Estimates – I

If I had to think of one subject that was not taught in school, and only covered in industry certifications in the most naïve way – it would be estimation.

It seems so simple. You figure out what needs to be done, figure out how to do it, break the how down into tasks, and add them up. This is pure functional decomposition, right? Easy as pie.

Sadly, In the real world, not so much. Do any of these sound familiar?

Forced Due Dates. In this case, nobody really does estimates. Or perhaps the boss does something quick, sloppy, and “aggressive.” In any event, the boss needs the project done in two weeks. Period.

‘Someone else’ does the estimates. Estimation is a skill, and it’s a skill that few junior staffers have. So having a senior staffer (or manager) do the estimates for a junior person might be helpful. The problem is that is separates the estimate from the person responsible. In other words, making someone else’s estimate is like spending someone else’s gift money – it is just detached enough from reality that you won’t be careful enough.

“Four weeks? Really? I could do it in one …” This is a manipulation technique used at the big status meeting, and I hate it. In some cases, the bully really can do it in one week, and it’s a great win for the company to switch. More often, all it takes is an offer to switch to shut the bully down. Junior people tend to buckle, promise the impossible, ‘fail’, and then look bad.

Bring me a rock estimates. “Hmm … three months? Can you shave a little time off that? … two months? We were looking for something a little more aggressive … One Month? OK, that sounds good. Remember, that is YOUR NUMBER, and we’ll hold you to that estimate!”

Slippery-Slope Requirements. Perhaps, by some miracle, you are allowed to estimate the project with your own date. Halfway through, the customer realizes that the requirements won’t meet his needs. This leaves you with two options – (A) Add the features and slip the date, making the project “late” or (B) Deny the features and deliver a product that doesn’t fit it’s purpose.

Why Estimates Are Important
In many cases, the “success” or “failure” of the project depends on weather or not we hit the date. In most of the scenarios above, that’s not a judgment of the technical contributors – it’s an evaluation of the person who made the original SWAG compared to reality.
In my next post in the series, I will discuss what we can do about it.

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