Developer Focus Time

Our organizational goals for the fiscal year included a vague item about “increase developer focus time.” I mean, I have no problem with the goal. It’s admirable. But without any units or quantities on there, how is it achievable? Maybe our developers already have 8 hours of focus time a day! Where can you go from there? Obviously common sense tells me that’s not the case, but without numbers we can’t really know where we are.

I set out to get some initial measurements.

There’s a lot on the internet about Flow State. I think it could be relevant to the issue of focused working time for developers, but the materials I found on it ranged from pseudo-scientific crankery to specialized, jargon-filled academic papers. I’m not really an expert in this area, and figured that using a schema (Flow State) I didn’t fully understand would result in a survey that produced data I also didn’t understand.

So I kept it simple. I started drafting a short survey with two objectives: get a read on some subjective sentiments around focus time and try to tease out some reasons. Basically, “do you feel like you have focus time?” and “do you think it’s too many meetings or interruptions or what?”

I ran this draft by other people in engineering and got the feedback that the questions weren’t likely to produce quantifiable analysis of the situation and wouldn’t be useful for convincing the higher-ups to make changes. In other words, even if all developers replied that they “feel” like they don’t have enough focus time, it’s not going to do much to convince management. “Bring us the numbers!”

I still think that knowing 90% (let’s say) of your developers “feel” like they don’t have focus time is valuable - I mean, how many people time themselves through the day and track the data? Isn’t a feeling about all you can expect people to be really sure of? But the irony was not lost on me that I’d set out to get some quantifiable data for a vague, qualitative organizational goal and was in danger of producing another vague, qualitative artifact.

So I redesigned the survey. I took out the “feels” and made the multiple-choice answers more specific: “How often do you get into a focused state on engineering work? Once a week? Once a day?” I also added more questions that try to get to the cause of the lack of focus time: are you being interrupted? Are the problems too complex? Do you lack the tools? And so on.

We’ll see how it goes.