Don't get stuck! / Review: Sackman and Curtis

Posted in programmer productivity at 9:39 pm by ducky

I’ve heard a few people say that the most productive programmers are about 100x more productive than the least, but that didn’t seem to ring true to me. The only times that I’ve seen someone taking five months to produce as much as someone else could do in one day, it was a management problem. The low-productivity person was either goofing off or (more commonly) they were working on the wrong thing.

In Joelonsoftware, Joel reports (using data from Professor Stanley Eisenstat at Yale) that he sees about a 3x or 4x difference in the time students put into an assignment (with no effect of grades). However — and this is a big “however” — Prof. Eisenstat depends upon self-reporting from the students. Self-reporting is notoriously inacurate.

I have found it surprisingly hard to find good academic literature that measures productivity. I finally found a 1966 study by Sackman that showed a 28x difference. That number apparently got widely circulated, despite some sloppiness in its methods (as refuted by Dickey in 1981).  A response to the concern by Curtis (1981) gave data that showed of about 8x and 13x min:max for two problems if and only if you tossed out one outlier who got stuck and didn’t finish that problem, timing out instead. Keeping the outlier, the 13x changed to 22x.

The outlier made me realize that the difference between the “best” programmer and the “worst” programmer is the wrong measure. You can make that number arbitrarily large by finding the right person to compare against. For example, I will be infinitely more productive than an infant. I will be infinitely more productive than someone who sleeps at his/her desk for their entire workday every day.

I would be far more interested in the standard deviation, or perhaps the productivity difference between the median and the top performer. What is the performance hit if I hire people within two standard deviations of the mean instead of trying for the ones who are better than two sigma above the mean? (This should looked at in conjunction with the cost hit of hiring the absolute best.)

This graph shows the time that it took to complete some tasks, and the number of people who took that long. (One person took between 65 and 70 minutes to complete Task 2, for example.)

Curtis' productivity stats

Using Curtis’ data, I get that the median coder takes 2x or 3x the time that the top coder does for each of Curtis’ two tasks. (It’s not exact because the data was bucketed into five-minute intervals.) Interestingly, this is the same order of magnitude that Prof. Eisenstat found.

Note, however, that Curtis gives measures for one task. Because of regression to the mean, the variation is likely to decrease if you look at a lot of tasks. (Curtis even mentions that the outlier on Task #2 did fine on other tasks.)

The shapes of the curves are interesting: they are skewed to the left, which makes sense: there are limits to how much faster you can get, but not to how much slower you can get. They are also bimodal. This is more intriguing and mysterious, especially since Saeed and Bornat found that grades in intro CS classes are bimodal.

While this data comes from 1981, it’s the best I could find so far. (Please tell me if you have better data!) It’s distressing that we don’t have lots of good data on this — it seems like such fundamental data! However, it is really hard to do good studies like this. Ideally, you’d want a large number of programmers to all work on the same large number of complex problems. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to get a large number of programmers to spend a large number of hours on non-useful problems.

The big message that I take from this data for my personal use is don’t get stuck. That’s easier said than done, I know. But look at it this way: if I learn new tricks for squeezing out incremental gains — like memorizing all the keyboard shortcuts — that isn’t going to help me nearly as much as not getting stuck. Keyboard shortcuts might give take me from 10 minutes to 9 minutes, but getting stuck can easily take me from 10 minutes to 100 minutes.

Now all I have to do is figure out how to not get stuck.


  1. ducky said,

    December 8, 2006 at 9:56 am

    Someone mailed me privately about my assertion that “it’s very difficult to get a large number of programmers to spend a large number of hours on non-useful problems.” He said:

    > Insert obvious Windows Vista joke here…

  2. Vince said,

    December 12, 2006 at 12:27 am

    Well, it’s hard to control whether you get stuck or not, but you *can* learn keyboard shortcuts to save 1 min. a day, that’s 365 min. a year! Of course, 365 disconnected minutes doesn’t really buy you anything :p

  3. Best Webfoot Forward » Programmer productivity — part 2 said,

    December 15, 2006 at 4:58 pm

    […] In An Exploratory Study of How Developers Seek, Relate, and Collect Relevant Information during Software Maintenance Tasks, Andrew Ko et al report on the times that ten experienced programmers spent on five (relatively simple tasks). They give the average time spent as well as the standard deviation, and — like the Curtis results I mentioned before. (Note, however, that I believe Ko et al include programmers who didn’t finish in the allotted time. This will make the average lower than it would be if they waited for people to finish, and make the standard deviation appear smaller than it really is.) […]

  4. Best Webfoot Forward » Programmer productivity — part 3 said,

    December 17, 2006 at 10:16 pm

    […] My recent reflections on the Curtis results and reflections on the Ko et al results of experiments of programmer productivity have focused on one narrow slice, what I call “hands-on-keyboard”. Hands-on-keyboard productivity is measured by how fast someone who is given a small, well-defined task can do that task. As I mentioned in those two blog posts, it is hard to measure even that simple thing. […]

  5. Best Webfoot Forward » Sackman revisted said,

    February 16, 2007 at 4:18 pm

    […] To reiterate, there’s a paper by Sackman et al from 1966 that people have seized upon to show a huge variation in programmer productivity, a paper by Dickey in 1981 that refuted Sackman pretty convincingly, and an article by Curtis in the same issue as Dickey’s. I didn’t talk much about the Dickey paper, but Tony Bowden has a good blog posting on the Dickey paper, where Dickey reports on a more reasonable interpretation of numbers from the Sackman’s data. […]

  6. Best Webfoot Forward » VanDev talk summary said,

    February 6, 2008 at 9:29 pm

    […] speed, however. I have reported previously on experiments by Demarco and Lister, Dickey, Sachman, Curtis, and Ko which measure the time for a number of programmers to do a task. What I found is that the […]

  7. Pedro said,

    April 3, 2012 at 5:02 am

    Years after this post…

    Have you looked at algorithm programming competitions? They sound like the perfect place to get the kind of data you’re looking for, with a lot of programmers participating. There are many to choose from (topcoder, codeforces, codechef) for some that take place weekly/monthly, or facebook hackercup, google code jam, for yearly competitions.

    I haven’t analysed the data and the number of people that don’t complete the tasks in the allotted time is significant (the problems are supposed to be hard to solve in a short time for most contestants), but the differences seem to be a lot bigger than the numbers you talk about (especially if we take into account the large number of people that can’t finish a task in, say, 2 hours that the best coders complete in 10 minutes).