Mar 17 5 min read

Understand and Optimize Developer Productivity with the SPACE Framework

Understand and Optimize Developer Productivity with the SPACE Framework

Hillary
Nussbaum

Engineering productivity is notoriously difficult to measure. Classic metrics tend to focus exclusively on outputs, but this approach is flawed — in software engineering, quantity of output isn’t necessarily the most productive goal. Quality is an important complement to quantity, and a team that’s measuring success in lines of code written may sacrifice conciseness for volume. This can lead to bloated, buggy code. A team focused on the number of features shipped may prioritize simple features that they can get out the door quickly, rather than spending time on more complex features that can move the needle for the business. The SPACE Framework aims to address this by replacing output-focused measurements with a more nuanced approach to understanding and optimizing developer productivity.

This research-based framework offers five key dimensions that, viewed in concert, offer a more comprehensive view of a team’s status. These dimensions guide leaders toward measuring and improving factors that impact outputs, rather than focusing solely on the outputs themselves. 

Importantly, SPACE foregrounds the developer. It recognizes that leaders must empower their team members with the ability to take ownership of their work, grow their skills, and get things done while contributing to the success of the team as a whole. 

 

What is the SPACE Framework? 

The SPACE Framework is a systematic approach to measuring, understanding, and optimizing engineering productivity. Outlined by researchers from Github, Microsoft, and the University of Victoria, it encourages leaders to look at productivity holistically, placing metrics in conversation with each other and linking them to team goals. It breaks engineering productivity into five dimensions, Satisfaction and Well-being; Performance; Activity; Communication and Collaboration; and Efficiency and Flow. 

Satisfaction and Well-being – Most often measured by employee surveys, this dimension asks whether team members are fulfilled, happy, and practicing healthy work habits. Satisfaction and well-being are strongly correlated with productivity, and they may even be important leading indicators; unhappy teams that are highly productive are likely headed toward burnout if nothing is done to improve their well-being. 

Performance – The originators of the SPACE Framework recommend assessing performance based on the outcome of a developer’s work. This could be a measure of code quality, or of the impact their work has on the product’s success. 

Activity – This dimension is most reminiscent of older measures of productivity as it refers to developer outputs like on-call participation, pull requests opened, volume of code reviewed, or documents written. Still, the framework reminds leaders that activity should not be viewed in isolation, and it should always be placed in context with qualitative information and other metrics.  

Communication and Collaboration – The most effective teams have a high degree of transparency and communication. This helps ensure developers are aligned on priorities, understand how their work fits into broader initiatives, and can learn from each other. Proxies for measuring communication and collaboration might include review coverage or documentation quality. 

Efficiency and Flow – In the SPACE framework, flow refers to a state of individual efficiency where work can be completed quickly, with limited interruption. Efficiency is similar, but it occurs at the team level. Both are important for minimizing developer frustration. (Though it’s worth noting that when an organization has too much efficiency and flow, it’s not always a good thing, as it may be at the expense of collaboration or review.) Perceived efficiency and flow can be important information gathered via survey, while speed metrics can capture a more objective measurement. 

 

How can you implement the SPACE Framework?

The framework’s authors caution that looking at all five dimensions at once is likely to be counterproductive. They recommend choosing three areas that align with team priorities and company goals. What a team chooses to measure will send a strong signal about what the team values, and it’s important to be deliberate about that decision. They also remind leaders to be mindful of invisible work and to check for biases in their evaluations. 

At Code Climate, we’ve spent years helping software engineering leaders leverage engineering data to boost their teams’ productivity, efficiency, and alignment. With that experience in mind, we have a few additional recommendations: 

  • Be transparent. When introducing data in your organization or using data in a new way, it’s important to be open. Make sure your team members know what data you’re looking at, how you plan to use it, and what value you hope to gain from it. 
  • Place all metrics in context. Quantitative data can only tell you so much. It’s critical to supplement metrics with qualitative information, or you’ll miss key insights. For example, if you’re measuring activity metrics and see a decrease in pull requests opened, it’s important to talk to your team members about why that’s happening. You may find out that they’ve been spending more time in meetings, so they can’t find time to code. Or you may learn that they’re coding less because they’re working to make sense of the technical direction. Both these situations may impact activity, but will need to be addressed in very different ways. 
  • Work data into your existing processes. The most effective way to build a new habit is to layer it onto an existing one. If you’re already holding regular 1:1s, standups, and retros, you can use them as an opportunity to present data to your team, assess progress toward goals, and discuss opportunities for improvement. By bringing data to your meetings, you can help keep conversations on track and grounded in facts. 

 

Why does the SPACE Framework matter? 

The SPACE Framework helps engineering leaders think holistically about developer productivity. The five dimensions serve as critical reminders that developer productivity is about more than the work of one individual, but about the way a team comes together to achieve a goal. And perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, understanding productivity is about more than simply measuring outputs. In looking at multiple dimensions, teams can gain a fuller understanding of the factors influencing their productivity, and set themselves up for sustainable, long-term success. 

 

If you’re looking to implement the SPACE Framework, Velocity can help you gather critical engineering data. Reach out to speak to one of our data specialists to find out how.


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