Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Inefficiency of Gifts and Software Metrics

The Wall Street Journal (12/24/15, “If You’ve Bought No Presents Yet, These Wise Men Applaud You”) reports that from a purely economic point of view, holiday gift giving is a wasteful practice because it reallocates resources inefficiently.  On average, gift receivers would have been willing to spend on themselves only about 70% of the cost of the present that the gift giver has paid, leaving an inefficiency ratio near 30%.   It’s more cost-effective to give cash or gift cards, they argue, because the value of the cash gift is undeniable. To the receiver, the value of x dollars given is exactly x. (Usually.)


Yet, the WSJ continues, not a single economist out of the 54 they interviewed for the article heeded to their own advice.  Every one of them both received and purchased gifts for their loved ones this holiday season.  It seems that despite the challenging hard data opposing presents, the warm feelings of the holiday season take over.


I see this a little differently. Perhaps the 30% economic “inefficiency” can be considered as an emotional surcharge built into the cost of the physical present.  How much more a person is willing to pay for a present, above what the receiver would have paid for it themselves, isn’t necessarily a real inefficiency that requires correction, instead, it’s a measureable attribute of the giver’s current emotional status.  Fluffy emotional stuff like love and guilt sometimes merge with hard data like economic efficiency ratios.


Which brings us to the tricky world of software metrics.


The traditional approach to measuring performance is heavily dependent on quantitative numbers-and-formula-based assessments.  For example, questions like: How many test cases did you write today?  How many bugs did you report?  How many tests did you run?  For how long was the environment down?  typify the hard-data approach to software metrics.  However, there is a hidden inefficiency here, too.


Students of software testing would recognize that quantitative software metrics like the questions above are almost always subject to measurement dysfunction, the idea that when you measure particular aspects with the intention of improving them, they will improve, but only at the detriment of other important aspects that you may not be measuring.  Adding context-driven qualitative measures to a traditional metrics program may help.  Instead of only depending on the numbers, a qualitative system looks for an assessment based on a fuller story.  Having a fuller conversation with the test team may provide a deeper understanding of the projects progress and danger points.


Like gift giving, there is an emotional aspect to software metrics as well.  Pride, fear, anger, despair, overconfidence, the list goes on.  These aren’t inefficiencies, they are expected and a natural part of human endeavor.





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