Feeling the pinch? How startups can optimise tech team productivity

The SPACE framework takes a more holistic view of developer productivity and wellbeing, says Hywel Carver, Co-Founder and CEO of Skiller Whale.

It’s been a challenging few months for the tech sector. Widespread job cuts, funding shortfalls, and a looming recession, topped off by the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, have all created a great deal of uncertainty for startup leaders. Many are starting to feel the pinch.

That can feel at odds with the trajectory of a typical startup. Founders often expect to be focused on rapid growth and reaching the next funding round. Software teams are hard at work developing a minimum viable product, building and releasing new features and eradicating those ubiquitous bugs. And because there’s always more to do, the hunt for new engineers never really stops.

But what if it was possible for startup leaders to do more with what they already have? What if it was possible to get an accurate measure of a development team’s productivity, and pull the right levers to optimise that accordingly?

Opening the expensive black box

That’s the holy grail for startups, regardless of whether they're facing a recession or not. Meaningful metrics have always been hard to find – the output of a software team is often intangible and hard to evaluate without hindsight. Deciding what good looks like and measuring that effectively is complicated. Many see software engineering as an expensive black box.

But a new framework from Nicole Forsgren and her team at Microsoft Research proposes a new approach. SPACE centres around five pillars: satisfaction and wellbeing, which promotes a healthy, team-oriented culture; performance, which relates to outcome rather than output; activity, which captures some of the more traditional metrics such as cycle time and number of bug fixes; communication and collaboration, which investigates how people and teams work together; and efficiency and flow, which is about the ability of a team to get complex tasks done with minimal interruptions.

SPACE aims to capture a wider picture of an engineering teams’ productivity by acknowledging the human side of development work, and incorporating some of the softer skills that aren’t easily quantifiable. Research has found software development is hypersensitive to a developer’s mental state because it’s complex, attentive work. Similarly, a 2021 study by GitHub found a developers’ own view of their productivity aligns with the feeling of having a good day. Being able to stay focused on a task and make meaningful progress leaves developers feeling more satisfied and productive.

Leaders may find some metrics easier to explore than others but part of SPACE’s charm is its adaptability, depending on the context of a startup’s current objectives, leadership styles, and growth trajectory. And once leaders have a measure of the productivity within the team, it’s much easier to identify those areas that need support and adapt processes or timelines accordingly.

Taking action with learning

Turning the dial on productivity might include blocking out chunks of time in the working day so that developers can get into a flow state, improving the tooling and processes used, or investing in coaching to boost an individual’s (or team’s) capability. Targeted learning and development focuses on what a team needs to know for a particular strategic outcome, rather than wasting time on what they know already or on skills that aren’t useful to the company. There’s a real business benefit to learning time.

Focusing on learning that can have a role in strategy means changing what a team is capable of. It improves their efficiency and performance. But it’s also good for morale and retention. Developers feel empowered, nurtured and more satisfied at work as they’re mastering new skills. And under-represented groups, who perhaps don’t have time to continue their professional development outside of work, are now also given the chance to grow and progress.

For years, the tech sector has relied on hiring new people to fill the skills gaps they face. They add headcount to increase capacity, rather than invest in their current engineering workforce. That’s time-consuming and expensive. And at a time of economic uncertainty, it’s risky.

What the current economic climate does do, is provide a real opportunity to do things differently. And SPACE provides a framework to think about productivity in a more holistic way. One that prioritises developer wellbeing alongside performance. 

Ready to learn more about SPACE? Download the Skiller Whale whitepaper today.