When building a top-flight development team, dev experience should always be a major concern. It affects everything from the cost of talent acquisition to the ongoing costs of development, and the subsequent return on investments. Knowing just how much experience and expertise your devs are bringing to the table gives you a huge advantage. This is especially true when it comes to managing team effort and optimizing software quality, productivity, and security.
It might seem obvious, but do you really know how a developer’s level of experience can impact your software projects? Here, we’ll look at why it matters and what monitoring experience and knowledge distribution in your development can do for you.
A short note on terminology
Before we start, it’s important to differentiate between developer experience (DX) and a developer’s level of experience. In modern software engineering, Developer Experience or DX often refers to the experience of development professionals (software devs or engineers) while interacting with the technology necessary to support software development outcomes. Like User Experience (UX), DX is a very important aspect of software development that contributes to improved performance and team productivity, but we won’t be looking at that in this article.
What we will be looking at is how developers’ level of experience or the amount of time and practice that they have invested in becoming proficient with some technology. When hiring devs to build your dream team, it’s important to ensure that they have the necessary experience and expertise with the tools, methodologies, and best practices for developing and maintaining your software products.
Why does experience matter?
Hiring a dev, means investing in their capacity to create positive ROI. One of the major concerns software and tech executives are facing, is managing tech talent acquisition and hiring. As a result, attracting highly skilled software professionals often comes with a hefty price tag as competition increases with years of experience. So, what makes experience such an important factor in hiring?
A dev’s level of experience can have resounding impact on:
- cost of acquisition
- cost of retention
- the ongoing cost of development
- value of their contributions to projects
- knowledge transfer and technical support in existing teams
- development culture and the work environment
- the kinds of projects that can be undertaken
Tech giants like Apple, Meta, and Alphabet have spent years acquiring and developing their skilled talent pools. While they have benefited greatly from snapping up the best and brightest, they’ve also made the field extremely competitive as a result.
How do experienced developers impact development efforts?
A developer’s skill and experience are valuable assets to development teams for several reasons. The primary contributions they make are their skills and knowledge in working with specific technologies to achieve business goals. Experienced devs support high-performing teams in 3 main ways:
1. Technical expertise
The most obvious contribution of experienced developers is their proficiency in using mission-critical technologies. Devs with a broad technical skillset can provide support and coding capabilities across a wider variety of projects and offer support in many areas of development. They also contribute valuable insights in the planning and requirements gathering stages of development, making the software development process more organized, and thus, more efficient.
When it comes to planning, a dev who has honed their craft through years of practice will have a better understanding of the potential challenges that business problems might present. Based on their knowledge of similar issues, the technical capacity of the team, and deadline concerns, they can advise on the best course of action. This could mean:
- determining the best technologies or methodologies for a project
- delegating tasks to the team members best suited to them
- helping the team to break the main business problem down into manageable parts
Ultimately, they make the process smoother by contributing valuable insights into executing complex development projects.
2. Knowledge transfer
One of the often-underappreciated contributions that developers can make is knowledge transfer and mentorship. Knowledge transfer is a key features of highly successful teams, not just in software development, but in many other areas of business. It’s characterized by the passing of relevant information and experience from more knowledgeable and skilled personnel to other members of the organization. This exchange typically leads to more effective teams, with higher performance and productivity.
In software development, skilled talent can make or break a team. However, it’s often very difficult to find highly skilled and experienced developers. As a result, most teams feature a range of experience and proficiency levels. More experienced software engineers tend to occupy leadership positions on the team as senior developers or managers where they act as mentors to junior devs. As mentors they:
- take the lead on complex tasks
- lead pair-programming exercises
- contribute to internal style guides to ensure code consistency
All these contributions help to support greater team performance and productivity, leading to positive project outcomes and potentially greater ROI.
3. Force Multiplication
The most valuable developers are often the ones whose contributions to the team are the hardest to quantify. While their commits and pull request numbers may not appear much higher than other devs (in some cases they can even be lower), they help teams to accelerate faster and achieve project milestones more smoothly. These devs are often called “force multipliers”. Force multiplier devs support team success by sharing technical insights, building better cultures, and improving development processes. What makes them so valuable is how they foster better team performance by:
- Leading efforts to teach other team members
- facilitating greater collaboration
- supporting healthier programming practices
- assisting on tasks and troubleshooting when needed
There tends to be an overlap between force multipliers and knowledge transfer, largely because making knowledge ubiquitous leads to improved capacity and performance. Most force multiplier devs are usually senior members of the team, technical leads, or even managers who are experienced with the application, the business, or the technologies being used–all of which help them to support better team performance.
Track experience to reduce and mitigate risks
Experienced developers usually have a positive impact on development teams, but did you know it’s also important to continue tracking developer experience after they’ve joined your organization? As it turns out, experience and knowledge distribution across teams has a serious impact on the success and stability of projects. For example, if only one or two devs have experience with key modules or critical areas of your development, it could place your software at significant risk.
When tracking the relative experience available across your software projects it’s important to consider the following 3 points:
1. Who owns the functional areas of your application?
Typically, ownership is an empowering strategy that entrusts the management and maintenance of an area of software (perhaps a single file or a whole functional area) to a developer or team. Identifying who has ownership over an area of development helps to consolidate experience in an area. Tracking the experience of developers working in this area creates visibility into the distribution of knowledge across the application. This makes planning and managing human resources in development more data-driven and thus, more grounded.
2. How much of each area are they responsible for?
Ownership typically comes with control over how other teams or developers interact with an area of code. Tracking how much code each developer contributes and how frequently they interact with a file or functional area helps to measure how experience (and thus, knowledge) of these areas grows. This makes managing your existing capacity and development resources easier and better-informed. It also helps to mitigate the risk of files or modules becoming abandoned if the owner or dev with the most experience leaves the team–and the negative effects that can have on applications.
3. How many other devs have a comparable level of experience?
Your software could be in danger if the developer with the most experience on a critical file or functional area leaves the team without transferring their knowledge to anyone else. When this occurs, the files they were responsible for become abandoned. This means that there could be whole sections of the codebase that aren’t being maintained, updated, or managed. These areas can become serious liabilities if they aren’t dealt with appropriately.
One of the main ways to reduce the risk of files becoming abandoned is to ensure adequate knowledge distribution on key areas of development. When this isn’t possible, the next best thing is to have devs with a similar level of experience in the technologies used available to step in and pick up the slack. Without insight into your devs' experience levels with the different technologies used in your software, this becomes much more difficult. That’s why tracking relative experience across teams is so important.
Tracking experience in your teams
Without the tools to measure your developer experience and its impact on the development process, it can be hard to determine just how valuable an investment they are. Experience by its very nature is very difficult to qualify and quantify. In hiring practice, experience is usually attributed to the number of years working in a role, performing specific tasks, or working with certain technologies, but this may not be a great way to measure it. After all, 5 years of writing spaghetti code may not be the kind of experience you want on your team.
It can be hard to quantify the time devs put into working with certain technology stacks. So, how can we get around this? One approach is to take a more holistic view of developer experience by looking at:
- number of years in the field
- time spent working with relevant technologies (programming languages or frameworks)
- relevant past projects and work history
- GitHub repositories or published projects and materials
These data sources can provide great insights into a developer’s expertise with different technologies and the range of their experience working with different aspects of software development. However, this method is time-consuming and the insights it offers are still hard to quantify as accessible metrics.
Another approach is to look specifically at experience in context. Foreworth’s platform, for instance, measures dev experience based on total contributions across areas of the application and by man-hours spent working with programming languages used in the codebase. Our algorithm calculates experience using quantifiable data like:
- the volume of code contributed to an area of development
- total time spent working in each programming language
- the complexity and quality of the code contributed
We then aggregate the calculated data to provide objective, standardized, and readily accessible metrics to help our users quickly evaluate their dev teams’ experience levels. This provides a more focused understanding of developer experience as it pertains to your organization easily and affordably.
Making the most of your capacity
Managing software development and keeping track of your development capacity depends heavily on understanding the differences in experience across your teams. It’s no surprise that more and more teams in tech and software are seeing the benefits of robust knowledge transfer practices.
To get the most out of your development teams and ensure the long-term health and stability of the development investments you need to know your team inside and out. This means knowing how they work, what they’re working on, and how they are growing within your organization.
As teams scale up, this means having the right metrics on hand to make more informed, data-driven decisions about your team’s productivity. To learn more about the benefits of having the right productivity metrics, check out our article here.