Measuring the Unmeasurable: Unveiling the Challenges of Developer Productivity


Measuring developers’ productivity has been an important topic for decades but it became even more critical when optimizing teams’ efficiency became the main focus of 2023.

Why it’s important…

Measuring productivity is essential for organizations as it provides valuable insights into resource allocation, project timelines, and team dynamics. It also plays an important role in promoting a culture of accountability, self-reflection, and continuous improvement. By using proper metrics, organizations can optimize their processes and workflows by identifying and eliminating bottlenecks, inefficiencies, and waste, and improving the quality, reliability, and performance of their software products. Additionally, measuring productivity can help organizations evaluate and enhance their software development capabilities by benchmarking and comparing their productivity levels with industry standards and best practices.

…yet very difficult

However, developers’ productivity is very difficult and challenging. Software development is a multifaceted endeavor that goes beyond coding. True productivity encompasses aspects like research, problem-solving, collaboration, and creativity, making it difficult to distill into a single, quantifiable metric that can capture and quantify the productivity of software development teams in all scenarios. Software development thrives on collaboration – teams work together, share ideas, and build upon each other’s contributions. Consequently, metrics must account for team dynamics, communication, and knowledge sharing. Additionally, the quality and usefulness of the software output are not determined by the quantity or speed of the code produced, but by how well it meets the needs and expectations of the users and the business. Therefore, measuring software developers’ productivity should not only focus on the technical aspects of the software development process but also on the business and customer outcomes.

Evolution of measuring developers’ productivity

Bearing the above in mind the challenges are undeniable. Therefore, over the years, different approaches and metrics have been proposed and used to measure software developers’ productivity, reflecting the evolution of software development paradigms, methodologies, and technologies. The industry has shifted towards more holistic and qualitative methods that acknowledge the diverse skills and contributions of developers.

Lines of code (LOC): This is one of the oldest and simplest metrics, which measures the amount of code produced by a developer or a team in a given time. However, this metric has many limitations and drawbacks, such as being dependent on the programming language and style, and not accounting for the complexity, functionality, or value of the software product. It also ignores code quality, efficiency, and team collaboration.

Function points (FP): This is a metric that measures the functionalities of a software product, based on the number and complexity of the inputs, outputs, inquiries, files, and interfaces of the software system. This metric is independent of the programming language and can be used to estimate the size, effort, and cost of a software project. However, this metric is also subjective and difficult to apply, as it requires a detailed and accurate specification of the software requirements and a standardized and consistent method of counting and weighting the function points.

Agile metrics. The advent of Agile methodologies marked a paradigm shift in software development. Agile emphasizes collaboration, adaptability, and customer feedback over rigid processes and documentation. Scrum, probably the most popular Agile framework, incorporated velocity as a metric used to measure the amount of work a development team can complete in a given time frame. Velocity tracked over time allows teams to forecast future work and adjust their commitments; it also provides insights into the team’s capacity, efficiency, and consistency. However, it’s essential to recognize that velocity alone doesn’t capture the full picture of productivity. First of all, it doesn’t account for the quality of work, technical debt, or the impact on end-users. Secondly, velocity emphasizes output—how much work is done—rather than outcomes while productivity should be about delivering value to users and achieving business goals. Last but not least, velocity can evolve without necessarily improving productivity because it’s based on relative estimates rather than fixed assessments. This makes it also easy to game (inflate) velocity if management expects constant improvements to teams’ productivity. Another metric closely tied to Agile practices is throughput which reflects the team’s ability to deliver value continuously. By focusing on throughput, organizations can identify bottlenecks, optimize processes, and improve overall productivity. However, throughput faces similar problems as velocity. It can also be influenced by external factors such as dependencies, stakeholder feedback, or changes in priorities. A sudden shift in requirements might impact throughput, making it an unreliable measure of developers’ productivity.

DORA metrics

The evolution, however, didn’t stop there. Modern approaches recognize the multifaceted nature of developer productivity. The emergence of DevOps has brought attention to automation, continuous integration, and deployments; it has also become clear that quality directly affects productivity. Consequently, productivity metrics have shifted focus toward cycle time, lead time, deployment frequency, defect density, and others.

DORA metrics are a set of four key metrics for measuring software development teams’ productivity, proposed by the DevOps Research and Assessment (DORA) team. The four metrics are:

  • Deployment Frequency—How often an organization successfully releases to production
  • Lead Time for Changes—The amount of time it takes a commit to get into production
  • Change Failure Rate—The percentage of deployments causing a failure in production
  • Time to Restore Service—How long it takes an organization to recover from a failure in production

The main advantages of DORA metrics are their relevance, validity, and reliability. DORA metrics are relevant, as they capture and reflect the key aspects of software development, such as the speed, frequency, quality, and stability of software delivery and operations. DORA metrics are also valid, as they have been empirically proven to correlate with the business and organizational outcomes of software development, such as customer satisfaction, market share, profitability, and employee engagement. DORA metrics are also reliable, as they can be consistently measured and compared across different software products, teams, and environments, using standardized tools and data.

However, DORA metrics also have some disadvantages, such as complexity and dependency. DORA metrics are complex, as they require sophisticated tools and data to collect, calculate, and communicate, and they may not be easily understood or interpreted by all stakeholders. DORA metrics are also dependent, as they rely on the availability and quality of the tools and data, and they may be affected by the configuration and integration of the tools and data.

SPACE and DevEx frameworks

DORA metrics – which are standardized, data-driven, and objective measures – were a breakthrough in measuring developer productivity. However, even though they’re valuable, they have some limitations. First of all, DORA metrics focus on outcomes, not experience – they only measure the final results, not the factors that contribute to those results. This means they don’t give you insights into why developers are productive or unproductive. Secondly, DORA metrics primarily focus on the software delivery pipeline, ignoring other aspects of developer work like code quality, collaboration, and well-being.

This is where the SPACE and DevEx frameworks come in.

SPACE builds on DORA by defining five additional dimensions: Satisfaction & well-being, Performance, Activity, Communication and collaboration, and Efficiency & Flow.

These capture both developer experience and outcomes, giving a more holistic picture. SPACE recognizes the importance of soft skills like communication and teamwork for overall productivity; it also encourages measuring and improving productivity at a team level, fostering collaboration and shared goals. By taking these diverse factors into account, the SPACE framework helps paint a more comprehensive picture of developer productivity instead of relying solely on output-driven metrics.

Building on the SPACE framework, DevEx focuses specifically on Developer Experience. It’s important because – as recent research has shown – improved DevEx has a positive impact on developer, team, and organizational outcomes. For individual developers, positive outcomes included improved job performance, creativity, and learning. For teams, it involved improved code quality and technical debt, which reflects the system in which a team works. At the organizational level, positive outcomes included improved retention, innovation, profitability, and the organization’s ability to achieve its goals.

DevEx identifies three key dimensions that influence developer productivity:

  • Feedback Loops: How quickly and effectively developers receive feedback on their work, including code reviews, testing results, and user feedback.
  • Cognitive Load: The amount of mental effort required for developers to complete tasks, which can be impacted by complex tools, unclear documentation, high WiP, or context switching.
  • Flow State: The ability of developers to focus deeply and efficiently on their work, which can be disrupted by interruptions, distractions, or poor work environments.

By measuring metrics within these areas, organizations can identify specific pain points and bottlenecks that hinder developer productivity and well-being. This allows for targeted improvements that directly impact the developer experience and, ultimately, the overall effectiveness of the development process.

Both SPACE and DevEx provide valuable insights beyond output-focused metrics. Together, they offer a comprehensive approach to measuring and optimizing developer productivity. While SPACE gives a wider picture of the development ecosystem, DevEx delves deeper into the specific factors that directly impact developers’ ability to perform at their best.


Measuring software developers’ productivity is undoubtedly a challenging endeavor, but its significance cannot be ignored in the pursuit of efficient and successful software projects. As the industry continues to evolve, so too must our approach to measurement.

Today, the focus is shifting towards outcomes over outputs. Measuring the actual impact of delivered software on business goals, user satisfaction, and customer value provides a more meaningful understanding of developer productivity. This, coupled with a human-centric approach that emphasizes well-being and sustainable practices, paves the way for a future where productivity measurement serves to empower developers, not confine them.

About the author


Head of Engineering, Agile Coach, PMP, PSM, SPS, PAL I, PAL-EBM

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By Piotr