Engineers Struggle with Wasted Time and Technical Debt

Article By : Cabe Atwell

A look at some common time-wasters in the day-to-day life of engineers, including technical debt and external distractions.

Every workplace has its distractions that can dampen productivity, and the engineering sector is no different, no matter the discipline. Emails, text messages, meetings, and social media also play a significant role in wasted time, which makes it challenging to get to the tasks at hand. Add to that technical debt, and it becomes difficult to stay on track of projects and it generates increased costs. According to a report from Stepsize, engineers spend around six hours per week dealing with technical debt, or the amount of time not working toward critical goals. To put that into another perspective — engineers spend roughly 33% working on maintenance and legacy systems, 50% of which is spent on technical debt. As with money debt, if technical debt isn’t paid, it accrues interest, making it tougher to implement changes.

(Image source: Pexels)

The same can be said for external distractions. Depending on the discipline, engineers can waste time chasing parts needed for projects, completing paperwork, waiting for answers from customers, doing work they can’t complete for one reason or another, chatting with colleagues, and taking longer-than-usual breaks. Working from home can also be a distraction, especially while living with family or roommates. All too often, those who live with remote workers feel working from home should grant them access at any time during the workday, even for the most mundane issues. Some have resorted to locking doors to maintain a functioning work schedule without constant and repeated distractions. The problem with being productive in a sea of distractions is that it’s tough to get back on track or even motivated enough to do so.

Data shows that people are more productive working from home and spend more time completing projects, but only when committing to a dedicated block of time for that work and mitigating distractions. (Image source: RescueTime)

Before quarantine was instituted, a study from RescueTime showed that engineers preferred working from home and felt more productive than working from the office. The study found that workers’ productivity rose while working from home and spent less time checking email and chatting with friends and coworkers, but only if they have the tools and systems they need to be efficient. This includes tracking time and the amount of communication (and anything else) being performed during work hours, scheduling dedicated work hours with a focused commitment, and finishing projects on time. Using a time tracker is one of the tools that can help engineers stay focused on work without engaging in needless, unproductive distractions. Most tracking tools can provide percentages and visualizations showing where a worker’s time is being spent throughout the day, allowing them to change habits and improve productivity.

Managing notifications, limiting groups, and setting reminders in team apps are great ways to mitigate distractions while working on projects. (Image source: Slack)

Another way to combat distractions is by helping yourself and claiming time. For example, workers can wear headphones to block out noise — which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re unapproachable from those around them — but instead shows a level of concentration. Placing a phone upside down, placing it out of sight, or setting it on vibrate can also impact the amount of time saved during work hours. Mitigating notifications can add to that time as well. Emails and chat are the most popular tools for business communication and are heavily integrated into our daily work, but there are ways to alter their usage without being distracted. For example, reviewing public channels in apps such as Slack and muting the ones that aren’t necessary can help limit unnecessary distractions. Managing notification preferences and using in-app reminders also work, allowing engineers to remain focused on current tasks. The same can be done with email, including turning off notifications between designated working hours to remain on task.

Of course, time management apps and distraction mitigation have relatively no effect on technical debt, which can slow progress and leave current project development stagnant. Technical debt in itself is a distraction and placing a “Do Not Disturb” sign on an office door won’t make it go away. The Stepsize report shows us that 52% of engineers feel technical debt negatively impacts team morale, 60% think it slows progress, and 66% feel projects could be completed faster if there were a process in place to handle technical debt. Sadly, 66% of companies have no process of managing debt, despite its negative impact on those companies.

Short of hiring a team to handle technical debt, there are ways to keep it under control. Engineers understand there is a right way to do something and a quick way — and while sometimes the quick way is the right way — it always pays to handle the problem during the development phase. Engineers can also keep a backlog to reference any issues should they become a problem down the line, making it easier to pay the debt if it arises. Outdated designs and antiquated tech are other forms of debt, but addressing them in the design phase can be beneficial in the long run.

Knowing how to repair or debug those platforms is beneficial, certainly so for over-engineered designs and the engineers who have to perform maintenance. As it stands, there is no easy solution when it comes to tech debt that doesn’t cost time and money, but it can be managed with moderate to little impact on current projects.

This article was originally published on EE Times.

Cabe Atwell is an electrical engineer living in the Chicago area.


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