changes.” A lot about the IDF is classified, so references will also be made to practices in the US Army and Marines.

Military teams are organized to optimize firepower for countless types of missions and situations. Our focus here is on optimizing efficient software development teams for startups and small-medium-sized businesses. The structure of both types of teams defines to a large extent how teams can train and work together, handle retention, scale-up, and more.

Brigadier General (US Army, Ret.) Bernard Banks, Ph.D., underscores this in his discussion of Agile team development, “Companies must become a team of teams.” He predicates this on each team having a “shared understanding of the desirable outcomes, situational influences, and a cogent awareness of the steps that each member must take to achieve a performance outcome.”

Roles in a software development team

As we recently covered in Agile Team Size, software development teams typically have three to nine team members with a rough average of seven. Agile promotes the organization of self-contained teams where team members are capable of filling multiple roles. For quick reference, this diagram shows the most common roles needed in a software development team.

image

More technical roles can be added horizontally according to project requirements – Machine Learning Specialists, Data Scientists, QA Automation Engineers, etc.

Most early-stage startups will be hard-pressed to fill all of these roles. And though it may be difficult to do so, startups also need to be very mindful of their future and actively plan for growth.

Structure of a software development team

Where efficient software development is concerned, utilization is an important metric. The goal is to make sure each team member has a balanced workload. This means ensuring that they have enough work to minimize idle time, while not so much work that it impacts the quality of their work. Poor quality translates to bugs that will need to be fixed – and that kills productivity. Software development makes this a non-trivial task. Some software components can be worked on by different teams, simultaneously, in parallel. Yet, other work can only begin after another component is finished.

Each business will need to find its own optimal team composition. In an Amazon warehouse, for example, this means determining how many receivers are needed for each picker and packer, often tied to the automated parts of its shipping lines. In software development, it can be a little more complex. In the beginning, startups are likely to have a strange mix of over/under capacity issues. Software may need more designers, or more data scientists – on a variable basis by project stage and funding.

Nevertheless, a startup can still plan for growth, understanding that fine-tuning will be needed along the way. The structure we’re about to present is not new, but rather reflects the org chart of most modern military units. It presents a ratio of the number of individuals needed in different roles. It considers that a team can be composed of multiple teams and that teams are easier to manage than a loose string of individuals.

Ratio of Individuals for Software Development Roles:

  • Project Managers. A project manager can reasonably oversee 3-4 software development projects. This decreases if they arev fulfilling additional roles in a team.
  • Business Analysts. It’s generally recommended for a team to have one business analyst for every 4-8 developers – or 3-4 feature teams for scaling purposes.
  • Designers. Industry-wide, companies gravitate to 1 designer for every 10 developers, also suitable for 3-4 feature teams.
  • Quality Assurance (Testers). Many teams have 1 QA for every three developers. However, some teams make developers responsible for their own testing. In such cases, QA requirements can drop to 1 QA for every ten developers, or again 1 QA specialist for every 3-4 feature teams.

Following these guidelines would produce a software development team structure that looks something like this:

image

One PM could provide oversight on 3-4 similarly structured project teams. In a startup with only one software project under development, they could also take on a role as the BA or Engineering Manager. Project meetings can be kept to 5 participants or include the three Team Leads and still stay within Agile guidelines.

Comparing with the structure of military units

The structure of the software development team above is fashioned after the org chart of virtually every size of unit in the military. Military organizations are almost fractal in design. The main differences between the organization of a platoon and a company, battalion, regiment or division is in the size and number of specialized units they have attached. So, with relatively minor differences, nearly every military unit has an org chart that looks like this:

image

Org chart for an Infantry Company

Rule of threes

While Israel has a Top 20 military, it’s estimated to have a small active-duty force of 125,000 troops – of which two-thirds are conscripts. This much indicates that, like the US military, the IDF also recognizes the Rule of Three to some extent. Conscription in the IDF is based upon 2.5 year terms of service for males and 2 year terms for females. Incidentally, software developers also have a tendency to change jobs every two years. This sets up a rotation where:

  • A third of the organization consists of long-term “career” or “core” personnel.
  • Another third of the organization is experienced but could rotate out soon.
  • A final third consists of new team members – still learning the ropes.

As we’ve discussed previously, turnover and retention are big issues for startups. For tech startups, turnover can exceed 25% yearly. This, too, needs to be factored into the hiring practices of a startup. If a key knowledge-holder decides to leave, your entire startup could be left high and dry for several weeks or longer.

The rule of threes also extends structurally such that each unit consists of 3 teams – with additional specialized support as required. The IDF appears to use brigades instead of regiments and divisions. The principles of organization are very similar, only a brigade can have 3-5 battalions attached instead of 3. A lot about the IDF is classified, but this could be based on and adapted to the size of the unit’s area of operation – its workload, so to speak.

Organizational structure ties into issues of retention and knowledge sharing.

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Benefits for your business

The first point is to consider the structure of the software development team outlined above as a template. It is not perfect for any given situation, but will put you in the ballpark of what you need while positioning you for growth. You are free to modify it as needed. As a startup, it may be difficult to think or plan three steps ahead – suffice that the template practically does that for you.

As the founder or CTO, the template provides you an easy way to stratify your personnel requirements. Many Israeli companies, in particular, insist upon hiring locally. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, insisting that all team members be employees will get expensive. That’s doubly the case when so many organizations are competing for top-tier talent where it’s already scarce.

Indeed, one of the top five reasons businesses fail owes to not having the right team. Following the IDF’s model – it’s worth an extra effort to find people for your “core” team. These are individuals who are excited about your business and who are likely to stay with it for the long-term (5+ years). A solid core can weather any storm.

Where your funding may fall short in being able to pay them top-tier wages, startups provide a ground floor opportunity. Having a personnel plan (future org chart) provides your “core” team members a clear path forward – for promotions, higher wages, increased learning, new challenges, and career growth. In short, you’re covering most of the reasons why software developers change jobs every two years.
The first point is to consider the structure of the software development team outlined above as a template. It is not perfect for any given situation, but will put you in the ballpark of what you need while positioning you for growth. You are free to modify it as needed. As a startup, it may be difficult to think or plan three steps ahead – suffice that the template practically does that for you.

As the founder or CTO, the template provides you an easy way to stratify your personnel requirements. Many Israeli companies, in particular, insist upon hiring locally. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, insisting that all team members be employees will get expensive. That’s doubly the case when so many organizations are competing for top-tier talent where it’s already scarce.

Indeed, one of the top five reasons businesses fail owes to not having the right team. Following the IDF’s model – it’s worth an extra effort to find people for your “core” team. These are individuals who are excited about your business and who are likely to stay with it for the long-term (5+ years). A solid core can weather any storm.

Where your funding may fall short in being able to pay them top-tier wages, startups provide a ground floor opportunity. Having a personnel plan (future org chart) provides your “core” team members a clear path forward – for promotions, higher wages, increased learning, new challenges, and career growth. In short, you’re covering most of the reasons why software developers change jobs every two years.

Growth through outsourcing

Most Israeli startups seek to scale up for the international market. As your business grows, your team will need to follow suit. We recently talked about scaling up – that it typically proceeds in stages according to a series of funding rounds. Each funding round is predicated on the startup achieving a certain valuation and fits to a loose schedule. The process can only move so fast, but it can move exponentially.

Google started in 1998 with just its two founders and had nearly 300 employees by 2001. From there, it went on to grow 10x by 2004, another 10x by 2011. Its number of contractors now exceeds its 130k employees. That’s an extreme example, though typical to the growth pattern of many tech companies.

A startup that is successful in securing its Round A and Round B funding needs a plan to jump from a very small team to ~30 and ~300 within 2-4 years. Of course, that can vary. Not everyone wants to be a Google or pursue an IPO.

Working with an IT staffing agency provides several benefits that make it easy for businesses like yours to scale up rapidly with highly qualified IT professionals:

  • Specialists in building IT teams let you hire faster with access to a larger talent pool.
  • Simplify payment processing – the agency handles most finance and HR issues.
  • Add 2-4 outsourced developers to your team for the fully-loaded cost of one in-house developer.
  • PerceptionBox sources with Ukrainian software developers – #5 globally in technical proficiency, #2 in “bang-for-your-buck” value and great retention rates.
  • Elastic Teams – scale up or down, as fits your funding and software lifecycles, and ability to roll over into other projects.

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