Recently I have been asked by several customer organizations to help them to understand how to account for the expense of agile software development. In particular, incremental delivery of solutions into production or the marketplace seem to be causing confusion with the financial people within these organizations. The details of accounting rules vary between countries, but the fundamentals are common. In order to get properly account for the costs incurred by software development teams you need to keep track of the amount of work performed and the type of work performed to develop a given solution. Time tracking doesn't have to be complex: at one customer developers spend less than five minutes a week capturing such information.
Why is Time Tracking Potentially Valuable?
There are several financial issues to be aware of:
- Capitalization. For public companies capital expenses (CapEx) can potentially boost book value through the increase in assets (in this case a software-based solution) and increase in net income (due to lower operating expenses that year). On the other hand, operational expenses (OpEx) are accounted for in the year that they occur and thereby reduce net income which in turn reduces your organization's taxes for that year.
- Matching. One of the goals of good accounting is to accurately reflect the net income of the enterprise and to prevent income manipulation or "smoothing". As such a key tenet is the principle of matching revenues with the appropriate expenses. For software this means that we expense the cost of the software over the lifetime of the asset against the income at that time. An implication of this is that capitalizing software development, when appropriate, before the software goes into production clearly violates the matching principle since there is no benefit of the asset until such time.
- Tax Credits. In some countries you can even get tax credits for forms of software development that are research and development (R&D) in nature.
The point is that the way that a software developer's work is accounted for can have a non-trivial impact upon your organization's financial position.
What Do Agilists Think of Time Tracking?
So, I thought I'd run a simple test. Last week on LinkedIn's Agile and Lean Software Development group I ran a poll to see what people thought about time tracking. The poll provided five options (a limitation of LinkedIn Polls) to choose from:
- Yes, this is a valuable activity (33% of responses)
- Yes, this is a waste of time (39% of responses)
- No, but we're thinking about doing so (2% of responses)
- No, we've never considered this (18% of responses)
- I don't understand what you're asking (5% of responses, one of which was mine so that I could test the poll)
The poll results reveal that we have a long way to go. Of the people inputting their time more of them believed it was a waste of time than understood it to be a valuable activity. When you stop and think about it, the investment of five minutes a week to track your time could potentially save or even earn your organization many hundreds of dollars. Looking at it from a dollar per minute point of view, it could be the highest value activity that a developer performs in a given week.
The discussion that ensued regarding the poll was truly interesting. Although there were several positive postings, and several neutral ones, many more were negative when it came to time tracking. Some comments that stood out for me included:
- It's a colossal waste of time unless you're billing a customer by the hour.
- We record time spent on new development work (as distinct from other tasks such as bug fixing in legacy code and so on) as this is capitalised as an asset and depreciated.
- I think the *most* pointless example was where the managers told us what we should be putting in.
- One day we will move past the "just do it" mentality and have some meaningful conversations and the reasons for what we do.
- In my experience time tracking is a massive waste... of time. It's a poor substitute for management.
- Why do you need to know more than the info available through Sprint Backlog, Sprint burndown and the daily standup?
- Some of my teams (I am SM for three teams) are skeptical about this. They do not think that keeping track of task hours this way will be any more useful than the daily standup reports. And they do not believe that Management can resist the temptation to use task hours as a measure.
I think that there are several interesting implications from this discussion:
- Agilists need to become more enterprise aware. It's clear to be really effective that agile delivery teams need a better understanding of the bigger picture, including mundane things such as tax implications of what they're doing. In Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD) this is something that we refer to as being enterprise aware. There's far more to enterprise awareness than understanding pertinent accounting principles, for interest disciplined agile teams work towards a common technology roadmap and common business roadmap, but appreciating why time tracking is a potentially valuable activity would be a good start.
- Management needs to communicate better. It's also clear that management needs to communicate more effectively regarding why they're asking people to track their time. To be fair, management themselves might not be aware of the tax implications themselves so may not be making effective use of the time data they're asking for.
- Management needs to govern more effectively. Several people were clearly concerned about how management was going to use the time data (by definition they are measures) which could be a symptom of both poor communication as well as poor governance (unfortunately many developers have experiences where measures have been used against them, a failure of governance, and no longer trust their management teams to do the right thing as a result).
- Time tracking should be streamlined. It was obvious from the conversation that several people worked in organizations where the time tracking effort had gotten completely out of hand. Spending 5 minutes a week is ok, and to be quite blunt should be more than sufficient, but spending fifteen minutes or more a day doing so is far too much. Over the years I've helped organizations design measurement programs and I've seen a lot of well-intention efforts become incredibly onerous and expensive for the people they were inflicted upon. I suspect it's time for a reality check in some of these organizations people were alluding to. A good heuristic is that for any measurement you should be able to indicate the real cost of collecting it, the use(s) that the information is being put to, and the value resulting from those uses. If you can't quickly and coherently do that then you need to take a hard look at why you continue to collect that metric. The lament "we might need it one day" is a symptom that you're wasting time and money.
- Agile rhetoric is getting in the way. Some of the team-focused agile practices, such as burndown charts (or better yet ranged burndown charts) and stand up meetings may be preventing people from becoming enterprise aware because they believe that all of their management needs are being met by them.
- You may be missing out on the benefits of time tracking. Many organizations are potentially leaving money on the table by not being aware of the implications of how to expense software development.
Disciplined agilists are enterprise aware. This is important for two reasons: First, you want to optimize your organizational whole instead of sub-optimize on project-related efforts; second, you can completely miss opportunities to add real value for your organization. In the anecdote I provided it was clear that many agile developers believe that an activity such as time tracking is a waste when that clearly doesn't have to be the case. Worse yet, although someone brought up the issues around capitalizing software development expenses early in the conversation a group of very smart and very experienced people still missed this easy opportunity to see how they could add value to their organization.
Granted, time tracking on an agile project team is nowhere near as sexy as topics such as continuous integration (CI), TDD, the definition of done, continous architecture, or many more. But you know what? Although it's a mind-numbingly mundane issue it is still an important one. 'Nuff said (I hope).