Measuring productivity losses due to long builds

One of the most rewarding things about programming for me is the immediacy of my work. There’s nothing I enjoy more than making changes that have a real visible impact, and the shorter the time between an idea coming into my head and me seeing the results on screen, the better. I think that’s one of the reasons I always enjoyed graphics programming — there’s such a fast turnaround between making a change to a rendering algorithm and then seeing the results of your labour there on the screen. More recently I’ve enjoyed doing some Windows GUI programming, and with the RAD tools around today there’s a lot of the same fast turnaround buzz.

Of course, not all programming is like this — some areas of code will always be dull to work on. But still, that immediacy for me is a key part of motivation, and in the wider picture, productivity. If you’ve ever started a project from scratch you’ll no doubt remember the excitement of a blank canvas to work with — and a fast turn around on your compiles. Then, ever so slowly, that turn around time fades off into an interminable set of watching-paint-dry sessions as you stare at the compiler and linker.

It needn’t always be so. Proper design, layout and maintenance of your code base using ideas like John Lakos’s, appropriate computer hardware, distributed builds and the like can all help you achieve those long-forgotten 3 second recompiles. But these techniques are not without cost — both in direct financial terms and in programmer time. Like anything with a price tag, trying to argue with your line manager that spending a week of code cleanup and refactoring is worth it or that buying an expensive distributed compiler will give a good return on investment is hard! Especially when line managers are usually more worried about deadline slippage and anything that deviates from the direct path to completion scares them!

But…how bad is it really? How long do you spend each day just twiddling your thumbs, reading Slashdot and Dilbert, and taking extended coffee breaks just to spare yourself the tedium of staring at the output of CL.exe?

At ProFactor we’re working on techniques and technology to help you and your manager make the right decisions about your programming environment: Code layout and style, programming methodology, workstation hardware specification and software.

Like lots of problems though, the first step is admitting you have a problem. To that end we’re developing a tool to monitor and measure your build times, and help you determine whether there is a problem worth spending time and money fixing. I trialled a very early version of the tool at a client and was frankly staggered by how much time per day was spent waiting for the compiler. After showing the results to the client, we were able to spend a day fixing some obvious dependency and makefile issues, and shaved a good 30% off the average time spent per day compiling. A back of the envelope calculation suggests this change alone saved many thousands of pounds per month in wasted time. Not bad for a day’s work, but without the evidence from the build monitor we’d never have been able to justify spending the time working on something not directly involved with completing the project.

BuildMonitor Icon

We’re hoping to release the tool, BuildMonitor, as a free download soon on the ProFactor website and we’re currently looking for beta testers. So if you’re suffering from long build times and want some evidence to show your manager, or you’re just curious as to how long you spend each day, week and month waiting for your compiler, drop me an email at

and I’ll add you to the beta test trial. The beta currently works in Visual Studio 2003 and Visual Studio 2005, but we hope to get a generic ‘build’ wrapper to cover any Windows build system (scons, makefiles etc).

Filed under: Coding
Posted at 10:14:00 BST on 14th August 2006.

About Matt Godbolt

Matt Godbolt is a C++ developer working in Chicago for Aquatic. Follow him on Mastodon.