Udi Dahan   Udi Dahan – The Software Simplist
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#NoEstimates – Really?

Saturday, April 19th, 2014.

estimatesThere has been some discussion online recently about the issue of estimates in software development, specifically under a meme called #NoEstimates.

This came up when I was in London for the DevWeek conference at the speaker dinner with Austin Bingham, Rob Smallshire, and Allen Holub and I wanted to share some of the ideas that came up, as well as some of my personal opinions on the matter.

Context matters

When you’re in an organization that is continuously developing and evolving a product, platform, or suite, your context is quite different than when you’re working on a project either for an external client or an internal one.

In short: product vs. project.

While in both contexts you’ll want frequent releases, the main difference is that a project is meant to achieve a certain state of “done-ness” in a bound period of time. A product is not ever meant to be “done” in that way. A successful product is one that continues to evolve over time, with that success (arguably) resulting in more resources being dedicated to its development.

If we were to zoom out our scope beyond that of the project, we’d probably see certain product-ish qualities at the level of a client’s entire IT environment – no state of “done-ness” and similar consequences of success.

Where estimates are needed

Whether you’re in a product development organization or the CIO of an enterprise, there are a certain number of features/projects (FP) that people in “the business” want done. Let’s assume that each FP has a certain amount of business value that its implementation would result in and that that value is known in advance.

Sidebar: Clearly, the business value of any feature or project can not be known with much certainty in advance of it being implemented. Still, for the purpose of keeping the analysis simple for now, let’s table this issue for a bit.

While you might think it’s reasonable to perform the work on these FPs in order of decreasing value, that is mistaking revenue for profit/return-on-investment (ROI).

In other words, we need to know roughly how much each of them costs to be able to calculate its predicted ROI (value – cost).

Only then can we decide in which order to do the work.

So, we need somebody technical to give an estimate.

High-level estimates

In this context, sometimes it’s enough to provide 3-4 buckets describing the amount of work – I like the approach of using shirt sizes: S, M, L, XL.

This can help the organization decide quickly to charter the development of the FPs with very high value and very low cost. These low hanging fruit are great for getting started, but when you’re done with them, then you have to decide between a bunch of FPs whose predicted ROI are all very close to each other.

Before doing that (!), it’s important that no projects with an XL size are fully chartered as is – no matter what the value.

When a technical person gives an XL estimate, that means “this is so big, I really have no idea how long it’ll take”. The variance can be huge here – in some cases, they might not even be certain if the request is doable without being given some time to do additional research first. And that is exactly why you need to carve out a certain chunk of time and resources for doing that research.

“But you don’t understand, Udi! We need this done ASAP.”

Believe me when I say that that ship has already sailed.

There’s a pretty good chance that before that extra-large FP is half-done, so much time will have gone by that business priorities will have shifted. Unfortunately, by that time so many resources will have been invested in it that nobody will have the guts (or political capital) to pull the plug on it. The best people will start leaving – sometimes to other FPs but, more often, the company as well. Even when these nightmarishly large missions are eventually done – they end up being something of a Pyrrhic victory.

So, what to do?

Well, beyond financing a certain amount of directed and scoped research and development to get a better handle on that beast, let me suggest this:

Enter the “Lean Startup”

If you haven’t heard about it yet, and regardless of whether you’re actually working at a startup (I’d say that it is even more important for large organization), you need to check out the Lean Startup.

While I won’t be able to do justice to it here, let me use this admittedly gross oversimplification:

You are mistaken about the predicted business value.

Really.

So what you need to do is to start applying the scientific method – a series of experiments in which you are looking for proof to validate your hypothesis about the predicted value, where the outcome of one experiment is used to formulate another hypothesis to be tested in the next experiment.

Let me say this differently – until you are as rigorous in evaluating the predicted value of a given initiative as you are in estimating its cost, with that rigor increasing with the size of the initiative, you have no business starting to work on it.

And this is what’s missing from most of the software development world.

Portfolio management

I don’t really care what you call it, but the portfolio of potential investments and the risk analysis around them needs to be handled properly.

Based on the language I’ve chosen, you can see parallels to the world of finance. Now, before your mind starts going to the news of all the shady crap that’s been going on in the world of finance, understand that there are both positive and negative outliers in every domain.

That being said, I won’t point you to books on finance (at least, not for starters).

I suggest reading Manage your project portfolio, by Johanna Rothman (one of my favorite people in the world). She also has a couple of blogs, and that can help you get started.

This has already gotten quite long, so I’ll skip a bit and talk about what you should do if you’re “just” a developer being asked to give an estimate.

How to give a good fine-grained estimate

Here’s the format to use:

This will take a team of N between T1 and T2 and I am P% confident in that range, with the following assumptions (1, 2, 3), and most importantly, that the team does not work on anything else during that period of time.

Let me repeat that important bit again:

Assuming the team does not work on anything else.

Most of the kinds of people who ask for estimates aren’t going to like that kind of answer. You may get some pushback, “don’t be clever – can this be done by the end of the year, or not?”. In other words, they’re asking you for a commitment – not an estimate. This is common with certain types of dysfunctional organizations – the project management people are only measured on adherence to schedule, not on whether the system solves the right problem. You, the developer, want to make sure you’re solving the right problem – you want to be Agile. But that’s not the point.

Let me repeat – Agile is not the point.

If the organization around you is dysfunctional, be smart – don’t try to be right. Solving the right business problem is the right thing to do, but often it’s not smart thing to do. If you don’t like having to deal with this kind of organizational politics, you had better find yourself a different organization – otherwise, you had better be smart.

How to receive good estimates

Assuming you’re a team lead, project manager, product owner, or something similar, here’s how to respond when someone gives you an estimate in the above format.

  1. If P is subjectively high enough and T2 is subjectively low enough, give them the green light.
  2. If P isn’t high enough, or the range of T1 to T2 is too broad:

    1. If you have previously given them time to do research (RT), double the value of RT.
    2. Make sure they are only doing research during this time (no other development).
    3. The purpose of the research is to increase P, or decrease the range of T1-T2
    4. When receiving the new estimate, go back to the beginning.

To be clear, “research” does not mean navel-gazing. It can and often will involve writing a bunch of code as well as on figuring out what the requirements should have been in the first place.

“But Udi, won’t this end up wasting time that could be better used on actually building the system?”

No.

In reality, this will end up paying back all the time that should have been spent up-stream on portfolio management and requirements analysis activities.

Which brings me to…

Working software over comprehensive documentation

Sometimes, writing high-quality working software is the last thing you want to do.
Specifically, the earlier you are in the project, the less likely that you should be focusing on code.

Often, the most cost-effective thing to do is some rapid-prototyping like creating UI mock-ups to verify what the system should really do.

This really deserves a blog post of its own (with thanks to Geert for finding the link), but suffice it to say that this is a skill-set all its own that should exist in every software development organization.

On other word on small startups – I often hear from people who are doing their own startup that want to do DDD, CQRS, SOA, and a bunch of other three-letter-acronyms they picked up on various blogs and books, because this time it’s up to them; this time they’re going to do it right.

No, no, no – stop that. Go read the Lean Startup. Then do it. And if you’re extremely lucky, you will be so successful that in a couple of years you will be in the position to rewrite the system – the only difference is that now you’ll REALLY know what the system is supposed to be.

In closing

OK – so that’s well over 1500 words I’ve spilled on the topic.

While the hashtag #NoEstimates makes a great soundbite, estimates are an important part of the information that needs to flow around the organization to help quantify and mitigate risk. Too often there are various organizational dysfunctions tangled up in the same areas as estimates which, I suppose, could give the impression that the estimates are to blame.

While I wish I could tell you that all you need to do is find an organization that doesn’t have any of these dysfunctions and all will be well for you, unfortunately there aren’t any organizations without them. Just like all families are dysfunctional in one way or another, so too are organizations. This is simply because each of us human beings is somewhat dysfunctional.

Well functioning organizations are made up of highly aware individuals – people who have become able to see and mitigate some of their personal issues, and thus can be patient as the people around them similarly work through their issues. Together, these individuals continuously create and adapt their working processes and systems to compensate for the various dysfunctions in the group.

Under these iteratively growing conditions of mutual trust, various kinds of estimates are performed at different levels and times and are just a normal part of communication and decision-making.

Please, don’t throw out the baby with the bath-water.

  
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14 Comments

  1. Glen B. Alleman Says:

    The sentence

    Sidebar: Clearly, the business value of any feature or project can not be known with much certainty in advance of it being implemented. Still, for the purpose of keeping the analysis simple for now, let’s table this issue for a bit.

    Is not the case in a governance based organization or a Capabilities Based Planning organization, where the “valuation” of the resulting product, service, or purchased or buult product is part of the planning process. It’s a “build to valuation.”

    With the “estimated” value and the “estimated” cost for that value, decision can be made in what is called “analysis of alternatives” in our software intensive domain.

    Only by having both estimates, a most likely value and its probabilistic range, can we make that “analysis of alternatives,” or “trade space” needed to Govern both the business and the project and products that enable the business to meet its goals


  2. udidahan Says:

    Glen,

    I think that you and I are in agreement – mature organizations have setup of the people, processes, and systems to make good decisions about what to build next.

    That being said, the longer the time frame for implementation, the higher the likelihood that changes in environmental conditions will change the expected value.


  3. Sharas Says:

    As Cromwell once said: “Plans are worthless, planning is everything”.

    The value of planning or estimating is in the discovery of value. It’s a learning process. I believe that in a nutshell is the moral of your post.

    Still, the fact remains, it is not about deadlines or estimates it is about discovering value of values.

    So overall you are complecting those two things as if those are the same thing and doing a classic byte-and-switch.

    The fact still remains, estimates are worthless.

    I agree with the point you made about dysfunctional organizations.
    Dysfunctional organization is an organization run by lazy mindless uncommitted people, often with narcissistic personality disorders. And those are the people that don’t like to think too hard. And those are the people that are desperate to simplify their view with a schema of deadlines, goals, and segregated accountabilities. And that is the essence of the problem.

    Still, the fact remains estimates are worthless.


  4. Phil Sandler Says:

    One of my favorite of your articles.

    ““But you don’t understand, Udi! We need this done ASAP.”
    Believe me when I say that that ship has already sailed.”

    Yep, exactly. That’s just about every project I’ve ever worked on.

    The concept of a Minimum Viable Product is one that I have repeatedly tried to introduce to clients and employers (with mixed levels of adoption/success). I think the concept is useful even (maybe especially) for non-start ups. The basic idea is about market testing of a product, but you can easily see the market as your end users on an internal project. Which is really not that different than the rapid prototyping you described.


  5. Geert Depickere Says:

    About rapid proto-typing and it deserving a blog post of its own:

    http://www.udidahan.com/2012/09/08/build-one-to-throw-away/


  6. udidahan Says:

    Sharas,

    While a mature organizations would know to see through the “estimates are worthless” soundbite and know what to do, when, and how, I’m afraid that a statement like that would lead the less mature organizations down a less optimal path.

    For that reason, I would not state that estimates are worthless. Rather, I’d say that estimates (when done well) can serve as a useful stepping stone to greater maturity.


  7. udidahan Says:

    Phil,

    I think that there is great wisdom to be found in navigating between Minimum Viable Product and Minimum Lovable Product.


  8. udidahan Says:

    Geert,

    Thanks for the link – I totally forgot about that when I was in the flow of writing this post. Updated, with credit.


  9. Sharas Says:

    @udi Those two mindsets, learning and estimating are qualitatively different. It is not just a play on words or semantic ambiguity.

    That is why I don’t think that playing managers’ game or “being smart not right” as you put it is really helpfull to anyone. Instead, explaining the essential difference in those mindsets can be.

    And if nobody is listening, well it’s a sellers market, go somwhere where you’ll be heard or have enough influence.


  10. Sharas Says:

    sorry, it should read “not really helpful to anyone” in previous post


  11. udidahan Says:

    Sharas,

    While I agree that it is worthwhile to try to explain the difference between the estimating and learning mindsets, and that there are those of us who have the privilege to be able to go where we will be heard, there are many others who are not in that position and whose explanations will not be heard (for whatever reason).

    In any case, I believe that you’ll agree with me that the specifics of any one situation will trump whatever abstract theories we bandy between us here.


  12. Sharas Says:

    @udi,

    I agree that saying “go where you’ll be heard” out of context is as valuable or valueless as saying “be smart not right”.

    Anyway, you’re right, there’s whole lot of context missing here and comment section of your post isn’t the most suitable place to “bandy”:)


  13. Glen B. Alleman Says:

    Udi,

    I enjoyed your article. But the statement

    Sidebar: Clearly, the business value of any feature or project can not be known with much certainty in advance of it being implemented.

    Can easily be interpreted as “we can know value until we’re done,” and this is in fact the premise of the #NoEstimates advocates. You go on to explain how to determine value from ROI and the needs for estimating cost – otherwise you get a “divide by zero error” in the formula.

    But there are straightforward means of determining, measuring and using those measures of business value to manage the project that creates that value. Balanced Scorecard is one approach http://www.slideshare.net/galleman/notes-on-balanced-scorecard

    In the BSC the desired outcomes of the project are defined in terms of capabilities, strategic objectives, the performance goals, the critical success factors, and the Key Performance Indicators. These KPI’s include Measures of Effectiveness, Measures of Performance, anmd Technical Performance Measures.

    Each of these can be monetized and used to produce a running ROI for the estimated costs versus actual cost to deliver the capability. Page 50 connects those dots.


  14. udidahan Says:

    Glen,

    Yes, my statements could be interpreted that way. While I agree that techniques like BSC can be used for estimating future value, I see many independent software vendors (especially small to medium ones) that fly by the seat of their pants for the most part. In short, I think we need to do a better job in this industry of talking about the right level of rigor appropriate for different situations.


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Now I know why Udi is the "Software Simplist." I was amazed to find that all the code and solutions were indeed very simple. The patterns that Udi presented keep things simple by isolating complexity so that it doesn't creep into your day to day code. The domain code looks the same if it's running in a single process or if it's running in 100 processes.”

Ian Cooper Ian Cooper, Team Lead at Beazley
“Udi is one of the leaders in the .Net development community, one of the truly smart guys who do not just get best architectural practice well enough to educate others but drives innovation. Udi consistently challenges my thinking in ways that make me better at what I do.”

Liron Levy, Team Leader at Rafael
“I've met Udi when I worked as a team leader in Rafael. One of the most senior managers there knew Udi because he was doing superb architecture job in another Rafael project and he recommended bringing him on board to help the project I was leading.
Udi brought with him fresh solutions and invaluable deep architecture insights. He is an authority on SOA (service oriented architecture) and this was a tremendous help in our project.
On the personal level - Udi is a great communicator and can persuade even the most difficult audiences (I was part of such an audience myself..) by bringing sound explanations that draw on his extensive knowledge in the software business. Working with Udi was a great learning experience for me, and I'll be happy to work with him again in the future.”

Adam Dymitruk Adam Dymitruk, Director of IT at Apara Systems
“I met Udi for the first time at DevTeach in Montreal back in early 2007. While Udi is usually involved in SOA subjects, his knowledge spans all of a software development company's concerns. I would not hesitate to recommend Udi for any company that needs excellent leadership, mentoring, problem solving, application of patterns, implementation of methodologies and straight out solution development.
There are very few people in the world that are as dedicated to their craft as Udi is to his. At ALT.NET Seattle, Udi explained many core ideas about SOA. The team that I brought with me found his workshop and other talks the highlight of the event and provided the most value to us and our organization. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to recommend him.”

Eytan Michaeli Eytan Michaeli, CTO Korentec
“Udi was responsible for a major project in the company, and as a chief architect designed a complex multi server C4I system with many innovations and excellent performance.”


Carl Kenne Carl Kenne, .Net Consultant at Dotway AB
“Udi's session "DDD in Enterprise apps" was truly an eye opener. Udi has a great ability to explain complex enterprise designs in a very comprehensive and inspiring way. I've seen several sessions on both DDD and SOA in the past, but Udi puts it in a completly new perspective and makes us understand what it's all really about. If you ever have a chance to see any of Udi's sessions in the future, take it!”

Avi Nehama, R&D Project Manager at Retalix
“Not only that Udi is a briliant software architecture consultant, he also has remarkable abilities to present complex ideas in a simple and concise manner, and...
always with a smile. Udi is indeed a top-league professional!”

Ben Scheirman Ben Scheirman, Lead Developer at CenterPoint Energy
“Udi is one of those rare people who not only deeply understands SOA and domain driven design, but also eloquently conveys that in an easy to grasp way. He is patient, polite, and easy to talk to. I'm extremely glad I came to his workshop on SOA.”

Scott C. Reynolds Scott C. Reynolds, Director of Software Engineering at CBLPath
“Udi is consistently advancing the state of thought in software architecture, service orientation, and domain modeling.
His mastery of the technologies and techniques is second to none, but he pairs that with a singular ability to listen and communicate effectively with all parties, technical and non, to help people arrive at context-appropriate solutions. Every time I have worked with Udi, or attended a talk of his, or just had a conversation with him I have come away from it enriched with new understanding about the ideas discussed.”

Evgeny-Hen Osipow, Head of R&D at PCLine
“Udi has helped PCLine on projects by implementing architectural blueprints demonstrating the value of simple design and code.”

Rhys Campbell Rhys Campbell, Owner at Artemis West
“For many years I have been following the works of Udi. His explanation of often complex design and architectural concepts are so cleanly broken down that even the most junior of architects can begin to understand these concepts. These concepts however tend to typify the "real world" problems we face daily so even the most experienced software expert will find himself in an "Aha!" moment when following Udi teachings.
It was a pleasure to finally meet Udi in Seattle Alt.Net OpenSpaces 2008, where I was pleasantly surprised at how down-to-earth and approachable he was. His depth and breadth of software knowledge also became apparent when discussion with his peers quickly dove deep in to the problems we current face. If given the opportunity to work with or recommend Udi I would quickly take that chance. When I think .Net Architecture, I think Udi.”

Sverre Hundeide Sverre Hundeide, Senior Consultant at Objectware
“Udi had been hired to present the third LEAP master class in Oslo. He is an well known international expert on enterprise software architecture and design, and is the author of the open source messaging framework nServiceBus. The entire class was based on discussion and interaction with the audience, and the only Power Point slide used was the one showing the agenda.
He started out with sketching a naive traditional n-tier application (big ball of mud), and based on suggestions from the audience we explored different solutions which might improve the solution. Whatever suggestions we threw at him, he always had a thoroughly considered answer describing pros and cons with the suggested solution. He obviously has a lot of experience with real world enterprise SOA applications.”

Raphaël Wouters Raphaël Wouters, Owner/Managing Partner at Medinternals
“I attended Udi's excellent course 'Advanced Distributed System Design with SOA and DDD' at Skillsmatter. Few people can truly claim such a high skill and expertise level, present it using a pragmatic, concrete no-nonsense approach and still stay reachable.”

Nimrod Peleg Nimrod Peleg, Lab Engineer at Technion IIT
“One of the best programmers and software engineer I've ever met, creative, knows how to design and implemet, very collaborative and finally - the applications he designed implemeted work for many years without any problems!

Jose Manuel Beas
“When I attended Udi's SOA Workshop, then it suddenly changed my view of what Service Oriented Architectures were all about. Udi explained complex concepts very clearly and created a very productive discussion environment where all the attendees could learn a lot. I strongly recommend hiring Udi.”

Daniel Jin Daniel Jin, Senior Lead Developer at PJM Interconnection
“Udi is one of the top SOA guru in the .NET space. He is always eager to help others by sharing his knowledge and experiences. His blog articles often offer deep insights and is a invaluable resource. I highly recommend him.”

Pasi Taive Pasi Taive, Chief Architect at Tieto
“I attended both of Udi's "UI Composition Key to SOA Success" and "DDD in Enterprise Apps" sessions and they were exceptionally good. I will definitely participate in his sessions again. Udi is a great presenter and has the ability to explain complex issues in a manner that everyone understands.”

Eran Sagi, Software Architect at HP
“So far, I heard about Service Oriented architecture all over. Everyone mentions it – the big buzz word. But, when I actually asked someone for what does it really mean, no one managed to give me a complete satisfied answer. Finally in his excellent course “Advanced Distributed Systems”, I got the answers I was looking for. Udi went over the different motivations (principles) of Services Oriented, explained them well one by one, and showed how each one could be technically addressed using NService bus. In his course, Udi also explain the way of thinking when coming to design a Service Oriented system. What are the questions you need to ask yourself in order to shape your system, place the logic in the right places for best Service Oriented system.

I would recommend this course for any architect or developer who deals with distributed system, but not only. In my work we do not have a real distributed system, but one PC which host both the UI application and the different services inside, all communicating via WCF. I found that many of the architecture principles and motivations of SOA apply for our system as well. Enough that you have SW partitioned into components and most of the principles becomes relevant to you as well. Bottom line – an excellent course recommended to any SW Architect, or any developer dealing with distributed system.”

Consult with Udi

Guest Authored Books
Chapter: Introduction to SOA    Article: The Enterprise Service Bus and Your SOA

97 Things Every Software Architect Should Know



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