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Are U.S. programmers slackers?


April 15, 1999
Web posted at: 9:56 a.m. EDT (1356 GMT)

by Thomas Hoffman

NEW YORK (IDG) -- U.S. programmers, their jobs protected by the labor shortage, have become complacent and less productive than their international peers, according to a study of 16,000 information technology professionals in 28 nations.

The study, released here last week, was prepared by researcher Howard Rubin for Meta Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn. Using a standard measure of IT productivity based on the number of lines of code developed by a programmer per year, the study pegged U.S. programmer productivity at an average of 7,700 lines of code, compared with 16,700 lines for non-U.S. programmers.

In other words, the average U.S. IT organization delivers software at "half the rate of the rest of the world," Rubin said.

Part of the problem, said Rubin and IT executives at the briefing, is that many U.S. IT professionals have become "fat and happy" and don't push themselves in a market where corporate earnings are generally strong and the risk of being fired is low. "My programming staff are 9-to-5ers, and complacency is a big problem," said Paul Garrin, CIO at Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck, N.J.

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Garrin said he plans to step up the measurement of IT costs and staff productivity "to light a fire under people and show them where they stand."

Programming expert Ed Yourdon said any drop-off in U.S. programmer productivity is more likely the result of job burnout from putting in 70-hour workweeks to meet business pressures and deliver IT projects faster.

"What I'm seeing are programmers saying, 'To hell with it. I'm tired, I'm frazzled, and I'm not going to push as hard as I used to,'" said Yourdon, chairman of Arlington, Mass.-based research firm Cutter Consortium.

Complacency, Rubin said, is just one of the contributors to the U.S. productivity lag.

Rubin said U.S. programmers are often paid more, educated less and trained less than their foreign counterparts. Another factor in the productivity gap is that U.S. workers are more often pulled away to work on year 2000 projects, he said.

To boost productivity and cut costs, some firms are shifting more development work to offshore software factories in low-wage nations such as India, Ireland and Mexico.

But not all IT executives are sold on offshore programming. Garrin said when Holy Name Hospital off-loaded some of its Cobol programming to an Indian firm in 1992, the software came back buggy, there were language barriers, and he often had to wake up for 2 a.m. teleconferences to bridge the time zones.

One alternative is to tap reusable software components and object technologies to improve software development productivity, said Cathy M. Mattax, an IT director at Fannie Mae in Washington. "Europeans tend to have a more disciplined, engineered approach to software development. I think we can carry some of that philosophy over to the U.S. without making people feel like they're being boxed-in," Mattax said.

Part of the productivity split lies in the different software approaches taken by U.S. and non-U.S. organizations. The European IT units at Morgan Guaranty Trust Co. "lean more on using packaged software than we do in the U.S.," which helps boost the Europeans' overall productivity, said Anthony Hutchings, a vice president at the New York-based investment firm.

There's more in-house software development at U.S. IT units, he said, which often leads to "greater redundancies" in application development among various business units.

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META Group, Inc.
Holy Name Hospital
Research Briefs from Cutter Consortium Consortium
Fannie Mae

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