Evan X. Merz

musician/technologist/human being

Why is software development so slow?

Why can't the developers move more quickly? Why does every project take so long? In this article I'm going to talk about what causes software development to slow down. This is based on my experience as a programmer and manager in Silicon Valley for over a decade, as well as conversations with other people in similar roles.

Is my team slow because...

First of all, I want to answer some questions that I've heard from managers.

  1. Is my team slow because we use PHP? No.
  2. Is my team slow because we use Java? No.
  3. Is my team slow because we use INSERT PRODUCT HERE? Probably not.
  4. Is my team slow because they don't understand web 3? No.
  5. Is my team slow because of a bad manager? Maybe, but if you've had multiple managers in there who haven't moved faster then this is unlikely.
  6. Is my team slow because they have or do not have college degrees? No.
  7. Is my team slow because we don't use agile? Probably not.

So then why is my development team so slow?

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, we can drill into what actually causes teams to move slowly. None of the reasons I've listed here are particularly technical. I tend to think that teams move slowly due to non-technical reasons.

They're estimating poorly

The most common reason why people think developers are moving slowly is that the estimates are poor. For one reason or another, developers are not spending the time, or creating the artifacts necessary to generate accurate estimates.

I once joined a small team where nobody ever wrote anything down. They would attend planning meetings where they would hash out the requirements, they would make up an estimate on the spot, then they would immediately break to start writing code. The stakeholders wanted to know why tasks never seemed to come in within the estimated time frame.

In my experience, it's necessary to generate multiple levels of plans to generate an accurate software development project estimate. You must begin with use-cases, then work through multiple levels of plans to reach units of work that can be estimated.

Here's how I break down a project to make an accurate estimate:

  1. Write all requirements down in plain language. This can be in the form of use cases, or user stories, or any top-level form that anyone can understand.
  2. Talk through what an acceptable solution would look like with other developers.
  3. Break that solution into individual tasks using a tool like JIRA.
  4. Estimate those tasks.
  5. Add a little extra room for unknowns, debugging, integration, and testing.
  6. Add up the final estimate.

There are multiple ways to execute each of these steps, but that's the general flow for all successful software development estimation that I've seen in my career.

Technical debt

Another big reason why a team might be moving slowly is tech debt. Tech debt happens to every project when the company tries to move quickly. It happens because solutions that can be implemented as fast as possible are usually not scalable to future use cases that the developers can't anticipate.

I once worked on a web development team that needed to make the list pages faster on an e-commerce website. The list pages were slow because the server was delivering a massive payload containing every product on the list page then filtering and sorting was done client side. That's easy to fix right? Just serve the first page of products, then serve the next when the user scrolls down. But to do that, we must add server side sorting and filtering because the list will be different for different combinations of sorts and filters. But to do that, we must have products stored in some sort of database, and this team was only using a key-value store at the time. That's how tech debt can be problematic. In that scenario, it would take months to solve that problem in a scalable way.

Ultimately, we found a different solution. We delivered the tiniest possible payload for each product, which achieved a similar end goal while side-stepping the tech debt. But that tech debt was still there, and would still be a problem for many related projects.

There is no silver bullet for solving tech debt. In my career, the best way I've found to deal with tech debt is to reserve one developer each sprint to iteratively move the project closer to what the team agrees is a more scalable solution.

Interpersonal conflict

The single biggest thing that slows down development teams is interpersonal and interdepartmental conflict. Maybe a manager is at odds with a team member, or maybe two team members see their roles very differently. If two people working on one project have different views about how to execute that project it can be absolutely crushing.

I think that proactively avoiding and addressing conflict is the single thing that can instantly help teams move faster. The most staggeringly successful group of techniques I've discovered for doing so is called motivational interviewing.

Motivational interviewing is a way of communicating with peers, stakeholders, and direct reports that allows two people to agree to be on the same team. It's a way of building real rapport with people that allows you to build successful working relationships over time. Specifically, it's a way of focusing a conversation on talk that meaningfully moves both parties toward a mutually acceptable solution.

I strongly recommend Motivational Interviewing for Leadership by Wilcox, Kersh, and Jenkins. To say that that book changed my life is an understatement.

Unclear instructions

The final category of issue that slows down development teams is unclear instructions.

I once worked for a person who was very fond of sending short project descriptions over email and expecting fast results. One email might read something like "I want to be selling in Europe in one month", another might say "I want to be able to hold auctions for some of our products."

It IS possible to work with such minimal instructions. It falls upon the development team to outline what they think the stakeholder wants, develop plans based on that outline, then execute based on those plans.

The problem with working from minimal instructions is that no two people see the same problem in exactly the same way. Say you are developing that auction software. Many questions immediately arise. Who can bid on the auctions? Is the auction for many products or just one? Does the product have selectable options, or are they preset? Are bids visible to other customers? How do we charge the user for the item if the final bid exceeds what is typically put on a credit card?

If the stakeholder isn't able to answer those questions early in the process, then it may go significantly astray. If the development team doesn't understand the instructions, then they may waste days or weeks pursuing irrelevant or untimely work. If the stakeholder is going to give such vague instructions then they must address questions in a timely manner or risk tasting time.

In conclusion

So why is your development team so slow? I've laid out the four common causes that I've seen in my career.

  1. Poor estimates
  2. Tech debt
  3. Interpersonal conflict
  4. Unclear instructions

If you have something else to add to this list, then let me know on Twitter @EvanXMerz.

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Evan X. Merz

Evan X. Merz holds degrees in computer science and music from The University of Rochester, Northern Illinois University, and University of California at Santa Cruz. He is a programmer, musician, and author of Empress blog software. He makes his online home at evanxmerz.com.