Estimation : Off-The-Cuff Estimates

Project teams are sometimes trapped by off-the-cuff estimates.

A projectmanager on a team asks, for example, “How long would it take to implement this component”, while showing the developer a wireframe. The immediate response is typically, “I don’t know. I think it might take a week. I’ll check into it”, and of the developer is to his/her desk to investigate the functional requirements further. Back at the desk the developer looks at the design and code for the component, back at the desk the developer notices a few things forgotten when the PM asked the question, adds up the changes and decides that it would take about 3 weeks. The developer hurry over to the PM’s desk to update the first estimate, but the PM is in a meeting and therefore not to be found. Later that day the PM suddenly appear at the developer’s desk and happily notifies the developer (before this can get a word out): “Since it seemed like a small project, I went ahead and talked to the customer about it. He was very excited about it and can’t wait to see the component next week. Can your start working on it today?”.

I have found that the safest policy is NOT to give off-the-cuff estimates. Using intuition and guessing as basis of software estimates are almost always related with cost and schedule overruns.

One of the errors people commit when estimating solely from personal memory is that they compare the new project to their memory of how long a past project took, or how much effort is required. Unfortunately peoples sometimes remember their estimate for the past project rather than the actual outcome of the past project. If they use their past estimate as the basis for a new estimate, and the past project’s actual outcome was that it overran its estimate, guess what? The estimator has just calibrated a project overrun into the estimate for the new project.

While guessing and intuition most definitely are positively correlated with project overruns, another less recognized fact is that the use of documented facts are negatively correlated with project overruns. In other words, there is a world of difference between giving the PM an off-the-cuff estimate versus saying, “I can’t give you an answer of the top of my head, but let me go back to my desk, check a few notes, and get back to you in 15 minutes. Would that be OK?”.

While this is a simple point, off-the-cuff estimates is one of the most common errors that project teams make. So in order to become a better software engineer, we need to stop delivering off-the-cuff estimates !

This blog post is the first in a long series about estimation I will be doing. Estimation is probably the single most important skill next to actual programmatic skills for a programmer, and even for non-programmers estimation is one of the most frequently performed activities, however also one of the skills that we pay the least attention to.

First step in becoming a better estimator is to realize that off-the-cuff estimates are invalid and errorprone, and should be replaced by a structured analysis of the entity being estimated based on documented facts.

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