Thursday, May 27, 2010

Managing developer staff by head count

Last I checked, engineers were paid pretty good salaries. So why does management act like they are free?

Let me explain.  It is common to manage engineers by headcount. Engineering gets, say, 12 people, and their job is to make products happen. But this approach means engineers are an overhead resource that is just there to use without really worrying about who pays for it. Like electricity. Or free parking spots.

The good part about engineering headcount is it is simple to specify and implement. And it can let the engineering staff concentrate on doing design instead of spending a lot of time of marketing themselves to internal customers. But it can cause all sorts of problems. Here are some of the more common ones:
  • Decoupling of cost from workload. Most software developers are over-committed. You get the peanut butter effect. No matter how big your slice of bread, it always seems possible to spread the peanut butter a little thinner to cover it all. After too much spreading you spend all your time fighting fires and no time being productive. (Europeans -- feel free to substitute Nutella in this analogy!  I'm not sure how well the analogy works Down Under -- I've only been brave enough to eat Vegemite once.)
  • Inability to justify tool spending. Usually tools, outside consultants, and other expenses come from "real" money budgets. Usually those budgets are limited. This often results in head-count engineers spending or wasting many hours doing something that they could get from outside much more cheaply. If a $5000 software tool saves you a month of time that's a win. But you can't do it if you don't have the $5000 to spend.
  • Driving use of the lowest possible cost hardware. Many companies still price products based on hardware costs and assume software is free. If you have an engineering headcount based system, engineers are in fact "free" (as far as the accountants can tell). This is a really bad idea for most products. Squeezing things into constrained software gets really expensive! And even if you can throw enough people at it, resource constraints increase the risk of bugs.
There are no doubt other problems with using an engineering headcount approach (drop me a line if you think of them!).  And there are some benefits as well. But hopefully this gives you the big picture. In my opinion head counts do more harm than good.

Corporate budgeting is not a simple thing, so I don't pretend to have a simple magic wand to fix things. But in my opinion adding elements of the below will help over the long term:
  • Include engineering cost in product development cost. You probably budget for manufacturing tooling and other up-front (NRE) costs. Why isn't software development budgeted?  This will at the very least screen out ill conceived products with expensive (complex, hard to get right) software put into marginally viable products.
  • If you must use head-counts, revisit them annually based on workload and adjust accordingly.
  • Treat headcount as a fixed resource that is rationed, not an infinite resource. Or at least make product lines pay into the engineering pool in proportion to how much engineering they use, even if they can't budget for it beforehand.
There aren't any really easy answers, but establishing some link between engineering workload and cost probably helps both the engineers and the company as a whole. I doubt everyone agrees with my opinions, so I'd like to hear what you have to say!

1 comment:

  1. Great article.
    You are right, company what use externals consultants do not have such problems, easier to calculate total cost of product.


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