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InfoQ Homepage Articles Maximize Developer Productivity and Engagement with the Developer Experience Engineer

Maximize Developer Productivity and Engagement with the Developer Experience Engineer

Key Takeaways

  • Businesses that focus on creating the best possible environment for developers to succeed are the ones that see meaningful results on their bottom line.
  • Engineering teams need Developer Experience Engineers (DXE) to ensure they have the right tools, processes, and environment to maximize productivity and create the greatest business value possible.
  • The DXE drives standards and consolidation, focusing on achieving maximum efficiency on engineering teams.
  • A successful DXE aligns the engineering team to their path forward and showcases the value of the right tools and processes to the C-Suite.
  • The DXE as a standard role will unleash the power of developers across every type of organization and in every industry.

If the past 18 months have taught us anything, it’s that delivering secure, efficient software products and services is an absolute necessity. Being able to move quickly - without sacrificing reliability - has put an emphasis on the outputs of today’s developers.

According to Evans Data, the number of developers globally is expected to increase from 23.9 million in 2019 to 28.7 million in 2024. IDC forecasts that within three years, more than half of Fortune 500 companies’ business will revolve around digital and digitally-enabled products and services.

Businesses that focus on creating the best possible environment for developers to succeed are the ones that see meaningful results on their bottom line. A recent report from McKinsey shows that companies prioritizing developer velocity have four to five times the revenue growth of their counterparts. 

Now that companies need developers more than ever, how can they maximize developer productivity, engagement, and business value? In a recent report, we found that fostering the right environment for developers to improve the bottom line and fast-track innovation starts with a Developer Experience Engineer (DXE). 

Who is the Developer Experience Engineer (DXE)? 

Engineering teams need Developer Experience Engineers (DXE) to ensure they have the right tools, processes, and environment to maximize productivity and create the greatest business value possible. The size of the DXE team can range from 1 - 10 or more people, depending on the size of the engineering organization, and they work to solve, automate, and eliminate the daily toil developers encounter. 

The developer experience function isn’t new — Twitter formed an “engineering effectiveness” organization in 2014 and Google has a sizable “engineering productivity” team. But more and more companies are hiring for and prioritizing this role. As of May 2021, there were more than 117,000 results on LinkedIn for “developer experience” in the United States alone.

This is because DevOps leaders are recognizing how the role of the DXE is critical to creating efficiencies and shared practices between ambitious and energized teams. Credit Karma, for example, implemented a DXE team to improve team retention, project performance, and most importantly cleaner code delivery in production. Engineering Manager, Amit Mishra, found that the DXE added functionality and growth at the company by providing his engineering teams “with an underlying platform which enables faster and cleaner code delivery across various environments.”

Similarly, Indigo’s Director of Devops, Kelsey Steinbeck, notes that the DXE “is needed across the board in order to keep improvements moving forward and [to] constantly identify new areas to gain efficiencies — outcomes that impact an entire engineering organization for the better.”

Without the DXE, engineers spend time on maintenance and overhead instead of building. Allowing someone with centralized authority to handle maintenance means developers are free to write code and the whole software team operates more efficiently. 

The successful Developer Experience Engineer

A DXE is always thinking about the business impact, the costs, where the most time is spent, the biggest drag on delivery, and what it will take to solve a tooling or process problem. They are focused on achieving maximum efficiency so that the engineering team is free to focus on achieving the goals of the business. 

At Indigo, engineering teams were having difficulty testing microservices because of cross-team dependencies. The DXE and DevOps teams were able to tackle the problem and came up with an innovative on-demand testing environment with feedback from developers along the way. Steinbeck shared, “Flexibility and space allow engineers to be creative and empower the team to solve problems in innovative ways.”

A successful DXE...

  • Has experience managing software development teams.
  • Has a deep understanding of modern development practices and tools.
  • Knows how to establish team objectives aligned to business goals.
  • Is a ‘process pro’ that can organize and disseminate information.
  • Is someone who feels comfortable making decisions.

The role must also be ROI-focused. The ideal candidate is typically more senior in their career because they need to draw on their experience and be able to identify patterns. Have they seen enough examples of great software delivery? If so, they can ensure that strong patterns are captured and scaled, and that developers are happy and engaged.

The DXE leads an experience strategy — a real plan, not just aspirations — and sometimes leads a full DXE team. They drive standardization, which is a critical method to quash development toil at scale. They champion standards and consolidation, like having one set of libraries or service frameworks, eliminate unknowns, reduce variance, and facilitate better onboarding.

The successful DXE needs to...

  • Set the conditions under which innovation and creativity will thrive.
  • Navigate the link between developer experience and customer experience.
  • Empower developers to innovate and ship code without fear.
  • Know when to offer guardrails and guide a better understanding of risk.
  • Push the velocity that is core to corporate survival.
  • Know when to implement forcing functions that prevent mistakes.
  • Support the pipeline by aggressively automating blocking factors.
  • Manage and optimize the suite of developer tools that teams rely on to quickly deliver high-quality code.

The person who leads the DXE team is an influencer — they are not an order taker or a ‘yes person.’ The leader of the DXE team operates as both an advocate and a coach, aligning the engineering team to their path forward and showcasing the value of the right tools and processes to the C-Suite.

The DXE must...

  • Be able to recruit, train, and retain problem solvers and collaborators.
  • Be a sounding board for developers.
  • Be interested in building diverse and inclusive teams.
  • Communicate company interests to engineering teams in a way that makes sense to them.
  • Communicate the needs of developers to management in a way that makes sense to them.
  • Set and evangelize the metrics that track developer productivity.
  • Deeply understand and convey how the success of and investment in engineering teams supports the success of the business overall.

Business impacts of the DXE 

An organization doesn’t succeed or fail on engineering productivity alone. Companies succeed by delivering the highest amount of customer or business value. Software teams could be writing thousands of lines of code and only creating cost, not value.

However, the more engineering teams can use business metrics to measure success, the easier it will be to translate their work into business value. For example, speed alone is not the goal. A workflow without tests can run quickly with arbitrary success — but that’s an unhelpful signal. Teams need to be able to act on a failure as quickly as possible. When they investigate and improve, it’s vital to get as much information as possible from any failures, to consistently increase their efficiency and success.

When setting objectives, the DXE should focus on eliminating redundancies and overhead, so that the engineering team can focus on business outcomes and growth. 

The right questions to consider 

  • Revenue growth. How did software drive an increase or decrease in your company’s sales between two periods? How could the developer team grow revenue for the next quarter or year?
  • Improved end-user experience. How can software engineering improve UX and measurably improve ratings or grow the user base?
  • Increased quality of releases. How do we ship more stable code and create more innovative features? Getting people to truly care about quality means caring about both business value and usability.
  • Efficiency. How many times a day are your developers merging to the main branch? How often is code in a releasable state? How much of your codebase is covered by tests? Have you optimized tooling and infrastructure? 

All companies are at different stages of growth and have different engineering team needs. But as the team grows and developers become more critical in every organization, there is a significant benefit in formalizing the developer experience role, and there is consistency in creating and realizing the value of this person’s contribution to the business. 

What does an organization gain by bringing on a Developer Experience Engineer?

  1. Meaningful value from talent. The average cost of a developer minute in Silicon Valley is about $1.42. That’s every minute a developer’s meter is running, yet organizations are rife with productivity killers. 
  2. Developers in flow. Distractions can make or break a developer’s productivity. Everything from email and Slack to the tools developers use to build and test can take a developer out of the flow state — reducing productivity and increasing costs. 
  3. The ability to solve interesting problems. Developers want interesting problems to tackle. Some of the less cutting-edge work often given to developers, like updating plugins or investigating and fixing flaky tests, can be reduced by leveraging the right automation tools under the expertise of a DXE.
  4. More meaningful work. Getting developers closer to the end customer and the challenges their product helps solve connects them to the company mission. Too often, teams lose sight of their mission and the value they deliver. Lifting developers out of the daily grind and helping them ship quality products faster, brings them closer to the customer and the solutions they’re creating. 
  5. Bring buying decisions closer to the engineering team. Tooling decisions are often made without input from the engineers that use them, amid an increasing abundance of available options. A DXE can bridge the gap between the top of the organization and the developers doing the work, making the tech stack better for the whole company. 
  6. Bring leadership closer to the engineering team. Measuring and optimizing engineering velocity is the primary goal, as well as the ability to capture and report on how engineering success turns into business value. Leadership benefits from having a context-switching DXE who translates that engineering success into value for the organization.
  7. Eliminate duplication and overhead: The DXE identifies slowdowns in the development process, eliminates unnecessary tooling, and takes on a lot of the process work from engineers, freeing them up to build. 

Business success starts with the DXE team

Software has become the dominant force behind every aspect of the economy. The DXE as a standard role will unleash the power of developers across every type of organization and in every industry.

Companies in the post-pandemic era are looking to create resilient teams, tools, and infrastructure to combat the next inevitable disruption to the industry. Having the right environment with the right tools and processes in place turns smart engineers into the best engineers, and it starts with the DXE.

About the Author

Rob Zuber is a 20-year veteran of software startups; a three-time founder, and five-time CTO. Since joining CircleCI, Rob has seen the company through multiple rounds of funding and an acquisition, while leading a team of 200+ engineers distributed worldwide. While he’s not solving complex software problems, Rob enjoys snowboarding, playing the guitar, and spending time with his wife and two children. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Applied Science from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and lives in Oakland, California.

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