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July 1, 2019

The Love/Hate Relationship with Estimates

by Adam Hardin


Love ’em or hate ’em, estimates are a manager’s best friend and an engineer’s (developer/producer/whipping post) nightmare.

And they’re not going anywhere.

Reading the comment section on Hacker News today on the article Dear Agile, I’m Tired of Pretending by Charles Lambdin when the subject on estimations came up. Specifically, this comment by bougiefever:

I’ve been developing software for over 20 years, and I still can’t estimate how long something will take me when I’ve never done it before. This uncertainty needs to become more than just a stick to beat developers about the head and shoulders with. Most of the time the PMs understand this, but there have been many projects where they just don’t get it. I have suffered great anxiety from being forced to give estimates when the truth is I have no clue. It depends on how easy it is and how many unforeseen issues I encounter. It was so bad that once my husband asked me how long it would be before I was done cooking something, and I practically had a meltdown. That’s when I knew it was time to leave that team. Can we stop pretending we can forecast the unknown?

This was countered by xwdv:


Even bad estimates are better than no estimates. If you are having meltdowns your reputation is being tied too closely to your ability to give estimates.

You must never turn estimates into a promise, always remind people they are estimates. (Emphasis mine –ATH)

Want to give fast estimates? Here’s how:

1) first determine the scale of the task? Is it a year, month, week or day kind of task?

2) Then, it’s just 3 of those units. The smallest task takes 3 days. One day to completely fuck up, one day to figure out why, one day to get right. The longest takes 3 years. One year to fuck it all up, one year to learn why, one year to finish it.

I suggest never giving estimates in units smaller than a day. They just become noise. If a task is smaller than dayscale just say the task is too small to provide any meaningful estimate but won’t take more than a day.

And lastly, to help solidify the talking points of this post, this response to the above by bb88:

> Even bad estimates are better than no estimates.

No estimate is clearly better. (Emphasis mine –ATH) Here’s a common story I’ve seen across multiple companies.

1. Marketing management asks Engineering management how long it takes to do feature X so they know when to launch the online ad campaign.

2. Engineering management then asks potentially good coder how long it will take. Coder replies with a time and “it’s just an estimate.”

3. Engineering management reports to Marketing that coder’s estimate leaving off the most important caveat, and Marketing treats that as the gospel truth.

4. Coder takes longer than expected because of some bad technical cruft that some other engineer put in because he was potentially rushed or just plain inept.

5. Marketing is pissed because they now have to withdraw the ad campaign, and starts blaming engineering.

6. Under increased scrutiny, Engineering gets a bad reputation, who then throws the coder under the bus in front of Marketing and other managers.

7. This shows up on the coder’s annual review who then leaves.

8. Engineering hires replacement which will have a 3-6 month learning cycle, and potentially writes worse code than the person that just left.

EDIT: The point is that if there’s no estimate, management has to deal with the uncertainty that the coder experiences. Hope for the best, plan for the worst.

There are two distinct statuses that a software developer will be looked upon by those outside of their respective realm within an organization: as wizards that can turn out miraculous, spectacular(?) software, or as insufferable buffoons who seem to forget that in some cases people’s lives are in their hands and yet they still manage to drop the ball.

This is why I hate it when the upper echelon of my current employer call me “the man”–this placing of me on a pedestal is dangerous and sets a very bad precedent of me being a 24×7 miracle worker. I’m not the Jesus of software engineering, folks.

With estimates, in response to xwdv, while you, the programmer, may reach a mutual agreement with the individual or group requesting the estimate that it is in no way, shape, or form, a concrete definite obligation that it’s going to fall within that time frame, that agreement is moot when they go and construct it as a promise to the next party, whether it be upper management, the customer, or your own mother. And this has led to some small uprisings in the software development community, such as the #NoEstimates movement. From the article Estimates? We Don’t Need No Stinking Estimates! by Scott Rosenberg:

The annals of software-project history are packed with epic train-wrecks. The best-documented ones are in the public sector, including the FAA and the FBI and Private industry is better at keeping its pain to itself, but when the full tales of slow-motion belly-flops like Microsoft’s Windows Vista get told, it isn’t pretty. The most-cited numbers on software-project failure are those of the Standish Group, a consulting outfit that reported that in 2012 only 39 percent of software projects were considered “successful.”

Late software projects run up costs, incur collateral damage and sometimes take down entire companies. And so the software industry has devoted decades to waging a war on lateness — trying frontal assault, enfilade, sabotage, diplomacy and bribes, and using tactics with names such as object oriented programming, the Rational Unified Process, open-source, agile and extreme programming.

Estimates play a part in nearly all of these approaches. Estimates are the siege-engines of the war on lateness. If we use them carefully and patiently and relentlessly, the hope is, maybe, eventually, we’ll win.

Why is software so late? One venerable intellectual tradition in the field says the answer lies in software’s very nature. Since code costs nothing to copy, programmers are, uniquely, always solving new problems. If the problem already had a solution, you’d just grab a copy from the shelf. On top of that, we have a very hard time saying when any piece of software is “done.”

Non-engineers need to understand that software development is not an exact science; a lot of it involves trial-and-error. When the stakes are high, we need time to ensure that everything is copacetic. I know this advice is going to fall on deaf ears no matter how many times I try to teach management and others about how this industry works, but I know you, dear reader, will agree. In any case, perhaps this is a case for business coaches to start teaching their clients about software estimation and project management.

Whatever the case, estimations are not going anywhere, period. Otherwise, you’ll get pie-in-the-sky vaporware that, if it ever does come out, fails to live up to its expectations (“You spent X [months/years] on it! Why does it suck!”) and becomes yet another argument for either waterfall estimation or agile burndown charts (Duke Nukem Forever anyone?). The lack of estimations is merely cannon fodder for management to rubber stamp you as incompetent and find some other schmuck to make that promise. Worse yet, when that check bounces, you’ll still bear the majority brunt of the blow back.

If that’s the case, you might as well project something insane and walk it back. Hey, under-promise and over-deliver, right?



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