Developer burnout caused by flawed productivity metrics

A survey of 500 US and UK software developers conducted by J L Partners has found that 70% of software projects fail to be delivered on time, despite 83% of developers saying delivery performance is important.

The survey, commissioned by technology and cyber security expert Junade Ali for Haystack, looked at the most critical risks impacting on-time delivery. The survey found the vast majority of business leaders consider on-time delivery of software to be essential, but are concerned about it at work.

Over three-quarters (77%) of business decision-makers in the UK and 90% in the US report on-time delivery as the main way they measure the performance of software engineering teams. Despite this, 81% of business decision-makers in the UK and 89% in the US are concerned about the on-time delivery of software projects in their organisations.

When the study was run in 2021, it found that 83% of software engineers reported they were suffering from burnout. At the time, Ali noted the majority (81%) of the developers polled reported increased burnout due to the pandemic.

The main reason cited for this was increased workload. The 2023 data shows that the push to develop more and more software has not abated since then. In fact, developers appear to be given unrealistic timescales to complete software development work and the incorrect use of developer productivity metrics.

Julian Colina, CEO of Haystack, said: “Most software projects miss their deadlines, stalling growth and eroding trust.”

Despite on-time delivery being considered a priority, using surveys to measure developer experience and “productivity”, Ali’s research identified a variety of failures in such approaches. Quarterly surveys are not only too slow to address early signs of delay, but other research indicates software engineers may be concerned to voice their true opinions, and “those with the lowest programming skill” are most likely to be most over-optimistic at evaluating software delivery performance in large projects.

In a Computer Weekly article looking into what is behind the numbers, Ali noted that while predictability (on-time delivery) is a paramount concern, metrics frameworks such as Google’s Dora (DevOps Research and Assessment) metrics, alongside the successor frameworks of SPACE (to capture human and social factors influencing developer productivity) and developer experience, have focused on measuring “productivity” by essentially measuring the speed of delivering work (or the speed to respond to problems).

“What we now see is that unmitigated risks with delivery force projects to be delayed,” he said. “Developer productivity solutions have sought to address this by getting developers to ship ever-faster when they encounter unmitigated risk, which will inevitably lead to greater burnout amongst software engineers.”

Ali warned this causes an endless cycle of failure to deliver on time, leading to tougher expectations (now often enforced by productivity metrics) and causing developer burnout. He urged IT leaders to work with people in the business to ensure team leaders commit to work based on informed delivery timescales, without unmitigated risks appearing which affect on-time delivery of software.


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