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What Is a Timebox and How Does It Impact Development?

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What Is a Timebox and How Does It Impact Development?
Author: DuploCloud | Thursday, April 20 2023
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Putting time boundaries on tasks keeps agile teams moving forward

The image of a perpetually exhausted developer working around the clock is a pretty common stereotype. However, while long days are not unheard of, recent data shows that most developers work fairly standard hours — about 42 per week on average in the US (compare that to 66 hours per week for attorneys at large firms). Achieving this level of efficiency can at least in part be attributed to the adoption of agile project management by the industry. As the development cycle for cloud-native applications gets shorter, developer teams are adapting their processes for frequent iteration and effective time management, which includes using timeboxes. 

But what is a timebox, and why is it beneficial to developers? Read on to learn more about the role timeboxing plays in project management.

Jump to a section…

What Is a Timebox?

A Brief History of Timeboxing

Timeboxing vs. Time Blocking

What Is Timeboxing in Project Management

Benefits of Using Timeboxes in Development

Improved Focus

Effective Communication

Faster Time to Market

Better Outcomes for End Users

Work Smarter with DuploCloud

What Is a Timebox?

A timebox is a set amount of time allotted to complete a specific task. Timeboxes are typically used to break down long-term projects into manageable chunks and encourage focus and attention. The goal is to finish the task in the allotted time, but once the timebox runs out, the team will pause to evaluate their progress regardless of whether or not the task is completed. The exact timebox schedule varies from team to team and from project to project. If someone is working under a tight deadline, the timebox period may only be one day, or the timebox can span several weeks if a more time-consuming task is at hand. 

A variety of disciplines, from product marketing to human resources, use some version of the timebox technique to move projects forward, but timeboxing has its origins in software. In fact, it remains a bedrock behind most modern agile project management tools for developer teams.

A Brief History of Timeboxing

James Martin, author of Rapid Application Development, is credited with being the first to use the term. His reasoning for placing a time limit on tasks is based on Parkinson’s law, which is based on yet another book — a philosophical doctrine of sorts by naval historian C. Northcote Parkinson. Parkinson developed a theory that any existing work will expand into the time allotted to it. In other words, he observed that if someone is given a month to complete a project, they will stretch the task out until the end of the month, even though they could have easily achieved it in half the time. 

Martin saw Parkinson’s law as particularly relevant to software development because of what he and his peers in the late 1980s identified as failures in the waterfall model — a linear project workflow where different stages of the project move sequentially from one team to the next. Software development processes were slow-going at the time, and because there was little communication between the teams responsible for various stages, errors could easily make their way through to the end of the development cycle, rendering the entire application useless after months of work. 

Understandably, many developers took issue with this approach, and Martin and others worked toward a new model for creating software, which they referred to as rapid application development (RAD). This new model allowed for an interactive, iterative approach, where teams worked in short bursts of time and in constant communication with each other and their stakeholders. Timebox development came about as a way to tamp down on inefficiency and help developers stick with one task at a time. The results could then be evaluated and improved upon immediately versus waiting until the solution is ready to test for errors. 

Timeboxing vs. Time Blocking 

Time blocking is a popular productivity method that gets a lot of attention, but it is not to be confused with timeboxing. Time blocking refers to setting aside a certain period of time to accomplish something (for example, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. can be used as a ‘meeting block’ on someone’s schedule, a time dedicated to calls and communication). Timeboxing refers to the amount of time in a specific timebox, meaning the total amount of time someone has to accomplish a task — but one could certainly time block a chunk of their day to put specifically towards a timebox.

What Is Timeboxing in Project Management

Even if you find yourself thinking “How come I’ve never heard of this? What is a timebox?” you’ve likely encountered this project management tool under a different name. Sprints, used by scrum teams, are a variation of a timebox. Sprint length tends to be predetermined — always being two weeks, for example — and does not vary by project, but conceptually they’re aligned with timeboxes. Technology companies as diverse as Dropbox, Doordash, Amazon, and Spotify use sprints and other timeboxing techniques to iterate and ship updates quickly.  

Benefits of Using Timeboxes in Development 

Improved Focus

Human brains are not made for multitasking, and no one knows that better than developers. Writing code requires an enormous amount of concentration that can only be sustained for a limited period of time. Working in batches via a timebox helps DevOps teams maintain their focus and be fully present. On the flipside, timeboxing can be better for developers’ work-life balance because moving from one timeboxed task to another provides built-in boundaries to protect time for things outside of work. 

Effective Communication

As with all agile project management tools, the main goal of timeboxing is efficiency, and improved communication is a significant part of that equation. Working together closely for concentrated periods of time makes it easier for teams to listen to feedback and create a sense of camaraderie. This leads to better team culture and a stronger end product. Timeboxes also force teams to all have their attention on the same thing at the same time, which greatly improves communication efforts.

Faster Time to Market 

It’s hard to fully answer the question “What is a timebox?” without mentioning time to market. Teams that use timeboxes can put a clamp on any time-wasting or non-essential activities, resulting in a faster work pace and a speedier time to market. That means automating some tasks so developers can focus on building unique code versus re-creating basic architecture. Luckily, there are a plethora of automation tools on the market, but using a no-code/low-code platform is by far the easiest way to get built-in security features and meet compliance requirements. You can learn more about how no-code/low-code platforms can help teams maintain manageable project schedules in this whitepaper.

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Better Outcomes for End Users

Timeboxed periods usually end with evaluations and feedback, which naturally leads to iteration and improvement. If the task was not completed in the allotted time, teams have the opportunity to discuss what their pain points were and brainstorm solutions so they can adjust workflow processes and complete the required milestones in the next timebox. Because there is a constant focus on improvement, timeboxing tasks results in better solutions.

Work Smarter with DuploCloud

Our no-code/low-code platform speeds up deployment by ten times on average and lowers the cost of a standard application lifecycle by 75%. Developers using DuploCloud can use our self-service hub to build, deploy, and manage applications with out-of-the-box compliance protocols already in place. Reach out to schedule a demo.

Author: DuploCloud | Thursday, April 20 2023
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