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Is Developer Productivity a Real Problem for Engineering Teams?

August 30, 2023

developer productivity

Each engineering team is unique in how they are structured, operate, and execute their project, as well as how they measure the overall effectiveness and efficiency at the end of each work cycle.

But you ask any engineering leader, “What’s the number one problem they are trying to solve?”. More often than not, the response is, “Maximizing developer productivity for my team.”

This is one common sentiment that all engineering teams and leaders resonate with despite their inherent differences.

Is it that important? Well, yes!

Organizations today completely understand that failure to swiftly adapt to dynamic market demands directly impacts their bottom line and comes with a price tag. They face the urgent mandate to accelerate innovation, develop new software solutions in constrained timelines, and juggle numerous projects–all at the same time.

All this while creating reliable and secure products with the best user experience.

Under such circumstances, the speed of innovation is the key competitive advantage. To make it happen, teams have to unleash their full potential and do what they love doing the most - build products with autonomy and teamwork without blockers and constraints. In short, ensuring higher developer productivity for your software development teams.

The challenge is developer productivity in itself is a complex concept to comprehend.

What does it mean for a developer to be productive? Why does it matter so much? Is it something that can be measured? If yes, how? How is an engineering team’s output correlated to developer productivity?

In this article, I am going to uncover the complexities surrounding developer productivity

What is developer productivity?

Different individuals perceive and define productivity differently.

Some of them describe “more activity” as being productive. A lot of engineering teams I talk to define productivity as “getting more work done in a day and then consecutively as a practice.” So that one can deem themselves or their team as productive. And it is not just seen as a one-off spike in their work output. 

Engineering managers and leaders hinge on this activity or work output on a north-star metric. For them, meeting this essential metric signifies true productivity.

Does this imply that developers who put in longer hours are the sole drivers of productivity? Or does it mean more code commits made during a day or over a sprint cycle make a developer more productive?

In that case, everyone would try replicating a code commit schedule to look like this.

code commit schedule

Source: Hays Stanford on X

I wish it was that plain and simple.

According to a study conducted by GitHub in 2021, developers themselves correlate productivity more to having a good day. Their ability to stay focused on a task, make meaningful progress, and feel good about their work towards the end of the day impacts their satisfaction and productivity.

Academic research supports this by saying that satisfied developers are more productive and efficient at work. There’s more to productivity than just inputs and outputs. 

Therefore, The SPACE framework by Nicole Forsgren et al. comes closer to giving a holistic view of developer productivity for engineering teams. 

What is the SPACE framework?

For anyone to be productive, they must be satisfied with their work and work culture and feel comfortable and happy about how they engage, communicate, and collaborate within and outside their teams.

The SPACE framework defines the scope for developer productivity rather than leaving it as a metric or just work activity. It stands for:

  • S - Satisfaction and Well-Being
  • P - Performance
  • A - Activity
  • C - Communication and Collaboration
  • E - Efficiency and Flow

Satisfaction talks about how fulfilled developers feel with their work, tools, and teams, and well-being corresponds to the health and happiness of developers and how their work impacts them. 

Performance is attributed to the outcome of the process and the work done. This outcome can be a result of individual or collective team effort. 

Activity is the tangible count of actions or outputs completed in the course of a work period. This might include code commits, continuous integration/deployment efforts, or any other operational activity. 

Communication and collaboration capture how people and teams communicate and work together. 

Efficiency and flow capture the ability to complete work or make progress on it with minimal interruptions or delays, whether individually or through a system

Now that we better understand the SPACE framework and what constitutes developer productivity, let’s dig deeper into why it matters so much to engineering teams.

Why developer productivity matters

Since developer productivity is such a convoluted concept, it is fair to ask why engineering teams bother so much about it. 

Modern engineering teams are continuously innovating ways to enhance outcomes and elevate profits. This involves optimizing overall software development output and maximizing the productivity of their developers. 

It might sound recursive, but if developers and engineering teams are satisfied with their delivery, they tend to be happier and more productive, and vice versa. To guarantee the well-being of your developers, it's crucial to foster an environment where they find fulfillment in their work, thus enhancing their sense of productivity. 

If you have any hesitations about this premise, let’s look at the stats below. 

what makes developers happy and unhappy at work?

Source: Stack Overflow

It is clear that developer productivity matters to individual contributors, so it matters for engineering teams to deliver more, making it important for engineering leadership to boost productivity. 

If you want to deliver more and reach your goals, it is crucial to increase productivity, and to that; you must measure it. 

In the next section, we will look at the common pitfalls to avoid while measuring developer productivity and some best practices to measure it holistically.

How to measure developer productivity

There is no standardized way to measure developer productivity. No single metric makes one developer more productive than the other in a team. 

How an engineering team measures and improves developer productivity depends on many factors, such as developer workflows, the team's ecosystem, team structure, deployment methodology, development environment, and software delivery process. 

As I mentioned earlier, each engineering team is unique, and so is their ambit of defining productivity and ways of measuring it.

Common pitfalls to avoid when measuring developer productivity

Before we proceed toward looking at ways to measure developer productivity, let’s take a look at some of the most common pitfalls that engineering teams get into while measuring it.

Hours worked

If you look at the last person leaving the office or the developer online the entire night before the day of delivery, you are getting it wrong. It might not always present the true picture.

This metric only weighs quantity over quality without adding any business value. As a result, you might end up promoting an always-on culture which is counterproductive. 

Lines of code (LOC)

A thousand LOCs that do not solve a problem are worse than no code at all. Writing more code or making more code commits does not make anyone more productive, especially if that requires more developers to clean it up and fix that code later. Avoid this trap!

Tasks completed

Developers can engage in multiple things in a day, look productive, and yet add no business value if their tasks are not moving the project forward in the right direction.

If the task is to fix more bugs, developers might as well write buggy code to fix it later and look smarter. So, tasks need to be clearly defined with a desired business outcome - if that will be a measure of productivity.

Useful tips for measuring developer productivity

Now, let’s look at some of the useful ways to measure productivity.

Team performance

Software development is not a single person’s job; it’s a team effort. A certain team member might be enabling multiple other developers in a team, and a particular developer might act as a code janitor who goes and silently tests, cleans up, and refactors the code for it to perform every single time.

So, a better way to look at it is by measuring a team's ability to ship useful code over sprints and months to call them productive.

Use the SPACE framework

To cover all possible bases of developer satisfaction and fulfillment, it is great to consider all factors included in the SPACE framework and get a holistic perspective on a team's productivity level. 

Identify productivity tools

Engineering teams use multiple tools in their tech stack across the code lifecycle to enable them and deliver better results. It becomes important to identify the right set of tools to measure their impact on the end productivity of the developers and development teams.

For example, there can be useful tools for code commit, creating issues and story points, CI/CD, incident management, or communication and collaboration.

Leverage contextual data points

Across the software development lifecycle (SDLC), ensure that you are looking at the right metrics, such as planned versus actual effort or sprint health, cycle time, change failure rate (CFR), mean time to resolve (MTTR), and other metrics.

Use an engineering management platform that gets you contextual data with actionable insights to make informed decisions for faster delivery and higher productivity.

Emphasize developer satisfaction

Build a safe work culture for developers to produce their best work. As we know, a happy developer is more likely to be productive. Finding ways to reduce workload and anxiety and have a more evenly distributed work allocation among resources is vital.

Now that we have looked at what developer productivity is, why it matters to engineering teams, and tips for measuring productivity - let’s look at some of the best practices to boost developer productivity in your engineering teams. 

Best practices to boost developer productivity

One thing engineering teams can do right to ensure that developer productivity is at its best is to follow some simple rules every time a new project is initiated. They include:

  • Business goal setting: Set business goals upfront for engineering teams to align their effort.
  • Project timelines: Set realistic expectations for engineering teams and leadership to deliver successful projects.
  • Resource allocation and distribution: Map engineering efforts per the projects' criticality and priority and allocate resources accordingly.
  • Efficient processes: Create a working setup with refined processes and industry benchmarks for streamlining work along the software development lifecycle and enabling the team with the right tools.
  • Developer workflow automation: Automate most of what you can to expedite and reduce the need for developers to spend time and effort on redundant work.
  • Uninterrupted time to code: Developers love to code and ensure they can get more uninterrupted time to work on what they love doing the most - code.
  • Gain visibility: Enable and empower engineering teams to gain visibility into all of the above 24/7 with the help of a reliable engineering management platform.
  • Data-driven conversations: Foster a culture where engineering teams indulge in data-driven conversations balancing off with subjective inputs as and when required.
  • Feedback loop: Ensure the actionable insights are worked upon with due diligence in the following sprint cycles leading to better results.
  • Deep work hours: With 120-minute uninterrupted maker time slots, devs can reduce context switching, own their schedule, and find their flow state.

These steps give engineering teams clarity into what they are signing up for and enable them to make data-driven decisions to ensure that they deliver their best. 

The quest for optimized productivity

Engineering teams looking to succeed and drive engineering excellence cannot overlook the advantages higher developer productivity brings.

In a rapidly changing business environment, it is easy to digress and fall into the trap of lower productivity or substandard ways of keeping up the momentum. 

With the changing market scenario and business requirements, engineering teams straddle with a lot of pressure to switch gears immediately, realign engineering efforts, and start afresh. This causes teams to enter into frequent context-switching mode, inefficient developer workflows, and efforts not aligned with business goals.

As a result, the code produced is of low quality, and code reviews turn painful. All of this together is a perfect recipe for disaster and impact productivity. 

However, all of this can be mitigated if we stay true to the basics of what it takes for a developer to be productive. 

The quest for optimized productivity is not merely a problem but an opportunity for an entire ecosystem. Today, we stand at the crossroads of innovation and efficiency, where optimizing our workflows, engineering team operations, and maximizing our output is no longer a luxury but a necessity. Fortunately, maximizing developer productivity is one key solution to the ever-growing challenge. 

With the power of data-driven insights, we can empower our developers with the right resources and champion a spirit of collaboration that fuels efficiency. 

Developer productivity, though a complex puzzle, is one that we're fully equipped to solve. In doing so, we're not just addressing a problem; we're sculpting a future where our engineering teams thrive, unlock their potential, and drive innovation and excellence.

AI code generation is the new buzzword in town. Learn what it is and how it will be beneficial for development teams. 

Software Development Analytics Tools
Maximize developer productivity

Get high-level insights into development progress, and capture trends, statistics, and KPIs.

Software Development Analytics Tools
Maximize developer productivity

Get high-level insights into development progress, and capture trends, statistics, and KPIs.

Is Developer Productivity a Real Problem for Engineering Teams? Learn how to define developer productivity, common pitfalls to avoid while measuring it, and best practices to follow while boosting developer productivity.
Karanvir Gupta Karanvir is a productivity evangelist for tech teams and spearheads global marketing for Hatica. He comes with 10+ years of marketing experience working with B2B SaaS organizations. He has been actively involved in executing successful GTM, running sales enablement efforts and customer advocacy programs; building the brand for companies he has worked for in the past, some of which are now unicorns.

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