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Making Software by Greg Wilson, Andy Oram

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Individual Productivity Variation in Software Development

The original study that found huge variations in individual programming productivity was conducted in the late 1960s by Sackman, Erikson, and Grant [Sackman et al. 1968]. They studied professional programmers with an average of 7 years’ experience and found that the ratio of initial coding time between the best and worst programmers was about 20 to 1; the ratio of debugging times over 25 to 1; of program size 5 to 1; and of program execution speed about 10 to 1. They found no relationship between a programmer’s amount of experience and code quality or productivity.

Detailed examination of Sackman, Erickson, and Grant’s findings shows some flaws in their methodology (including combining results from programmers working in low-level programming languages with those working in high-level programming languages). However, even after accounting for the flaws, their data still shows more than a 10-fold difference between the best programmers and the worst.

In the years since the original study, the general finding that “There are order-of-magnitude differences among programmers” has been confirmed by many other studies of professional programmers [Curtis 1981], [Mills 1983], [DeMarco and Lister 1985], [Curtis et al. 1986], [Card 1987], [Boehm and Papaccio 1988], [Valett and McGarry 1989], [Boehm et al. 2000].

There is also lots of anecdotal support for the large variation between programmers. When I was working at the Boeing Company ...

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