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Joel on Software

Oh, the emails you'll get...

by Joel Spolsky
Thursday, November 09, 2006

A management consultant at Bain wrote me a nice email, that included the following sentence:

"Our team is conducting a benchmarking effort to gather an outside-in view on development performance metrics and best practice approaches to issues of process and organization from companies involved in a variety of software development (and systems integration)."

I didn't understand a thing he wrote. The email contained a lot of words (“benchmarking,” “outside in,” “performance metrics,” “best practice,” “process and organization”) each of which set off a loud buzzing alarm-like sound in my head. The noise from the buzzing was so loud and so distracting that I found myself completely unable to parse the email.

I think it was something about measuring performance in software organizations? aHA! YES! I know all about that. You can't do that. Quit it. Stop it.

Listen. Let me tell you a secret about management consulting companies and software organizations.

Here is how the game is played.

Big Consulting Company calls up Big Oil Company. "Hey," they say, "do you guys need help being more productive developing software?"

Big Oil Company says, "Yeah, sure, whatever, we'll buy anything," and they buy a $1,000,000 software productivity consulting deal.

The consulting company comes on site, measures a bunch of bogus things like Lines of Code Per Developer, or, if they're really fancy shmancy, Number of Function Points Per Programmer Per Day. Then they tell the oil company, "Gosh, you're only getting 73.844% productivity. Pay us another $2,000,000 and we'll double your productivity."

Oil company pays the $2m.

Consulting company comes in, gets all the programmers in a room, tells them all about Function Points and stuff, and how productivity is REALLY IMPORTANT.

Programmers remember that scene from Office Space where Bob and Bob, the consultants, recommended all the people to get fired.

Programmers start writing a heck of a lot more function points. For example you can triple the number of function points in your code simply by round tripping everything through an XML file. Big waste of time, prone to bugs, does nothing, but each file you touch adds a function point. W00t!

Consulting company comes back, measures again, and lo and behold, with all the round trips through XML the function point count is up drastically. Consultant announces that Oil Company is now at 151.29% productivity. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

But there's one more step. Now the consultant goes to another Oil Company. "Hey, did you know your peers are getting 151.29% productivity? How are you doing?"

Oil Company #2 is scared. They pay for the initial study. They're only getting 83.948% productivity. Shit. And the cycle starts anew.

The whole fraud is only possible because performance metrics in knowledge organizations are completely trivial to game. The best part is that most management consultants, the stunningly good-looking, bright, earnest chipmunks with 4.0s in Russian Lit from Harvard who work for these companies, have absolutely no way of knowing this, so they can go through this whole exercise without even knowing that they're doing it! They get all the way through the 2-year associate program on their way to MBA school without even realizing that they haven't done a goddamn thing about productivity, all they've done is caused a fairly pointless transfer of wealth from ExxonMobilConoco to BainMcKinseyGartner's senior partners. And it's a lot of fun! First class flights to Houston and Oslo! Helping the world be more productive! Rock on, young stunningly-good-looking Management Consultant.


Have you been wondering about Distributed Version Control? It has been a huge productivity boon for us, so I wrote Hg Init, a Mercurial tutorial—check it out!

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About the author.

I’m Joel Spolsky, co-founder of Fog Creek Software, a New York company that proves that you can treat programmers well and still be highly profitable. Programmers get private offices, free lunch, and work 40 hours a week. Customers only pay for software if they’re delighted. We make Trello, insanely simple project management, FogBugz, an enlightened bug tracker designed to help great teams develop brilliant software, and Kiln, which simplifies source control. I’m also the co-founder and CEO of Stack Exchange. More about me.

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