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Measuring developer coding expertise

February 4th, 2009

A common measure of developer experience is the number of years worked. The only good that can be said about this measure is that it is easy to calculate. Studies of experts in various fields have found that acquiring expertise requires a great deal of deliberate practice (10,000 hours is often quoted at the amount of practice put in by world class experts).

I think that coding expertise is acquired by reading and writing code, but I have little idea of the relative contributions made by reading and writing and whether reading the same code twice count twice or is there a law of diminishing returns on rereading code?

So how much code have developers read and written during their professional lives? Some projects have collected information on the number of ‘delivered’ lines of code written by developers over some time period. How many lines does a developer actually write for every line delivered (some functions may be rewritten several times while others may be deleted without every being making it into a final delivery)? Nobody knows. As for lines of code read, nobody has previously expressed an interest in collecting this kind of information.

Some experiments, involving professional developers, I have run take as their starting point that developer performance improves with practice. Needing some idea of the amount of practice my subjects have had reading and writing code I asked them to tell me how much code they think they have read and written, as well as the number of years they have worked professionally in software development.

The answers given by my subjects were not very convincing:

Amount of code read/written

Estimates of the ratio code read/written varied by more than five to one (the above graph suffers from a saturation problem for lines of code read, I had not provided a tick box that was greater than 250,000). I cannot complain, my subjects volunteered part of their lunch time to take part in an experiment and were asked to answer these questions while being given instructions on what they were being asked to do during the experiment.

I have asked this read/written question a number of times and received answers that exhibit similar amounts of uncertainty and unlikeliness. Thinking about it I’m not sure that giving subjects more time to answer this question would improve the accuracy of the answers. Very few developers monitor their own performance. The only reliable way of answering this question is by monitoring developer’s eye movements as they interact with code for some significant duration of time (preferably weeks).

Unobtrusive eye trackers may not be sufficiently accurate to provide a line-of-code level of resolution and the more accurate head mounted trackers are a bit intrusive. But given their price more discussion on this topic is currently of little value :-(

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