Why pull requests aren’t a true measure of developer productivity (and what to focus on instead)

Taylor Bruneaux


A pull request (PR) is essential in version control systems, particularly in platforms like GitHub, GitLab, and Bitbucket. Pull requests allow developers to notify team members that they have completed a piece of code that is ready for review and potentially for merging into the main codebase. Understanding pull requests is essential for anyone involved in software development, as they are a crucial part of the collaborative process.

The mechanics of a pull request

A pull request typically involves the following steps:

  1. Forking or cloning the repository: A developer makes a copy of the project repository and sends it to their local machine to work on a new feature or bug fix.
  2. Creating a new branch: They create a new branch in the repository to isolate their changes. A new branch keeps the main codebase stable and free from experimental or incomplete code.
  3. Making changes: The developer writes code, commits the changes to the branch, and pushes the branch to the remote repository.
  4. Opening the pull request: They open a pull request in the remote repo, describing the changes made and requesting that others review the code.
  5. Code review: Team members review the code, provide feedback, and request changes if necessary. This step ensures code quality and consistency.
  6. Merging the pull request: Once the code is approved, it is merged into the main branch, becoming part of the main codebase.

What pull requests tell you about developer productivity

Pull requests offer some basic insights into a development team’s productivity and processes. Here’s how:

Code review efficiency

The time it takes to review and merge a pull request can indicate how efficient and effective your code review process is. A prolonged review process might suggest bottlenecks or insufficient review resources. Conversely, a quick review might indicate an efficient process, but it could also mean that reviews need to be more thorough.

Collaboration and communication

The discussions and comments on pull requests provide a window into the team’s collaboration and communication. Healthy, constructive conversations suggest a collaborative environment. Lack of communication or one-sided discussions might indicate issues in team dynamics or the need for better collaboration tools.

Code quality

Pull requests help maintain high code quality. Frequent comments about the same issues can highlight areas where developers need more training or the codebase could benefit from improved guidelines or tools.

Workload distribution

By examining who is opening and reviewing pull requests, you can gauge the workload distribution among team members. An imbalance might indicate that some developers are overburdened, while others are not fully utilized.

The limitations of pull request metrics

While pull request metrics can provide valuable insights, they have limitations. Over-relying on these metrics can lead to problematic practices like micromanaging or stack-ranking developers based on superficial numbers. Metrics such as lines of code or the number of pull requests created can be misleading and don’t necessarily reflect the quality or impact of the work done.

Pull request metrics can raise awareness about inefficient code review processes, but beyond that, they offer limited value. It’s crucial for leaders to avoid using these metrics for performance reviews or to justify micromanagement.

Focus on developer experience

Improving developer productivity requires a holistic approach. Instead of relying on pull request metrics alone, focus on enhancing the overall developer experience:

  • Streamline processes: Simplify the code review process and remove bottlenecks.
  • Invest in training: Ensure developers have the skills and knowledge they need.
  • Foster collaboration: Encourage open communication and teamwork.
  • Provide the right tools: Equip your team with tools that genuinely enhance productivity, not just measure it.

Enhance your pull request metrics with DX

DX is a cutting-edge developer intelligence platform designed to provide qualitative and quantitative insights into developer productivity and experience. By integrating seamlessly with your existing version control systems, DX enhances your pull request metrics, giving you a comprehensive understanding of your team’s productivity and code quality.

With features like DevEx 360 and Data Cloud, DX tracks pull request throughput and turnaround time and provides deeper insights into the overall developer experience. DX’s real-time feedback mechanisms and comprehensive data integration ensure that every pull request—whether from a feature branch, base branch, or topic branch—is an opportunity to improve the development process and enhance team productivity.

Moreover, DX helps you move beyond superficial metrics like lines of code or the number of pull requests created. DX empowers data-driven decisions by focusing on meaningful metrics that reflect actual developer productivity, such as the quality of code reviews and the efficiency of merging pull requests.

June 20, 2024

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