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Social Networks and Software Development

The Year of Hiring Smarter?

In truth, programmers and software firms use social networking today. Myra Norton, whose firm Community Analytics (www specializes in analyzing social networks, says:

Our research indicates that this happens informally, but that developers aren't necessarily "engaged" in targeted social networks—rather, they use their trusted networks to vet ideas and solicit advice. They use online search and other sites to gather information—they then filter this information through their relationships of trust and advice seeking.

One area where it's easy to see that software firms do use social networking is in finding and vetting potential employees or team members. If you're looking to hire someone with Ruby on Rails skills who'd be a good fit for your team, do you immediately post on, or do you look at your contact list and ask your staff to do the same?

Tapping into your staff's contacts to find new employees is an obvious social networking ploy, but Sun Microsystems takes steps to keep in touch with ex-employees, providing blogging space for them on the Sun corporate site. Can ex-employees extend your network of trust for recruiting purposes, and is it possible to use network analysis tools to push this to another level?

Yes, according to Norton:

[W]e've worked with a firm called SelectMinds that focuses on enabling "Corporate Alumni Networks" for that very purpose...The idea is to remain in contact with individuals when they leave your firm and provide them a way to remain connected to the folks with whom they already have valued relationships. Then, when you have a job or jobs to post, you send it first to this group of people who already have a connection to the firm and who now know a lot of other professionals as part of their career since leaving the firm. This can be extended to include other populations—college interns, for instance, who might be excellent candidates down the road.

Can social network analysis take a significant amount of the risk out of hiring? This may be the year that we find out.

The Year of Social Coding?

But recruiting is a peripheral process. Can understanding and enabling social networking actually help you in the core activity of developing software? Obviously, a software development team is a social network. And there is already much concern in the industry with communication within software teams and how it affects the work. But the question goes beyond Wikis and collaboration software and version-control systems and the arrangement of desks and the deployment of lava lamps. Can social networking services and analytics play a role in a software firm's real business of developing software?

Again, Myra Norton is optimistic. Her company focuses on analyzing actual networks of influence, which may or may not mirror the structures defined by corporate org charts or the tools and office layouts alluded to above. How might a software firm make use of this insight?

[W]e might start by understanding the network among developers and other IT professionals inside the firm—opportunities to improve the level of support, expertise, resources available to the group that currently exists. We would also map the network these individuals rely on outside of the firm. Then, we might talk with developers external to the firm with interests/expertise that are in alignment with the firm's business focus. Understanding these networks would provide a solid understanding of opportunities to integrate external knowledge/expertise into the firm in a way that meets both the firms needs and the needs of the developer network.

So what would the firm do with this information? Would it actually change the formal structures to reflect the informal ones? Yes, Norton says:

They do re-examine the formal structure and alter it to better support the individuals involved as well as the company/organization as a whole. For instance, when "bottlenecks" (individuals who are relied on heavily by other members of the organization—and disproportionately so) are revealed, organizations are able to focus knowledge sharing and cross-training initiatives to relieve the burden on those individuals and reduce the institutional risk of having the bulk of the knowledge resting in the hands of the few.

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