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The Two Keys to Programming Productivity

Occasionally other developers with whom I work will comment on my productivity. For example a couple of weeks ago, after working hard one day and delivering an urgently needed service to the team the next morning, one developer said in standup, "You're an animal. You wrote that in one day and it would have taken me two weeks to do that." I’m a little embarrassed by such comments and have often thought about what makes me or any programmer productive, so today I enjoyed reading parts of Neal Ford's book The Productive Programmer and wanted to share some thoughts on programmer productivity.

I loved the forward by David Bock of CodeSherpas. He writes, "The individual productivity of programmers varies widely in our industry. What most of us might be able to get done in a week, some are able to get done in a day. Why is that? The short answer concerns mastery of the tools developers have at their disposal. The long answer is about the real awareness of the tools' capabilities and mastery of the thought process for using them. The truth lies somewhere between a methodology and a philosophy, and that is what Neal captures in this book."

Ford suggests there are four productivity principles for programmers.

  1. Acceleration: speeding things up. Keyboard shortcuts, searching and navigation.
  2. Focus: eliminating distractions and clutter, both physical and mental.
  3. Automation: getting your computer to do more. Put your computer to work.
  4. Canonicality: doing things once in one place. Also known as DRY or Don't Repeat Yourself.

These are all good and important. For me the most important item in Ford's list is number two: focus. And I would add one more: conditioning. Focus and conditioning are the two most important keys to successfully improving your programming productivity.

Programming Productivity Key #1 – Focus

Start by eliminating mental and physical distractions. Remove the clutter from your mind and your desk, but most importantly, eliminate the distractions caused by environmental disruption. Find or create a quiet place where you can focus on the task at hand, where you can put your entire mental energy into what you are doing. Distractions are a HUGE productivity destroyer.

Cubicles are of the Devil. They may be great for a sales team or reporters who thrive on eavesdropping, but chit chat does not get code written. Cubicles foster incomplete and sporadic communication that becomes a crutch for broken requirements and shoddy analysis resulting in an unsearchable and unsellable body of knowledge persisted only in the fragile collective of a distributed and disconnected human neural network that often cannot survive the loss of one or two key nodes.

Ford suggests instituting "quiet time" where, for example, there are no meetings or email or talk during two two-hour periods each day. He claims to have tried this in one of the consulting offices where he worked and the organization found that they got more done in those four hours than was getting done in the entire day before implementing the "quiet time." This is not surprising to me at all. Ford writes, "It is tragic that office environments so hamper productivity that employees have to game the system to get work done."

While I have the luxury of working from a home office at the moment, I have worked in a number of cubicle environments in the past and probably will in the future. The most common technique I see other developers using to create their own "quiet time" is the use of a very expensive pair of noise canceling headphones piping in whatever tunes or white noise that developer finds most conductive to focusing on the task at hand. Do whatever you have to do to achieve focus.

Programming Productivity Key #2 – Conditioning

To play at the top of your game, you have to condition. You have to practice. You have to study. You have to prepare your body but most importantly your mind to execute. And you have to condition your attitude. You have to be excited to write code. You have to get a thrill out of making it work and work well. You have to condition your mind to expect excellence and then work to achieve that.

In conditioning, there are mechanics you must learn. Spend time studying and using your IDE's keyboard shortcuts. Regularly study and practice using the base class libraries of your platform so you don't end up wasting time writing code that a solid community or well heeled development team has already written and tested heavily for you.

More importantly, spend time reading about and learning new techniques and technologies from open source projects to gather at least a passing understanding of the problem they solve and how you might use them even if you choose not to do so. Pay attention to the patterns, the naming and organizational patterns, the logical patterns and the problem solving patterns that you find in these projects. Even if you do not use them, you will be storing up mental muscle memory that will serve you well when you need a way to solve a new problem in your own projects.

Most importantly, learn from your own work. Repeat your successes, taking patterns from your past and improving on them. Avoid your failures, being honest with yourself about what did not work in your last project and finding ways to avoid or even invert the mistakes of the past, turning them into strong successes.

Conditioning is not about solving a problem for a specific project in which you're working now. It's about preparing your mind to be at its most productive when faced with programming problems you've never seen before. It's about creating mental muscle memory that will kick into overdrive as you solve the problems you have already faced, the code spilling out of your brain through your fingers and into the keyboard.

No matter how fast or slow you are as a programmer, you can improve. If you improve your focus and put your body and mind through regular conditioning, you will improve. And as you improve, you'll get noticed. And as you get noticed, you'll get rewarded.