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The Developer Toil Audit Method

Michael Coté & Danielle Burrow & Susie Forbath & Tyson McNulty

After working with hundreds of organizations who’ve modernized their application portfolio, we’ve created the following technique to find and reduce developer toil:

  1. Audit: We use a questionnaire about common developer activities and practices. Over the many audits we’ve done, we’ve come up with a starter set of questions, but you should also include questions specific to your organization’s maturity and systems. This questionnaire of course must be easy to fill out and only done when needed—otherwise it becomes a type of toil itself!
  2. Act: Based on the findings from the audit, developers and product managers work together to value and then prioritize the work needed to address developer toil. Deciding to delay shipping app features is a difficult decision, so we use a quantitative model that links reducing development toil to increasing business value.
  3. Repeat: Once the work to address the most painful areas of developer toil is done, repeat the process again. After each cycle of improvement, the questionnaire is completed again to check for improvements and find new toil.

Like all self-help advice, these steps seem simple at first. But, their simplicity is more about usability: complex, powerful processes have been made simple so that they work.

The other thing to keep in mind is the first principle of all improvement schemes: you actually need to do it, and keep doing it. Developer toil is like weeds: you have to garden consistently, not just once.

Case study

What does being buried by tech debt look like? Here’s an example from a VMware Tanzu Labs client engagement:

The product team we worked with was struggling to deliver features quickly, at one point taking an average of over 400 hours to complete a feature!

In late September of 2021, we introduced the team to Developer Toil Audits. Using this process, we refocused the team to prioritize fixing the developer toil that mattered the most for their problems. In this case, our goal was to help them reduce their story cycle time, the time it takes from idea to working software.

After the developer toil audit, they moved from delivering a story approximately every two weeks to delivering a story daily!

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