What is cycle time in software development?

Cycle time in software development measures the amount of time it takes for work to move from the start of a process to its completion. It tracks the duration from when a development task begins to when it is fully completed and ready for delivery. This metric is crucial for understanding how quickly and efficiently a team can produce new features or fixes.  

Understanding cycle time helps teams identify bottlenecks in their development process and provides insights into their operational efficiency. It’s a key performance indicator (KPI) that can signal the health of software development practices within an organization, showing how agile and responsive a team is to changes and demands.

This is part of a series of articles about developer experience.

The impact of high cycle time

High cycle time in software development can correlate with the following risks: 

  • Compromised code quality: As projects stretch beyond their intended timelines, developers face pressure to speed up completion, often at the expense of thorough testing and quality assurance. This can lead to overlooked errors, insufficiently tested features, and a product that falls short of standards. Longer cycle times also disrupt the feedback loop between developers and testers or end-users.
  • Delivery issues: As tasks spill over from one sprint to another without completion, the cumulative delay affects the overall project timeline. This disrupts planned release schedules and impacts the ability of a team to commit to future work. The constant reshuffling and prioritization of tasks can erode stakeholder trust and diminish the perceived reliability of the development team.  
  • Negative employee experience: When developers are forced to juggle multiple tasks that are in various stages of completion, the constant shifting of focus results in a decrease in the quality of work and an increase in stress levels. This environment fosters a culture of urgency over importance, where short-term deadlines overshadow the broader vision for the project, leading to burnout and dissatisfaction among team members.  

Benefits of calculating cycle time 

It’s important for organizations to understand the cycle times of their development teams for several reasons:

  • Measuring efficiency: It provides a quantitative measure of how quickly tasks move from initiation to completion, identifying the average speed of the development process. This reveals areas where the process is efficient and where it lags, enabling targeted improvements. It also helps set realistic expectations for project timelines.
  • Identifying areas of improvement: By identifying stages that consistently cause delays, teams can focus on simplifying these areas to improve the overall workflow. Underlying issues could include inadequate tooling, insufficient resources, or gaps in skills. Addressing these problems accelerates development and enhances output quality.
  • Demonstrating productivity: Cycle time directly reflects the productivity of a software development team by showing how much work they can complete within a given timeframe. A lower cycle time indicates that tasks are being completed quickly and efficiently, signaling high productivity levels. This helps managers and stakeholders understand the team’s capacity to deliver work, making it easier to plan projects. 

Related content: Read our guide to developer productivity

Software development cycle time calculation

To accurately gauge cycle time in software development, a straightforward formula is used: 

Cycle Time = Release Time – First Commit Time

This equation helps determine the duration from the initial code commit to when the code is successfully deployed and made available for use. 

Breaking down the cycle into distinct phases provides an even finer understanding of where time is spent within the development lifecycle. These phases include coding time, pickup time, review time, and deployment time. Each phase represents a segment of work—from starting code changes to getting those changes reviewed and finally deploying them to production. By analyzing these segments individually, teams can more easily find areas for improvement.  

Key factors that cause high cycle time 

To avoid excessive project delays, organizations must understand the main factors that contribute to higher cycle times.

Large pull requests

Large pull requests (PRs) delay the review process. When developers accumulate too many changes into a single PR, it takes longer to prepare and open, becoming a burden for reviewers. The complexity and volume of changes increase the likelihood of oversight and errors, requiring more time for thorough examination. 

Insufficient expertise

Teams with a higher proportion of junior developers or those lacking domain-specific expertise often experience extended cycle times. Junior developers, while eager and capable, may require more time to familiarize themselves with the codebase and best practices, leading to slower coding. Without sufficient expertise, coding and review processes may take longer. 

Lack of documentation

Insufficient documentation can cause delays in understanding and working with the codebase. When developers lack clear guidelines or insights into the system’s architecture, they spend additional time deciphering existing code and functionalities. This slows down the initial coding phase and complicates the process of reviewing changes.

High workloads 

When team members are overwhelmed with tasks, their ability to focus on any single item diminishes. This situation leads to multitasking and frequent context switching, which impact productivity. As a result, the quality of code and the speed of development suffer. A high workload for reviewers also means that pull requests queue up, waiting longer for attention. 

How to improve software development cycle time 

Organizations can implement the following steps to improve their development teams’ cycle times.

1. Optimize the team structure and communication

A well-structured team with clear roles and responsibilities enables more efficient task allocation and execution. By organizing teams around features or services, managers can minimize dependencies and simplify the development process. This accelerates coding and simplifies code review by having dedicated experts familiar with each segment of the project.  

Organizations should also enhance communication within teams. Agile practices such as daily stand-ups, sprint plannings, and retrospectives foster continuous dialogue and collaboration. These practices help identify roadblocks early, clarify requirements, and synchronize priorities. Communication tools like instant messaging platforms and project management software can help speed up resolution of issues. 

2. Set team goals to improve each sprint

By defining specific objectives related to cycle time reduction, teams can focus their efforts on targeted areas of the development process that require optimization. These goals might include reducing the size of pull requests, simplifying the code review process, or enhancing collaboration between developers and testers. 

Establishing these targets encourages accountability and provides a clear direction for continuous process improvement. Tools that track and offer insights into cycle time metrics can help teams identify successful practices and areas needing further refinement. 

3. Simplify the testing process

Introducing automated testing frameworks can significantly decrease the time spent on repetitive testing tasks. Automation ensures that tests are run consistently and swiftly, catching bugs early in the development cycle. This accelerates the validation of new features or fixes, freeing up developers to focus on testing scenarios that require manual attention.  

Adopting a shift-left testing approach can further optimize the process. By integrating testing earlier in the development pipeline, teams can identify and address issues sooner, reducing rework and delays in later stages. 

4. Monitor and analyze team performance

By regularly reviewing cycle time metrics, teams can gain insights into the efficiency of their processes and the impact of changes implemented. This continuous evaluation enables the identification of bottlenecks or inefficiencies that may have been overlooked, allowing for adjustments to workflows or practices.  

Analytics tools can provide detailed breakdowns of cycle phases, helping identify the stages that contribute most to delays. By analyzing these data points in conjunction with project outcomes, teams can establish correlations between cycle time lengths and project success or challenges. This information can then support decision-making and cycle time ongoing optimization.

5. Automate and improve documentation processes

Automating documentation processes can significantly reduce the time developers spend writing and updating documentation, allowing them to focus more on coding and other high-priority tasks. Tools like automatic code documentation generators can extract comments from the codebase and generate comprehensive documentation without manual intervention. These tools ensure that documentation is always up-to-date with the latest code changes, reducing the need for extensive reviews and revisions.

Improving the overall quality and clarity of documentation can also enhance cycle time efficiency. Clear, concise, and well-structured documentation makes it easier for developers to understand existing systems and onboard new team members more quickly. Establishing standardized documentation practices, including templates and guidelines, ensures that all team members contribute to documentation in a consistent manner.

Software documentation for devops teams with Swimm

Swimm’s knowledge management tool for code solves the challenges of documentation for dev teams. By treating software documentation like code, documentation and code are created and maintained together.

  • Teams streamline documentation, sharing knowledge across teams and repositories.
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  • Swimm’s IDE plugins with VS Code and JetBrains make documentation incredibly easy to find – right next to the code that the docs actually relate to.
  • Swimm’s powerful code-coupled editor helps engineers create and edit docs quickly with slash editor commands and all the capabilities of rich text, Markdown, and live code snippets. The editor is available both from Swimm’s Web App and Swimm’s IDE plugins.
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Check out Swimm here and sign up for a demo.