AKF Partners

Abbott, Keeven & Fisher PartnersPartners In Hyper Growth

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Engineering Efficiency

Recently, several of our clients have been interested in how they can make their engineers more efficient. The need for this usually arises when someone notices that they used to deliver much more when the team was smaller. This is a very common problem because as the teams grow larger more coordination is required and technical debt builds up.

Our first recommendation is to measure. As we’ve pointed out before in our post, Data Driven Decisions, without data you are just guessing at the solution. More importantly there is no way of knowing if you are improving anything unless you have the data. We recommend you collect data on where your engineers spend time and produce the following ratio:
actual engineering time spent on development (per time period) / available engineering time (per time period)

The numerator is how much time the engineers are spending building products. What gets taken out of this number are meetings not directly associated with development (design meetings are part of the development process), tasks such as building their environments, and firefighting such as production bug fixes. The denominator includes the average time available per that period. Typically, vacation time, holidays, etc are removed from this time. Once you’ve identified this ratio you have a good idea what tasks are taking away time from engineers actually building products. When our clients calculate this they often see ratios as low as 40%.

One of the largest culprits of reduced engineering efficiency are non-product development related meetings. A simple fix for this is to set aside 4 hr blocks of no-meeting time for engineers to work. We typically recommend 8am – noon as non-meeting, noon – 2pm for meetings, and then 2pm – TBD for non-meetings. This does two things, first it gives everyone time to get actual work done and secondly it forces people to prioritize meetings and limit who should attend since they all have to occur in a 2 hr window.

Start measuring your engineers efficiency and see what you can change to make it improve.


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From Technician to Engineer

We’ve had a couple posts on this topic of engineer vs craftsman vs technician but I found myself in the past couple of days discussing this topic in two different settings and thought it would be fun to revisit on the blog. I started the conversation with a post that quoted Tom DeMarco concluding that “software engineering is an idea whose time has come and gone.” Also quoted was Jeff Atwood stating that “If you want to move your project forward, the only reliable way to do that is to cultivate a deep sense of software craftsmanship and professionalism around it.” Marty picked up the conversation in another post stating that:

All of this goes to say that software developers rarely “engineer” anything – at least not anymore and not in the sense defined by other engineering disciplines. Most software developers are closer to the technicians within other engineering disciplines; they have a knowledge that certain approaches work but do not necessarily understand the “physics” behind the approach. In fact, such “physics” (or the equivalent) rarely exist. Many no longer even understand how compilers and interpreters do their jobs (or care to do so).

I think it is possible that we are seeing the evolution of our discipline as it struggles to determine what its final form will take. Computer science, information technology, software engineering, and other related disciplines are all relatively new fields of study. With a new discipline it should be expected that definitions and themes will need to be stretched or reconsidered.

Software engineers, similar to other engineering disciplines who are taught more “true” laws such as Newton’s or Faraday’s, also undergo something of an apprenticeship once their degree is conferred. Mechanical and electrical engineers work beside senior engineers who help them transition from the theoretical to the practical. Software engineers are often apprenticed in the same manner by more senior engineers. If the practical implementation of one discipline is considered engineering because it is based upon laws and principles, I would argue that the principles of architecture for scalability are of a similar nature. This in fact I think is a strong differentiator between technicians and engineers within the software development discipline. A technician can write code, setup a database, or administer a server. An engineer can architect a database or system or pool of servers such that it can scale. We’ve written several posts about the principles and patterns of scalability and a large part of our book is dedicated to these principles. Are these sufficiently established to be called a principle as defined in Wikipedia?

A principle is one of several things: (a) a descriptive comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine, or assumption; (b) a normative rule or code of conduct, and (c) a law or fact of nature underlying the working of an artificial device

I still like the idea of software developers as craftsmen and -women but as I concluded in the other post, that discussion for me is as much about organizational size and control as it is anything else. The technician vs engineer discussion I think is best held in the light of are they or are they not applying laws or principles. As the American Engineers’ Council for Professional Development defines engineering “The creative application of scientific principles to design or develop…” Have we as a discipline, especially in terms of scalability, advanced enough to call what we use “principles”? Let us know what you think.


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No Such Thing As a Software Engineer

Mike Fisher recently blogged about all the recent activity decrying the death of software engineering in his post “Engineering or Craftsmanship”.  The two terms should never have been stuck together in the first place.  Compared to the “true” engineering disciplines, the construct is as ridiculous as the term “sanitation engineer”.

Most other engineering disciplines require school trained engineers with deep technical and scientific knowledge to accomplish their associated tasks.  There probably aren’t many ground breaking airplanes designed by people who do not understand lift and drag, few ground breaking electronic devices designed by people who don’t understand the principles of electromotive force and few skyscrapers designed by people who do not understand the principles of statics and dynamics.  This isn’t to say that such things haven’t happened (e.g. the bicycle manufacturers turned airplane pioneers named the Wright brothers), but rather that these exceptions are examples of contributions by geniuses and savants rather than the norm.

The development of software is simply different than the work performed within true engineering disciplines.  With just a little bit of time and very little training or deep knowledge, one can create a website or product that is disruptive within any given market segment.  You don’t need to learn a great deal about science or technology to begin being successful and you need not be a genius.  The barrier to entry to develop a business changing service on the internet simply isn’t the same as the knowledge necessary to send a man to the moon.  Software, as it turns out, simply isn’t “rocket science”.   To develop it we don’t need a great deal of scientific or technical experience and it’s really not the application of a “real science” (one with immutable laws etc) as is say electrical engineering.

Sure, there are some people who as a result of training are better than other people and there is still incredible value in going to school to learn the classic components of computer science such as asymptotic analysis.  Experience increases one’s ability to create efficient programs that reduce the cost of operations, increase scalability and decrease the cost of development.  But consider this, many people with classical engineering backgrounds simply walk into software development jobs and are incredibly successful.  Seldom is it the case that a software engineer without an appropriate undergraduate engineering background will walk into a chemical, electrical or mechanical engineering position and start kicking ass.

The “laws” that developers refer to (Brooks Law, Moore’s Law, etc) aren’t really laws as much as they are observations of things that have held true for some time.  It’s entirely possible that at some point Moore’s Law won’t even be a “law” anymore.  They just aren’t the same as Faraday’s Law or Bernoulli’s Principle.  It’s a heck of a lot easier to understand an observation than it is to understand, “prove” or derive the equations within the other engineering disciplines.  Reading a Wikipedia page and applying the knowledge to your work is not as difficult as spending months learning calculus so that one can use differential equations.

All of this goes to say that software developers rarely “engineer” anything – at least not anymore and not in the sense defined by other engineering disciplines.  Most software developers are closer to the technicians within other engineering disciplines; they have a knowledge that certain approaches work but do not necessarily understand the “physics” behind the approach.  In fact, such “physics” (or the equivalent) rarely exist.  Many no longer even understand how compilers and interpreters do their jobs (or care to do so).

None of this goes to say that we should give up managing our people or projects.  Many articles decry the end of management in software, claiming that it just runs up costs.  I doubt this is the case as the articles I have read do not indicate the cost of developing software without attempting to manage its quality or cost.  Rather they point to the failures of past measurement and containment strategies as a reason to get rid of them.  To me, it’s a reason to refine them and get better.  Agile methods may be a better way to develop software over time, or it may be the next coming of the “iterative or cyclic method of software development”.  Either way, we owe it to ourselves to run the scientific experiment appropriately and measure it against previous models to determine if there are true benefits in our goal of maximizing shareholder value.


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