Do This One Thing To Improve the Developer Experience

You may have heard the saying “the customer is always right”. Companies that embrace this ideal can exhibit some weird behaviors. For example, the salesperson at a luxury store that hovers wherever you walk, the waiter that interrupts too often with “is everything to your liking”, or the barista at the corner coffee shop that is overly personal.

Companies do this in order to differentiate in a crowded market. They seek to build the type of positive customer experience that generates loyalty. After all, it is far easier and cheaper to sell to someone that is loyal than someone that is brand new to your brand.

Customer experience is the banner by which companies are spending exorbitant amounts of money and resources. Getting this right is tantamount to success or failure, and a lot of this is now being delivered through digital channels.

The foundation of this digital experience is software. In the process of building and delivering products to provide this experience however, some things got left aside such as the “how” of writing software and operating the product. That also includes the people doing much of this work, developers.

I was catching up with a friend of mine with a global bank last week about the enhancing the developer experience in companies. He just laughed. For a function staffed by the most expensive and hardest to hire resources, it seems strange that there would be so little invested in keeping developers happy and productive.

What would make developers happy? Luckily we know this from the 2019 Stack Overflow Developer Survey. Asked what the biggest productivity killers were, developers listed meetings, non-development tasks, toxic cultures, lack of people and tools, etc. But the top challenge to productivity is distractions. A recent survey found that 61.5% of developers spend four hours or less writing code per day.

I sometimes joke that you could 10X productivity simply by giving every developer a set of noise-cancelling headphones. Between open office spaces and constant shoulder taps, it takes a huge toil on having the time to problem solve and code. But surprisingly the biggest distraction may be coming from the very thing meant to increase productivity.

Developers love Slack. In fact, Slack was originally considered more of a developer tool and its success is largely attributed to developers. Now according to an article from Vox, we are drowning in communications.

“Communication seems like a good thing until you have too much of it.”

The idea of Slack and other workplace communication tools is that it would be a boon for employee productivity. McKinsey found that employees spend 28 percent of the week managing email and 20 percent looking for information or tracking down colleagues for help.

Since the launch of Slack, email usage has declined but it still represents 10 percent of the time people spend actively on screens at work. The rest of the time has been filled up by messaging apps. In six years, we have not moved the needle on the time we spend communicating.

“By lowering the barrier to initiate communication, the hidden side effect is that Slack has the quiet capacity to exponentially increase communication overhead. Resulting in much more voluminous, lower quality communication.”
Alicia Liu

The distractions have a real cost to them. Microsoft found that employees spent three minutes on any single task before being interrupted. Another study found takes up to 23 minutes to get back to the task you were working on. It can take even longer to get to a “flow state”, the state of deep concentration where problem solving and creativity are most optimal.

“When I encounter a typical knowledge economy office, with its hive mind buzz of constant unstructured conversation, I don’t see a super-connected, fast-moving and agile organization. I instead see a poorly designed distributed system.”
Cal Newport

We do not have a communications problem. If anything, I would say we have smashed that challenge. What we have is a context problem. People still can’t find the information they are looking for or the people that can help.

“If we don’t have good systems that take this large amount of communications that gets generated through enterprise social tools, we can become overwhelmed by them.”
Michael Chui

This is especially true of developers where the information being sought is highly technical and contextual. Companies still struggle to collect and share relevant information easily. Useful content instead gets trapped (and lost) in message apps, emails, documents, and people’s heads. This last point is often neglected, even if you implemented the most technically advanced search tool, it still cannot reach into the minds of employees.

What is needed is an application that can allow developers to save and share relevant information without needless friction. This collaborative platform would make it easier to transfer the knowledge in people’s heads into a format that is easy to search and share across a team or company. With content, there is also a community layer that spurs engagement so that more people are encouraged to participate, share knowledge, and verify content. Instead of being another silo however, the application integrates into other knowledge repositories and communications channels in a knowledge architecture which facilitates the seamless distribution of knowledge.

When the information is readily available, discoverable, and relevant, it brings order to the endless streams of chat interruptions. Developers find answers from chat pulled directly from this community platform. Likewise, developers that can help are pinged in channels they subscribe to when new questions relevant to their interests are added. Context and communication comes together to make chat manageable and rein in the interruptions.

The one thing you can do to improve the developer experience also happens to be a smart financial move. Workplace distractions can steal nearly 90 minutes per week from developers. Using data from the Stack Overflow survey results, another 90 minutes is saved having easy access to technical information. If we use the average fully loaded labor cost for US developers, a company of 1,000 developers is potentially losing over $10 million per year in productivity. Other factors such as distributed team coordination, onboarding new employees, and new product ramp time could bring even more savings given all of those activities creates significant communications overhead.

So imagine that, something you can do that makes both developers happier and the CFO happy at the same time!

How has the use of messaging apps impacted your productivity at work? Do you find yourself often asking where to find information or who to ask?

What is the incentive for curl to release the library for free?

The question itself is not as interesting as who answered it…

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Thoughts on developers, digital transformation, startups, community building & engineering culture. Author is Mark Birch @ AWS 👉