What’s the key to measuring developer productivity?

Measuring developer productivity is an important part of keeping your team happy and productive. But finding the right metrics isn’t always easy. 

Developer productivity metrics are an important part of any engineering team’s growth and improvement; the right metrics can help you better forecast project timelines, understand where to allocate resources, and manage your team’s workload. But measuring developer productivity has been challenging, and, when incorrectly applied, can seem to all but wring every last line of code from overworked developers.

Why is measuring developer productivity so challenging?

The work developers do is inherently complex and usually doesn’t map easily to a single, quantifiable metric. Teams that focus too heavily on a single metric aren’t necessarily getting a complete picture of the work that individuals do every day – much less the efforts of the entire developer team. These patchy insights could lead to negative outcomes like an overworked, burnt-out team, missed deadlines, or product quality issues down the line. 

What’s more, choosing the wrong metrics can have a negative impact on your organization. One of the core issues with any metric is that the metric often informs the output. Focusing on individual metrics can easily lead to situations where developers game the system to hit the metrics set by executives. Measuring your devs on lines of code? Expect lots of lines – but maybe not the most elegant code. Tallying up bugs fixed? They might end up fixing a lot of smaller issues rather than tackling the bigger ones. This isn’t to say that developers will intentionally try to do subpar work. But when the team is judged on the number of nails they hammer, picking up a screwdriver becomes the second priority.

Since developer productivity can be hard to measure, and because the appropriate metrics can have a profound impact on how the team works, what can your team do to get developer productivity metrics right?

The best developer productivity metrics measure team outcomes, not individual outputs

Google’s DevOps Research and Assessment (DORA) has found that in order to measure developer productivity, focus on impactful outcomes for your business, rather than direct outputs from the work your team does. They recommend using four key developer productivity metrics to measure developer performance: 

  • Deployment Frequency: How often an organization successfully releases to production
  • Lead Time for Changes: The amount of time it takes a commit to get into production
  • Change Failure Rate: The percentage of deployments causing a failure in production
  • Time to Restore Service: How long it takes an organization to recover from a failure in production

Whether you use these metrics, or something else better suited to your team’s specific needs, keep in mind that the best developer productivity metrics measure the team, not the individual developer. The key is to align your productivity goals with the goals of your business. When they are in alignment, your developers are naturally guided and incentivized to do their best work. Ensure the metrics are quantifiable, definable, and pass through as many potential hands as possible, to truly measure the depths of your team’s efficiencies.

Project and data visibility is essential to measuring developer productivity

Increasing visibility and transparency into your organization’s workflows and goals is another critical part of measuring productivity successfully. Metrics out of context can be hard to parse and easy to misinterpret. 

Giving your team the context they need to understand how their work fits into key outcomes will make developer productivity metrics into more than just a way to judge performance retroactively– they’ll become a touchpoint that helps the team collaborate more effectively.  Shared, discoverable Kanban boards, burnup charts, and other visualizations can be helpful for keeping everyone on the same page. 

The bottom line: Measuring developer productivity is an iterative process

Finding the right productivity metrics for your team, collecting data, and sharing metrics data probably won’t happen overnight. But by constantly reevaluating what and how you measure developer productivity for your team, you’ll begin to home in on the information that will make the biggest impact on your organization. 

Want to learn more about developer productivity, and how you can help your team unblock workflows that aren’t flowing? Check out our Guide to Developer Productivity for more on the trends and best practices that software developers use to address key productivity challenges.