Core metric for developer productivity

May 21, 2017

A lot of software companies are concerned about the concept of developer productivity and maximizing the amount of output each engineer produces. The problem is that few companies measure productivity in any quantitative manner, instead using subjective metrics like developer happiness or irrelevant metrics like lines of code. Additionally, companies frequently confuse product management processes, like agile development, with helping software engineering metrics. This results in software being developed slowly and quite a lot of grumbling when the scrum master burns hours of each engineer’s team on sprint planning.

Looking around, I think that the core metric for developer productivity should be the average frequency of the edit/test/debug cycle. In all but the most intellectually challenging of programming problems, there is a clear direction of what needs to be built but the limiting factor is making sure the programmer’s code works as intended. Optimizing the edit/test/debug cycle therefore makes developers produce value faster. Many features in IDEs and modern development practices are aimed at shortening steps in the cycle, reducing the number of cycle iterations needed to complete the development work, or helping developers stay within the cycle. Indeed, Joel Spolsky’s famous test for programming environments can be summarized as checking the health of a development team’s edit/test/debug cycle. I therefore hope that when you evaluate processes and products to help be more productive, you think of how it will benefit your edit/test/debug cycle.