Software Development

Developer experience: the overlooked secret to value delivery

24 June 2024 • 6 min read

Developer working across multiple screens

Heard the saying “pay peanuts, get monkeys”? Bear that in mind when it comes to your developer experience.

We’re not talking money in this context (though keeping up with the market will help) - we’re talking about the day-to-day work-life you’re offering your people. Treat your developers like they’re “just coders” taking orders on an assembly line; you’ll get low productivity, little creativity and outputs littered with clumsy errors. And that’s best case - worst being that they step out of the line altogether to join your competitor.

On the flip side, if you can make the developer experience (DX) a great one? You’ll be getting gold, and you can pay that forward to happy customers. As a veteran developer, Paolo Brunasti has watched DX evolve over the last three decades - and seen first-hand the knock-on effect every chapter has had on businesses. In this blog, he explains what good should look like, and why it’s the win/win edge to get you to market faster.

What is the developer experience?


Just like your customer experience is built on every interaction customers have with your brand, the developer experience is the sum of every interaction with your tech ecosystem. Put simply, how effectively (and enjoyably) can developers do what they need to do, within the environment you’ve created? The answer to that relies on elements like:

  • Your tools and interfaces: How intuitive are they to set up and use day-to-day?
  • Your resources: Are your processes and frameworks accessible and well-documented, so a developer can get up to speed quickly?
  • Your environment: Are developers empowered to own their tools and technology, and customise it to their specific needs?

The art of building software is a bit like a precarious house of cards. With easy to navigate documentation, high-quality frameworks and user-friendly tools, the builder can stay focused and keep adding layers. But make any element of the build difficult or frustrating to navigate, and the critical balance is lost to distraction. The cards come crumbling down. 


The developer experience: What does good and bad look like?

At the core of a great developer experience is empowerment, inclusion and ownership. We’ve moved on from the days of handing out instructions and expecting developers to churn out code on demand, like printers translating word docs into ink. Your people want to be treated as just that - people. Not technical tools at your disposal. Get to know them, understand the strengths, ambitions and fears that drive them, and build that empathy into decisions that impact them. Give developers greater involvement in the decisions that come before they build; harness their invaluable insights in product strategy, and let them contribute to the direction of a product they’ll come to know inside-out.

That sense of purpose you create is at the heart of developer fulfilment, but the experience has to be anchored by solid housekeeping and great communication. Your documentation and processes must be easy to find and follow, your onboarding must be well-planned and efficient, and your tools need to perform well every time. Most critically, to enter the flow-state, your developers need to understand explicitly what’s expected of them. Which leads us into the bad…

Ambiguity is the enemy of great DX. It’s bad for your developers, it’s bad for your business and it ultimately impacts how quickly you can get to market. It’s rarely a conscious action, but lack of communication and clear decision-making from leaders leaves developers on the back foot. Unclear or unfinished briefs leave areas open to interpretation, and lack of regular check-ins mean features can be taken too far in the wrong direction, without the developer ever being at fault. Taking one step forward and two steps back is a waste of time and money, but critically for your developers, it’s completely demoralising. 

Leaders must build guardrails to protect their developer time and business goals. Provide clear and detailed briefs, validated with developers as early as possible to iron out unintentional ambiguity. Then strike the balance of ownership: give your developers room to grow and solve problems in an agile environment, but build in continuous feedback loops to keep the journey moving in the expected direction. 

How does the developer experience impact your business and customers?


No matter what level or role you’re in, you’ve experienced the ripple effect of your work environment. The same goes for DX. When developers feel empowered and valued, they care about the project they’re owning and take pride in it as a reflection of themselves. Inclusion in the bigger picture empowers them to go above and beyond in anticipating customer needs, because they know how much it matters. Great house-keeping allows them to enter the flow state, without distraction from poor tooling or incomplete processes. This well-balanced ecosystem adds up to more innovative solutions, faster delivery times and superior products that directly enhance the customer experience.

And those benefits aren’t just anecdotes from my own thirty years, they’re backed by Forrester’s extensive network. In this Opportunity Snapshot report, 74% of survey respondents said great DX enhances productivity, 77% said it reduces time to market and a whopping 85% said it boosts customer satisfaction. That last one is the kicker for a lot of businesses. It can be easy to overlook less-than-satisfied teams when you hold the mindset that work should be “work”. But when you realise how closely the developer experience impacts your customers; how quickly, creatively and accurately their problems can be solved; it’s impossible to keep ignoring. 

So why do leaders continue to overlook the developer experience? In my experience, it’s the short-term mindset the market has forced businesses into. And I get it, if you’re up against stiff competition and reaching your revenue targets this quarter, you really don’t have time to unpick DX issues and go right back to basics. It can feel easier to kick the can down the road until there’s room to breathe, but that cost is ultimately going to catch up with you later.

Because bad DX is costing you. Product development typically consumes 63% of a project’s budget, and optimising that majority is make or break for CTOs. Bad DX is costing you talented developers in the first instance; because unhappy, undervalued people don’t stick around, no matter how good their salary is. Recruiting and then taking new hires through the same process - the bad onboarding, the frustrating learning curve, the unintuitive tooling - is going to keep ending up with the same outcome, costing you time and money in the process.

Unengaged developers make more mistakes, poor processes leave them burnt out and unproductive, and a lack of empowerment means creativity is almost impossible to achieve. This means increased technical debt, costly rework and lacklustre products getting to your customers, later than planned.

You can’t afford to overlook the developer experience


Happy teams build better products faster, which ultimately leads to happier customers and positive revenue numbers. Meanwhile; undervalued, frustrated teams produce lower-quality results, while the cost of rework, delays and technical debt rack up in the background. And that’s not accounting for the opportunity cost of being beaten to market by competitors who are empowering their developers. So while it may feel like you can’t afford to look at your developer experience right now, the truth is; you can’t afford not to. 

So start small if you must, but start building an experience that unlocks your developers' full potential. Prioritise continuous communication and including your developers in the bigger picture. Help them understand the value they’re creating in that picture, and give them ownership to feel pride in the work they’re doing. 

Improving and upgrading documentation and tooling can be done incrementally - aim to focus on one goal per quarter. Then watch as developer enthusiasm and creativity starts translating into better products and faster time-to-market. After that, I guarantee prioritising DX won't feel like a luxury anymore - it'll be your biggest competitive advantage.



Software Development

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