Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Myth of Developer Productivity

There are a couple of predictable approaches to an imminent car crash. You could throw your hands in the air, scream, and hope for the best, or you could keep your hands right where they are and try to pilot your way through it to the last responsible moment. If you're the pilot of a software team, offloading the responsibility for productivity is like taking your hands off the wheel before you've left your driveway.

The quickest way to shut the door to productivity is to try to solve it exclusively as a tools and automation problem with tools that promise "Developer Productivity". Tools and automation are essential parts of getting software done, but unless you have a firm grip on why you have productivity problems, taking someone else's word for why a tool or automation will solve your problems amounts to little more than a shot in the dark. And since my word is inevitably "someone else's word", please look more deeply into the issue beyond this article.

Productivity that Matters

There's productivity that matters and productivity that doesn't matter. That probably seems nonsensical - after all, if you could gain productivity, wouldn't it matter? It depends on wether the productivity you gain causes a commensurate obstruction at some other point in your software development bucket brigade.

One heck of a lot of tools that are sold specifically as "Developer Productivity" tools create productivity increases for the developers in your development pipeline, and kill productivity for downstream work centers, like testing, packaging, shipping, installation, configuration, and operations.

Focusing on developer productivity without considering the effects of developer productivity efforts on the rest of the whole pipeline will usually create momentary productivity; productivity that only developers will feel, and often only for a short period of unsustainable time.

Software teams and organizations continue to fail to realize sustainable productivity by continuing to make improvements in one area of the pipeline without realizing the cause-and-effect relationship between the localized improvements and resulting degradations in other parts of the pipeline.

Sustainable productivity is the only productivity that matters, and it's the only productivity that can withstand ever more continuous improvements.

Productivity is about product. It's the activity quality of product, or producing, or production - the "ivity" of product. It's about producing and the production of the only thing that really matters - the final product that can be used to achieve the business's goals.

If the goal of software development is just to create developer artifacts without ever delivering them, then developer productivity itself in isolation would matter a whole lot more. The problem with "developer productivity" is that it is inherently productivity in isolation. Productivity in isolation is often naive local optima.

Local Optima

Local optima problems happen all the time in software organizations. They happen when we try to make improvements in one area of the whole software development workflow without understanding the effects on other areas of the workflow.

Developer productivity as we know it colloquially is inherently a local optima concern. My first concern is the productivity of the entire fire brigade. The moment that there's some obstruction anywhere in the whole workflow, the problem will spread outward and poison adjacent work centers, rippling outward, and sometimes making quantum leaps into parts of the pipeline that are, on the surface, seemingly disconnected.

It's not enough to just understand that a change in one area of team's workflow will have effects on another area, it's also critical to understand which kinds of effects will create obstructions for the whole effort.

Greater productivity often come less from increasing the speed that we can do the work itself, and more from recognizing and decreasing the obstructions to production and producing. One of the most obvious ways to attack the productivity problem is to reduce rework and the things that lead to it.

Reducing rework means undertaking organizational and cultural changes. It means that the making of software and the proving that it's right can't be allowed to work at dramatically different paces, which is usually the case with most software teams (even teams using Agile methods).

Every time that testers get backed up in their work, untested software piles up in front of testing. That pile of untested software is the unproven foundation that developers will continue to build upon wether or not it’s sound. As the pile grows, the likelihood of rework grows geometrically, proportionate to the size of the pile, and the near certainty that structural design is insufficiently precise grows along with it.

When the making of software and the testing are disconnected from each other, and software makers and software testers work at full speed regardless of whether they're building up piles of risky inventory, then productivity is going to degrade.

In this kind of situation, doing things that increase programmers' speed isn't going to help productivity at all. In fact, the right thing to do is to either slow the programmers down until the testing inventory is cleared, or to have the developers change hats and work with testing to clear the obstruction. Increasing a developer's speed will only exasperate the problem.

Optimized developer productivity without simultaneously optimizing the entire pipeline is local optima.

Developer Productivity Myths

There are a number of tools and libraries that are sold under the "Developer Productivity" banner. These tools actually deliver developer efficiency rather than developer productivity.

Unless a tool's productivity proposition takes local optima into account, it flirts with negligence. If it does so knowingly and willfully, then it flirts with corruption; verily stealing value from its users and customers.

Consider Microsoft's re-interpretations of "Rapid Application Development" that drive its developer tools design:

Microsoft's Visual Studio enables developers to create input forms and data processing visually with little expense of time and effort. Developers get this work done very quickly, but the resulting systems features are inordinately difficult to test. Microsoft also packages tools that are specifically geared for "testers" in a separate product package, perpetuating the conclusion that doing work and proving that the work is right is the jobs of different people, creating the handoff boundaries that invite unproven work to collect as piles of costly inventory.

While this allows developers to be very efficient in the work of creating the code and artifacts that go into a feature, that efficiency isn’t realized as productivity. The software designs created by developer efficiency tools are unnecessarily and excessively difficult to test. This discourages developers from preventing the defects that pile up in front of the testing work center which also steals productivity from testers, exacerbating the problem of basing today's work on last week's unproven decisions.

Software organizations who are seeking and realizing higher productivity - that is, they produce end product to business sustainably and timely - come to understand that the inventories built up around handoffs and segregated work centers must be decreased and ultimately eliminated in order to really reclaim lost productivity. This has a profound effect on the shape of software teams and organizations, and in retrospect we come to see that our beliefs about organizational mechanics and culture were what kept us trapped in superstitious dark ages of software development productivity.

Regardless of whether tools like Microsoft Visual Studio (among others) seem impressive on the surface, failure to assess the effects of these tools on an entire pipeline will inevitably lead to mere momentary efficiencies and local optima. Worse yet, they will obstruct the learning that does in fact lead to productivity that matters, and will pull managers away from valuable work like teaching and facilitating and force them to become inventory managers and expediters.

It's not just the younger teams using Microsoft's visual tools who are subject to this problem either. Even advanced "agile" teams indulge in developer efficiency local optima like the hypercoding enabled by a higher order of developers tools. In some cases, hypercoding has even motivated urgent and wide-ranging changes to frameworks to optimize for a tool's use even in the face of compelling evidence that more meaningful sources of productivity are likely elsewhere. The compelling productivity of Ruby on Rails programmers despite the unavailability of extensive hypercoding tooling is a good example.

There's no one true answer to whether a tool is going to contribute to productivity. Sometimes just the creature comforts afforded by a tool are significant sources of productivity. But then, not all indulgences in creature comforts can be considered productivity enhancers either.

Ultimately, any of these tools can be used in a balanced, leveled software development workflow. However, until a meaningful understanding and representation of productivity takes root in software development, any team at any level of maturity is going to trade productivity that matters for mere efficiency.

Fixing the Problem

We can affect the things we control. When software projects go awry, we exert control. Any time we exert control without considering the impact on the entire fire brigade of software development workflow, we're going to create efficiencies at the expensive of our ability to produce.

The further away you are from the whole of the team and the workflow, the less likely you are to exert control constructively. As a senior manager, you might prescribe a suite of "Developer Productivity" tools after seeing a compelling presentation from a vendor that is specifically geared to affect your sensibilities from your perspective. If you're a developer, you might convince your team to adopt a "Developer Productivity" tool that demonstrably makes you a more efficient coding machine.

The decisions made by people who are too far from the whole are often a coin toss. There's little telling whether a team will perform better in getting products into the hands of the people who need them, and it’s often difficult to connect the decisions with the ultimate outcomes.

If you're encouraging or enforcing a team organization that disconnects the work and workers from the validation of their work, whether analysis work, design work, construction work, construction inspection work, packaging work, installation work, or operations work, you will inevitably create the conditions that encourage inventory build up and the subsequent obstructions, rework and general degradation of productivity. The shallow pursuit or mere localized efficiencies are more likely to happen when work centers fail to be shaped to productivity goals.

Making any of a number of mistakes that trade local efficiencies for productivity not only degrades productivity, but creates a cycle where the degradation accumulates, leading to the typical software cost curve that is ultimately a reflection of the degrading productivity curve.

Fixing the problem isn't trivial because no single local optimization will have a predictable effect, and a set of disconnected local optimizations degrade productivity even faster and even more unpredictably.

There's no doubt that we need to act on all levels, and ultimately this means decomposing the problem and working on different levels of an organization an at different work centers. But the local things we do to fix the problem have to extend from a holistic understanding of the software development system.

If you want to fix your software development system, find the problems with the system and then understand how the parts contribute to the problem. Evaluate the success of each effort to fix the parts by the effect that it has on the system.

Developer productivity can just as easily be a reality as a myth. Developers are obviously significant contributors to producing software. But an approach to "developer productivity" that isn't also an approach to organizational productivity is often not likely to do more than transfer value from your organization’s treasury to the coffers of a vendor who is more than happy to assume ownership of your precious resources.

We can’t get software done without software tools – this is true - but choose wisely. Your whole team’s productivity is at stake.

Ampersand GT

Working with software developers and organizations to help realize the potential of software product development through higher productivity, higher quality, and improved customer experience

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