Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Fowler Effect

ThoughtWorks does its best to attract smart developers. It's no easy task. How do you convince the smartest developers in the world to join a company that requires 100% travel (in the US anyway) and become consultants. It's a tough sell. I've always believed that people join because of the other people they'll be working with. And, of the ThoughtWorks employees that people want to work with, Martin Fowler is generally at the top.

I, like so many other people, found ThoughtWorks because of Martin Fowler. I followed a link from his website, read about the company, and decided I wanted to give it a shot. After interviewing I did a bit more research about ThoughtWorks. I was definitely put off by the travel and the thought of being a consultant, but I found blogs by Jim Newkirk, Mike Mason, and several other ThoughtWorks employees. They were saying the things I wanted to hear and they seemed like people I wanted to work with. I definitely joined ThoughtWorks for the people, but Martin was the original reason I applied.

Not everyone joins ThoughtWorks because of Martin, but a large majority of people do. Employing Martin Fowler guarantees ThoughtWorks enjoys a steady stream of talented applicants. I've always jokingly referred to this as the Fowler Effect.

I wonder if other companies could benefit from employing a luminary.

The first obvious question is: what would the luminary do? I expect the answer would vary based on the luminary.

In Martin's case, he doesn't do a lot of project work, but he is very involved in ThoughtWorks and it's projects. Martin actively participates in public discussions, visits projects, offers advice and solicits input all the time. I'm sure employing Martin also helps ThoughtWorks sell projects. The cost benefit analysis is pretty easy for ThoughtWorks and Martin, but I'm not sure how that translates to non-consulting organizations.

If your recruiting budget is the size of a luminary's salary, it might make more sense to hire a luminary that embodies the type of team you want to build. That luminary will probably be able to bring friends with similar philosophies and attract other candidates who are on the same page. In that case it would be fairly simple, you consider the luminaries salary spending part of the recruiting budget.

Other luminaries may be interested in splitting their time between project work and luminary activities. Depending on the knowledge that the luminary brings, 50% of their time might provide enough value when combined with their recruiting contributions to justify their salary.

Luminaries can also justify their employment with their network. Luminaries are often connected to people who are looking for feedback on bleeding edge technology. For example, a luminary could gain early access to something such as Microsoft's upcoming DSL solutions, MagLev, or some other type of game changing software. Getting access to game changing software before your competition could yield great benefits.

Universities can also use luminaries to attract students the way organizations use luminaries to attract employees.
As an example, many universities "employ" well known luminaries to lecture for them, yet those luminaries don't base themselves out of their campus 100% of their time, coming in to teach, perhaps one class a year. -- Pat Kua
It's clear that ThoughtWorks benefits from the Fowler Effect, but I think other organizations could also benefit more than they expect by employing a luminary. Luminaries not only bring networks, publicity, and experience, but they also attract other talented developers. The net result of employing a luminary and all the people they attract could be the difference between being good and being great.


  1. Anonymous4:38 AM

    I guess for all your self-righteous harping on "net negative producing programmers" you don't apply a similar standard to yourself as a blogger. Is it correct to infer that your reliance on IDEs means you don't need to bother with something as mundane as being able to correctly use the grammar of the language in which you write?

    Thoughtworks really looks like an echo chamber. Or maybe it's more like a group of mutual masturbators (who can't write). Either way, it's really amazing to see how much energy you put into talking about how smart you and your employers are. Have you actually accomplished anything interesting?

  2. Nice post and I think much of the same effect can be achived without luminary hunting by simply encouraging the people in the organization to voice their oppionins and thoughts on blogs and the aggregating them like TW does at and the always extremly read-worthy objectmentor blogs at

    Im sure that the slight cost involved in supporting theese services are by far outweighted by the visibility they provide in the community.

  3. For some reason, I have this feeling that if any luminaries are left in the wild - they are all scooped up by Google.

  4. Employing luminaries seems like the relatively more easy part. Far harder is using them appropriately. Richard Feynmann was working for Thinking Machines, Bill Buxton was working for Alias and is now at Microsoft. Linus Torvalds was working for Transmeta.

    While each of these people did amazing work in their own right, very little of their aura rubbed off onto their employers and they pretty much have all reported how difficult it was to have their ideas digested within a larger organisation.

  5. @Anonymous: That was pretty cowardly thing to write and not include your name. People without the courage to attribute bile to their own names are douchbags.

    Jay, thanks for leaving that comment up there. Badge of honor, IMHO.

  6. Anonymous8:11 AM

    It's a "badge of honor" to gush like a schoolgirl? "Luminaries"? Good grief.

    If my being anonymous makes you unable to engage my comment, that's your problem, not mine.

    And it's "douchebag", douchebag.

  7. Anonymous1:37 PM

    Jay, though you've evidently made a valiant attempt to correct your grammatical mistakes, you've only made some worse.

    Anyway, the problem starts with the name of your blog. Should we really take advice from someone who's so flummoxed by the profundities of the English possessive?

  8. Jay, noli nothis permittere te terere.

  9. Anonymous2:33 PM

    @Reginwald, Thanks. =)

  10. Anonymous:

    Let me guess: you applied for a job at ThoughtWorks and got rejected.

  11. Anonymous5:05 PM

    I wasn't rejected: I didn't want the job anyway.

  12. Anonymous5:31 PM

    I think there's another effect of such high profile people with product-based companies. I suspect that more people will try out a product if such luminaries are perceived to work there.

    I also suspect that 37 Signals' applications are signing up more people because of Rails and its influence, not just on the merits of the product alone.


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