Why hiring more devs can hurt, instead of help

July 2, 2022
"Ramp up" time means we always pay an onboarding "tax" when adding a team member, which hurts productivity before it helps it.

Your dev team is constantly behind schedule. The backlog is growing at twice the pace you can get through items. And every new item is tagged “Critical”, because some real-life customer is depending on it… yesterday!

What do you do?

A very common, and frankly, understandable, reaction is “hire more devs!” After all, the backlog is growing, and there are more Criticla tickets than devs who can work on them, right?

Unfortunately, this response often, perhaps even usually, makes the problem worse, not better.

But why?

There are many reasons, but let’s start with perhaps the most obvious one: Onboarding time.

In The Mythical Man-Month, author Frederick Brooks calls this “ramp up” time, and it’s the simple idea that, particularly for complex projects such as software engineering, nobody is productive from day one. Often it can take as long as 3 to 6 months before a new hire is able to provide a net positive gain to the productivity of a team.

Some reasons that adding a new person to a team can hurt productivity:

  • Experienced team members must spend time coaching the new teammate, rather than working on product development
  • The new hire’s work typically requires extra inspection time, to ensure it’s up to standards
  • The new hire may actively make mistakes which require correction

Frequently, we try to combat this by assigning “easy tasks” to new hires. On the surface, this may appear to mitigate the problem, but often it just delays the effect, by making it take longer for the new hire to truly get up to speed.

So what’s the alternative? There’s no silver bullet, but here are a few things to consider:

  • Don’t use hiring to solve short-term problems (such as a deadline next month)
  • Identify whether headcount is actually your biggest constraint. (Hint: It rarely is)
  • For the times when hiring is actually necessary, work on continuously improving your onboarding experience (one suggestion)
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