The Perfect Balance in Software Teams Unites Visionary Poets with Methodical Librarians
February 13, 2024

Keith Pitt
Buildkite

The personality types you often encounter in software development organizations can be divided into two basic categories: poets and librarians. Poets are the creative types who dream up big ideas. Librarians make sure high-quality code gets built on time. Their goals and motivations differ, but great software results when they work together harmoniously.

Organizations need both skill sets, but generative AI may be about to change the optimal poet/librarian mix pretty fundamentally. A GBK Collective survey found that 78% of companies expect to use AI for software development within the next three to five years. Gartner expects more than half of software engineering leaders will oversee generative AI by 2025.

Automation reduces the need for librarians and makes poets more productive. Creative developers with strong business skills will be in particularly high demand. There will still be a need for poets and librarians, but generalists will rule the day.

Dreamers and Organizers

Software developers who imagine themselves as poets are the impossible dreamers, the creative types who invent breakthrough products. They value their independence, shun authority and rebel against structure. They ask, "Why doesn't this exist, and how can I make it exist?"

Poets may do their best work at a diner at 3 a.m. They're content with working anywhere, and Inspiration can strike them anytime. Writing poetry is typically a solitary endeavor involving thought and reflection. So is creative software development. Poets prefer to work on a project basis with deadlines they can push to the limit.

Librarians crave structure. They value organization, categories, and processes. The Dewey Decimal System is their deity. Nothing makes them happier than putting a bookshelf in the right order with the spines lined up. Operating hours matter. Surprises are unwelcome. Creativity is innovating on process.

An organization with too many poets is colorful, fascinating and incredibly messy. It produces a lot of great ideas but has trouble productizing and scaling them. A world dominated by librarians is, well, a library. It's a good place to get work done but not a place you'd want to hang out and brainstorm.

Poets have deep human knowledge, and librarians have deep technical knowledge. Poet developers come up with out-of-the-box, forehead-slapping, brilliant new ideas. Librarians ensure that their code adheres to policies and executes quickly.

Finding the Optimal Mix

Most software development organizations have a mix of poets and librarians. There is no formula for a perfect balance, nor do people always categorize themselves appropriately. A good approach for development managers is to look at the number of knowns versus unknowns in your goal set. The more unknowns you can tolerate, the more poets you need. The more knowns there are, the more librarians you need to keep things on track.

Artificial intelligence may be set to change things fundamentally, and development managers should be ready to adjust their poet-to-librarian ratios accordingly. GenAI promises to automate many testing, code optimization, and quality control tasks that are currently the librarian's domain. That could boost the need for poets at the expense of their more bookish colleagues.

In the longer term, AI promises to rewrite the skills equation even more fundamentally. The complexity of software development has created the need for specialists in areas like user interface design, quality assurance, and cloud-native development. AI could be the leveler that makes many of these skills obsolete or at least less critical.

As software designer Tommy Geoco recently wrote, "More than ever, it's going to become necessary to be a designer who can code, an engineer who understands growth, and a product manager who can design.”

For development managers, that means adjusting their skills matrix to favor poets. Most organizations over-index librarians because of the need to enforce consistency and standards. That hurts creativity across the board. As machines increasingly take on these roles, the need for librarians will diminish. The challenge for IT leaders will be identifying the poets disguised as librarians and encouraging them to come out of their shells by creating a working environment that rewards creativity and doesn't penalize well-intentioned mistakes.

That will be a heavy lift for some organizations, but it is the only way development teams of the future can achieve their full potential.

Keith Pitt is Co-Founder and CEO of Buildkite
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