Achieving 10x

There is an interesting conversation thread on Slashdot asking “What practices impede developers’ productivity?” The conversation is in response to an excellent post by Steve McConnell from 2008 addressing productivity variations among software developers and teams and the origin of “10x” – that is, the observation noted in the wild of “10-fold differences in productivity and quality between different programmers with the same levels of experience and also between different teams working within the same industries.”

The Slashdot conversation has two main themes, one focuses fundamentally on communication: “good” meetings, “bad” meetings, the time of day meetings are held, status reports by email – good, status reports by email – bad, interruptions for status reports, perceptions of productivity among non-technical coworkers and managers, unclear development goals, unclear development assignments, unclear deliverables, too much documentation, to little documentation, poor requirements.

A second theme in the conversation is reflected in what systems dynamics calls “shifting the burden”: individuals or departments that do not need to shoulder the financial burden of holding repetitively unproductive meetings involving developers, arrogant developers who believe they are beholding to none, the failure to run high quality meetings, code fast and leave thorough testing for QA, reliance on tools to track and enhance productivity (and then blaming them when they fail), and, again, poor requirements.

These are all legitimate problems. And considered as a whole, they defy strategic interventions to resolve. The better resolutions are more tactical in nature and rely on the quality of leadership experience in the management ranks. How good are they at 1) assessing the various levels of skill among their developers and 2) combining those skills to achieve a particular outcome? There is a strong tendency, particularly among managers with little or no development experience, to consider developers as a single complete package. That is, every developer should be able to write new code, maintain existing code (theirs and others), debug any code, test, and document. And as a consequence, developers should be interchangeable.

This is rarely the case. I can recall an instance where a developer, I’ll call him Dan, was transferred into a group for which I was the technical lead. The principle product for this group had reached maturity and as a consequence was beginning to become the dumping ground for developers who were not performing well on projects requiring new code solutions. Dan was one of these. He could barely write new code that ran consistently and reliably on his own development box. But what I discovered is that he had a tenacity and technical acuity for debugging existing code.

Dan excelled at this and thrived when this became the sole area of his involvement in the project. His confidence and respect among his peers grew as he developed a reputation for being able to ferret out particularly nasty bugs. Then management moved him back into code development where he began to slide backward. I don’t know what happened to him after that.

Most developers I’ve known have had the experience of working with a 10x developer, someone with a level of technical expertise and productivity that is undeniable, a complete package. I certainly have. I’ve also had the pleasure of managing several. Yet how many 10x specialists have gone underutilized because management was unable to correctly assess their skills and assign them tasks that match their skills?

Most of the communication issues and shifting the burden behaviors identified in the Slashdot conversation are symptomatic of management’s unrealistic expectations of relative skill levels among developers and the inability to assess and leverage the skills that exist within their teams.