24 Aug

Visual Studio Team System for Small Teams

There was a recent brouhaha on Twitter and in some blogs about the appropriateness of Team System in small teams. The gist of the discussion was simply that there are a lot of alternatives to TFS and VSTS tooling and many of them come cheaper out of the box. In many cases, free!


I have worked with Team System quite a bit and with alternatives just as much. With a lot of experience behind me on this, I feel confident I can make a legitimate case for using Team System in a small team.

I consider a small team a development organization of fewer than 10 people.

Some Context and Disclosure

  • I am a Team System MVP
  • I use Team System on a daily basis
  • I use SVN+Team City on a daily basis
  • I care more about pragmatism and craftsmanship than tooling, and that means focusing on how to use tools, not just the tools themselves
  • I have been present on day one of a brand new team
  • I have been in a team that has grown quickly over a short time

Focus on the Work

What happens when teams squabble about tools instead of just getting on with it? Lots of churn and wasted energy, is my experience.

I can report having seen small teams succeed and fail. The success or failure in both cases obviously has a lot more to do with leadership and business than developer tools, but I can also say the way companies approach developer tooling can have a lot to do with culture.

Any startup or small team simply must be focused to succeed. This can also be extremely difficult to achieve. A small team simply doesn’t have the capacity or depth to be distracted with issues not pertaining to delivering product. Paradoxically, team members are often wearing several hats. That is, everyone is doing a little of everything. That can quickly trend to entropy, because no one ends focusing on the work at hand.

The last thing I want to do on day 1 of a new team, or very often in a small teams, is visit tooling. Not deliberately making choices about tooling, though, will eventually bite you. Hard. How many of us are in organizations with over 2 brands of source control systems because new ones were added in an ad-hoc manor? I’ve been there. How many unit test frameworks are being used? I have been on a team that used 4 at once. Think that caused some problems?

As team lead, I care far less about optimizations of specific tools, and far more about a cohesive and fluid process enabling flow within the team. I care a great deal that there is a single source of truth for requirements and very little that we are using the coolest new unit test framework.

Often, focusing on work simply means implementing a system of tools and getting past the discussion. Have you ever heard developers purse fight over text editors? Now, there’s a constructive use of energy. The same thing can happen when geeks whip out their favorite source control, merge tools, unit testing frameworks, Visual Studio add-ins, logging library, laptop brand, or bug tracking system.

Point number one is let’s get past the time suck of the my-NAnt-is-better-than-your-MS-Build and just prescribe a toolset so we can get on with the real business of our team.

Team System is Like a Box of Tools at Sears

When I go to Sears and browse the Craftsman (or DeWalt) tools, I usually see some interesting little specialty tools. I might buy a funky swivel socket or a single ratchet, but I rarely browse the aisle with the large all-in-one kits. The reason I don’t browse the kit aisle is because my father-in-law bought be a basic Craftsman starter kit almost 20 years ago and my collection of tools has grown over time.

I don’t still have all of the tools in that original kit, but I do still have many of them. Further, my need for hand tools have gotten more specialized over time. Also, I am making a bit more money than I was when I married my wife, so I may spend extra for a special-purpose hammer rather than always relying on the one that came in the original kit.

Without that original kit, though, I would never have been able to even get started. No, it didn’t have every tool I would ever need, but it had almost everything I needed right then.

Team System is much the same. A team can absolutely hit the ground running with the rich toolset VSTS provides. Maybe you’ll augment the toolbox over time. Maybe you’ll even change tools (can anyone say [TestClass]?) but the kit that comes in the box really can provide most of what a small team needs to get going, and do it in a single solution.

That’s huge.

As soon as I start looking around to sub-optimize my hammer or my source control, I am going to start slowing the team down. GIT? SVN? PerForce? There are a ton of options for source control, each with their strengths and weaknesses. It’s freaking source control. Get on with it. I mean, how sexy can a hammer be?

It May Not Cost What You Think

You can buy a big toolkit at Sears for far less than it costs to buy all the tools individually. Further, buying the toolkit for the person without tools is a good move because they will have all the basics covered in a single purchase.

Craftsman Toolkits are a favorite gift of mine for graduates and newlyweds for this very reason.

Microsoft has the same insight that Sears had. If a person gets accustomed to Craftsman by selling the kit cheaply, they’ll be a customer for life. This is the exact idea behind the BizSpark program. If you aren’t familiar with it, BizSpark is a Microsoft program that allows free (that’s right, free!) access to all developer tools, operating systems, and other software for startups.

Is your company less than 2 years old? Do you make software? If yes, you qualify, I kid you not.

Integration Matters

Even if you are paying full price (which you shouldn’t 🙂 ) I believe the value of VSTS is still there. The productivity loss involved in setting up a system of disparate and non-integrated developer tools is tremendous. I have been there and done that.

I know SVN is good. I know Team City is good. I also know that setting up a basic Continuous Integration build in Team System is stupid simple. And the real money shot comes with Work Item management. How many teams out there are using work item management systems or defect tracking systems they hate?

Well, we all are.

So, we may as well have one that works right in the IDE and allows me to tie check ins to work I am performing. The context switching that occurs in non-integrated systems of reporting, SCC, build, and work item management is HUGE. Huge! No really.

Get On With It

The people involved in the recent online Team System kerfuffle are folks I would consider in the top 1% of developer talent. Quite frankly, it makes a lot of sense to me that people at that level will have replaced their hammer from the kit with one that has an ergonomic grip.

That said, there are a lot of startups and small teams in entropy out there. For those folks, I firmly believe that standardizing on an integrated toolset for the development team is a bigger savings than “free like a puppy” solutions that can work well, but with more churn.

Now quit fussing about source control and learn how to use a decent ORM, people.

10 thoughts on “Visual Studio Team System for Small Teams

  1. I have to totally agree! If you start with Team System, any other tool you pick up with seem awesome! Besides being slow, not being able to handle merging well (or at all really) and causing the IDE it integrates with to hang randomly throughout the work day, you get the advantage of regularly getting your local copies out of sync with the server copies! Yay! Not to mention the whole, getting-latest-doesn’t-always-get-latest awesomeness!

    On the other hand, setting up SVN with Visual SVN Server does take about 2 minutes, to be sure. It seems like you might also get IDE integration with Visual SVN if you are into that kind of thing…

    As for test tools, if taking an 8 second break after each change to the test suite sounds like your path to Red-Green-Refactor, MSTest is the tool for you!! Skip that horrible NUnit with its lightning fast test execution!

    To be fair, you may actually get CC running pretty quickly by using those wizards, just don’t expect any useful code coverage metrics. Or any community support when you inevitably run into issues. No one out there has any clue how to use the thing or what its error messages mean.

    Now, you may think that you don’t have the expertise to set up all this stuff on your own, you may be right. You could look for help on a site like CIFacotry.org. . . .Or you could try hiring a real senior developer and give your project a chance at success.

    IMNSHO, Team System does more harm that good.

  2. I think this is very bad and not the reality. The set up of TFS is an absolute minefield in itself with all the various licensing options.

    Having used TFS in a small team, I hope people do not take you up on this.

  3. TFS is not a whole or nothing deal. I find using the TFS work item + source control integration inside Visual Studio to be great. The integration to MS Project for my manager to fuss about with time schedules is a good sell to management. Meanwhile, Team City powers my builds and Resharper + NUnit / NCover do my unit testing. There is nothing wrong with mixing the best of both worlds.

  4. I was very interested in purchasing Team System for the company’s team of ten C# developers.

    That was, until Microsoft provided a quotation: 500% the cost of VS Pro.

    And that was before the cost of the Team Server / SQL server / etc licences.

    That’s a reality that’s pretty hard to justify to the boss …

  5. @David Miller

    I am curious about your use of Team City TFS. I know the capability is there, and I understand the build system of each tool. So, what is the compelling feature of adding Team City to TFS for builds?

    Maybe I am missing something because I don’t get what adding TC gets you. Are you using the gated builds feature?

  6. Apart from Gated Feature, better integration with code coverage tools, other testing frameworks, better error reporting and general output. I guess you need to look at it to understand the the value it adds.

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