The idea of no estimates (or #NoEstimates) is all hot these days. People would choose different parties and fight a hell of fight just to prove their arguments are valid, they are right and the other party got it all wrong. I’d occasionally get into the crossfire by leaving a general comment on a thread on estimation in general, i.e. not steering a discussion for or against #NoEstimates.
And that’s totally not my intention. I mean, who likes to get into crossfire?
What No Estimates Mean
A major problem of no estimates is that everyone seems to have their own freaking idea what that is. Seriously. If you follow the discussions on the subject you will find pretty much anything you want. There are crusaders willing to ban all the estimates forever as they clearly are the source of all evil in the software world. There also are folks who find it a useful tool to track or monitor health of projects throughout their lifecycles. You definitely can find people who bring to the table statistical methods that are supposed to substitute more commonly used approaches to estimation.
And, of course, anything in between.
So which kind of #NoEstimates you support, or diss for that matter? Because there are many of them, it seems.
Once we know this I have another question: what is your context? You know, it is sort of important whether you work on multimillion dollar worth endeavor, an MVP for a startup or an increment of established application.
My wild-ass guess is this: if every party getting involved in #NoEstimates discussions answered above questions they’d easily find that they’re talking about different things. Less drama. More value. Less cluttered twitter stream (yeah, I’m just being selfish here).
Is this post supposed to be a rant against discussion on no estimates?
No, not really. One thing is that, despite all the drama, I believe that the discussion is valuable and helps to pull our industry forward. In fact, I see the value in the act of discussing as I don’t expect absolute answers.
Another thing is that I think there is #NoEstimates middle ground, which seems to be cozy and nice place. At least for me.
Why Estimating Sucks
Let me start with a confession: I hate estimating. Whoa, that’s quite a confession, isn’t it? I guess it is easily true for more than 90% of population. Anyway, as long as I can get out avoiding estimation I’d totally go for that.
I have good reasons. In vast majority of cases estimates I’ve seen were so crappy that a drunken monkey could have come up with something on par or only slightly worse. And last time I checked we were paying drunken monkeys way less than we do developers and project managers. Oh, and it was in peanuts, not dollars.
It’s not only that. Given that kind of quality of the estimates the time spent on them was basically waste, right?
It’s even worse. It was common when these estimates were used against the team. “You promised that it will be ready by the end of the month. It isn’t. It’s your fault.” Do I sense a blame game? Oh, well…
And don’t even get me started with all the cases when a team was under pressure to give “better” estimates as the original ones weren’t good enough.
Why We Estimate Then
At the same time, working closely with clients for years I perfectly understand why they need estimates. In the case of a fixed-price contract we have to come up with the price somehow. That’s where estimates come handy, don’t they? There also is a million dollar question: so how much will I spend on this thingamajig? I guess sometimes it is a million dollar question literally…
So as much as I would prefer not to estimate at all I don’t hide in a hole and pretend that I’m not there when I’m asked for an estimate.
All Sorts of Estimates
Another story is how I approach the estimation process when I do it.
I would always use a range. Most of the time pretty broad one, e.g. the worst case scenario may mean twice the cost / time than the best case scenario. And that’s still only an estimate meaning that odds are that we would end beyond the range.
Whenever appropriate I’d use historical data to come up with an estimate. In fact, I would even use historical data from a different setup, e.g. different team, different project. Yes, I am aware that it may be tricky. Tricky as in “it may bite you in the butt pretty badly.” Anyway, if, basing on our judgment, team setup and feature sizing is roughly similar I would use the data. This approach requires much of understanding the dynamics of different teams and can be difficult to scale up. In my case though, it seems to work pretty fine.
I’m a huge fan of Troy Magennis and his work. By the way, despite the fact that Troy goes under #NoEstimates banner, he couldn’t possibly be farther from folks advising just to build the stuff with no estimation whatsoever. One of most valuable lessons we can get from Troy is how to use simulations to improve the quality of estimates, especially in a case where little data is available.
Finally, I’m also fine with good old guesstimation. I would use it on a rather general level and wouldn’t invest much time into it. Nevertheless, it works for me as a nice calibration mechanism. If the historical data or a simulation shows something very different than an expert guess we are likely missing something.
Interestingly enough, with such an approach having more details in specifications doesn’t really help, but that’s another story.
On the top of that, whenever it is relevant, I would track how we’re doing against initial estimates. This way I get early warnings whenever we’re going out of track. I guess this is where you think “who, on planet Earth, wouldn’t do that?” The trick is that you need to have quite a few things in place to be able to do this in a meaningful way.
A continuous flow of work gives us a steady outcome of delivered features. An end-to-end value stream means that what is done is really done. At the same time without continuous delivery and a fully operational staging environment end-to-end value stream is simply wishful thinking. Limiting work in progress helps to improve lead time, shortens feedback loops and helps to build up pace early on. And of course good set of engineering practices allows us to build the whole thing feature by feature without breaking it.
Quite a lot of stuff just to make tracking progress sensible, isn’t it? Luckily they help with other stuff too.
Nevertheless, I still hate estimation.
And I’m lucky enough to be able to avoid it pretty frequently. It’s not a rare case when we have incremental funding and budgets so the only thing we need is keeping our pace rather steady. And I’m not talking here about particularly small projects only. Another context where estimation is not that important is when money burn-out rate is so slow (relatively) that we can afford learning what the real pace is instead of investing a significant effort into estimating what it might have been.
No Estimates Middle Ground
To summarize the whole post I guess my message is rather straightforward. There’s value in different approaches to estimation so instead of barking one at another we might as well learn how others approach this complex subject. For some reasons it works for them pretty well. If we understand their context, even if ours is different, we might be able to adapt and adopt these methods to improve our estimation process.
That’s why I think the discussion is valuable. However, in terms of learning and improving our estimation toolbox #NoEstimates notion doesn’t seem to be very helpful. I guess I’ll stay aside in the middle ground for the time being.
By the way, if we are able to improve our cooperation with the clients on the estimation I couldn’t care less whether we call it no estimates or something different.