Friday, May 11, 2007

Task estimating: I'll be done in exactly 2.75 hours!

(originally posted 3/30/07)
From: SD-Jim Sawyer
Sent: Friday, March 30, 2007 5:19 PM
To: SD-Dave Brann; SD-Kevin Bennett; SD-Emily Ligotti; NS-Geoff Skipton; NS-Jess Bardin; CD-Jason Moline; SD-Brian Mascarenhas; SD-Ian Anderson
Subject: Task estimating: I'll be done in exactly 2.75 hours!

Hey kids,

There's one question that we developers hear at least once on every single project, that most of us find mildly uncomfortable, and some of you find absolutely terrifying -- a vile and cruel form of torture worse than chugging a jar of warm mayonnaise, being forced to see a chick flick with your mother, or having an afternoon colonoscopy (Dave B. excluded). No, I don't mean "Why aren't you finished yet?" although that's a good topic for a later day.

I mean the infamous: "How long is it going to take you to do Task X"?

The wheels start spinning…

"...OK, this is pretty straightforward, probably a few hours' work, maybe 2-3. What should I say? Better give myself a little extra time -- I don't have all the information anyway and who knows what might come up. 5 hours. Oh, maybe I should say a really really big number so that when I complete it in less time, everyone will be impressed with how awesome I am? 77 hours. Hmmm, but the PM won't go for that, they know enough about what needs to be done to be dangerous, but they just don't know all the details like I do… oh what the heck, let's just multiply by 3 to be safe…"

"8 hours".

So what does this number really mean? As we get more and more experienced, we're supposed to get better and better at the accuracy of estimating our tasks. But bad things can and do happen during the course of a project, and our estimates don't always line up with what it takes to do the work in reality.

This can be frustrating for us and for the PM, especially when it starts blowing the budget. But why does it happen?

Maybe it's not just that we're horrible estimators (though all of us need to continue to improve in this area), but that there's something inherently funky about the act of estimating itself. This article has one interesting answer… and actually shows how simulation (yes, simulation) might be used to help get a better sense of project completion.

Software estimates actually contain some uncertainty. It is a little bit too simple to say that a given task is going to take "eight hours." It is far more realistic to say things like, "There is a 50 percent probability that we can get this done in eight hours." That is a very different statement!

"OK, so I might go over," you say. "But I might also go under, and on a long project all the tasks that came in late will be balanced out by the tasks that came in early!"


That, precisely, is where you are wrong.

James T. Sawyer
Senior Analyst
TranSystems | Automation Associates, Inc.

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