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Forget story points. There’s an easier way to estimate work capacity

Cathy Reisenwitz

by Cathy Reisenwitz on December 17, 2019

Despite multitudinous measurement options, the software development world still lacks a reliable, objective metric for measuring developer productivity.

"Dealing with story points or how likely I'd be able to finish a particular feature by the end of the week has always been hard for me," our Head of Engineering Gary Lerhaupt said when I asked him about story points at Clockwise.

Indeed, a Google search for “story points suck” will yield many pages of results. “Story points are really cost estimations which really boil down to just how long is this going to FFing take and what can we do within the typically fixed duration & cost of a single sprint,” Jilles van Gurp writes in one such take.

So is there an easier, and maybe even more accurate, way to measure your team’s bandwidth?

We think so.

Capacity = time

Every developer productivity metric, story points included, is ultimately getting at the same thing. And that thing is time.

Work gets done when talent combines with tools and time. Work stops when blockers arise. So why don’t we just work backwards from the number of hours developers are going to spend at the office before launch, minus blockers, to estimate capacity?

The reason that’s not good enough is that not all of the time developers spend at work is equally productive.

Story points are estimates of how long a task is going to take. But to accurately estimate and assign tasks it’s even more important to know how many *productive* hours the developer/s will have to work on the task.

All time isn’t created equal

To get at this metric, first you have to remove lunch times, coffee breaks, Facebook scrolling, and meeting times from the equation. Research shows that the average worker wastes up to 41% of their work time on low-value tasks. More than half (53%) of employees waste at least one hour every day dealing with distractions.

But even our free time often isn’t very productive because we’re constantly switching tasks. One study showed that moving between to-dos creates brief mental blocks that can decrease your productive time by as much as 40%. We’re also constantly interrupted. Nearly half (45%) of workers get interrupted at work at least every 15 minutes.

Research indicates that constant interruptions at work lower your IQ as much as losing one night’s sleep and twice as much as smoking cannabis.

Books from productivity gurus from Cal Newport to Nir Eyal show that deep, profitable work requires chunks of uninterrupted time that are at least two hours, preferably longer. It’s in those periods that most workers get the majority of their real work done in. At Clockwise, we call this Focus Time.

What we measure

Focus Time is the metric with the most when it comes to capacity and productivity.

That’s why we measure four things at Clockwise instead of story points:

  1. Focus Time
  2. Fragmented time
  3. Meeting time
  4. “Other” time

In case you’re curious, our data shows Software Engineers have the third-most Focus Time.

Here are the roles with the most time for focused work:

Here’s how the average individual contributor in Engineering’s meetings break down:

You can get your stats and compare your results with Calendar Insights.

Clockwise also sends a weekly email to our users that shows them where their time went last week and how their upcoming week is shaping up.

And once you start measuring Focus Time, you can start managing it.

How we do it

Here at Clockwise we use Autopilot to intelligently schedule meetings back-to-back to open up the max amount of Focus Time for the entire team. In addition, we try to be smart about how we schedule standing meetings. We have three every week, and they’re at the beginning of the day Monday, the end of the day Friday, and over lunch Friday. They’re intentionally not scheduled during what would otherwise be Focus Time for the team. (Related: How to avoid these 3 common meeting etiquette mistakes)

We also encourage our employees (and all employees) to break the expectation of an immediate response by delaying checking and responding to email, Slack, and other incoming messages. (Related: Yes, I am ignoring you. Here’s why.)

Going forward

When it comes to work capacity and developer productivity, we believe Focus Time is the MVP of metrics. Focus Time recognizes that not all time is equally productive and reveals how much time you have to actually get stuff done.

There are lots of ways to measure Focus Time and open up more of it for your team. But if you want an easy, automated way to do both, check out Clockwise.

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is Head of Content at Clockwise where she oversees the Clockwise Blog and The Minutes Newsletter. She has covered business software for six years and has been published in Newsweek, Forbes, the Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications.

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