What is cycle time in Software Development?

What is cycle time in Software Development?

Written by David Abram

In the realm of software development, the pursuit of efficiency and speed is an ever-present endeavor. As development teams strive to deliver superior code within compressed timelines, the concept of cycle time emerges as a pivotal metric. Cycle time holds the key to unlocking enhanced productivity and streamlined workflows.

Cycle time in software development refers to the period of time from an engineer's first commit to the deployment of code. It is a measure of a team's efficiency and the ability to deliver working software within a defined time frame. Cycle time is a useful metric that can help leaders get visibility into the speed of each team, the time taken to complete particular projects, and the overall performance of teams compared to each other and against the rest of the organization. It is also an important indicator of business success.

Cycle time is a lagging indicator, which means it confirms patterns that are in progress. This means that cycle time isn't a productivity measurement tool, rather it can be used as a signal of underlying issues within a team. Shorter cycle times mean an optimized software development process and faster time to market. Longer or lengthening cycle times mean there's waste or inefficiencies in the process, and result in delays for customers.

Measuring cycle time for teams can help leaders build a positive team culture and can boost innovation and creativity in engineering teams. Many notable engineering teams, such as Google and Spotify, have achieved remarkable success by optimizing cycle time.

A visual representation of cycle time.

It's important to note that cycle time is not a one-size-fits-all metric. Since the term originates in Lean Manufacturing, where "start" and "end" can be unambiguously defined, it's not always obvious how to apply it to software engineering. Starting at the end of this process, the delivery is in some ways the easiest - the delivery of software is the deployment of production code. However, the beginning of the process is more difficult to define. Some engineering teams might define cycle time as the time between a developer's first commit in a section of code and the deployment of that code, while others will find it more useful to track the time from when a commit was first logged to when it was merged. Ultimately, the goal is to quantify and understand the speed at which an engineering team can deliver working software, so the exact definition of Cycle Time you use is not important, as long as you're consistent across your organization.

To measure cycle time, it's important to start tracking as soon as possible and establish a baseline. Then, by measuring variations in that baseline, you will know how you are doing. For example, if you know your average cycle time for delivering each bug fix is about two days, if there's a sudden spike and the cycle time for bug fixes jumps to eight days, you will know something is not right. In order to pinpoint it, you need to collect the cycle time for the key steps in your process. Once you find out where the problem is, you can investigate that specific task or process and look for a solution.

There are various standard metrics that software development teams use to measure the performance of their development process, including a number of defects, work-in-progress limits, burn rate, story points, and investment distribution. However, none of them reveal a wide range of issues in the development process. Measuring cycle time does. You can also answer other questions about your process using cycle time if you collect the right data. For example, you can find out if your team breaks down stories into small enough increments or if code reviews are picked up quickly, or if there is a wait time.

To summarize, cycle time is an important metric that can help measure and improve an engineering team's speed and efficiency in delivering working software. It is a lagging indicator that can signal underlying issues in a team and is not a one-size-fits-all metric. Measuring cycle time can also help leaders build a positive team culture and boost innovation as well as creativity in engineering teams.