Sunday, December 13, 2009

How not to estimate

[This was originally posted at]

Being responsible for the end-to-end solution really makes me think about how to estimate. The flipside is that it also makes me think about how not to estimate:
  1. Wild guess - sometimes this seems like your only option, but most of the time there is ways to improve on the guess (base it on similar projects, or split it into components and estimate those individually).
  2. What you think the boss wants to hear - This may seem like the easy way to initially win favor with the boss, but it will come back with a vengeance when the estimate drastically deviates from reality. Also, because the boss always wants to hear lower schedule times, this has a huge bias that will send you off course.
  3. Base it on unrelated projects - Historical data is great, but don't compare apples to oranges. That a WinForm app took 3 months tells you almost nothing about how long an ASP.Net app will take.
  4. Pick an arbitrary big number - During crunch time, it's easy to think that everything will magically be better "next week" or "next month" ("that will give us enough time to fix everything),  but then that time rolls around and the project is still behind schedule.

All of these are bad estimation methods because they miss the fundamental point - how long will the project really take to build in the real world? Wild guesses or the boss's wishes are not necessarily grounded in reality, so basing estimates on them is barking up the wrong tree.

I realize it's easy to say "how not to do something". I'd recommend Steve McConnell's book, Software Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art, for how to do a great job of estimating.


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