Causes of Context Switching

Context switching is very expensive and disruptive for engineers. There are two main types of context switching an engineer experiences regularly: interruptions and calendar fragmentation.

Interruptions are typically unplanned or unexpected triggers that cause an engineer to turn their attention to another task which breaks their flow.

Calendar fragmentation is when the required scheduled activities an engineer needs to attend are not organized efficiently on their calendar.

There are many sources of interruptions and calendar fragmentation that engineers deal with on a regular basis.

Interruptions

  • Pages: Incidents can happen at any time and require team members to step in. Even false alerts can distract them from the task that they were doing.
  • Slack/Email/Tap on the shoulder/Etc: Communication during the day can lead to interruptions, especially if the expectation is to be immediately responsive to a message.
  • Slow tooling: If the build, test or other tools they need to accomplish a task are too slow, engineers will generally use the time to do something else, which could take them out of the focused flow state and cost an expensive and potentially longer than intended context switch.

Calendar Fragmentation

  • High Meeting Load / Meeting culture: This is typically one of the biggest causes of low maker time for engineers. There are many reasons why a high meeting culture develops: low accountability environments, unclear decision making processes, lack of trust, high politics, poor meeting hygiene and many other factors can contribute to higher background meeting load.
  • Interview load: High interview load can be caused by unbalanced interviews where not enough people are trained or people are not fairly assigned to interviews. This can also be a deliberate cost of a fast growing team.
  • Lack of deliberate scheduling: As described in the example above, the same total meeting time can be organized in different ways that significantly impacts the total available Maker Time for a person.

Carefully minimizing these two types of context switching categories for your team is an extremely high leverage investment. If you make a meaningful dent, your team will notice and you will have more and more impact. If you don’t, they will give you feedback and eventually either burn out or leave.

Example Metrics

Metrics are useful for trending at the team or organization level

MetricWhen to use
Maker Time PercentageWhat percent of an engineer or team's time consists of uninterrupted 2 hour or longer blocks of time
Friction Time PercentageWhat percent of an engineer or team's time is made up of < 2 hour gaps between meetings that are hard to utilize
Meeting Time PercentageWhat percent of an engineer or team's time is made up of meetings
Interview distributionHow much time is each engineer spending on interviews
After-hour/Working hours PagesHow many pages is the team acting on both during and outside of working hours
Slack support/on-call channel activityHow many requests are comming in on the team's on-call or support channel
Edit this page on GitHub Updated at Tue, May 24, 2022