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It’s our fault. Well, not completely, but we haven’t helped the situation any. All of what follows comes from my own experiences which, from talking to lots of other developers about it, seems to be pretty much par for the course.

Where We Started

When we first started estimating, we estimated pretty clearly. We would try to imagine something we’d done that was similar to the project being estimated and we’d toss it about in our heads a bit and see how much bigger or smaller we thought this new thing was, and add or subtract accordingly. We wouldn’t spend too much time on it, because we wanted to get to writing the software. frustration

Eventually, we’d come across some huge problem that there was now way we could’ve known about ahead of time. Either we didn’t see this thing or, we didn’t realize that this particular version of a problem would be so… problematic. We usually call this “not knowing what we don’t know”. It’s unavoidable. We just can’t know. Until we wade in and start putting some code together, there are just some things we won’t know… and some things we don’t even know that we don’t know. Y’know?

So what happens? We go over budget. Project managers scream and dance the dance of the stressed-out project manager, and there is nothing we can do (or could’ve done) about it. We didn’t know. We thought about it for a bit and we didn’t see this herculean task sitting in the middle of our nice quiet project, and it has bitten us in the rear end. We now know how to handle this in the future, though. We will take some more time to pick around the requirements and discover all those things we don’t know. We’ll do some prototyping, we’ll read some blogs about similar projects, we’ll really grill the customer with questions during the requirements gathering phase. We’ll keeping asking “what else?” until the shove us down the stairs. We’ll take our time and uncover it all.

We Learned, But Good

The next time comes, and you know what happens? We do it. We grill the customer for weeks and prototype and read and research and we estimate everything down to the last button on the last form. Know what that gets us? It gets us three months of wasted time, and our estimate will still be off. Possibly off by a factor of four. WTF, mate? No way we could be surprised by something! We uncovered every particle. We turned every stone. How is it we still came across unknowns? Because we STILL didn’t know what we didn’t know. How could we? We didn’t know to ask.

The worst part is, we’ve now convinced the product that this is NOT an estimate. It is a solid number based on massive research and an endless number of questions that they answered. There is absolutely now way you don’t know everything there is to know about this project now. No way there is anything you haven’t uncovered. And their faith in that “Esti-Quote” goes through the roof. When the project goes over this time, they might even begin to question whether or not you know what you’re doing. Who could blame them? You drilled them for weeks about every little thing, and when they complained about all the questions, you told them you wanted to uncover everything so there would be no surprises. SO we set them up to faile

Guess, Then Plan

We had a chance. At the beginning we could have just said, “That’s just a gut-feeling estimate, based on my past experience with similar projects. There could still be surprises.”

If we spend SOME time doing SOME discovery and then bounce that against our own past experiences, we can come up with a fairly healthy estimate. We can then help the product owner understand that an estimate is a guess. Sure, it’s an educated guess, but it is still a guess. If we get it right it will be almost completely luck. Then, we help them to plan the development by taking that guess (yes, they still need the guess for planning purposes) and start measuring early and often to see if we still think we are right. We should adjust the estimate and alert the product owner as soon as we see problems (bad news does not age well) and we should be able to see any problems immediately if we are constantly measuring our pace.

In lean software, we start with that guess and begin measuring cycle times immediately. Then we can make projections based on those cycle times and compare them to our estimate. This constant feedback is the best way to ensure that there are no surprises at the END of the project. There sill still be surprises, but we’ll see them sooner and have a better understanding of how they will affect our overall timeline.

What do you think?

Posted on Wednesday, June 16, 2010 2:09 AM | Back to top


Comments on this post: How Estimates Became Quotes

# re: How Estimates Became Quotes
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If only we could shift our industry to simple time and materials billing. I suppose, once our customers finally understand iterative, incremental development they might be persuaded.
Left by Clint Edmonson on Jun 16, 2010 12:17 PM

# re: How Estimates Became Quotes
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Yes, time and material would be great. I havn't seen one of those gigs for more than a decade.

I agree that Lee's third example is the best option. Does anybody have a time tested method for bad news delivery? It seems to aggravate my clients.
Left by Mark Maendele on Jul 02, 2010 3:41 PM

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