How Much Should a Developer Cost?

I recently went through the process of finding myself a new project and once more realized that at least 75% of the decision making for hiring a developer seems to be based on price. “You want – how much? Hey, I can easily find people who do it for 10 or 20% less!”

I am sure they can, for the whole “10 or 20% less”, if they just compare keywords like “Java”, “Oracle”, and “Maven”. Just as you can buy a car for $50.000, $20.000, or $5.000. While people are well aware that the price they pay has a substantial influence on the car they get, that fact seems to be ignored when it comes to hiring people.

The general assumption seem to be that once the overall skillset fits all developers are more or less the same. Well, that assumption is not supported by fact. How much does productivity vary really, you might ask? 10%, or maybe even 30%?

Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister conducted annual public productivity surveys with over 300 organizations worldwide in their book “Peopleware” (which I strongly recommend). Here is what they found out:

  • The best people outperform the worst by a factor of 10 (that’s a whole order of magnitude)
  • The best people are about 2.5 times better than the median person
  • The better-than-median half of the people has at least twice the performance of the other half

And the numbers apply to pretty much any metric examined, from time to finish to number of defects.

Source: “Peopleware”, Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister (Dorset House)

Wow! I am pretty sure that even a variance in salary of “only” 30% for the same job is rare, a factor of two is unheard of, and an order of magnitude is a feverish dream. And yet the performance of people you hire will probably vary by that much.

I originally had planned to continue with a long comment on what that means for the industry, for people who hire developers, and of course for the developers themselves. I am going to cut this short by simply suggesting a few things to employers and developers.

To employers

Keep the described facts in mind when you hire people. If you pay attention to quality even a larger difference in price is easily offset by substantially larger productivity – scientific research has proven that this is the case.

Think about how to interview for quality aspects. Comparing keywords or checking for certifications will not be enough, or will be even misleading. What does it mean if somebody says “I know Java”? What is their approach to programming? How would they define “good code”? How do they ensure they are a good programmer? What books do they read? What does the customer say about there work?

Regarding certifications: Certifications are mostly about being able to recall fact knowledge, and say nothing about practical experience and craftsmanship. In my personal opinion certifications mostly ensure that you looked into all corners of a specification, that you have seen the whole thing.

Taking Java as an example: It is good to know that you have Collections, Sets, Lists, and Maps in various implementations to your disposal. On the other hand, why would I need to know whether class Foo resides in package java.foo or javax.foo – it is completely sufficient that my IDE knows, or that I know where to look. That kind of knowledge doesn’t give anyone an edge over others, while practical experience in a number of different projects really does.

To developers

Highlight not only the technologies you have mastered, but also the quality of your work and your personal traits. Explain your approach to implementing a solution, what you value in good software, the books and publications you read to stay up to date and to develop your skills.

Provide some customer references that highlight your craftsmanship, that you write well structured, easy to understand, working code that comes with a high level documentation, that you are creative, innovative, professional, self-motivated, a team worker, easy to get along with.

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