Towards a more balanced list of content about #NoEstimates

Both my readers will have noticed there’s been a fairly large gap between my posts here, as life (picnic, lightning, and all that) has intervened. Like J.D. Salinger, however, I have continued writing drafts on various topics, and I plan to post more in the coming months.

My past posts here have often delved into a favorite theme of mine: that IT people tend to go to extremes, often rejecting something useful (an approach, a technology, a tool) simply because it has downsides. Such rejection is at times emotional and even self-righteous; we can get so caught up in it that we fail to look at a topic at all evenhandedly, let alone dispassionately.

No better case example along these lines has come along in the past year than the active and contentious #NoEstimates debate on Twitter and in the blogosphere. I’ll have a much more detailed post soon about my objections to the #NoEstimates approach overall (full disclosure: I’m one of its most vocal critics), but right now, let’s focus on one aspect of the relentless advocacy I see in the hashtag’s proponents: its lack of evenhandedness.

Specifically, proponents of #NoEstimates insist repeatedly and proudly that they’re “exploring”; recently, one major advocate tweeted out a call for links to posts about the topic (“I’m gathering links to #NoEstimates content”) so that these could be collected and posted. Yet, it turned out that only posts advocating one side of the issue would be included, even though the resulting list of links was then touted to people who might be “interested in exploring some ideas about #NoEstimates.” When challenged on this dubious interpretation of the meaning of “exploring”, the advocate then defiantly attached a disclaimer: “Warning! There are no links to “Estimate-driven” posts”. In short, making the exploration balanced wasn’t even remotely his goal.

Advocates can use their own blog for whatever purposes they want, of course. Yet, there’s an interesting split going on here: staunchly claiming to be “exploring”, while rejecting the inclusion of any summarizing or critical posts, and then sneeringly labeling all such posts as “estimate-driven.” There couldn’t be a clearer case study of IT black-and-white-ism, them vs us. Explore all you want, this behavior says, as long as you’re doing it on my side of the issue and on my terms. What, there’s a post that attempts to summarize both sides of the argument? Not interested.

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We don’t like that estimate. Change it.

CIO: “We can’t go live in six weeks as you want.  It’s going to take at least three months.”

CEO: “That’s … unacceptable!

One of the most recurring memes in IT, for me, has to be hearing “we don’t like that estimate”, coming from stakeholders, senior management, etc. Depending on the mood and/or semi-intellectual rigor of the person saying it, the conversation then typically devolves into one or more of the following:

  1. identifying and removing any hint of schedule contingency (which is often viewed as padding just to make life easier for IT);
  2. mentioning repeatedly the idea of “what if we double the team size to get it done twice as fast” etc.;
  3. conducting a scrutiny, one by one, of the bottom-up estimates (”it won’t really take three days to test that feature”);
  4. volunteering resources (usually less than qualified) to “help”;
  5. insisting on scheduling full-time work for all remaining weekends and holidays between now and the desired launch;
  6. making frequent use of the phrase “why don’t you just …”
  7. declaring that system delivery must occur by a specific date, no matter what.

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Executive questions, IT answers, pizza parlors, and speed chess

Let’s mix some metaphors today, and attempt to relate them all to the world of information technology and project management.

I have a good friend and colleague, one of the top IT consultants I know.  He’s able to execute crisply at the detail level while keeping the big picture in mind; he’s especially good at balancing on the fine line separating necessary diplomacy and straight-shooting directness.

For reasons I find simultaneously admirable and unfathomable, this indefatigable person, whom I’ll call Gunner here, is planning on opening a pizza parlor as a sidelight, and is currently embroiled in the process of threading the various bureaucracies and logistics to make his vision happen.  We talk about this regularly, since I am a great pizza fan.  In a recent conversation, he reported that he had just gotten city approval to use a specific lower-cost piece of equipment, news that greatly increases the chances of the pizza parlor actually becoming a reality.  So I, of course, immediately asked when opening day would be.

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Rock and a hard place: why estimating turns into a squeeze play

I wasn’t ever a very good bridge player, and it’s been decades since I played. Hence, using this analogy may be stretching matters, but as is typical, I took away some key metaphors from my time with the game. One is the squeeze play, where you force your opponent to discard a vital card. It’s similar in a way to what’s called Zugzwang in chess, which describes a situation where one player is put at a disadvantage because he has to make a move, and by doing so (any move, in other words) will force himself into a weaker position.

How does all this relate to CTOs and CIOs? Consider the case of having to estimate how long a specific project will take, particularly early on, usually before any kind of detailed requirements are even remotely fathomed. Note that this kind of estimating is among the most critical activities that you and your organization will do, because it feeds into the organization’s whole prioritization and costing process as a whole. Unfortunately, it gets you into exactly this kind of squeeze situation. If you say a project is going to take what’s considered to be “too long”, you’ll get beaten down about why you can’t do it faster. If you blithely “sign up” for doing it too fast (say, as fast as they want it), there’s a huge risk that you won’t be able to deliver.

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