Why Context Switching Is the Enemy of Quality in Software Development

When developers constantly shift between projects, it impacts their ability to solve complex problems. Here are the benefits of avoiding context switching.

Context switching, multitasking, task-switching — these are all just different names for the same productivity killer. In its computing origin, “context switching” refers to storing the context around a process or thread in order to interrupt and pause a task so another task can resume. Processing power shifts to the task at hand, but the result can hurt overall system performance. 

In other, simpler words: Juggling competing priorities is never a good idea. If context switching is bad for computers, you can bet it’s even worse for humans, let alone humans performing intensive computational tasks. We’re a lot less capable of handling interruption efficiently, and when we bounce among too many tasks, it results in lost time and reduced productivity. As Ron Swanson said in Parks and Recreation: “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.”

Consider a software developer, for instance, who is completely in the zone and thinking through complicated problems in code. Suddenly, her manager shows up at her desk (or to align with today’s reality, in her Slack messages), and asks her to join an impromptu huddle for a new product idea. The developer has to switch out of code problem-solving mode and into collaboration mode, losing focus and time in the process. Each time a developer has to make such a shift, productivity plummets that much more.

Even switching between just two projects in a day (and who hasn’t done that?) reduces overall productivity by 20%. Add in another project, and that lost productivity time rises to 40%. That can add up to a huge loss of available working time as days turn into weeks. And yet, many custom software development companies still assign developers to multiple projects at once. So before choosing your software development partner, learn how the team operates. It’s crucial context, if you will, for finding the right match.

How We’ve Switched It Up

As enterprise companies prioritize digital transformation and innovation endeavors in an attempt to remain competitive, they put a greater demand on often limited and overworked resources. Many enterprise companies have either evolved to become software companies in short order to stay afloat or have jumped hastily into software developer partnerships without doing their research. What enterprises need to understand before they try making solutions in-house or outsource this task, however, is that teams can only be as productive as their work culture allows. That’s right: The root cause of reduced productivity is culture.

Overloading developers with more work than they can effectively manage just grinds productivity to a halt, causes missed deadlines, and contributes to significant developer burnout. Instead, developers need the space to think through solutions and innovations without disruption. 

At Synapse, we foster an engineering-led culture that drives everything we do. We support this culture by optimizing internal processes to reduce context switching and nurturing an environment in which innovation thrives. We strive for efficiency and noise reduction in our communication. Whenever possible, we also use asynchronous communication to free individual project contributors from being tied to calendars full of planned disruptions, allowing instead for deep focus and effective time management.

Additionally, we limit individuals’ project commitments to as few as possible, typically only a single project at a time. Yes, just one. Though many agencies dedicate developers to multiple projects in order to bill more time to more clients, we’ve found this comes at too great a cost to our team members and client outcomes to justify any short-term financial benefits. Without an engineering-oriented culture that values focus above all else, developers can’t find the space for the innovative thinking and problem-solving capabilities that high-quality results require.

3 Benefits of Less Context Switching

When seeking out a custom software development partner, finding one that minimizes context switching can yield these benefits:

1. Higher ROI: When developers can devote more attention to the project, you’ll get more value from your software development partnership. It’s just plain math: The fewer projects and tasks assigned to developers in a day, the more working hours they’ll have available to complete high-value work on the project at hand. Reducing context switching directly bolsters your project’s bottom line.

2. Higher-quality code: The less context switching a developer is required to do in a day, the more room they’ll have for highly technical output, and the higher the quality of their work. This is critical in custom software development because it increases the productivity of the entire engineering team as a result. The higher the work’s quality, the easier it is to manage and develop on, ensuring things can change and flex as needed. In software development, quality is king — and the best way to bake quality into every stage of development is to ensure an environment of limited disruptions and an emphasis on focus and exceptional time management. 

3. Happier developers: Developers want to feel productive and challenged, and those who find themselves context switching less often are more efficient and therefore happier in their work. As a result, they avoid burnout and stay longer at the software development agency, growing in value to the team — and to clients — as they accrue domain expertise over time. 

At Synapse, our developers and team members are happier to work on one project at a time, and that single-project focus gives our clients the most bang for their buck. Plus, it allows us to truly dig in deep, empathize with the customer and end user, and build the foundation for long-standing, mutually beneficial partnerships with our clients. It’s a win-win all around.

Kim Stearns
Kim Stearns
Director of Product
Kim Stearns is the Director of Product Management at Synapse Studios. She oversees the product management and UX teams at Synapse Studios and has a passion for helping clients to build data-driven products that users love.

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