Learn to Estimate

As a programmer you need to be able to provide estimates to your managers, colleagues, and users for the tasks you need to perform, so that they will have a reasonably accurate idea of the time, costs, technology, and other resources needed to achieve their goals.

To be able to estimate well it is obviously important to learn some estimation techniques. First of all, however, it is fundamental to learn what estimates are, and what they should be used for — as strange as it may seem, many developers and managers don't really know this.

The following exchange between a project manager and a programmer is not untypical:

Project Manager: Can you give me an estimate of the time necessary to develop feature xyz?

Programmer: One month.

Project Manager: That's far too long! We've only got one week.

Programmer: I need at least three.

Project Manager: I can give you two at most.

Programmer: Deal!

The programmer, at the end, comes up with an "estimate" that matches what is acceptable for the manager. But since it is seen to be the programmer's estimate, the manager will hold the programmer accountable to it. To understand what is wrong with this conversation we need three definitions — estimate, target, and commitment:

  • An estimate is an approximate calculation or judgement of the value, number, quantity, or extent of something. This definition implies that an estimate is a factual measure based on hard data and previous experience — hopes and wishes must be ignored when calculating it. The definition also implies that, being approximate, an estimate cannot be precise, e.g., a development task cannot be estimated to last 234.14 days.
  • A target is a statement of a desirable business objective, e.g., "The system must support at least 400 concurrent users."
  • A commitment is a promise to deliver specified functionality at a certain level of quality by a certain date or event. One example could be "The search functionality will be available in the next release of the product."

Estimates, targets, and commitments are independent from each other, but targets and commitments should be based on sound estimates. As Steve McConnell notes, "The primary purpose of software estimation is not to predict a project's outcome; it is to determine whether a project's targets are realistic enough to allow the project to be controlled to meet them." Thus, the purpose of estimation is to make proper project management and planning possible, allowing the project stakeholders to make commitments based on realistic targets.

What the manager in the conversation above was really asking the programmer was to make a commitment based on an unstated target that the manager had in mind, not to provide an estimate. The next time you are asked to provide an estimate make sure everybody involved knows what they are talking about, and your projects will have a better chance of succeeding. Now it's time to learn some techniques....

By Giovanni Asproni

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