The Impact of Meetings on Engineers

Meetings, meetings, meetings. How many times have we said that? Visiting dozens and dozens of clients per year, we see a number of customers whose culture seems to be extremely meeting-centric, as ifthe only way any decision can be made or information communicated is via a meeting.

Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator and Hacker News, wrote back in 2009 of the impact of meetings upon engineers. Coding typically is best performed in multi-hour solid chunks of time, with no interruptions. It takes awhile to get into the ‘zone’, and any context switch will disrupt that zone, in Graham’s words “like throwing an exception”. He even suggests that the impact of a meeting goes far beyond the actual time spent at the meeting, that simply knowing you are going to be disrupted prevents you from reaching that zone - something like when you know you have to get up early in the morning say for a flight, you toss and turn all night long, unable to get into that deep REM state.

Many companies recognize the disruptive impact of meetings, and put rules stating ‘no meeting’ afternoons, or perhaps a full day in place. Pinterest’s recent blog post recounts their somewhat extreme move along these lines - putting a three-day no meeting block in place for engineers - engineers were not to be invited to meetings 3 days a week. The blog post is worth a read, covering some of the challenges and objections of eliminating engineer-attended meetings 3 days a week, but overall touts the success of the approach citing a 92% positive response rate to a survey question asking “Are you more productive…?”.

Really, Pinterest? Really??

I’m all for the reduction of meetings, though I do wonder if three days a week with no meetings is a bit overboard. What I’m disappointed by is that Pinterest has no (or at least did not cite any) quantifiable evidence that their engineers were actually more productive. Now, I’m not suggesting they should have a before and after count of, say, lines of code. But, assuming that Pinterest is at least something of an Agile shop, did they not see an increase in velocity, in story points being delivered?

In our visits to our clients, just as we see a wide variation in the dependency upon meetings to get anything done, we see some clients living and breathing by their team-by-team velocity numbers, while other clients totally disregard that key productivity metric. To you technology leaders out there, how better can you measure your teams’ efficiencies?

And, even more so, do you know why your teams' current velocity is what it is? Are you actively seeking out the context switches, delays, and disruptions that are throwing exceptions in your engineers’ brains?

We’ve been pulled in many times to analyze a team’s efficiency (or lack thereof), only to find out that, yes, meetings are a negative influence, but beyond that:

  • Interviews (worthwhile, but hiring should be a highly optimized process)
  • Environmental issues (are you measuring your dev environments’ availability?)
  • Waiting for a pull request approvals (do you have an SLA around this?)
  • Long build times that are due to weak hardware or poor dependency management (compare the cost of faster build machines or code optimization of your builds vs. the value of wait or down-time of your engineers?)
  • Waiting to receive clarification from a product owner on a feature (again, do you have an SLA around this? Is your team colocated, so a question can be asked/answered quickly?)
  • Other surprising items ranging from having to feed a parking meter to miserable network latency for those remote engineers.

Yet again, the mantra of “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it” applies. We view metrics such as actual hours spent coding vs. expected hours spent coding as not only a measurement of your teams' productivity, but as a management effectiveness gauge. Are you as a manager effectively protecting your engineers?

Are you able to see the impact of ‘no-meeting’ days, or the factors today that negatively affect your developers' coding efficiencies?

If not, AKF can more than help. We have run productivity surveys at many clients, and always enjoy the look on technology leaders’ faces when we present the results. Let us help you.