Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Quality and productivity are not necessarily mutually exclusive

Quality and productivity are not necessarily mutually exclusive

One of my pet peeves is when people pit quality and productivity against each other in engineering management discussions because I don’t always view them as competing priorities.

And I don’t just mean that quality improves productivity in the long run by avoiding tech debt. I’m actually saying that a focus on quality can immediately boost delivery speed for the task at hand.

In my experience there are two primary ways that attention to quality helps engineers ship and deliver more features on shorter timescales:

  • Mindfulness of quality counteracts tunnel vision

    By “tunnel vision” I mean the tendency of engineers to focus too much on their initial approach to solving a problem, to the point where they miss other (drastically) simpler solutions to the same problem. When an engineer periodically steps back and holistically evaluates the quality of what they’re building they’re more likely to notice a simpler solution to the same problem.

  • Prioritizing quality improves morale

    Many engineers deeply desire being masters at their craft, and the morale boost of doing a quality job can sharply increase their productivity, too. Conversely, if you pressure an engineer to cut corners and ship at all costs you might decrease the scope of the project but you also might tank their productivity even more and wipe out any gains from cutting scope.

HOWEVER, (and this is a big caveat) the above points do not always apply, which is why I say that a focus on quality only sometimes improves productivity. In other words, part of the art/intuition of being a manager is recognizing the situations where quality supports productivity.

For example, not every engineer cares about doing a quality job or honing their craft (for some people it’s just a job) and if you ask these kinds of engineers to prioritize quality they’re not going to get the morale/productivity boost that a more passionate engineer might get. Like, it could still be the right decision to prioritize quality, but now it’s no longer an obvious decision.

Similarly, not every engineer will benefit from stepping back and thinking longer about the problem at hand because some engineers are enamored with complexity and aren't as good at identifying radically simpler solutions (although I will say that valuing simplicity is a great thing to cultivate in all of your engineers even if they’re not good at it initially). As a manager you have to recognize which engineers will move faster when given this extra breathing room and which ones won’t.

Anyway, the reason I’m writing this post is to counteract the mindset that quality and productivity are competing priorities because this mentality causes people to turn off their brains and miss the numerous opportunities where quality actually supports productivity (even in the very short term).

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