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Opinions: Measuring Programmers' Productivity

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In the field of software development, just as in any other area, managers need to appreciate performance of their programmers and the progress of their projects. However, defining appropriate metrics to this end appears to be a tricky task.

Measuring source lines of code (SLOC) is one of commonly used approaches that presents however a number of important limitations highlighted recently by Shahar Yair and Steve McConnell. First of all, the amount of lines of code does not allow effectively measuring the progress of a project because it focuses on activity rather than results. LOC do not have any value as such: the value of the final product depends on its performance and quality, not on the amount of code. Hence, focusing on the latter is actually a very limited approach to productivity.

SLOC doesn’t tell anything about the complexity of the issue at hand or about the quality of the final product in terms of maintainability, flexibility, extensibility, etc. With regard to quality, it can actually be negatively correlated. Refactoring as well as some design patterns result in reducing LOC while improving code’s quality. Larger code base may mean more noise, more unnecessary complexity, less readability and flexibility.

What is particularly risky about adopting such a reductive view of programmers’ performance is that it creates wrong incentives. Rather than optimizing their work in terms of final product, developers may be encouraged to favor the quantity of code to the detriment of quality and even intentionally write more verbose code. “What gets measured gets done”, recalls Steve McConnell.

He points out that some of these issues can be solved by using function points as measuring metric. The program size is then determined by the number of inputs, outputs, queries and files. Nevertheless, this approach also has its downsides. McConnell mentions some practical issues like the necessity of having a certified function point counter and the difficulties with mapping each function point back to individual programmers. A certified function point specialist Daniel Yokomizo highlights in his comment other limitations of such approach: lack of tools to measure function points’ complexity and to take into consideration things such as code sharing, frameworks, libraries, etc., that affect the time needed to create a feature.

Even though many commentators involved in the discussion about measuring approaches agree on their limitations, they do not necessarily dismiss the need for measuring programmers’ performance. Many insist on the fact that SLOC, for instance, can be used as a baseline for a more complex analysis combining different factors. This goes along the lines of four principles outlined by McConnell that should guide any analysis of programmers’ productivity:

1. Don’t expect any single dimensional measure of productivity to give you a very good picture of individual productivity […]

2. Don’t expect any measures […] to support fine-grain discrimination in productivity among individuals. [They] give you questions to ask but they don’t give you the answers […]

3. Remember that trends are usually more important than single-point measures […]

4. Ask why you need to measure individual productivity at all […]

In which context measuring programmers’ productivity is actually meaningful? What criteria can be used for it? How can they be combined? Many questions are still open for discussion and if your experience has brought you some answers, don’t hesitate to share.

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