Unplugged for Productivity

A recurringIT mantra of the last dozen years is that the paperless office is roughlyequivalent to Nirvana. In this ideal vision of the future, workflow softwareplaces tasks in your inbox, and completed tasks are shot to your outbox.Managers can insert themselves as assignors and approvers along the way. Connectedis supposed to be equivalent to productive. So when MetaGroup announcedits recent findings that programmer productivity has fallen off sharply, a lotof folks must be scratching their heads. Maybe there is such a thing as beingtoo connected.

TheMetaGroup survey of 6,000 companies shows two trends among programmers. First,the average hours worked has increased to 45 hours per week, up 36 percent froma year ago. Second, programmer productivity is down substantially over the sameperiod. The report attributes the productivity loss to increased product complexityand shorter deadlines. I wonder if there may be a simpler answer. Mostprogrammers have a direct connection to the Internet. I believe that theconstant interruptions and distractions encouraged by the Internet may keepprogrammers from hitting the same stride as a few years ago.

How many ofus have been a worker, or knows a coworker, who transforms into Smith BarneyJr. when using a browser? I remember visiting companies during the creation ofthe Internet stock bubble. It seemed when productivity really started only whenthe closing bell on Wall Street sounded. Thankfully, as the markets returned torationality, so did many obsessed online traders. But online trading is justthe tip of the iceberg for sapping productivity. I believe programmers are atparticular risk.

Softwaredevelopers share a number of attributes that make the Internet an irresistiblelure. Many of the people who program computers to do work are similarlyfascinated by how other things work. Software engineers are drawn to informationlike flies to honey. The only barrier between most engineers and the greatestreference library in existence is a single mouse click. Engineers often usetangential thinking to solve problems, so chasing disparate links on a Web siteis compatible with our thought process. Discovering how DVD compression workswhen we intended to find the parameters of an HTML tag is acceptable and evenenjoyable.

Additionally,developers are more apt than most to try out net-enabled software: newstickers, peer-to-peer clients such as Napster, and instant messaging. Maybe itsour collective penchant for gadgets -- especially the free kind -- that compelsus to install these toys. But by enabling these products we are also enablinginterruptions. Regardless of your job, most productivity experts recommend thatyou check e-mail only three times a day: once in the morning, noon, andevening. Programmers in particular require large blocks of time of intenseconcentration to be effective, so I’d love to hear what these same expertswould say about the abundant interruptions of instant messaging. I believe itcould be these interruptions, rather than the abuse of the Internet, that havethe most damaging effect on coders.

Finally,programmers often work flexible hours on poorly specified tasks. No otherdiscipline has proved so opaque when it comes to estimation and prediction. Theleading player in our field, Microsoft, routinely misses deadlines by years.Adding continuous access to the Internet to the equation makes an alreadydifficult job harder.

Pulling thePlug

How does acompany balance the power of the Internet with the liability of itsdistractions? I’ve personally opted for a simple and drastic solution:disconnecting my network cable. On my workstation, I plug in just a few times aday to retrieve e-mail, transfer files, and do research on the Web. Thesolution is not elegant, but it is effective, netting me much more effectiveworkdays. My solution, however, doesn’t scale well. A more useful solutionwould allow continuous access to required resources -- printers, shared drives,and required Internet addresses -- while filtering the rest of the net. Thefilters could be set to allow full access at company-specified times.

Proxyserver plug-ins such as SurfWatch from SurfControl can provide these features.Many proxy server plug-ins also provide Internet site tracking and logging,which I do not consider a productivity enhancement. Determining when yourcompany resources are available doesn’t raise any privacy issues whileinvisibly tracking your employees’ activities does. Rather than issuing acomplicated Internet policy and relying on each employee to implement it, whynot implement it directly? Do your company and employees a favor and pull theplug on the Internet brain drain. --EricBinary Anderson has led projects at a number of enterprise software companiesand is the senior architect at IBT Financial (Bend, Ore.), an Internet-basedtraining company. Contact him at ebinary@columnist.com.