The Mythical 30x Developer

Whenever a software project is late the myth always pops up.

Photo by Federica Giusti on Unsplash

The idea that is brought up is that there are 30 time differences in productivity between developers.

In my experience the idea always comes from a senior manager. The numbers change a bit. Sometimes it’s 28x, sometimes it’s 10x.

But the idea is the same. And it always shuts down the conversation. The conversation about why it is really happened. About actual problems in the process that are leading the project to be late.

The original study is from the late 1960s by Sackman, Erikson, and Grant. It found huge variations in individual programming productivity. Studies in the 80s and 90s confirmed results.

Should we accept that as an explanation?

So there are differences between performances. Like in any other field of profession. As many factors are in play the performances will be roughly normally distributed.

But it’s not that simple. People have different strengths. Developers contribute to the team in different ways. Some have eye for details. Some are very social and make the communication flow. Some are into improving the process. Some know algorithms and data structures very well.

The variety of strengths and point of views is a huge asset.

Isn’t it just too easy explanation?

Conveniently the explanation also frees the manager from a list of culprits. There’s nothing he could have done.

This is the worst thing about this myth. It stops the conversation on how to improve. It leaves no avenues for improving the ways of working. There may be unclear requirements, unrealistic schedule, difficult work conditions, bad tools, lacking communication or any other of problem the manager now never considers.

Problems are rarely so simple.