Unmeasurable Costs and Benefits

One major reason standard advice about “demonstrating value (or impact)” does not work well for foundational software, including (but not only) open-source library code.

Assumed audience: Software developers and managers thinking about the costs and benefits of foundational ecosystem maintenance—riffing in particular on this post by Graydon Hoare (which you should read first).

Graydon Hoare wrote a good post a few months ago about the importance of companies actually funding maintenance of foundational open source software (though much of it also applies to non-open source foundational software!), and it spawned a small discussion on Hacker News today. One of the commenters there suggested a variation on a refrain I have heard more or less non-stop over the past half decade since coming to LinkedIn and joining an infrastructure team whose remit included, to various degrees, open source software contribution and maintenance:

Imo number 1 thing that helps a maintainer on the resume is to say they brought in some number of revenue, and all their bug fixes (especially taking out the fires of the other engineers doing features) saves the company a dollar amount or guaranteed a dollar amount of ARR.

This is a well-intended take, and as I said, it matches up closely with the standard corporate perspective on open source contribution and maintenance. It does not work, though. What follows are two of my comments (1, 2) explaining why it does not work, pulled together and very lightly edited.

The trick is that in many cases the value delivered is invisible and unmeasurable. How do you quantify time saved by not having bugs”? But that is what great maintenance does. Or, the same for time saved by a really well-designed API that makes it easy to do the right thing and harder impossible to do the wrong thing”? Again: not measurable! Just put a number on it” is the kind of facile response I consistently get from too many folks in management when trying to have these kinds of discussions, and the annoying-but-inescapable reality is that it is not always possible to provide a monetary number on the value of this sort of work. Despite that value often very likely netting out in the millions or more every year!

The natural rejoinder is: Well, which is it? You say it cannot be measured and also assert that it’s likely millions of dollars a year!”

This is a totally reasonable response! So let me elaborate a little on how these things can be true at the same time.

  1. Imagine a scenario where there are two versions of an API: one is bug-prone, the other is correct by construction” — you literally cannot call it the wrong way.

  2. Assume that for some percentage of the invalid” versions of the bug-prone API are called, the result is something that ends up going wrong in production and taking 3 developers an hour to resolve. (This kind of level-of-effort is not at all unusual in my experience dealing with on-call at both a mid-sized startup and at the scale of LinkedIn!) Let’s call it 10% to pick a reasonably small number: only 1 out of 10 bad invocations for this API put us here.1

  3. Assume the API is fundamental to some key library (a JS framework you use, for example), so the calls are proportional to the size of the code base. Again, pick a fairly low number: 1 mistaken call every 10,000 lines of code. If we are looking at LinkedIn’s front-end, that puts us on the order of well over 10 of these that actively cause this problem (over a million lines of code with a 0.1% hit” rate and a 10% blows up” rate).

  4. Further take an average developer compensation of $150,000/year. (This is low for big tech, but again, it gives us a useful baseline.) This is ~$75/hour.

Put those together, and you’re talking about 100 incidents × 3 developers × 1 hour/incident × ~$75/hour/developer = $22,500. That’s one repeated bug over the lifetime of the program in question.2 That excludes the other potential business costs there: What happens if that also impacts revenue in some way — say, because it prevents sales, or means lots ad revenue, or results in an SLA violation? What is the cost of the postmortem? What is the opportunity cost of switching to deal with that bug instead of staying focused on some other task?

Add that up across the whole surface area of a codebase — dozens and dozens of bugs, across however many users and lines of code — and you’re talking real money. A million dollars is just 450 of those kinds of bugs with similar blast radius” and occurence rate. This is the kind of rough mental math that leads me to talk about netting out in the millions” benefit-wise. Thus far you could imagine putting a number on it”.

Where it goes wrong is: with the good version of that API, the bug never happens. There is nothing to measure, because our reasoning has to deal entirely in counterfactuals: What would it have cost us if we had a bug in this particular part of the framework?” But you can do that ad infinitum.

More or less every part of a library can be more or less buggy, more or less easy to maintain, more or less amenable to scaling up to meet the needs of an application which uses it, more or less capable of adding new capabilities without requiring you to rewrite it, etc. The part that is impossible to measure is the benefit of all the right” decisions along the way: the bugs you never saw, indeed never even had to think about because the API just made them impossible in the first place.

Nor can you measure this API is easy to use and never breaks my flow” vs. I spend at least a minute looking up the details every time I have to use it… and whoops, now I’m on Reddit because I switched to my browser from my code editor”. Nor can you measure the impact of This API makes me angry” vs. This API makes me actively happy” on velocity. The closest you get are proxy measures like NSAT surveys which tell you how developers feel overall and interviews where you can ask them what their papercuts are; but neither can be translated into dollar values in a meaningful way. And putting on the imprecise number”3 is impossible for these kinds of things, because it is not a matter of precision or imprecision: there is no number.


  1. Lest you think I am gaming these numbers, I have real APIs we really deal with in mind which are so error prone that we deal with bugs like this from that specific API at least once a month, and which usually end up involving a half dozen well-paid engineers and managers. This is an underestimate. ↩︎

  2. Off the top of my head, I can think of half a dozen APIs we use very actively in production which have these kinds of problems. I have eliminated a fair number of them in my tenure, but demonstrating the impact is… well, see above. ↩︎

  3. as a different comment on the Hacker News thread suggests. ↩︎