Coding matters: Thoughts about productivity

Thoughts about productivity and measures. Silhouette of a man thinking with a graph in the background.

I’ve been feeling frustrated and out-of-sorts for a while. And I’ve realised that it’s because I haven’t been productive. I’ve been busy, and there have been many unexpected and urgent things that have kept me busy. But I haven’t spent enough time on the right things.

Busy is not the same as productive.

People want to do good work

One of my favourite project management books is “Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams”, by Tom Demarco and Timothy Lister. It focuses on the human aspect of software development. The basic premise of their approach is the belief that people want to do good work.

I must admit that I struggled with that idea for a long time. If you’ve ever dealt with a government department – and who hasn’t? – then you might also be skeptical.

But I think the principle is right. I know that my domestic workers want to do good work, even if it is menial work. I can see it in the way they work, and the pride they take when I notice.

So if people don’t want to do good work, maybe it is the result of something in their work environment. Years ago I applied for my new ID card at a small DHA (Department of Home Affairs) office inside a bank. Those DHA officials were more polite and helpful than the usual crowd. Maybe they were chosen to work there because they were more polite. Or maybe it was the environment that made them more polite. I’m not sure. But my theory about the environment helps me make sense of the principle. 

Developers want to be productive

Remote working has made companies worry more about productivity. Managers struggle to trust that employees are working if they can’t see them. (I hope most managers are more sensible than Elon Musk.)

That’s not the only concern around remote work, but it is a big one. I’m not sure if it is always the right concern.

I tested out the Bing AI this morning. According to Bing, “the most significant cause that makes developers unhappy is feeling unproductive at work”. The source of that information is the 2022 StackOverflow report on what makes developers happy at work.

So I’m not the only one who feels out of sorts when I haven’t been productive.

The importance of measures

I enjoy productivity tools and techniques. And I use them, from my weird version of the bullet journal to the pomodoro technique.

But those tools don’t ensure that you are doing the right thing. It sounds trite, but it’s true: what you do today determines your success tomorrow. To get the right result, you have to do the right things on a regular basis.

That’s why companies measure productivity. The goal of companies is to make a sustainable profit. And to do that, you generally have to be sure the right people do the right work in the right way.

You get what you measure

Unfortunately, that’s not so easy. Performance measures can create more problems than they solve. Last month ITWeb reported that Standard Bank fired 82 employees for opening fake bank accounts. These accounts were not opened to steal money from clients. They were opened to reach performance targets.

The bank measured (and rewarded) the number of accounts created – so more accounts were created.

You get what you measure. And because people want to be seen to do good work, you have to think about the potential negative consequence of any target. I’m sure there’s a way to reconcile that with the idea that people actually want to do good work.

You have to be honest

You need to be honest about what you learn from your measurements.

Here’s another measurement that ITWeb reported recently. During 2021/22, more than 270,000 calls to the DHA call centre were dropped by clients before they were helped. That’s 45% of calls.

But other than this, DHA claims to have achieved all service levels for that period. So they are quite pleased with themselves. I suppose it’s easy to meet the target for resolving call queries if you only answer half the calls.

Nobody measures my productivity except me. But being productive definitely makes me happy, which is why I am being honest about it. And now I am going to spend some time figuring out why I’m not productive.

Do you think that people want to do good work? Do you believe productivity is what makes developers happy? How do you fix your own own lack of productivity when it happens? Please share your thoughts.

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