Volume 2023, Number March (2023), Pages 1-5
Innovation Leaders: A Conversation with Daniel Russo: The future of work for software developers
Ubiquity's senior editor Dr. Bushra Anjum chats with Daniel Russo, an associate professor at Aalborg University in Copenhagen, about the future of work for software developers. They discuss the longitudinal studies Dr. Russo and his team have performed to monitor software developers' productivity and well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic. Further, the conversation focuses on what kind of hybrid work environment is a better fit for software developers based on the different institutional, work, and personal preferences.
Daniel Russo, Ph.D., is currently serving as an associate professor in the Computer Science Department at Aalborg University in Copenhagen. Before joining Aalborg University, he was a postdoc in the Computer Science Department at the University College Cork, after a Ph.D. in computer science and engineering at the University of Bologna. He performed several studies on the pandemic transformation, agile software development, diversity and inclusion, and research methodologies, collaborating with large professional organizations, defense agencies, and multinational banking institutions. In his career, he achieved success in various PI roles and collaborated to collect approximately one million euros in research funds. In addition, Russo authored more than 40 journal, conference, and book chapter articles in peer-reviewed venues and received several honors for his early career achievements. He can be reached via danielDOTrussoATcsDOTaauDOTdk and at Twitter @danielrusso88.
What is your big concern about the future of computing to which you are dedicating yourself?
We live in a world where the COVID-19 pandemic profoundly shaped our lifestyles, professional ambitions, and perceptions. This shift also affected software professionals and the way we are engineering software. Recent surveys show that computing professionals prefer remote or hybrid work (a mix of remote and in-office) environments. Such evidence, however, leads to both coordination and communication issues of unprecedented nature: how to manage the different degrees of coordination and team alignment with the different expectations of virtual work.
To address this compelling issue, software companies are already experimenting with a spectrum of hybrid work approaches. These approaches are influenced by various entities such as society (which can enforce, e.g., generalize lockdowns), organizations (depending on the management culture), teams (which decide collectively what is best for them), and individuals (who express personal preferences). At the same time, as we move towards hybrid workspaces, several new questions are raised. For example, how is Scrum still a fit in a hybrid organization? How do we ensure knowledge sharing? What changes in infrastructure are needed by the organization?
I have performed various studies with my team where we monitored software developers' productivity and well-being during the pandemic in a longitudinal fashion. The results are quite interesting. Professionals manage to adjust reasonably well to working from home in a lockdown while keeping our productivity levels stable. However, we also noticed that a prolonged period of detachment from colleagues and the physical work environment might be a potential future trigger for mental illness.1
Thus, in the future, we would like to understand what kind of hybrid work environment is a better fit for software developers based on the different institutional, work, and personal preferences.
How did you get interested in studying productivity versus well-being as the pandemic hit?
When the pandemic started to spread around the world, I was at home, locked down, like anyone else. As a trained paramedic, I felt a sense of duty to do my part. Unfortunately, I have not stepped in an ambulance in the last ten years, so the likelihood of harming rather than helping someone was very high. Thus, I started contributing to the community in the way I knew best: by doing research.
At first, there were no references to the effect of a global lockdown on a professional community. There have been some localized studies of people coping in a lockdown, but it was not generalizable to COVID-19 for its extensive impact. Consequently, I reached out to some colleagues with a complementary background in social psychology, human computing interaction, and a remote worker trainer to join in this research journey. Thus, we started an exploratory study using a longitudinal design. After recruiting 200 developers globally, we were first concerned with finding out which social, psychological, and physiological variables were most impactful on the well-being and productivity of software engineers. After identifying the 15 most relevant variables, we monitored those throughout the lockdown and were able to provide tailored recommendations for both developers and organizations. For interested audiences, you can find our findings at www.danielrusso.org/research/pandemic-transformation.
As I look back at my journey, I have always been a curious person with many interests. Since childhood, I have been fascinated by health sciences, so I became a paramedic at 18. At the same time, I love natural and technical sciences too, which is why I chose to attend a science-focused high school. My curiosity about the underlying mechanisms of our society led me to study social sciences to have a broad perspective on problems. However, the call to technical science was eventually too strong, which is why I enrolled in a Ph.D. program in computer science and engineering. There, I focused on the socio-technical aspects of the software discipline. Overall, I consider this research domain highly relevant as we live in an increasingly diverse world, with different people contributing to the pervasiveness of software.
How do you plan to continue working and investing in the socio-technical aspects of our workforce?
Currently, I'm trying to figure out what the "future of work" looks like in the tech industry. What the "new normal" will look like? Software engineers enjoy the autonomy of working from home and prioritize work-life balance. However, there is also an increasing "fear of missing out." A roadmap of this line of research has been recently published on IEEE Software.2
It is safe to say that we will not return to pre-COVID times regarding workplace practices. From the data of our two-year-long longitudinal investigation focused on the impact of Covid measures on developers, it emerges that 85% of our informants reported positive sentiments toward hybrid work and reported comparable productivity at home as compared to the office. Surveyed developers report that this will be a win-win case for both organizations and developers as it would optimize resources and spaces for the former and improve work-life balance for the latter. However, there is also an emerging effort among scholars to understand which work arrangements, and degrees of coordination, work best for whom. For example, a testing team with well-defined tasks might require less coordination and is more likely to operate successfully virtually than a team working closer to the customers' needs and having fluid work requirements.
My research plan for the following years is to focus on this direction, i.e., starting from the individual's perspective (personal and professional preferences, work-life balance, etc.), I will investigate its impact on team-related aspects (such as coordination) and ultimately, the impact on overall organizational performance. This will enable our team to make recommendations on which work arrangements work best for whom and under which conditions. If you also think that this research topic is of importance for our future and you see some interesting angles of collaboration, please let me know. Similarly, if you are looking for a Ph.D. or academic position in Copenhagen, the most livable city in the world, write me at danielDOTrussoATcsDOTaauDOTdk.
Bushra Anjum, Ph.D., is a health IT data specialist currently working as the Senior Analytics Manager at the San Francisco based health tech firm Doximity. Aimed at creating HIPAA secure tools for clinicians, she leads a team of analysts, scientists, and engineers working on product and client-facing analytics. Formerly a Fulbright scholar from Pakistan, Dr. Anjum served in academia (both in Pakistan and the USA) for many years before joining the tech industry. A keen enthusiast of promoting diversity in the STEM fields, her volunteer activities, among others, involve being a senior editor for ACM Ubiquity and the Standing Committee's Chair for ACM-W global leadership. She can be contacted via the contact page bushraanjum.info/contact or via Twitter @DrBushraAnjum.
2023 Copyright held by the Owner/Author.
The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2023 ACM, Inc.