Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Ten character classes your project team needs

A dungeon-crawling party requires a good mix of character classes to be successful. If everyone is a wizard there's nobody who can fight off the orc warband. Similarly, a software development team needs a range of character traits and aspects to successfully deliver working software which meets the project's goals. Here's my take.


The Scavenger understands the importance of not re-inventing the wheel. To this end they acquire an encyclopaedic understanding of our languages' built-in libraries, the existing features of our system and other systems in the wider organisation, and open-source libraries.

Unless given a precise list of the project's wants a Scavenger will become a Mutant Renegade, scouring the post-atomic wasteland for useless relics, which are broken or undocumented or both.

Aspect: "Here's one we made earlier"
Traits: Focused laziness, Unfocused research, GitHub

Rat King

The Rat King understands that software development is a communal task. Consequently they work to forge a collection of disparate individuals into a team. Their remit includes facilitating meetings and arranging after-work socials. Despite their fearsome appearance and collectivist instincts the Rat King is extremely sensitive to what each person brings to the party, and strives to ensure that introverts and teetotallers are included without feeling pressurized.

Unless met with a smidgeon of friendly scepticism a Rat King will become a Facebook.

Aspect: "We must hang together or we will surely hang separately"
Traits: Teamwork, Communications, Contacts


The Paladin is the defender of the project but is also committed to the ideal of a project which is worth defending. They ensure everybody follows best practice, adheres to coding standards and observes the agile ceremonies.

Unless there's a Rogue to balance them a Paladin will become a Grand Inquisitor (although maybe without the thumbscrews).

Aspect: "Just do it right"
Traits: Rigour, Weird inner light


The Rogue is pragmatic where the Paladin is dogmatic. They have a swashbuckling approach to getting things done. They understand the concept of technical debt, they just tip the trade-off toward delivering stuff over following the rules. Very fond of observing that there's no such thing as "best practice".

Unless kept in line a Rogue will become a Cowboy. Yee-hah!

Aspect: "Let's do the show right here"
Traits: Resourcefulness, Acute bullshit detector, Cynefin

Mad Scientist

The Mad Scientist has a deep technical understanding of software development, both practice and theory. They are obsessed with innovative and extremely clever solutions to business problems.

Unless your business problem actually requires an extremely clever solution a Mad Scientist will become an Evil Supervillain, who will derail the project (but, to be fair, will not destroy the entire planet. Probably).

Aspect: "My monster lives!"
Traits: Single-mindedness, Visionary

Lab Assistant

The Lab Assistant is vital to delivering the work of a Mad Scientist. They document APIs on wiki pages, they write build scripts and unit tests, they productionize the PoC code. In short, they undertake all the tedious essential tasks which would distract a Mad Scientist from their creation.

A Lab Assistant to an Evil Supervillain is still a Lab Assistant, but the wiki pages are half-complete, the unit tests don't run and the code isn't fit to be checked into source control.

Aspect: "Here is the brain you wanted"
Traits: Flexibility, Service to the higher cause


The Major-domo helps the project run smoothly by taking care of all the little things everybody else forgets. They clean the whiteboard before a meeting starts, they bring Sharpies and Post-It notes to the retrospective, they write Jiras for the stories we just agreed we needed and they circulate minutes after decision-making meetings.

Unless other people occasionally do some of these tasks a Major-domo will become a Resentful Skivvy.

Aspect: "I'll add that to my To-Do list"
Traits: Well-stocked stationary cupboard, Scrivener

Court Jester

The Court Jester says out loud the things everybody else is thinking. They aren't afraid to appear ridiculous in order to make a point. Their role is to speak truth to power.

If they go too far a Jester becomes an Angry Ranter, ignored and shunned by everybody.

Aspect: "The true fool stays silent in the face of foolishness"
Traits: Humour, Insight, Lack of inhibition

Bounty Hunter

The Bounty Hunter lives for finding and fixing bugs. They are never happier when writing test cases to reproduce a bug or stepping through lines of code in debug mode. They understand that fixing production code is more important than delivering a new feature.

Unless kept on a tight leash a Bounty Hunter will become a Mindless Delver or a Tinkerer.

Aspect: “To defeat the bug, we must understand the bug”
Traits: Sense of purpose, Perseverance, Debugging


The Druid has an understanding of ecosystem beyond our project's bounded context. They know what the business seeks to achieve and how our project furthers those goals. They also know about other projects in the organisation, and work to ensure our project integrates with them harmoniously.

Unless given a clear sense of our project's priorities and direction a Druid is still a Druid, just servicing the needs of other projects.

Aspect: "Listen to the trees, dude"
Traits: Awareness, Empathy, Balance

Multi-faceted characters

Obviously these aren't main character classes. A project team comprises base classes such as Developers, Testers, Analysts, Architects, heck maybe even a Project Manager. What I list here are ancillary classes, which modify a base class. An Architect, a Developer, an Analyst or a Project Manager can benefit from having a touch of the Druid about them. Any Developer should spend some time being a Bounty Hunter or Scavenger. Different circumstances demand different class behaviours. When there's a major outage in Production we need Rogues to fix it, not Paladins muttering about process and sign-off. But after Production is back it is the Paladins who make sure the problem and its resolution are properly documented, and appropriate preventative measures put in place. Most people on the team will flow through several of these class behaviours, even over the course a single sprint.

When we're forming a new team to deliver some piece of software we focus on the hard skills. the main character classes. We need this many Developers, this many Analysts, a UX expert, an SEO specialist, and so forth. These are the easy things to define. But the success of the project will in large part depend on the soft skills and temperaments of the individuals in the team. This is a lot harder to measure. It's why personality tests like Myers-Briggs and Insights exist: some people think they're hokum but they provide a framework for assessing the make-up of a team in an age when we're uncomfortable casting horoscopes or taking auguries from the liver of a freshly-slaughtered goose. Using RPG character classes as metaphors for desirable behaviours has the advantage of jokiness. There is a categorical absence of pyschological research underpinning this article. Also it doesn't require us to obtain live waterfowl.

One last thing. The next time you find yourself at a retrospective with no marker pens and nothing to write on, look around for a Major-domo. And if you can't spot one why not appoint yourself to the role?


That final paragraph makes me sad for the times when retrospectives happened in a room with other people, with a whiteboard covered in post-It notes. Let's hope we can do them like that again.

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