Archive for December 2008

Measuring developer productivity

I just read George Dinwiddie’s interesting take on developer productivity, and I wanted to throw in my own two cents.

You can’t measure it

I agree with a number of others who say that there’s no good measure for developer productivity. There are several basic approaches people use, and all of them have flaws:

  • time spent - This is a classic way to measure productivity. How long did people work? If the number is large, things must be good, right?
  • apparent effort – Although this is even more flawed, it’s very popular. The “if you ain’t sweatin’, you ain’t workin’” metric is a favorite of seagull managers. But it’s easy to manipulate, and even when people are honest, it’s terribly misleading.
  • technical output – This includes things like keystrokes or lines of code produced. As Bill Gates says, “Measuring programming progress by lines of code is like measuring aircraft building progress by weight.”
  • functional output – Instead of counting lines of code, you can count features, through mechanisms like function points. Counting fields and data elements is a lot more work than counting lines of code, but it’s not clear the results are much better.
  • business value – That’s what we’re after, so it seems like it would be great to track this. And you should. But it’s incredibly difficult to assign that value to individual bits of work, and especially to individual players.

Over the years, I have seen a lot of places try to numerically measure how productive their developers are. I’ve never seen anybody have much success, butI have seen a lot of wasted effort. And worse, I’ve seen a lot of harm. Try to measure individual productivity, for example, and you create a disincentive to help others. Since some of your most productive developers are the ones who mentor others and keep them from wasting time or making messes, it’s easy to drastically reduce productivity just by trying to measure it.

But everybody knows

Does this mean that it’s impossible to know how well a team is doing, or who the top performers are? Not at all.

The team knows

On agile projects, it isn’t individuals who are responsible for delivering. It’s teams. If your team is working together in a room, has tight feedback loops, and delivers frequently to end users, everybody will be forced to work together and interact frequently. Every team member will have a good idea of who is a top performer and whether somebody isn’t pulling their weight. They can’t not know. Whether they’ll tell anybody else is a different thing, which leads to my next point.

Embed reporters and distribute power

There are many advantages to having business people, like product managers and business analysts, in the room with developers. Your products will be better designed, better built, and more efficient. But a side benefit is that there will be somebody management trusts to give them an honest opinion on developer productivity. For this to work well, the business representative should be — both culturally and organizationally — not part of the engineering organization.

It’s also important to give the team matched responsibilities and power relating to this. Involve the team extensively in interviewing and hiring — and also in firing. Make sure they know they’re responsible for total productivity, and give them the authority to make changes they need in that regard. Hint: if they’re not allowed to change the furniture or order new RAM for their machines, they sure won’t think they can pressure or fire a poor performer.

Focus on delivering value

The key though, is to get the whole team focused on whatever purpose the team exists for. As frequently as possible, measure key indicators, like sales, usage, or customer satisfaction. And don’t automatically measure some numbers that go on a web page nobody looks at. Metrics don’t matter unless somebody cares about them. In an Agile context, caring about something is contagious. You should visibly care about the numbers that matter, possibly through a hand-drawn big visible chart. Others will pick up the habit.

If people really care about achieving shared goals, then you won’t have to worry about their performance. They’ll be doing it themselves.

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