Think deep work isn't relevant to software engineers? Think again - Uplevel on the productivity impact of distraction culture

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed May 29, 2020
We thought remote work might get us away from workplace distractions - we were wrong. Deep work is an compelling alternative, but hard to protect and scale. Uplevel wants to change that - here's my illustrated review.

(via Uplevel)

Every diginomica author has an enterprise stump speech or two. For my part, I've (mostly) spared our readers from my stance on the differentiating importance of so-called "deep work."

Still, after seven years, this 2013 piece remains my favorite thing I've ever written here: The career-defining consequences of value productivity.

Anyone who writes about deep work has an intellectual debt to Cal Newport, author of a book on the subject (though I prefer his Study Hacks blog). I have my differences with Newport. I think his views are too idealistic for most modern workers, a topic I dissected in Rethinking enterprise productivity - a critique of digital minimalism.

But here's what I didn't expect: to hear from an enterprise software vendor that founded their approach on the value of deep work - and literally embedded the scheduling and protection of deep work into their software. Thus began my dialogue with Uplevel, via a fascinating talk with their CEO Joe Levy.

Now, Uplevel doesn't mention deep work in their web tagline, "Empower your engineers to do their best work. Use data-driven insights to lift your team to their highest potential." And they aren't trying to solve the productivity issues of all modern workers. Their focus is on structuring, protecting and analyzing the deep work needs of software engineers.

That makes sense, when you consider that a perpetually distracted software engineer is not what employers ultimately need - even when they bear the ironic blame for distracting their engineers in the first place, via incessant pings and meetings.

Software engineering productivity versus distraction culture

How big a problem is workplace distraction? Uplevel documented the issues in their 2020 State of Engineering report. Via a survey of 240 U.S. based engineers, Uplevel concluded that even little distractions have big impacts. They cite research from Gloria Mark:

  • An employee has 11 minutes of time to focus between distractions at work
  • After an interruption, it takes 23 minutes to return to the original task

Excessive meetings remain a problem. From the report intro:

  • The average worker attends 15 meetings per week
  • Over 3,000 employees identified the #1 time-waster: “Too many meetings"
  • 65% say meetings prevent work and deep thinking

As for the productivity obstacles facing software engineers, this Uplevel chart lays it out:

Software engineer productivity obstacles - Uplevel

Software engineer productivity graphic via Uplevel's 2020 State of Engineering report. 

What if we accept that workplace interruptions and excessive meetings impact productivity? Uplevel argues that "an effective way to overcome these issues is to make time and space for deep work." So how is deep work defined? Uplevel's take:

Deep work is a two hour period of uninterrupted work, outside of meetings, which notably increases productivity -- and is critical for software engineering teams.

Levy told me that software engineers are often measured by tools that do a poor job of indicating productivity. Sure, measure the number of help tickets processed if you want, or how many lines of code you wrote. Levy isn't buying it:

It would be the equivalent to measuring a painter by the number of gallons of paint they used. And it's not a measure of quality.

It's a problem I see across corporate work: too often, KPI culture measures our performance with the wrong criteria. Just because you can measure it doesn't mean you should - nor should that measurement necessarily become a personal KPI.

And no, our remote workplaces haven't made productivity obstacles easier. If anything, it's heightened the intensity of "ping culture." Whether it's email, text message, Slack or Teams, someone is always pinging us. Levy:

We've given [software engineers] Slack, which is a more jugular way to perhaps pivot your work, but we've also created huge noise at the same time. We haven't given them very good tools.

Uplevel's approach to software engineer productivity - illustrated

How does Uplevel address this problem? No, not by eradicating these intrusive modern tools. That wouldn't be remotely feasible. They do it by managing and structuring deep work in a way that is completely visible to managers and teams.

I really wanted to see this in action. In the past, I've advised individuals to educate their teams and employers on when they take "deep work time," but asking an individual to manage that pro-actively is a difficult ask.

With Uplevel, an engineer or team manager can specifically book time for deep work. Here's a management view:

deep work schedule - Uplevel
(via Uplevel)

Then... Boom!

deep work schedule - Uplevel
(via Uplevel)

But scheduling "deep work" doesn't make it so. The risk of losing that deep work to interruptions remains. Thus see this deep work time notice, complete with Cal Newport quote:

deep work - distraction protection from Uplevel
(via Uplevel)

Levy told me that Uplevel overlays data from common engineering tools like Slack. So if you were interrupted during your deep work session, or got pulled into a situation, that interruption gets tracked. Reporting dashboards provide comparative metrics:

deep work analysis - Uplevel
(via Uplevel)



And how do engineers respond to this tool? Levy:

Right before the session, we will remind them again, "This is your deep work session." That means you go get the headphones, turn off Slack notifications, and go attack that bug for the next two to three hours - and really see what you can get done.

What's been really interesting is: people love it individually, and people really love it as a team sport, because your bigger interruptions tend to come from your immediate colleagues [Snarky editor's note: that's definitely true at diginomica!]. So we get these fun quotes from engineers, like "I was so productive, I didn't know what to do."

The daunting problem with deep corporate work is logistically protecting it at scale. Uplevel is pushing to do that; their customers have development teams ranging from 100 to 10,000. Interestingly, the COVID-19 induced remote work surge has actually made Uplevel's tool more accurate.

The one type of interruption Uplevel couldn't account for and track? Hallway conversations and cubicle visits. Now, good luck tapping your co-worker on the shoulder. Though there is a new issue: children and pets aren't the biggest fans of adult deep work time.

Uplevel is now helping customers with a different challenge: the danger of too much deep work, and too much remote isolation. They encourage customers to structure deep work sessions around social interactions and team activities.

Levy told me about a customer on the east coast - about 800 developers. Their SVP was a bit cautious about the Uplevel rollout, so they sent an announcement about the tool, made a short video on using Uplevel, and said it would be opt-in. Levy:

In his video, he said that the best feature of Uplevel is their ability to really help us with deep work. We know the problem we have in our company is that everyone gets randomized a lot. We're really trying to help people get their focus time back.

Based on that video message, about 150 people signed in immediately, and they were off and running. Levy finds that even when management brings the tool in, engineers respond well. "Protecting your time" is a message that resonates.

My take

I am encouraged by the design and intent behind this solution. I hope to talk to customers down the line, and get further into challenges/benefits.

Tools like these do raise concerns. Put this kind of monitoring power in the hands of a problematic employer; suddenly it becomes more like surveillance than empowerment. I believe much of that can be alleviated by pro-active education. And, perhaps on rare occasions, walking away from a customer that doesn't seem like they will be a good ambassador for what this is about.

Obviously, a U.S.-based survey of 240 engineers is a limited sample size. But I see no reason why this data wouldn't hold up in a larger sample. The encroachment of digital interruption on productivity is everywhere.

I never believe that a software tool, however elegant, can make up for a culture problem. But, the right software can certainly be a catalyst for change. This is a change that helps both individuals and their employees. I believe it has positive implications for the development of IP, not to mention career transformation.

The issue of value productivity versus task productivity applies to just about every job in the modern enterprise. Yes, I'd argue, even salespeople and customer service reps. That's a debate I had with Levy; I'll gladly have it with anyone else who is up for it also. But I understand why Uplevel remains focused on software engineers. That's a worthy demographic to serve, with loads of opportunity in that role alone.

This piece is part of my ongoing diginomica series, Jon Reed on productivity, filtering, and beating the noise.